"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 pensive expression he wore whenever he remembered the shop and Maru and Moro and Mokona. For all that Watanuki used to complain 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, tracing the lines of the fabric. "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 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 was 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 snapped, but there were worrying creases at his forehead.
"Is it a high price?"
"Oh yes," Watanuki breathed. "Yes, very high. But I'll do it. I want to do it."
"A woman saw me today," Watanuki told him over dinner (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'd worn old kimono in jarringly familiar patterns and taken up the habit of smoking whenever he thought Doumeki wasn't looking. Doumeki hadn't liked it but said nothing. He'd been incredibly relieved, however, when Watanuki switched to dark pants and sensible shoes and white collared shirts a few years later.
Watanuki only wore his old kimono now whenever he went for official consults; 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 needed to worry about them anymore. 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 was gaining 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 neighbors 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 neighbors all thought he lived by himself. 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 horrifying extent of Watanuki's price to keep the shop really meant till a few days after the incident in the store room when he and Watanuki arrived at school, and there was someone else sitting at Watanuki's desk.
"Who is that person?" Doumeki asked Watanuki suspiciously.
"Doumeki, listen," Watanuki 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 and Watanuki's customary bento, but for once Doumeki didn't touch his, and Himawari looked like she would vomit it up 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 demanded, wiping her eyes. "We were supposed to be together, all three of us. And now we're…we're all drifting apart."
They 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. It felt like the last afternoon of their lives.
"Let's eat," Watanuki 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'd gone to bed long ago, but Watanuki was struggling 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'd seen her was her wedding. Doumeki knew Watanuki missed her, missed being a part of her life.
They'd 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 was 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 was fate that brought them together, because he couldn't believe there was 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'd 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. Watanuki's hands curled around his shoulders and ran his thumbs over the muscle there 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 prepared 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 price Watanuki's price paid to 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 about a secret and wonderful wife who surely 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 to clear 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 was the sort of person to pay 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 ate every single one of his handmade chocolates without complaint, and it had only been afterwards when Watanuki ran his fingers over the remaining crumbs that he'd realised he forgot 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 seen her 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 was untouched.
"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."