The first time it happens, Watanuki is baking a cake and wondering whether he isn't possibly about to die. It's late on a cold gray morning, he's just washing out the last mixing bowl, when abruptly he feels every joint and seam in the universe snap tight within his own body, like every fiber in a heavy woven rug yanked taut to the point of tearing, all at once.
The little blue bowl slips from his hands, and time fractures into to a series of shutter snapshots: the bowl, the floor, the impact, the shards expanding, dust-fine particles rising in a slow exhalation from the cracked seams, cracks spreading outwards to become negative space between ceramic shards, like continents drifting.
Settling in slow pirouettes across the tile.
No hurry, there is literally all the time in the world. Right here, right at his feet, he could reach one hand out and pluck the mysteries of existence from the calm space between air molecules. He could, he has the time, it's all right here for the taking.
And then it all slaps hard back into place, with a crack he feels in his teeth and skull, the bowl now litters the floor and the silence is deafening.
His cake has collapsed in the oven, so he cuts it up to make trifle, knowing something momentous has happened, is happening, will happen, and if today is the end of everything he might as well serve a nice dessert. As an optimistic afterthought, he finds a bottle of champagne and puts it on ice.
When the visitors appear on the front walkway, Watanuki is there, dressed in raw black silk from throat to ankles, pond-ripples embroidered in silver on his cuffs and clouds like the fog overhead curling across his shoulders. Looking at the three of them, he fancies he can feel every stitch of every seam on his tunic, encasing his skin in precisely fitted lines, but truly it is all the seams he is made of, every one of them stitched inextricably to the shop, which in turn is stitched into the hems of every dimension and all of time, stretching on the bias weave of destiny.
This is what he always is, but he doesn't always feel it. Not like this. If he did, he'd go mad.
The visitors are three, two young men and a young woman, not far off from the age he appears. They are human, wary, one of them with the most remarkable red hair and freckles he's ever seen, and if the term 'foreign' actually meant anything to him anymore, he might call them that too.
As it is, they are definitely something a bit other than the usual customers he gets, and not just because of the magic he can see tipping and dipping and flickering about their shapes like water-refracted light. Mostly it's the boy in the center, with the black hair and black-rimmed spectacles, and green eyes locked on Watanuki for that endless minute where they regard each other with breathless fascination. He reminds Watanuki of a magnet in a pile of iron filings, the way the very particles of the space around him seem to bend and hover, as if waiting on his will. Though it isn't his will, it's his fate, a fate with the power of a major geologic event; the sort of thing foretold by earthquakes, and revealed for hundreds of years after in the sediments of the earth.
Watanuki should probably not be so amused to have champagne on ice for this meeting, but things have been awfully slow around the shop for awhile.
He leads them in for the drinks and trifle, in the course of which he gathers their story. The rise of despotic evil, curses and prophecies, risking lives to keep their world free. The three of them are exhausted, harried, nearly at their wits' end. But Watanuki knows, knew the moment he observed every prolonged millisecond of a bowl's destruction on his kitchen floor, that their plight is a thing beyond his influence.
As Shopkeeper, he stands at the center of all destinies, strung across worlds too many to count. To give preference to any one, regardless of the price paid, may well bring on the destruction of them all.
Still, he knows it's no coincidence they came here. Even if he can't help them, there is a reason Watanuki has met these determined, brave souls.
That reason, he eventually surmises, is that the green-eyed young man is Chosen. Which is to say, he is Watanuki's diametric opposite, on rather a grand scale. One boy Chosen to save his world, while Watanuki was un-Chosen, removed, deselected, in order to preserve the stability of all of them.
For Watanuki, it is a lesson well worth the price of dessert and champagne. And so long as he can avoid that little twinge of pity for these three, and all that they must still endure, it is far more pleasant than other lessons he's earned.
The second time it happens, he's just pulling on a yukata after his bath, and wonders if the world isn't about to end. It's a mild spring night, but out of nowhere the air goes from temperate to bone-deep freezing, and the shop's boundaries let out a soundless agonized scream that scrapes across every one of his nerve endings.
He stumbles out the rear doorway in time to see a woman hurling herself through the side gate, with a black cloud of ash exploding at her back, billowing up past the height of the fence. She collapses into a roll across the grass and uses the momentum to spring to her feet, facing the open gate, plainly and entirely ready to resume the fight that brought her here.
Going by the twanging, faintly nauseating shudder in his skull, Watanuki knows that whatever had followed the woman was something hungry, foul, and destroyed at the shop's wards. Although not, evidently, before it had managed to injure her. For as she paces backward, he sees the blood, soaked around a ragged tear in the shoulder of her blouse, and dripping from the fingers of her left hand.
"Yeah, okay, that's it." she mutters to herself. "Last time I let Giles make travel plans."
Watanuki is just managing to stand more than slump against the porch post, when she spins, startled, to face him. Blond hair in disarray, every limb and joint drawn tight as Doumeki's bow, a weapon, she is a weapon Watanuki has time to think, but then their eyes meet and hold and he remembers the green-eyed boy.
