The first Watanuki ever saw of Doumeki was probably somewhere in the first day or two of the school year, but against the background noise of a couple of hundred other students, it would have taken something overwhelming for Doumeki to stand out. They weren't in the same class or any of the same clubs, so it would be a long time before there was any reason why their paths should cross in any memorable way.
The first time they met properly was during yet another spirit assault. An unusually bad one at that, where, thanks to just one bad step, even Watanuki's well practiced talent for running for his life had failed him. The fall left him rolling flat on the ground out in the street, struggling to breathe through thick, invisible smoke, pinned beneath a monster that had looked over his shoulder like a storm-cloud with eyes. (Watanuki had not stopped for a better look at the time, and was definitely not in a position to get one now.)
How he was going to get out of this one he really didn't know, despite all prior experience – of which he had plenty, since a month when he didn't see at least one spirit like this one was a really, really good month. Sometimes he'd be lucky enough to squeeze out from underneath and make another break for it. Other times, his struggling would attract another of those monsters and he'd be able to get away while they fought over him. Once or twice, someone had seen him, decided he was having a fit and called an ambulance, and all the fuss and sirens had eventually driven the sprit off, but for anyone else to interfere was exceptionally rare. Treated to the sight of a school boy rolling around on the road like that, the effort people will go to not to notice him really couldn't be understated.
He was not expecting to hear an irritated voice say, "Oi."
He was definitely not expecting to suddenly discover that there was no spirit crushing down on him, and that he really was now rolling around on the ground without apparent reason.
Baffled, he sat up and looked around. There wasn't a spirit in sight in any direction. Behind him, there was a pair of legs and a torso in the uniform of his school, but there was nothing overtly supernatural about those. Following the next logical step in the sequence, Watanuki looked up to see a boy of about his age and a little more than his height wearing a sour expression.
And then the boy said something that very quickly killed any sort of relief or any interesting conclusions that Watanuki might have been about to come to.
"You're in my way. The footpath is for walking on, not rubbing yourself over like a dog."
Watanuki miraculously found the energy to be back on his feet in a second. "Excuse me?! What did you just say I was?!"
"I didn't call you anything," the boy corrected him, with a bland expression. "I said you were acting like a dog."
In all the years Watanuki had had these problems, this was the first time he'd had a reaction like this. "You... you thought that was something someone would do for fun?!"
"If that's what you enjoy I wouldn't know."
"Of course I wasn't enjoying something like that!" Watanuki still couldn't believe he was even having this conversation. "Why would anyone do that voluntarily!"
The other boy gave him an appraising look. "If you were having some kind of fit you recovered very fast."
And here explanations got abruptly tricky. "Well that's because..."
"Oi. Are you going to get out of my way already?"
Watanuki gaped. Then he got out of the way. Anything that prevented this person from leaving right this minute would have to be outright masochism.
On the way home, he comforted himself with the knowledge that at least he was guaranteed that he would never, no matter how long he lived, meet anyone ruder or more obnoxious than the boy he had met that day.
The next day at school, a familiar voice casually asked him whether he was planning on having any more fits. Watanuki promptly had one of a different variety.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
The first time Doumeki spoke to Watanuki, the latter was just about to get hit by a bus.
In better circumstances, this might not have been enough to kick off such a beautifully antagonistic relationship, but timing is everything, and this was the cap on the end of what had already been a much less than stellar day. Contrary to appearances, even Doumeki is susceptible to having bad days for utterly mundane reasons, and there was more than one dead body waiting back home at the shrine for him already. The last thing he needed right now was to see someone else about to step in front of a vehicle that could flatten him and keep right on going.
No, scratch that, the last thing he needed was to actually witness it happening. Doumeki made a quick dash, grabbed the offender by the back of the shirt and yanked him sharply back on to the pavement. The other boy blinked stupidly at nothing, as if he had no idea what was happening.
"Huh?" he said indistinctly, as the bus roared by in front of them and continued off along its route unimpeded. "What was..."
"If you're that determined to commit suicide, do it somewhere I won't have to watch, would you?" Doumeki complained at him, letting go of his shirt.
