There were times when Watanuki suspected that Doumeki got some sort of sick thrill out of watching him be utterly humiliated.

"It's got my leg! Shoot it! Shoot it already!"

Once Watanuki even contemplated the horrible possibility that Yuuko was paying Doumeki on the sly to act as nursemaid (deducting the expense from Watanuki's wages, of course), but he never inquired any further because even getting near that thought was enough to send him into seizures of frenzied indignation.

"I can't get a clear shot unless you calm down and stop thrashing around." The 'you idiot' at the end of the sentence was unspoken, but somehow managed to be clearly audible just the same.

Whatever his reason--laughter or lucre--Doumeki never strayed far from Watanuki's side, always hovering about like some particularly sarcastic species of vulture, waiting to see what kind of trouble Watanuki would land in next. And given that these days there was no lack of variety in that regard, Doumeki must be having a high old time.

"It's trying to eat me, you moron! The last thing I am about to do right now is calm down!"

Oh, yes. Watching Watanuki scrabble for purchase in wet, slippery grass while a homicidal wisteria vine dragged him towards an untimely demise was undoubtedly the funniest thing Doumeki had seen in ages.

"Hold still..." The faint creak of bending wood was at that moment the sweetest sound on earth.

Watanuki hated to admit it, but he was thankful that Doumeki was there with his bow.

But then, if Doumeki hadn't had the gall to invite Himawari to his archery tournament, they wouldn't be in this mess now.

"You're coming too, right?" Doumeki had asked Watanuki after Himawari had accepted the invitation with unsettling enthusiasm. No, 'asked' was the wrong word. It was more like an order, and Watanuki would have told Doumeki to go to hell, but Himawari was so delighted at the idea of Watanuki going to the tournament with her that he simply couldn't say no. It went without saying that he was required to pack snacks for all three of them.

It had been a pleasant enough time, Watanuki grudgingly conceded, at least until Doumeki insisted in tagging along when Watanuki walked Himawari home. It would have been a nice walk, if it had just been him and Himawari-chan. The rain that had gently drummed against the roof throughout the archery tournament slowed and eventually stopped sometime during the last round, and when they walked outside, the air was clean and deliciously heavy with the smell of wet earth and spring growth.

It would have been the perfect evening for a romantic stroll for two. Two. Not three. So of course, three was what he got.

But what really took the cake was when Doumeki made it clear that he was also going to walk Watanuki home. He didn't actually say anything about it; he just walked alongside Watanuki as if it were his absolute right. It wasn't the first time he had pulled this particular stunt.

"I can take care of myself, you know," Watanuki pointed out when Doumeki didn't make the turn that would have taken him back to his family's shrine.

Doumeki gave Watanuki a look that bordered on pitying. "It's getting dark," he said.

"Oh. It's getting dark." Watanuki's arms swooped in extravagant gestures as he ranted. "Well, if it's so scary after dark, then how are you going to get back to your place after walking me home, huh?"

Doumeki had no answer for that. Even so, he kept his place by Watanuki's side.

Normally (and when exactly did this become a routine, anyhow?), that would have been it, the two of them just walking along in blessed but annoying silence until they reached Watanuki's apartment building, at which point Watanuki would go inside and Doumeki would most emphatically not be invited in.

To say that things did not go as expected was the understatement of the century. Yuuko, of course, would have said something about hitsuzen, and okay, fine, whatever, Watanuki could deal with that. Truth be told, he was starting to get a lot of what Yuuko was telling him, which was pretty scary if he allowed himself to think about it. Even more scary was the fact that he found he was starting accept these things as part of normal life.

Still, the whole thing with the wisteria was definitely over the top, hitsuzen or no hitsuzen.

To be fair, the water main break that forced them to cut through the park could not have possibly been Doumeki's fault, but Watanuki still grumbled when Doumeki grabbed him by the elbow and said they would have to take a detour.

It was dark (something Doumeki felt necessary to point out again as they entered the park). They were both unfamiliar with that section of the park. They had no way of knowing that the pergola was only there on certain nights. There was nothing to tell them to steer clear until it was much too late.

They were only within a few dozen meters of the park exit when something drew Watanuki's attention. He felt it before he saw it, a sensation like dozens of wiry tendrils snagging at his ankles and wrists.

