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Houses and Rain

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House spirits don't go anywhere, but rain spirits go everywhere: that's how we met. How she met the boy with the eyes I don't know; one day I came by and he was all she could talk about. I guess she heard the rumors and decided to take a look for herself. She has visitors besides me, or maybe I was even the one who first mentioned him to her, how everybody was talking about him. It must have been before I met him, anyway, or I would have told her he wasn't so special, except for the eyes.

She'd already given him Valentine's chocolate by the time she told me she'd met him, but that didn't work out too well. I think that's why she asked for help the next time around.

"I don't see why you should give him a present," I said, snapping pebbles across her pond. One skipped three hops and smacked a hovering karasu tengu, who yelped and then rubbed his temple, glaring at me through his little dark glasses. I smiled an insincere apology at him. Nosy little bastards. They're around all the time, except when she really needs them. Speaking of which: "You got captured by the Spider-Whore for him. You tried to rescue his eye."

"But I couldn't. I didn't. He rescued me." She clasped her hands like she was going to bow to me. "Please, Ame-Warashi. Please."

I kicked at the water and it splashed me back, indignant. Usually I'm nicer to it. It's not exactly mine, except that it is sometimes, and even when it's not, it's hers. I asked her once why she lived on a mountain instead of a house, and she'd said that's where all house-spirits without homes lived, because the mountains are the house of God. She'd had a home once, but the family moved away, and then the karasu tengu found her, and eventually the roof fell in, which broke her tie to the bones of the house, and so she and the karasu tengu went up into the mountains. I'd said I would have been happy to finally be free of humans, and she'd laughed and said she guessed I would. But even though she'd been laughing, she'd still looked sad.

"Okay," I said. "Fine. I'll help."

She clapped in delight. "Excellent! The fox cub said he'd help, too." She fished a folded note out of the sleeve of her kimono. "He gave me a list of ingredients."

"What do you need the fox cub for?"

"Yeah!" echoed the karasu tengu. "What do you need the fox cub for?" "For?" "For?" "Fox cub?" "For?" We ignored them. If we bothered to respond to the karasu tengu every time they spoke, we'd never get through any conversation.

"He's letting me use the kitchen in his parents' shop," she said. "And he's going to help me bake it. --Just with directions and stuff," she added hastily. "I have to make it myself. That's what makes it special."

"Ha! You're going to get yourself chased back to the Otherworld by angry fox spirits."

"Ha!" said the karasu tengu. "Ha!" "Ha!" "Ha!" I scowled at them. It sounded meaner when they said it.

She shook her head. "They don't mind as long as we clean up by evening. Their shop is only open at night."

I unfolded her note: the fox cub had scratched out the recipe on lavender parchment paper shot through with russet and copper threads. Foxes always know where to find good paper. It's because they hang out with scholars so much of the time.

"Bittersweet chocolate," I read out. "Butter. Heavy cream. Confectioner's sugar. Well. Let's get started. How much money have you got?"

"What's money?" she asked.

It took all day and all night, but we managed to get everything. We traded a spoonful of the pond water and a pretty copper-spotted frog for a ribbon from the moon goddess, which we traded for a fragment of a dream urn, which we traded for a brick of gold, which we left in the storekeeper's till in exchange for the chocolate, cocoa powder, and sugar. It's a good thing I agreed to come along. She is terrible at bargaining. Up in the mountains with the karasu tengu, she doesn't get much practice.

"You're sure it's not too little?" she said anxiously, peering over my shoulder as I wrapped an impromptu receipt around the brick of gold. "These are the very best ingredients. The fox cub said so."

"Of course I'm sure," I said firmly.

"You're not sure at all," she said. "Your left eyebrow twitches when you lie." She hugged her packages against her chest. "I can't give him a stolen present. That's what went wrong last time, I think. What should we do?"

"I suppose you want me to give them a month of rain showers," I grumbled.

"Oh, would you, ame-warashi? Would that make up the difference, do you think?"

"Yes," I said. "Humans like that sort of thing." Farmers used to, anyway. I wasn't sure if chocolatiering was a kind of farming, but I didn't let my eyebrow twitch.

The karasu tengu met us at the kitsune oden stand, tumbling the cartons of cream and sticks of butter down on the kitchen countertops with a thump. She chased them outside: "You'll try to help, and I have to do it myself." We could hear them the entire time she was pouring and mixing and stirring and melting and molding. They kept flapping their wings and flapping their tongues, trying to peer through the round windows to see what was going on but too impatient to let each other stay there long enough to get a good look. The fox cub sat on the counter, swinging his legs, giving directions in a high, confident voice.