The boy looked around as though realising Doumeki's presence for the first time. "Oh, I really wasn't..." he blurted out, quickly and nervously. "I mean, thank you very much for saving me, but I wasn't... I'd never try something like that! Something pushed me, and I didn't even see the bus until..."
"Just what was supposed to have pushed you?" Doumeki cut in impatiently. "There's no-one else here."
The boy glanced around, as if this fact could actually have been new information to him. "B..but I wasn't trying to kill myself! Honestly, I didn't even see the bus until after you'd grabbed me!"
"You were looking right at it," Doumeki reminded him. He was not running out of patience now only because his patience ran out somewhere before this started. If the boy had to go and pull a stunt like that out here, he could at least have the decency to admit to it. "No-one has eyesight that bad."
"I wasn't paying attention!" the boy protested. "I was... I was daydreaming! And then I tripped on something, and the next thing I knew someone had dragged me backwards and the bus was flying past and that is all there is to it!"
That was just plain insulting. "If you're going to make up a story like that on the spot, at least make the effort to make it sound convincing."
The boy drew himself up to his full height and glared directly up into Doumeki's face. "How many times do I have to tell you, I was not trying to kill myself!" he snapped. "I was very thankful you were helpful enough to pull me out of the way! I have absolutely no desire to die! Only that's starting to not sound so bad just now because at least if I had died I would not have to deal with you!
"And now I am going straight home and, I assure you, I do not intend to get hit by anything on the way!" The boy stormed off, stopping at the edge of the road long enough to perform a motion which would remain, as long as Doumeki lived, the only time he would ever see anyone look both ways before crossing the road with that sort of venom.
It was possible he might have been a little too hasty to declare him suicidal, Doumeki decided, but the boy was still clearly insane, and this was not an assessment he'd see any reason to reassess for a very long time.
However, the matter was not quite over there, because it would turn out that they both went to the same school and were even in the same year, and after that sort of introduction, Doumeki could not very well have made himself ignore Watanuki even if the other boy had not taken to glaring daggers at him (if not outright screaming his head off over the most minor imagined transgression on Doumeki's part) every time they so much as passed in the hallway.
There are a number of cultures out there in the world which hold that if you save another's life, that person will be in your debt for as long as they live, and this makes a certain amount of sense. However, others hold a different philosophy – that once you have saved a person's life, you are responsible for that life thereafter. There was no
difficulty deciding which of these were going to be the more appropriate to Watanuki's case
Even before they ever properly got to know each other, Doumeki was mildly bemused to realise he'd taken to keeping half an eye on Watanuki whenever the boy was around. He might not have turned out to be suicidal in the strictest sense, but there were times that he came entirely too close.
Theirs was the sort of first meeting that could, with a few tweaks, have gone a lot better.
It was after school. Watanuki had stayed back on cleaning duty, and it should have been just about time for him to leave, but one of the teachers had needed a message run down to the archery field in a hurry, and Watanuki, being the helpful boy he was, had volunteered.
At this time of day the school was everything short of deserted. Even official archery practice had been over for some time, and but for the one remaining teacher, Watanuki would have expected it to be empty. He wasn't even really looking at anything past the benches, so when he heard the creak of a bow being drawn, it stopped him for a moment in surprise.
Once the moment was over, he remained stopped there because he was watching, completely enthralled.
It wasn't that Watanuki had never seen anyone practicing kyuudo before, nor that he didn't have a general sort of appreciation for the precision and serenity of the ancient form of Japanese archery, but watching school boys line up to take aim, learning the concepts of calm and focus by rote even as they struggled to learn how not to catch their own ears on their bowstrings while not-too-obviously measuring their own success against their classmates out of corners of their eyes – any spiritual aspect in that was diluted so far it was lost completely. But this – this single boy, who suited the club's hakama so well that even picturing him in their regular uniform was strangely difficult – who must have stayed to practice long after everyone else had left – this was much more than just a soulless drill.