"What is it?" Doumeki was, as usual, annoyingly quick to pick up on Watanuki's shift in focus. Watanuki wasn't certain he liked having someone pay that much attention to him.

"Over there." Watanuki pointed over to a dark shape that was set a little ways back from the path. "Can you see it?"

Doumeki squinted and peered into the darkness. "Yeah. Sort of. Can you tell what it is?"

At first glance, it was just an old wooden pergola, nearly pulled slantwise off its moorings by the wisteria twining around its pilings. It looked innocent enough, silhouetted against the city glow, until the lights from a car taking the corner near the park gave Watanuki a flashbulb glimpse of what was inside.

There wasn't enough time for him to see much detail, but what little he saw was more than enough. Ten forms, nearly human in shape, but ragged and incomplete around the arms and legs, hung from the roof of the pergola like sides of beef in a butcher's shop.

Watanuki turned and lunged, nearly knocking Doumeki down as he screamed something like "Run, you moron!" At least, that's what he thought he said. It was hard to remember exactly what happened or what he did; it was as if he was reacting to things two seconds before they happened, but it was not enough to stop what happened next.

Watanuki could feel the vine before it grabbed his ankle, could feel himself being yanked off his feet, falling to the grass and being dragged backwards, uniform shirt riding up beneath his armpits as the plant pulled him towards its lair.

And so, there he was, seconds from death, arguing with Doumeki and somehow managing to be both grateful for and resentful of his presence at the same time.

Then there was the order to hold still, and that wonderful, wonderful sound of a bow being drawn back.

Watanuki shuddered with relief as Doumeki finally released his spirit arrow.

The plant shuddered too, as if it knew what was to come. Too late, much too late to stop the arrow speeding towards its roots, the plant threw the nearest available object towards its attacker.

Unfortunately, the nearest available object was Watanuki.

Watanuki just hoped that Doumeki wouldn't tell Himawari how he shrieked in terror as he hurtled through the air.

Doumeki of course had to play hero and run to catch him, but Watanuki was having none of that. Doumeki had rescued him far too many times, thank you very much. This time, he was perfectly capable of saving himself.

He managed to land on his feet, but just barely, and he stepped back sharply to keep Doumeki from placing a steadying hand on his shoulder.

Bad idea. He was still off balance from the landing, and his feet slid out from under him on the rain-slick grass, sending him toppling right towards a concrete drinking fountain.

He tried to twist out of the way, but it was too late. He had just enough time to think oh, this is really going to hurt before the back of his head slammed into the rim of the fountain.

Years later, he would still be able to remember the dull, wet crunch of impact with nauseating clarity.

The world went bright white with pain, then faded to gray as he tumbled into sleep. Someone was screaming at him, wouldn't let him fall asleep, but he didn't have to get up yet, did he, couldn't he just sleep for five more minutes? He felt like he was suffocating, and oh yeah, got to remember to breathe...

The yelling was getting louder, and he thought he felt something on his face. Rain? No. Not rain--hands. Someone slapping him, yelling his name yelling at him to stay awake stay with me don't go don't leave me but all he wanted to do was sleep...

So he did, and the annoying noise finally stopped.

Sometime between falling asleep and waking up, the cold, wet ground had changed to something soft and clean and dry. At least he had that much going for him, because the pain behind his right ear was just one step away from unbearable. It was so bad that it felt like it was leaching into his teeth, his eyes, even his hair. He also felt like someone had punched him good and hard in the chest. There was no way he'd be able to fall asleep again.

Another thing he noticed was that whoever had been yelling at him had finally had the good grace to shut up. He was glad for the quiet, but couldn't help but wonder where on earth everyone had gone. He opened his eyes slowly in anticipation of strong, clinical light that would surely add an extra layer of pain to his already throbbing head.

To his surprise, the light wasn't nearly as harsh as expected. The soft, honey-colored glow suggested lamplight diffused against rice-paper walls rather than fluorescents glaring against institutional tile. So... not a hospital, then. That was not as unexpected as it should have been. Well, if he wasn't in a hospital, then where was he, and how long had he been asleep?