The aura of this woman's fate is blackened by blood and bone-ash, and Watanuki ought to be repelled, but there is a core of light to that darkness, power drawn from the tension of ancient polarities, and he sees that this is the balance in which the universe has assigned her to exist.
Touched by death and preserving life, she is Chosen.
"I. Was just, uh. Muggers?" she suggests, with a vague gesture toward the fence.
"Demons?" Watanuki offers instead.
There is something so endearingly human about the way she shrugs; as if to her, the two are a more or less equal nuisance, but she's accustomed to making certain excuses for the comfort of others.
After some cautious negotiating, she joins him on the engawa, and he offers tea and bandages for her shoulder. The payment will work out, he reckons, when he sends her out to scatter salt along the sidewalk and the fence, purifying the places beyond his reach.
But then he tells her about granting wishes, and she tells him about fighting vampires and demons, and once dying to defeat a destructive god. Thus he learns that even in a dimension where it's possible to bring back the dead, it is a profoundly cruel and harmful thing to do.
He also learns that those who are Chosen must pay the price in every choice denied to them thereafter. So that in the end, they are no more free than he himself.
The third time comes with a dragon in the rear yard. An actual, massive, fire-breathing dragon that--once it realizes where it's fetched up--is so horribly contrite that Watanuki is forced to take pity and try to convince it he was never that attached to the barberry hedge anyway. Which is untrue, but at least the dragon didn't wreck the sakura, things could have been so much worse.
He's attempting to steer the conversation beyond apologies and into more informative territory, when the person perhaps responsible for the dragon falls from the sky, in the midst of a prolonged panicked shout (the sort a person might make falling off a cliff) and lands with an alarming whumph, half on the dragon's hindquarter, and half on a crushed pile of hedge.
It's a young man, who after a few tense moments of unconsciousness, comes to with babbling apologies and alternately berating the dragon, as he attempts to stand, weaves and toddles over sideways, and then manages to untangle his long legs and give Watanuki the most sheepish, charming, lopsided look Watanuki has ever encountered.
That's when he sees the visitor's eyes, and all at once, it's as if every cell in his body has become a thin hollow tube, and through all these millions of tubes, all of space and time are rushing through; all the molecules of Watanuki are a conduit for all of existence, and right now all of that existence is flowing toward and bending around this singular figure in his vision.
Part of him is aware of the gangling limbs, ears like two handles on a teapot, and that ridiculously beautiful smile. But another part of Watanuki, the part he must keep carefully sectioned off in the smallest most distant corner of his mind lest it overrun him, is saying oh, and yes, and oh please yes, because the very fabric and forces of the universe itself, they love this person, at his merest breath they will yield and stretch to do his bidding, and Watanuki, so helplessly in tune with those forces and their laws, can hardly bear the thought that he might not get swept up as well.
But there is the shop, a looming chill at his back and the dragon gives a polite smoky cough, and Watanuki is yanked hard back into his own skin and bones, his feet on solid ground and his heart bound fast to a promise that stands as lynchpin in the fate of worlds.
"...I am, really, so sorry about--er--all this, please, let me just shift the--ah--dragon, and two shakes, I promise--"
"Emrys," sighs the dragon, in the tone of one shouldering enough embarrassment for a small country. "If you could possibly pull yourself together? It will not be that easy to leave this realm."
"Oi, maybe a little less negativity from you?" the young man answers. "It was you interrupting that botched the spell in the first place, so if you could kindly, you know, a little...." He trails off into an air of increasingly blank confusion, eyes trailing past Watanuki and widening, as he takes in the structure of the shop.
"Oh. This is. Really not where I thought we'd end up. I....well. Sorry, where are we?"
Watanuki and the dragon both attempt to explain, though after a brief pleading look and some rather conspicuous omissions from the dragon, Watanuki leaves it all to him. In the end what the young man gets is, Forbidden Realm, Powerful Magic, no mention at all of wishes or prices, and Outside of Time.
Why a person traveling with a talking dragon should look notably pale at this, Watanuki doesn't know.
"When you say--outside of time. I mean, see. I truly do have to get back to Camelot. I can't just leave Arthur, that is really not an option, trust me."
Camelot. Watanuki blinks. Arthur. Oh good god.
"Merlin?" he asks the dragon, because if he looks to the young man he will boggle, and probably be unable to stop, and there will be no recovering his dignity after that.
The dragon breathes wearily, and the young man says, "Yes?" and Watanuki says, "Yes, would you mind, right there please. Stay. Just a moment?"
Then he turns on his heel and marches up the steps, into the shop, claps a hand over his mouth and makes it to the kitchen before the definitely hysterical laughter flattens him. He pulls out the teapot, then thinks, no, this is a beer encounter, and there should be food, because the most famous powerful sorcerer in human history really looks like he could use a good meal. So he sends out Maru and Moro to take Merlin a chair, and whatever they can do to make the dragon comfortable, while Watanuki attacks the kitchen with singular vengeance.
The thing is, it all rather stops being funny, when he thinks it through. Considering that for starters, he cannot invite an individual that powerful indoors, without risking serious disruption to the shop. Even as a young man clearly not yet in the prime of his power, Merlin exerts an extraordinary level of influence on his surroundings, and the shop itself is a place extraordinarily susceptible to influence.