This was an ancient art recreated in such perfect detail that the simple surroundings of the dusty high school field seemed to fade away. But it may have been the look in his eyes that got to Watanuki the most, focused on that target with such intensity that he might have been aware of nothing else. Watanuki watched, entranced, and despite not knowing more than the most common basics of kyuudo he was certain that every stage of the drawing of that bow was being performed with perfect form, that the arrow would fly straight to the very centre of the target, and that he wasn't going to breathe again until it was released.
One thing even Watanuki's inexperienced eye had picked was that Doumeki was good at this. He was far and away the best of their year, and an excellent candidate for best of their school, but one of the things that made him that good he'd never wasted much attention on that sort of thing. To him, archery had always been about the arrow, the target and his own skill, and nothing else besides.
So Doumeki was not the sort of person who got distracted just because he'd caught sight of someone watching him out of the corner of his eye. He'd never lose concentration over something so simple as an uninvited spectator, not even if they did have the widest blue eyes he'd ever seen, or were watching him like the fate of the whole world rested on the outcome of this next shot. He wasn't the sort to notice things like that even when he wasn't focusing everything on his art – it wasn't like him and he knew it. He wouldn't have even known what the urge to show off felt like.
Inevitably, when he released the bow, the arrow missed the target by a mile. Within one shocked moment, it had become perfectly obvious to him exactly who's fault this had to have been.
Watanuki was just in the process of rearranging his universe around the fact that the arrow missed so badly when the archer turned around and glared at him. He did not look at all happy to have had a spectator.
"Just what do you think you're doing here?" he demanded. "Get out."
"What?" Watanuki spluttered.
"This area is for archery club members only," Doumeki told him. Technically, this was more of a guideline than a set rule, but Doumeki was not in a mood to remember that. "You're in the way."
"What?!" Watanuki screeched again. "Who are you to start making rules! Like I'd have snuck in here just to watch some talentless, low-grade beginner attacking a wall! I just happened to find it in the supreme goodness of my heart to agree to come down here to deliver a message – the importance of which you could not even imagine – to someone who is definitely not you!"
"So deliver it and get out," said Doumeki.
"I would have already if you hadn't..." The correct conclusion to this sentence would have been 'been standing there looking so damn cool', but that was the last thing Watanuki would ever have considered admitting, "...distracted me!"
"You must get distracted easily."
"Says the guy who cannot even hit the target he was aiming for!" Watanuki snapped back, without even thinking about it.
The situation did not go anywhere north from there.
It ended with Watanuki storming furiously back out of there, his message not delivered and in such a state that he would have been very lucky to have even remembered what it had been in the first place – an oversight he would not notice until he got back to the school again and had to make up a very quick excuse about not being able to find anyone to deliver it to. Watanuki added this to the list of things that were all that insufferably rude wannabe-archer's fault.
Watanuki would quickly come to the conclusion that the archer he was watching had been a talentless hack who had obviously only been practicing late because his skills were so miserable that he could only bear to display them when there was no-one else around to see, and was later immensely baffled to learn that Doumeki was easily one of the best archers in the team. He still looked cool when he was in the act – which Watanuki mentally relabeled 'stuck up and distant' whenever he was forced to watch it, and did such a good job of convincing himself Doumeki was about to miss the target again before each and every shot he ever saw the archer make after that day that the bizarre fluttery feeling he got when this didn't happen became just another one of those things he never quite figured out how to deal with.
Doumeki came to the conclusion that the boy who had distracted him was both crazy and an idiot, and felt only validated when he later learned that Watanuki was prone to having explosive fits, often without any sort of evident cause, and made more noise than anyone else Doumeki had ever met. He still had distractingly pretty eyes, but as long as he stayed angry – which was most of the time when they ran into each other – it didn't become too difficult for Doumeki to avoid noticing this.
And whatever it was between them, at least it was mutual.
Actually, the very first time they met was a lot longer ago than either of them realise.
It was the week after the car accident that would change Watanuki's life. The funeral was a small affair, the only persons in attendance himself, and the couple who owned the apartment complex where he would be living alone from today. They meant well, but Watanuki was to discover that, no matter how good their intentions, when such people are all you have left in the world, even at a funeral there will come points towards the end of the proceedings when there will be no-one to spare to keep an eye on you, and you'll be left to your own devices. Tired in a way he had no words for and feeling more alone in the world than ever before, Watanuki's only instinct was to find somewhere behind the old shrine that was quiet and dark where he could sit for a while on his own.