The room was reassuringly familiar; in fact, he'd found himself here in this exact position not too long ago, but with congested lungs instead of a throbbing head.

Ah yes, there was Doumeki, sitting cross-legged over in the far corner of the room, elbows resting on his knees, mouth pressed against knotted hands. He had the strangest look in his eyes, and try as he might, Watanuki could not decipher it.

He thought he was on the verge of figuring it out, but a curtain of silky black hair swung down to cut off his view of Doumeki, and there was Yuuko, up close and much too personal, leaning over him and smirking fondly. Her hair ornament, a cascade of purple flowers fashioned out of silk ribbon, dangled and bobbed against her ear. When he'd seen it that morning, he'd assumed it was supposed to be a bunch of grapes. Now, of course, he knew exactly what it was, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know what had prompted Yuuko to go for a wisteria theme that morning.

She stayed there for a moment, leaning over and smiling down at him in a way that promised interesting things to come. Maybe it was the blow to the head messing with his vision, but Watanuki could have sworn that she winked at him.

Then she sat back as if startled, whipping the curtain of hair away. She clapped in delight, crowing "Ah! He's awake!" as if Watanuki had only just woken up that very second. "I told you it would only be a few more minutes."

Doumeki's expression changed so quickly that Watanuki could practially hear the echoing crash of wood against wood as if a door had slammed shut.

Now there was no sign at all of that strange look. Doumeki was coolly staring off into the middle distance, arms crossed casually across his chest, and his expression was the usual one--blasé with a side-order of mocking sarcasm. But before that...

Watanuki shook his head the way he often did when trying to clear a particularly stubborn thought, and hissed as the motion shot a white-hot spike of pain behind his eyes.

"You need to hold still so the poultice can do its work," Yuuko chided as she reached down and adjusted something behind his right ear. Whatever it was, it was warm and wet.

"How long have I been asleep?" His mouth was so dry it felt like it had been packed full of cotton.

"Six hours," she said. "You hit your head hard enough to give yourself a spectacular concussion. It was also hard enough that you stopped breathing for a few minutes."

She sounded appallingly calm about the whole thing, but then, it wouldn't be like Yuuko to be not calm when there wasn't any point to it, or unless food, alcohol, or presents were involved.

He started to say something about how he hoped like hell that if someone had to give him mouth-to-mouth, it wasn't Doumeki, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the fact that the door that slammed shut earlier opened just a crack when Yuuko oh so casually mentioned that he'd stopped breathing.

Watanuki didn't know what it meant, but he had an idea it was important.

Curious about whatever it was that Yuuko had put on his head, Watanuki reached up, wincing a little as he jostled the poultice. It felt like a wet tea bag, but it stayed soothingly warm rather than growing cold and disgusting. When he gave his fingers an experimental sniff, he thought he could smell roses and apples, and something that tingled like menthol or camphor.

"I'm using a somewhat unconventional healing method, since a hospital wouldn't be the safest place for you right now," Yuuko told him before he could ask. "Places like that are home not just to ghosts but to the kind of spirits who are attracted to pain and fear--and neither one of you is in any shape to fend them off right now."

That confused him. Doumeki hadn't been injured, had he? He wanted to ask about that, but there was something else important, something Yuuko needed to know. "There was a vine. It--"

"It's gone."

"Good." He looked up at her, and he wished he knew how to ask her to make it all right again. "I saw, just for a second..."

"I know. It's gone," she repeated. She spoke the words firmly, but not as if he was an idiot who needed to be told everything twice.

"Memory's not gone, though," he said. He'd seen very little of what was in the pergola, and he was almost wishing that he'd seen it more clearly so that his imagination wouldn't insist on filling in the details in horrible ways.

"The important thing is, you're alive." Yuuko smiled at him again, but this time it was her up-to-mischief smile. Her voice was more suited to a boisterous party than to a sickroom. "You know, you're looking awfully good for someone who was dead for a couple of minutes." She rested one hand on his chest, and even the light pressure of her hand was enough to inflame the soreness there. "It wasn't just your breathing that stopped, you know."

Before Watanuki could gather his wits to say anything, Doumeki got up and stalked out of the room, almost wrenching the door off its track as he slammed it shut behind him.

