Watanuki arrives at the shop and finds Yuuko sitting on the front steps. Today she’s dressed like a miko: white gi, red hakama, tabi socks and ridiculously tall geta; red silk cords are braided in her long hair. Mokona, perched on her shoulder, springs at him as soon as he’s through the gates. “Yo! Watanuki! Errand-boy Watanuki, you’re finally here!”
Sputtering, Watanuki swats at the black fuzzball as it latches onto his face: “Who the hell are you calling an errand-boy?! Just because Yuuko-san works me to the bone doesn’t mean that I don’t — ahhh, get off, get off!”
“Watanuki,” Yuuko drawls. She holds up a small silk pouch, dangling it by the cords. It might have been crimson once upon a time, but now it was a dull dusty red, embroidered near the bottom with a few faded plum blossoms. “I need you to deliver something for me.”
“You’re kidding me,” Watanuki grouses; he grabs Mokona and pulls it off, holding it by the scruff of its nonexistent neck. “Did you just sit around all day waiting for me so you could make me go?”
“It’ll be on your way,” she promises, and gestures to her left. Watanuki sees (and blanches at) at least half a dozen empty sake bottles. “We’re out of alcohol.”
“Is THAT what this is!” Watanuki puts his foot down and points accusingly at her. “Don’t you ever feel shame for corrupting a minor? One of these days, they’re going to ask me why I’m buying this stuff when I’m underage, and then what will I say?!”
She taps a finger against her lips, like she’s seriously considering it. After a moment, she beams at him, cheeks rosy with the blush of innocence. “I have faith in your abilities, Watanuki!”
“He’ll have to lie and say he’s over twenty!” Mokona says, and covers its mouth with its stubby little arms.
“Oho,” Yuuko says, and opens her eyes wide. “Watanuki, how dishonest! Lying to a poor shopkeeper like that!”
“Ah, so dishonest!” Mokona chirps, wriggling in Watanuki’s hand. “Watanuki’s a liar, a liar, an April Fool’s liar~”
“WHO ARE YOU CALLING A LIAR?!” Watanuki demands. “You’re the one going around and making things up like that, I’m not going to lie if they ask–”
As he rants, Yuuko lifts the satchel again and shakes it a little; something inside clacks together. “Watanuki,” she says again. “Take this with you.”
Distracted, he turns, and catches the satchel when she tosses it at him. Unexpectedly, it’s not unexpectedly heavy and doesn’t stink of magic; he holds it up, and it looks just like an ordinary soft silk bag, and though the color has faded, there are no moth-holes or fraying at the seems. “What is this?”
Yuuko’s smile turns edged. She pulls her pipe from one sleeve and lights it, taking a deep breath and exhaling thick white smoke before she answers. “Nothing serious,” she says. “You can even open it, if you’d like.”
Watanuki looks at her, suspicious. Yuuko continues to smile at him in that strange way, and he gets the odd feeling that she’s just daring him to try. And knowing her, there are probably all sorts of great and terrible seals to make the bag seem completely innocuous, and the moment he opens it calamities will fly into the world like Pandora’s box, and he’ll be stuck for the rest of his life chasing after them.
“No thank you,” he says. “Who am I supposed to give this to, anyway?”
“Someone,” Yuuko says. There’s a note of finality to her voice. She sits up straighter now, and even Mokona has fallen silent. Her eyes fix on Watanuki, but he has the distinct feeling she’s seeing someone else instead. He takes a deep breath and holds still as possible.
“… Does he have a name?” he ventures at last.
Yuuko shakes her head and the illusion dissipates; he knows she’s looking at him now. “He did once,” she says. “In his ‘heart’ he still believes in it, though the burden’s long gone from him.” Her lashes sweep down, though she looks more solemn than coy. “Names are powerful things, Watanuki; I told you this before.”
Watanuki’s brow furrows. “Yes,” he says slowly. “But … Yuuko-san, doesn’t everyone have a name? Even if you don’t know it–”
“Everyone has ‘something they’re called,'” Yuuko says. “But it’s not a ‘name,’ really. You’ll see.” She waves a languid hand, painting a fading trail of opium smoke. “And if you dawdle any longer, you’ll miss him.”
“Don’t forget the sake!” Mokona pipes up from her feet; it’s still lying on its back, from where it rolled into the steps earlier. “We’re out!”
“Oh, that’s right!” Yuuko brightens. She scoops up the fuzzball and cuddles it to her cheek, almost purring. “Clever Mokona, I almost forgot~”
“Mokona’s memory is amazing,” Mokona agrees modestly.