Lost in his own head as he had been when he sat down in that corner, Watanuki did not realise there was anyone else there sharing it with him until he heard a small voice say, "'m not crying."
Startled, he looked up to see that only a few feet away sat a girl of about his age, curled up in an old fashioned kimono. She was not the prettiest girl he had ever seen, perhaps because, assuming she was telling the truth about not crying, she had managed this only by screwing up her face a lot. Puzzled by such an out-of-the-blue declaration by a complete stranger, the only response Watanuki could immediately come up with was, "Okay?"
"'m not," the girl repeated sullenly.
"I'm not crying either," Watanuki offered – and it was the truth, he wasn't anymore.
"Why would you be crying?" the girl asked, sounding grumpy.
"I'm here for a funeral today," Watanuki explained, as clearly as his voice would let him.
"Who's funeral?" the girl wanted to know.
"My mother's," said Watanuki, and had to pause to swallow around a lump in his throat before finishing, "and my father's."
The girl's mouth made a small 'O' of surprise at the discovery that there was someone else in the world with more reason to cry than herself.
"You can cry if you want to though," said Watanuki. "If you're sad about something too, I mean. People say it makes you feel better afterwards."
"My grandpa's funeral was yesterday," said the girl. "I don't want to feel better yet."
It says a lot about the sort of boy Watanuki was – and would grow up to become – that even with the death of both his parents resting so heavily on his mind – he still found it in himself to feel sorry for this girl. Her grandfather's death had obviously hurt her so very much.
"I don't think I'm ready to feel better yet either," he admitted.
"Mum and Dad say that Grandpa wouldn't want to see me unhappy like this," said the girl, grumpily, "but here it's dark and he won't see me, so I can feel like what I like. You can stay too, if you want."
"Who won't see you?" asked Watanuki, momentarily lost in pronouns.
"My Grandpa," said the girl, matter-of-factly. "People who die become spirits and keep watching us. Maybe Grandpa too."
Watanuki's eyes widened. "You can see spirits?"
"Only my Grandpa can see spirits," said the girl, in the voice of someone stating a fundamental truth of the universe. "But he told me they were there."
"But – I can too!" Watanuki blurted out. "It's not just your grandpa, I can see spirits too."
The girl gave him the scrunched look of a child too young to know a word like 'skepticism', but old enough to need it. "Really?"
"They're not around all the time," Watanuki amended, glancing around their safely spirit-less corner. He hadn't seen any since they arrived at the shrine that morning and only had a vague idea why this would be, but today was the exception rather than the rule. "But I always know when they are. Even when no-one else can see them. Sometimes they chase me around."
The girl looked around suspiciously, as though Watanuki's mere presence might have attracted some of these mysterious, invisible spirits. "Have you seen my Grandpa?"
That was a take on the situation that hadn't occurred to Watanuki. "What does he look like?"
"He's a priest. And he smiles a lot. And sometimes he carries a bow."
"I haven't seen any spirits that look like that," Watanuki had to admit. "Sorry."
"What about your parents?"
"I haven't seen them anywhere either," said Watanuki, but he couldn't bring himself to feel disappointed by this. Then he realised why. "But the spirits I do see – they usually look all angry or sad. I think... I think people who aren't unhappy... something else happens to them when they die."
"Is that what happened to my grandfather?" wondered the girl. "And your parents too?"
"Maybe it is," Watanuki concluded. "But if that means they don't have to be unhappy or hurt, that's good, right?"
"I guess," said the girl.
"If you want to cry," Watanuki started again, "I mean, if you still feel like it, you know your Grandpa isn't watching now, so..."
"I'm not crying," the girl sniffled, with a hiccupping sob.
By the time the adults found them again, they had both cried themselves to sleep, but it seemed like a more peaceful sleep than either had been in for a while.