"You'll be fine," she says, more softly than before, and even though her smile was gentle, he knew better than to mistake it for maternal. "And don't worry about Doumeki. He has a lot to think about, that's all."

Watanuki hesitated before saying anything. What he was about to ask might sound really stupid, but he got the feeling that Yuuko was waiting for him to ask. "Ever since I started working for you, I've nearly been killed more times than I can count, and..."

And Doumeki had always been right there, annoying the hell out of him, but always reaching out for him, pulling him back from the brink time after time after time, even one time when Watanuki didn't particularly want to be saved.

He tried to swallow, but his mouth was still too dry. "And this wasn't even the worst thing we've ever faced, not by a long shot. I've been hurt before. So's he. All it took was one arrow to get rid of it, but afterwards Doumeki was acting... is acting..."

He could feel what he wanted to say, but putting it into words was beyond him. "I don't get it," he said at last, wishing he didn't sound so plaintive. "What was so different about tonight?"

And what does it mean? he also wondered, but he had a feeling that the answers to that question weren't the kind of answers he could deal with when his head was pounding like a taiko drum festival.

Yuuko made a show of thinking about what he said for a while, peering curiously at the door as if waiting for it to open of its own volition. At last she said:

"There's a big difference between thinking that someone is in danger of dying and knowing--or even just believing--that someone is dead."

"Huh?" Even without the concussion, he wasn't sure he would have understood that. "I don't get it."

For a good long while, Yuuko didn't reply or even give any sign that she'd heard him, and Watanuki had just about decided that he was going to have to be content with that fortune cookie answer when she finally began to speak.

"Death is a fact of life. You could say it is the fact of life. Nearly all of us will die, one day, but we always think that it will happen to us or to those we know 'one day.'"

There was a remoteness to her voice, something he'd heard only a few times before, something that suggested that her attention was focused on some distant, irretrievable time.

"You've seen some of the people who come into my shop, and what they are and aren't willing to pay. Some people think the price I demand is exorbitant and are surprised in the end to find out how cheap it really is. For others, the exact opposite is true. They think they're getting a bargain, but they don't realize the true cost, not until it's much too late."

Yuuko shifted off her knees, letting her legs stretch out along the floor as she leaned back, propping herself up on one elbow. She stared at the ceiling and while she spoke in generalities, Watanuki knew she was thinking of specifics and that her gaze was fixed on something or someone far beyond the underside of Doumeki's roof.

"The same thing happens with lives. It's easy to think that you'll be devastated when you lose someone, or that you're the sort of person who's strong enough to carry on, but how can you truly know that until it happens? Everything has its own price..."

She laughed softly, as if at some remembered joke that had been told at her expense and had only become funny with the passage of time. Lots of time.

"Better, perhaps, to say that everything has value, no matter how pompous, or irritating, or smug..." She let out another memory-filled laugh. "It's not always easy to recognize that value, though. It's one thing to know that you don't want someone to disappear from your life forever. It's another thing entirely to know why you don't want them to disappear. Some people simply need to be shown things in a different light--they're the lucky ones. Others never even know what's in their own hearts until it's too late, and there's nothing you can do except live with that knowledge for the rest of your life."

Yes. He knew this all too well. He had come to think of his life as being sharply divided in two, as if with a thick, black line painted to mark the point where 'before' had changed to 'after.' On one side of that line, his parents were alive and an unshakeable constant in his young life. He hadn't meant to take them for granted, but it was such a natural thing for a child to do, especially for a child as well-loved as he had been. His parents had always been there for him, and so it stood to childish, self-centered reason that they would go on being there until the end of time.

There were little things he remembered, things that he'd barely noticed at the time. They were just inconsequential things, really, things like his father's cheerful patience as Watanuki helped him in the kitchen, or his mother draping an arm over his shoulders so he could nestle against her as she read to him at night. But every time he remembered something, no matter how little, he was astounded at just how much love there had been, and how it had been so much a part of his life that he'd never thought it was anything extraordinary. A fish, after all, never thinks about water until it's trying to breathe air.

If only he could, he would reach back through time and grab his younger self by the shoulders, look him in the eye, and tell him to take a good, hard look at what he had and to be thankful for it every damned minute of every damned day because one day it wouldn't be there any more.