"Have you ever made chocolate troubles before?" I asked suspiciously.

"Truffles," the fox cub corrected me haughtily, his muzzle twitching.

"Whatever."

His muzzle trembled, then sank down, and so did his ears and whiskers: he was like an illustration of dejection in a storybook. She poked me in the ribs with her elbow, since her hands were still busy mixing the melted chocolate, and gave me a reproving look.

"No," the cub admitted sadly. "But I wanted to learn how. And I wanted to help." His beady black eyes glistened with tears. "He gave me an arrowhead once. I like him, too."

"You are helping," she said firmly. "I'll tell him, too. I'll tell him you helped with it all. Well, all the parts that turn out okay."

The fox cub was still sad, so after she'd finished rolling the chocolate balls, she gave him the mixing bowl to lick clean. That cheered him up, at least until I told him he still had chocolate in his whiskers.

"You are not a nice person," he said, licking his whiskers clean.

"I am too nice," I said. "I just don't like you."

"I think it's time to take them out of the refrigerator," she said brightly. She set the tray on the countertop. We all looked at the truffles, the fox cub chinning himself on the counter to get a good view, since he wasn't tall enough to see it otherwise.

The truffles were not terribly impressive looking. In fact, they looked a lot like little balls of mud.

"How do we know if they came out right?" she asked the cub. I reached over his shoulder and plucked one from the tray, then popped it in my mouth.

"Ame-warashi!" she exclaimed.

I shrugged. "You two can't try it," I pointed out through a mouthful of chocolate. "You're the gift-givers. It's not right if you eat the gift."

"How is it?" the cub asked.

"How is it?" "Is it?" "Is it?" chorused the karasu tengu from the window.

I chewed thoughtfully. It was rich and strong, full of vivid, intoxicating flavors, like fresh-turned mud after a rain, when it's seeped full of the nutrients new life needs. I wouldn't expect humans to have the taste to like something this good. Also, I'd heard chocolate was supposed to be sweeter. I glanced around the kitchen and swallowed.

"It's excellent." I grabbed another one. A hand and a paw slapped down on the counter in unison, too slow to smack my hand away. While she scolded me and the cub poked in a cabinet for tissue paper and ribbon, I discreetly sneaked the unopened sack of confectioner's sugar we'd forgotten to add to the melting chocolate off the counter and into the trash. It was excellent. And if that boy didn't think so, I'd be happy to eat his share.

The next day was Valentine's Day. We found him on his way home from school, arguing with a tall, stone-faced boy who already had a full bag of chocolates swinging at his side. She insisted on presenting the chocolates by herself, of course, but the fox cub and I hid behind a near-by fence to watch, and the karasu tengu hovered on their skateboards in the air behind the bare branches of a maple tree. It wouldn't have been the best hiding place, except that humans never look up and even if they did, hardly any of them had eyes to see with.

"Hello!" she said to the boy with the eyes, bowing, her hands hidden behind her back.

"Well, hello!" He bowed back to her. "It's the zashiki-warashi, isn't it?"

"I, um." She went pink. "I brought you a present! I made it myself this time. I didn't take it from anyone." She brought her hands round front, opening them to show the tiny pink-wrapped package resting on her palms.

"Oh," he said slowly. He pulled the ribbon loose and put the whole truffle on his tongue and let it slowly melt; the fox cub had smugly informed me that was the proper way to eat truffles, but only after I'd swallowed the second one. We all waited for the boy to swallow and pronounce his verdict. He closed his eyes to concentrate on the taste, then opened them. He licked his fingers with great deliberation. "Thank you, zashiki-warashi. It's wonderful."

"Wonderful!" "Wonderful!" "Wonderful!" sang the karasu tengu. The tall boy was looking in their direction with a thoughtful air, but the boy with the eyes wasn't looking up, so it didn't matter. He was smiling down at her and she was smiling up at him and they were holding each other's hands.

"Thank you," he said again. "It's lovely."

She smiled at him with all her heart, and he smiled back with only a little bit of his; I could tell. I remembered the first time I'd ever seen her, when I brought rain down to her mountain, or rather the first time I'd ever heard her, because I'd heard her before I'd seen her, playing her flute in the mist and rain. The notes snagged my heart like a fish hook, and she dragged me up out of the sky without even knowing it. I'd watched her from behind a cloud for hours before I dared come forward, before I dared disturb her, that girl in the lilac kimono with the dark blue leaves, with the sad, sweet music and the sadder, sweeter smile.

I could see how beautiful she was, even if the boy with the eyes couldn't. House spirits don't go anywhere, but rain spirits go everywhere, and everywhere I'd been, I'd never seen anything half as beautiful as her.