The east wind brought in the smell of rain and wet leaves, despite the hot clear blue of the summer sky. Watanuki paused in his sweeping to shade his eyes, looking into the distance, but there was nothing but heat visibly shimmering from the low-set rooftops.
“Watanuki,” Yuuko said from the porch. She lay sprawled in the shadows, long bare limbs and her white stomach exposed in the gap between her bikini top and low-slung shorts. She had one arm over her eyes and a glass of melting ice-cubes in her other hand. “Leave the gate open.”
He turned to look at her, still squinting against the harsh bright light. His own shirt was sticking between his shoulder blades and itched against his skin. “The gate? But Yuuko-san, it’s so hot that no one’s leaving their homes, let alone going anywhere …”
Yuuko raised her empty hand. She waved it at him a few times, listlessly, then let it drop again. By her elbow, Mokona rolled over and whined something briefly about the heat.
“We’re expecting a guest,” she said. “Leave the gate open.”
“A guest,” Maru echoed sleepily.
“A guest,” Moro agreed dreamily.
“And more tea,” Yuuko added, holding up her glass. “Ahh, and ice too, I want more iiiiice.”
Watanuki sighed. It was too hot for a bad mood, though he could feel irritation trying to stir. The most it managed was a faint twitch of his eyebrow. He set the broom against a tree and grabs the glass from her limp hand. Inside the shop it’s only a little cooler than the outside, with air that is stale and tastes of incense. Watanuki stopped long enough to blot his sleeve against his forehead and headed for the kitchen. He emptied the cup into the sink and then stuck his head into the cooler for nearly a full minute, breathing in the cold and feeling a pleasant chill trace down his spine and settle in his toes.
It took another minute before Watanuki could pull away enough to refill the cup with both ice and tea. When he headed back for the porch, he could feel the summer heat like a wall and let his feet drag.
“Yuuko-san, your tea,” he said when he pushed the door open, then stopped.
“Watanuki,” said Yuuko. She waved a limp hand; she’d managed to pull herself to a half-seated position, which still looked like she might simply melt down the stairs on a whim. Mokona was cradled in her lap; Maru and Moro still lay limp and quiet on the porch “Say hello to our guest.”
The stranger lifted his head. He had long ash-brown hair and bone-white skin that almost glowed in the hot sunlight. He wore a bright blue coat stitched with patterns of red and gold and dark teal; the long sleeves lay artistically draped over his knees. Beside him sat a large dark box that reached to his shoulder. An eye had been painted in gold on one side; Watanuki found he couldn’t look at it for too long without his own vision blurring.
“Um,” he said.
The man turned to him and bowed. Watanuki could still see his smile, though: his mouth was lined in purple and there were sharp teeth against his lower lip.
“Watanuki Kimihiro. I’ve … heard much about you,” said the man. His voice was low and low and deliberate and strangely-paced. “From … ah. Yuuko-san, was it?” He turned his head only slightly; Watanuki still couldn’t see his eyes.
Yuuko slid hair back over her shoulder; it fanned across her white shoulder and the length of her arm. “Watanuki,” she crooned. “My drink, I want my drink~”
He blinked for a moment, then fumbled the cup over. Yuuko took it with a smile, but didn’t drink. She leaned forward instead and traced a finger down the edge of the box; Watanuki, watching, saw something gold glimmer in the trail of her finger. He blinked and it was gone.
“I think it’s a fair price,” she said to the stranger. “I’m almost out of that lovely tea blend you make …”
The man tilted his head up. His eyes were an unremarkable shade of slate-blue, but they’re rimmed in bright blood-red (it might be paint; Watanuki hoped it was paint). The lines stand out on his face like they’ve been cut into his skin. Watanuki locked his legs to keep from backing up. The man’s smile reminded him of things that had chased him before, and long dark alleys that came to abrupt ends.
“No …” said the man. He tilted his head just a little. His smile grew wider. Watanuki suddenly found himself thinking of sharks. “No, this one won’t do.”
“Ehhhh.” Yuuko pouted. She leaned her chin on her free hand, lower lip fat. “But our Watanuki’s really good at finding this sort of thing~”
“What do you mean,” Watanuki said, sotto voce, “‘our’ Watanuki.”
“Even so, I must … regretfully refuse.” The man shook his head. “I. Trust that you wouldn’t want to give him up … permanently.”