“Watanukiiii~!” Yuuko holds up a hand, beaming again; her earlier seriousness has evaporated completely. “Tonight, I want galettes for dinner, galettes! Be sure to pick up the buckwheat flour, okay~”
“Mokona wants eggs on it!” Mokona adds.
“Be sure to get the good cheese,” Yuuko says. “None of that processed stuff, all right, Watanuki?”
“If we’re going to have galettes, sake isn’t quite right,” Mokona says. “Wine would be better, wine! Watanuki, get something good~!”
He grits his teeth so hard he can hear them grinding. “I-will-be-back-soon,” he manages to get out, and pivots on his heel, marching through the gates, ignoring Mokona and Yuuko calling more suggestions after him.
About the only thing that could make this more irritating, Watanuki thinks, would be if that jerk Doumeki showed up on the way. Then he freezes and looks around cautiously, like the very thought might summon the actual person himself.
The streets are blissfully clear, though: there’s a couple walking together hand-in-hand, a bird perched on a fence, a
roiling black cloud of smoke with three bulging bloodshot eyes that spin in different directions
a kid riding by on his bicycle, and Watanuki looks at the cloud.
After a moment, the cloud shivers and looks right back; all three of its wandering eyes fix unerringly on him. Another ripple and then a mouth opens where there was no mouth before, with rows of uneven jagged teeth that drip green-tinted saliva.
It sort of looks like it’s smiling.
“… Right,” Watanuki says.
The thing is, Doumeki is definitely the all-round better athlete; he has greater endurance and knows how to pace himself so that he’s not winded a minute into the run.
On the other hand, mortal terror is *really good* for this sort of thing.
Another thing: when you spend your life running away from the supernatural, you start learning the best shortcuts and the random places throughout the city where malevolent spirits cannot follow. Yuuko’s shop is the latest in a string of discoveries throughout Watanuki’s life.
And the park where his first nameless friend had disappeared is the first.
The creature isn’t getting any closer, but it’s not getting any further away; every time Watanuki glances over his shoulder, it’s the same exact distance behind him, and he knows when he can spare the energy for it, he’ll be pissed off at how it’s *toying* with him. Something akin to malicious good humor is in those three gaping eyes, and its wide, wide mouth is turning up into a grin.
Watanuki’s foot catches on something — a stone, maybe, or even his own shoe.
There’s a moment of disorienting, stomach-turning vertigo as he goes flying, a weightless feeling like he’s left his stomach behind. For a moment his arms pinwheel helplessly, and he actually *hears* the dark chuckle as the creature finally begins to speed up, closing in.
He lands on his stomach hard enough to drive the breath from his lungs; his glasses are dislodged and he drops the silk satchel he received from Yuuko earlier. He can barely see more than blurred outlines and color, but he hears very clearly — like the world is moving in taunting slow motion — a thud, like something is striking the ground, and he doesn’t need to see clearly to see light sparking off several small discarded pieces of glass.
Marbles? he thinks, surprised through the dull haze of pain; more than just his stomach and chin, which took the impact of his fall, his lungs burn from exertion.
There’s a roar that made his temples throb, like his brain has come loose and is rattling in his skull. Belatedly he remembers the spirit following him and tries to get his limp-noodle arms to cooperate, like maybe he could roll out of the way and buy a few precious seconds–
Then comes a gust of wind that is strong enough that he has to squeeze his eyes shut and cling to the grass to keep from being blown away; as it is, he can feel it ripping, and ah, he thinks, any moment he’d feel the monster’s teeth and that’d be the end of him–
And finally: stillness. Silence. The choking presence of the monster is gone, but it’s been replaced with something else: the deep absolute quiet that comes with peace.
Even so, it takes a long time before Watanuki risks slitting an eye open; he sees his glasses lying a short distance from his hand and makes a grab for them. One lens is cracked, and both of them are so scuffed and dirty that they do him no good; he takes them off again and cleans them as best he can on his gakuran jacket. He puts them back on and looks up.
There is a man standing over him, dressed in a plain dark blue suit. As Watanuki blinks hard at him, the man bends and picks something up from the ground — a marble, Watanuki realizes, miraculously unmoved in the gale just a few seconds before. In the sunlight, even covered in a thin film of dust, it glitters deep red.
After a moment the man looks down at him and blinks, as though just noticing Watanuki. “Oi. What are you doing, lying around like that?”
Watanuki’s eyebrow twitches. It’s just his luck, he thinks, to be rescued by an older, longer-haired version of Doumeki. He manages to push himself up, first to his knees, and then scrambles to his feet, dusting himself off furiously. “My name,” he says, “is not ‘oi.’ It’s Watanuki Kimihiro.”
The man looks at him a moment longer, then goes back to studying the marble. Watanuki feels a vein begin to tic in his temple.