But even that aside, he knows Merlin's future, how it is sadly similar to Watanuki's past. When he first took over the shop, before he learned the proper costs of intervention, before he truly understood the price of power, and powerful desire.
He knows the boy outside will not learn about that price. Not until the bitter end, when all is lost. And there is not one thing Watanuki can do, to alter that. The young man with the dragon out in the rear yard is Chosen, inescapably, and the long foreshadow of fate has already placed its weight on his shoulders.
Still. There are no coincidences. For every meeting, there is a reason.
"Do you think you could repair my hedge?" he asks Merlin, after the meal.
"Could I...." Merlin looks around cautiously, taking in the shredded leaves and branches, the wooden fence bordering the yard. "You mean, magic."
"It would be helpful," Watanuki agrees.
With some initial trepidation, and increasing confidence, Merlin fixes the hedge. Good as new, possibly better. Watanuki observes the bubbles rising in his beer to keep from staring outrageously. The dragon probably isn't fooled a bit.
"So you," hazards Merlin. "Aren't magic?"
Watanuki looks off to the sakura, remembers a blizzard of petals and black butterfly wings. "I know your future."
"Hm, destiny," Merlin nods along. "Right, of course." He sounds both resigned and amused, which makes sense if he's been keeping company with dragons. And it gives Watanuki a twinge, because he likes this reedy boy with his ears and his smile like a gem facet catching the sun, and how he takes it all in stride, even when it must be so terribly lonely for him. In a different arrangement of destinies and worlds, they might have been friends, less lonely together, and Watanuki seriously needs to end this line of thinking now.
The dragon understands the shop's rules, of course, and pays their passage back home with one of his scales. It isn't quite enough for the both of them, so Watanuki stands before Merlin, looks him over. The red scarf about his neck (too much), the leather strap around his hips (not enough), his memories (too dangerous), his smile (don't even think it). He can take nothing that might alter fate, nothing that might leave the slightest mark on the future to come.
Finally, he thinks, no coincidence and there is always a reason.
"Tell me one true thing," he says.
"I keep hearing about destiny," answers Merlin, steadily holding Watanuki's gaze. "But to me, it's about friends. The things I do. It is always about my friends."
"Hm," nods Watanuki, as the scales rise and tip within him, finding equilibrium. And yes. It's enough. Enough to send them home on.
When the fourth one comes, Watanuki is not at all in the mood. The shop is in some bizarre sort of tantrum; rooms going missing, things from the storeroom showing up in the fridge, the oven ruining everything he puts in it. The lights are on the blink, the phone is receiving calls meant for a massage parlor in Texas, and his tobacco disappears every time he sets it down.
All of this over two long, maddening days, and when Watanuki opens the linen closet to find a man standing there, with a tunnel of dark, warping energy twisting off behind him, he emphatically shakes his head.
"No. No, I'm sorry, you really can't come in this way." He recognizes the tunnel as something Yuuko had made once, with the shop at one end and Ginza at the other, and all manner of unpleasantness in between. It is the last thing on earth he wants to see again, today.
The man on the closet threshold looks bewildered, ill-used, and like something out of an adventure comic, with his dramatic black coat, black trousers, black boots. "I was....dead," he gets out.
"Yes, well, these things happen." Watanuki is cradling a plate of cookies in one arm, hot chocolate chip, which he'd just found loitering in the empty bathtub. He isn't sure he's quite rude enough to slam the door in the man's face, but he really doesn't have time for this.
"This isn't the Matrix?" The man is frowning, attempting to peer dazedly past Watanuki's shoulder.
"No, sorry, looks like you have the wrong dimension, and I'll really have to ask you to take that thing--" flapping his free hand at the maelstrom of violet energy past the door, "--away from here. This is not a good place for it, not at all."
"But--I died. Again. And....dimension?" His dark eyes focus on Watanuki's, and Watanuki realizes, oh hell, of course it's another Chosen one, he really should've just stayed in bed today.
Then the man's eyes narrow thoughtfully. "Are you the Oracle?"
Watanuki thinks he might scream, but instead looks the man up and down, seeing all and sparing nothing, and five seconds later makes a snap decision. "You're not dead now, and I'm not your Oracle, but here," he shoves the entire cookie plate at the man. "Enjoy these, wherever you're going, good luck."
"Chocolate chip," the man says softly, and Watanuki shrugs.
"The universe is a lot weirder than they told you. Get used to it."
"That's your advice?" The man looks crestfallen, and Watanuki could kick himself, but instead breathes in and summons all his patience.
"Fine, look, when you find your Oracle, bring them some good booze. They appreciate that. Okay? Great, bye-bye now."
When the man and his catastrophic wormhole are gone, and the linen closet is once again a linen closet, Watanuki goes to snatch his tobacco pouch out of the rice cooker, grabs a huge bottle of sake, and goes out to address the shop storeroom.
"They weren't my cookies, and the advice was in exchange for him leaving and taking that thing. Don't give me any fuss over it, I'll be getting very drunk now."