Earlier tonight, for what must have been the longest five minutes of his life, Doumeki had stood on the wrong side of a thick, black line that separated his life in two.

And that was not the only line that had been drawn tonight. While nothing that had happened between him and Doumeki had changed--the tagging along, the constant mooching of food and the presumptuous requests for out-of-season treats, always being there to rescue Watanuki even when it meant Watanuki might hate him forever, constantly getting between him and Himawari, all those thousands of annoying habits--it all looked different, as if his eye had finally caught the trick behind an optical illusion.

Some people just need to be shown things in a new light, Yuuko had said. What she'd left out, though, was that once you'd seen something in that new light, it was impossible to go back to seeing it in the old.

The problem was, Watanuki had no idea what the hell he was supposed to do now, or even if he was supposed to do anything. Hell, he didn't even know what he was supposed to think.

"It's been a long night." Yuuko stood up and stretched, locking her hands over her head, and rising up on tip-toe. She turned to look at the door for a moment, then looked back down at Watanuki. "For both of you."

Yeah. And the next day or two were going to be even longer, as all of this got sorted out. Whatever this was.

"Do you have any idea what you're going to do next?" Yuuko prompted. She was always good at asking the kinds of questions he didn't want to answer.

"Sleep," he mumbled. The pain had finally abated to the point where drowsiness was able to overtake it. "I'm going to sleep."

She gave him a look, as if to say he knew full well that wasn't the sort of answer she was looking for, but she would let it slide. For now.

"You know that one of us will have to wake you every few hours because of the concussion, so don't get all crabby on us when we do."

Some other time, under other circumstances, he would have replied with something snippy about how much all this care was costing him in wages.

She opened the door, sliding it open a bit more than she needed to, so that as she walked out, Watanuki could see out onto the porch.

There was a dark shape on the edge of the porch, but without his glasses, he couldn't tell for sure if it was someone sitting huddled with his knees pulled up against his chest. He thought it must be, but the only other person there besides Yuuko was Doumeki, and there was something very un-Doumeki like about that shape out there in the darkness. But then again, everything looked different now.

Little by little the changes should come. A variety of changes.

It was beginning to look like that warning had to do with more than just his relationship with the spirit world.

Watanuki wondered what would happen if he could get up and go out there and talk to Doumeki. Even if he could, he wasn't sure that he wouldAnd if he did, would he have even the slightest idea of what to say?

Seeing things in a new light should make them clearer, right? If that was true, then why was it that he only knew one thing for sure; that the ache in his chest was from more than just bruised bones.

He could hear Yuuko and Doumeki, just the sound of their voices, and as he tried to decipher what they were saying, their wordless speech lulled him into sleep.

Just before he drifted off, he remembered another warning about change, and how he needed to be certain to see changes through.

As he slept, he dreamed about his parents, and he woke from that dream on his own, shaking with loneliness until he fell asleep again. Right before Yuuko woke him for the first time, he dreamed that she wore cascades of purple blossoms like some primitive headdress, and that her long black hair snaked out to catch at his wrists and ankles as he desperately tried to clean a shop that grew bigger and bigger.

And right before Doumeki woke him, Watanuki dreamed that an older version of himself had grabbed him by the shoulders and was looking him straight in the eyes, begging him to pay attention.

The details of the dream faded as Doumeki shook him awake, but the lesson Watanuki took from the dream did not. He knew what he needed to do.

In the morning, in the new light of day, he would make himself look--really, truly, look, no matter how long and frustrating the effort--and he would make himself understand.

And somehow, he knew he would be thankful.

Author's notes:

Thanks to alexandralynch's dear hubby, for providing needed info on head injuries. Apparently, a good crack to the lower side occipital region can cause swelling that compresses the autonomic functions and moves breathing from an 'involuntary' function to a 'voluntary' function. Translation: if you lose consciousness or fall asleep, you forget to breathe. That leads to some other, rather obvious complications.

Wisteria, significance and symbolism thereof: Why a wisteria vine? Good question. I should state for the record that I don't have issues with invasive, non-native species that tear down fences, rip off siding, break concrete, and choke out other plants. No issues at all. Really. I have no idea why it would come to mind when I needed a villainous plant.