“I’m right here,” Watanuki said. They both ignored him.
“Oh, no, not permanently, nothing like that.” Yuuko waved and finally took a sip from her drink. “But for a single time? That’s certainly worth some tea and my pick of your supplies, isn’t it~?”
The man’s smile didn’t change. That in itself was impressive: he met Yuuko’s wheedling grin head-on and didn’t flinch. “Yuuko-san. Please.”
“Oh, very well.” Yuuko tipped her head back. It looked almost obscene, showing off the full length of her white throat, all the way down to the plunging neckline of her bikini top. “Watanuki. In the storeroom, there’s a box. I need you to get it for me.”
“Yuuko-san, there are a lot of boxes in your storeroom, so–”
“You’ll know which one,” she said, and waved. “Be good and fetch it, all right?”
Watanuki glowered, but turned anyway. He could feel the stranger watching him go, and heard them talking to each other as he left: low quiet voices occasionally cut by Mokona’s higher-pitched chirping in between.
He turned a corner and found the door to the storeroom. It moved occasionally; he’d learned not to question how or why.
There was a box sitting right beside the door when he poked his head inside; it had the same open-eye seal that had been painted on the stranger’s box. It was also icy-cold in the room; he could see his breath when he exhaled. He knelt and grabbed the edge of the box, tugging it to the door before he hefted it in his arms. Inside the box things rattled and clinked together; he could feel something inside thumping against the box walls in a small, steady rhythm. On the top of the box, the eye glared balefully upwards.
“–Here,” he said, when he came back to the porch. Yuuko and her guest hadn’t moved, though Maru was on her belly and Moro sprawled on her back. “Your box, Yuuko-san, as requested.”
“Good boy,” Yuuko said brightly. She pointed. “Put it down here and open it.”
He paused. Things rattled in the box again, this time loud enough to be unavoidable.
“Go on,” said the stranger. He was smiling again, “I assure you … nothing inside is … hazardous.”
“For most,” Yuuko agreed. She gave Watanuki a hooded smile. “Ehh, Watanuki, go on~ no one likes a coward.”
“It’s not cowardice if you’re just being prudent,” he said, then sighed and set his burden down when she crooked her fingers. He fumbled for a moment, then found a nearly-invisible latch on the side of the box. It popped under his fingernail, and the box lid rose with a puff of metal-scented air. Yuuko leaned over with that same Cheshire-cat smile on her face as Watanuki set the box aside. Nestled inside, pillowed in loose bits of shredded newspaper, were two jeweled scales.
“What,” said Watanuki. “Kid’s toys?”
“Oh,” said the man. His smile had changed somehow; it looked almost gentle now. “Just that, of course.”
“Of course,” said Yuuko. She took the box in her own hands and turned, presenting it to the stranger. There was a strange gravity in her movements, like she was handing over something much more significant. Watanuki found himself bizarrely reminded of when the the travelers had come to her shop, and how serious her face had been at that time. “Then does this seal our bargain?”
The man didn’t look inside before he closed the box again. “It does,” he agreed. “Thank you, Yuuko-san.”
Yuuko leaned back on one hand, reaching to pet Maru’s hair with the other. “And all the best to your mother,” she said. “She doesn’t come here often any more, either.”
The man just smiled. He slipped his arms into the straps of his carrying-box, hefting it onto his back as he rose. The smaller box he kept cradled in one arm against his chest. He bowed low and with impeccable form, first to Yuuko and then — to Watanuki’s surprise — to Watanuki himself.
“Then,” he said. “I will be on my way.”
“But,” said Watanuki, and flushed when the man glanced back, unremarkable eyes with their striking border. “But. What are you? What did you give to Yuuko-san in return? I don’t–”
“Hush, Watanuki,” Yuuko said. But she was smiling, and the man smiled too, one eyebrow slowly rising.
“I’ve paid her in trade,” he said. “Dragon’s-pearl tea, powdered lycoris flowers from Amaterasu’s garden, and a handcream favored by the sirens of the north. Fair enough for scales that tip only in the presence of a mononoke.”
Watanuki stared. “And you’re–”
“Watanuki-san,” the man said, with all his pointy teeth showing, “I’m … merely an ordinary medicine seller.
He bowed, and went on his way.