Now, it would be nice to be able to say that this was an incident that made enough impression on the both of them that it was something they'd remember for the rest of their lives, but the truth of the matter is that within a few years, this would become one of those memories that got lost in the whirlwind that was that week for both of them, and faded the same way so many other childhood memories do. So when the day came many years later that when, not fifteen minutes after being officially introduced, Watanuki found himself referring to Doumeki as a 'she', he hadn't the faintest idea why he'd done it.
This would all have gone down as no more than one of those random slips of the tongue, had Doumeki not been listening – however, he did hear, and he didn't find this error very amusing. Watanuki, for his own part, was far too baffled that he'd made such a mistake in the first place to come up with any sort of reasonable excuse, and the resulting yelling match was quite a sight to see.
By the end of it, the subject under debate had diverged far enough that neither of them even remembered or cared much what the original problem had been, but that didn't matter. The incident had already achieved the status of The Argument – and that, at least, neither of them were going to forget any time soon.
Getting to know Watanuki is one of the best things that has happened to her this year, Himawari reflects cheerfully as they walk down the hallway together. There's a meeting for candidates for the student council today, which wouldn't include Watanuki, but he's come along anyway, just so he can help her out by carrying her books for her while her hands are full with all the extra papers she was asked to bring along. That's what he's like, always so helpful and so nice to her – a little over excitable sometimes in ways she doesn't always understand, but even that's kind of cute. It really does make her happy that she's gotten to know him so well. What she can't understand is why no-one else at school has done the same.
It took her a while to notice, but Watanuki is different around people who aren't her. He's polite and friendly, but he's so quiet and restrained in the way he acts around them that it feels like he's decided they all belong to a different world; like there's a line between himself and them that he isn't allowed to cross. People try sometimes – a group of friends will be going to a movie and ask whether he wants to come along, say – but Watanuki will nearly always turn them down. He's so apologetic about how he can't make it that no-one could ever take offence, but it makes it very hard for other people to ever become more than the most casual friends with him. Why she should be the one exception Himawari can't begin to guess, and it seems wrong to question something she likes so very much. Even so, it weighs on her mind that the only real friend Watanuki has is her, and that's a fate so horrible she'd never wish it on anyone
"But definitely everyone would vote for Himawari-chan!" Watanuki gushes to her happily as they walk in through the doorway. It might be a little tactless, considering the whole room is full of her competitors, but it would be hard to take offence at such enthusiasm when it's so obvious he means well.
Hard to take offence, but not impossible – what Watanuki hadn't yet noticed was that one of the other candidates – a boy Himawari knows slightly as Doumeki Shizuka – is glaring at them.
"Oi, keep it down. Some of us are trying to hear ourselves think in here."
It was obvious to Himawari what was going to happen next – Watanuki would apologise and back down politely, just like he always did – so obvious that it was difficult to see how she could have gotten it so wrong. Maybe it was the look on Doumeki's face that did it. Maybe it was that Watanuki was too far into his ranting to change gears quickly enough. Maybe it really was just hitsuzen. But whatever the reason, she was not expecting Watanuki to take on a look of pure, righteous indignation and screech, "What?! Is that any kind of way to talk to a stranger!?"
"For someone as noisy as you it sounds fine," Doumeki replies, resolutely keeping his eyes facing in a direction that means he can't see the face Watanuki is making at him.
"Loud? All I was doing was giving a friend some encouragement! Why shouldn't I raise my voice a little?"
"A little? Can you even hear yourself?"
"I can hear myself just fine!"
"So can people half the school away."
"Well if they can it's your fault for making such a big deal out of this!"
"Have you still not shut up yet?"
There's no-one in the room who isn't staring now. Himawari herself watches them, first in amazement, and then with a feeling of rising warmth as it starts to dawn on her what she's seeing. Because they may be arguing, but it all feels so familiar that you'd think they'd known each other for years. She's never seen Watanuki click like that with anyone before. And that's when she realises she's not going to have to worry about being Watanuki's only friend anymore, because he's going to have Doumeki-kun as well, and she can already see just how well they're going to get along.
She really couldn't be happier.