“Look,” he says, “at the very least you can do is tell me your name in return.”
This time, he’s answered with a shrug. “I don’t have a name,” the man says. There’s something flat in his voice, something that makes him sound almost mechanical. “I did once, but my master died.”
Watanuki’s head snaps up again at that, and he looks harder at the man. There is nothing particularly outstanding about him — he’s good-looking in the way the male idols on girls’ magazines are, tall and broad-shouldered while still being slim, and a faint sneer that makes his upper lip quirk in barely-there disdain. But other than that, there’s nothing strange about him …
… but he had thought the same of the Amewarashi, and the Zashikiwarashi — if something wasn’t outright dangerous, his sixth sense tended to fail him …
He takes a deep breath. “Ah,” he says. “Your … master?”
The man shrugs. He holds up the marble, as though to admire the light through its glass heart. “He was a careless and stupid man,” he says, and the flatness in his voice is heavier now, and it makes Watanuki uncomfortable to hear. “Where did you get this?”
Caught by the non-sequitor, Watanuki blinks. “I got that from my employer,” he says. “I’m supposed to give it to someone, she said I’d know who–”
“Mn.” The man finally looks at him again, and Watanuki is sure, now, that this isn’t a human he’s speaking to: like the Amewarashi and the Zashikiwarashi, there is something not quite right about his eyes — something off about the pupils, or the color, and the piercing alien intensity of them. “Do you?”
“I don’t — that is, I’m not sure, I …” Watanuki’s voice trails into silence. He looks at the stranger. “Why did you help me?”
“I was sleeping,” the man says. He points to one of the cherry trees overhead — it’s not the season for flowers, and the foliage is thick and green. “You woke me.”
“… Oh,” Watanuki says. “I’m sorry–”
“It doesn’t matter,” the man says. “I’ll pick a better place to nap, next time.”
Watanuki isn’t sure whether he should feel irritated or not — the man has the same sort of blasÃ© attitude as Doumeki, but stupid Doumeki is only human, just like Watanuki is; there’s a *difference*. After a moment he swallows and tries again: “Do you … like marbles?”
“They sparkle,” the man says. Something changes in his voice; the flatness fades just a little. “They’re similar to that person’s eyes.”
“That person … ?”
The man shrugs and looks at him. He holds up the marble. “Let me have this.”
It’s on the tip of his tongue to protest — Yuuko gave it to him to hand over to someone else, someone that he would know, and–
Ah, he thinks suddenly, looking at the man. Her “inevitable” at work again, then.
“Go ahead,” he says. “There were more, I think, and a pouch–” He looks around and spies it lying in the grass. He picks it up and can feel the weight of the bag — if there are other marbles, he thinks, they weren’t spilled.
He gives it to the stranger. A strange look passes over the man’s face as he looks at the bag. After a moment, he turns it over onto his palm; another dark red marble spills out, and then a small glass vial. Inside it is a single pure-white feather, tiny but perfect in detail. Watanuki thinks of Syaoran abruptly, and Sakura, and wonders if this is another one of those scattered feathers — and then he decides probably not; it’s just a pretty piece of glass.
But the man’s face is oddly gentle, and there’s no mistaking his sadness: it’s like there is a weight to him, and the artifacts handed over have reminded him of it. Watanuki bites back the urge to apologize.
“Ah,” the man says, and Watanuki leaps back as black wings suddenly unfold out from the man’s back; they’re wide and long enough to support a human’s weight, he’s sure, majestic and strong. “… even now, I’m not alone, huh …”
He takes off then, in a trail of black feathers and Watanuki gapes after him, watching as he spirals upwards into the sky, higher, higher — and then gone.
When he comes back, bearing the alcohol and the makings for galettes, Yuuko greets him from the front steps again, smiling mysteriously, still smoking.
“Did you pass it over properly?” she asks.
Watanuki hesitates, juggling the weight of his groceries. “Yuuko-san–”
Her smile gentles. “Watanuki,” she says, “you shouldn’t worry about that one. He’ll be fine.”
He thinks about the sadness in the stranger’s eyes, and the way the distance had melted at the sight of the glass trinkets. “But he–”
“Everything that happens is inevitable, Watanuki,” she says. “And once a strong connection is forged between two souls, nothing can destroy that. Not even your own will.”
“Is that so …”
She nods at him, then taps her pipe out decisively. “All right! Let’s have dinner! Watanuki, you better have picked decent wine!”
“Something good!” Maru chirps, peering out from the doorway.
“Something fine!” Moro agrees, from the other side.
And Watanuki scowls, though his heart’s not quite in it. “Fine,” he says. “FINE! I’m going, I’m going–” and he stomps up the steps and into the shop.