Previously posted to my LiveJournal, and is meant to be read after Temple, Doumeki Perspective from cha. 13.
xxxHolic not mine, yeah yeah yeah.
Please, no spoilers past American volume 12 in reviews. I am not current with the manga. Thank you!
The Trouble With You [Doumeki, cha. 14]
Not long before he died, Grandfather taught me how to play mahjongg in the courtyard of the temple.
"Do you see her, Shizuka–kun?" I shook my head, because the cherry tree was just a cherry tree, however magnificent the blossoms were. He wasn't disappointed; he just smiled like I had a better lesson to learn. "Ah, well. Never doubt there are other things to this world, things you cannot see. Even if you can't see them, that doesn't mean you can't influence them."
Minutes passed, the clink of the tiles carried on the wind, and Grandfather smiled up at the tree. His face was lighter, more at ease, when he turned back to me. "There is strength in even knowing, Shizuka. Never forget that."
And I never did, and it was what led me to host this Hundred Ghost Story Ceremony in my temple with people I hardly know. I've never been affected by ghost stories because of Grandfather; Kunogi's tale is not so much a ghost story as an urban legend. I've heard so many variations on the tale that it's lost its suspenseful edge. But she tells it well, with just the right earnest cadence to penetrate my indifference to it. I'm not even sure if her tone is deliberate. Kunogi is an interesting girl. She seems so naïve, yet when she thinks no one's looking, the saddest expression settles over her normally bright features. I can't ever put my finger on it, but I have always had one eye on her ever since we first met at school.
I glance around the room as Kunogi reaches the climax of her tale. Yuuko–san's lips are pursed, and her eyes flicker as she listens like a cat waiting to pounce. I am certain, for no particular reason, that she knows much, much more about everyone in the room than they think, and for that reason alone, I'll watch out for her as well. The constant cunning gleam in her burgundy eyes tells me she could be dangerous or beneficial depending on her interests, and that's a line I plan on treading very, very carefully.
And then there's you.
"I… I knew it would turn out that way!" You're shaking, sweating, and captivated – the same open bundle of nerves I see at school, but a different facet. Your expression is unexpectedly young, vulnerable; it reminds me of that split–second frightened look, right eye gold, and, not for the first time, I wonder what you saw that scared you so badly. You're too impervious to what other people think for it to have been something as mundane as a bully or a teacher. Never doubt there are other things to this world, Grandfather's voice whispers again. "Why can't they just go home?"
But I forget how idiotic you are. "Then where would our ghost story be?" Moron.
You react as I expect, nearly tearing my head off with enthusiasm. "Oh, just shut up!"
Before you can explode any further, Kunogi continues, following through with her not–quite–ghost story. You return to that strange state, fear as plain as the drop of sweat rolling down your cheek. Despite Kunogi's excellent rendition, this is far more interesting. There seems to be no check–and–balance system to your emotions; your heart is so visible on your sleeve I can nearly see it beating there. Since your normal behavior is volatile and obnoxious, to see your brow knit and your eyes widen is an intriguing change. You're so vivid I don't need to listen to Kunogi – I can experience the whole thing by watching your face.
This is both irritating and amazing, which only annoys me further, because never in my life have I met a creature as fascinating as you, Watanuki.
Kunogi finishes up with a cheerful the end, her smile at odds with her dark tale, and this completely escapes your shivering attention. Yuuko, however, notices, just as I thought she would. "Himawari–chan, you're good at these stories."
This doesn't exactly sound like a compliment to me, but Kunogi takes it as one. "You think so? I was afraid it was boring story." It is, but not when she tells it. The ending sent a faint tremble up my hardened spine, but I could've absorbed it through you, for all I know.
"In any case, there was one person who felt the story's full effect." I say to no one in particular.
"What was that supposed to mean?" You screech, and it's comforting to know I can piss you off enough that you forget how afraid you were.
"It means just what it means." I speak plain Japanese, even though that doesn't seem to translate for you.
"I was not scared!" Everything about you said otherwise, I think as you jump to your feet, arms waving in protest. "For me, it isn't just a story! These things really do haunt the real world!"
This stirs the memory of Grandfather smiling up at the cherry tree, but Yuuko claps to get our attention and addresses me. "So, who's next?"
"That would be me." I tell one of the creepier stories Grandfather ever shared, although I'm positive that he had much darker ones. You react to it like I'd run over a kitten, your hands to your mouth, but Yuuko asks about Grandfather before I can analyze it.
"Did he see many spirits?" There's a double edge to the question, one that's not directed at me, but this seems to be Yuuko's language. I decide to keep an even firmer eye on her.
"I'd guess so. I heard lots of stories like that one." I did – I'd just rather not mention that they were as intrinsic to his life as breathing is to the rest of us.
"Then… That blood flows in you, too." Again, this is not said to me, and Yuuko and I watch as confusion dominates your face. I try to calculate a response, but the wooden rims of the shoji screens clack softly, distracting the both of us.
It makes you nervous, something else I haven't seen. "What's that? Is there someone in that room?"
What's left of him. "If you put it that way, yes."
You don't like that answer. "Who? A family member?"
"No. A supporter of the temple." Sometimes I forget that most don't know the particulars that would lead someone to be here at this time of night, so I belatedly add, "Or rather, his remains."
I receive a blank stare. "What's that?"
"We took him in." Your bewilderment doesn't budge. "Prior to the funeral." Everything has to be spelled out for you, doesn't it?
"Is there someone else in there?"
I resist rolling my eyes at you. Yuuko's and Kunogi's attention bounces back and forth like they're watching a ping–pong game. "No. Just the remains." If this conversation goes on any longer, you'll never leave.
"Okay, then did someone leave a window open in there?"
Your capacity for ignorance astounds me. "That room has no windows."
The doors shudder from top to bottom. Yuuko reminds you, "Just as I said… All the players are present."
You wig out. "When you said players, did you include some restless corpse?"
I light my candle as I think, Forget where you were telling stories, moron? But your ire is directed at Yuuko, and I'll enjoy the peace while I can – it's only a matter of time before you're shrieking at me again.
"Wards?" I hear you ask Yuuko.
"The candles on their stands. They're wards. This room is protected by their power." Yuuko responds, lowering her chin. You're awfully naïve of these things, and I wonder how you came to work for her. "But I cannot speak for the world beyond them." Normally, I wouldn't trust such ominous statements, but I'll take Yuuko's word on it.
You, though. I still have lots of doubts about you. "That means…" You trail off, gaze darting, looking for someone to fill the gap.
Thankfully, Yuuko does. "Until the Hundred Ghost Story Ceremony is over, you can't leave."
I see your reaction coming and manage to cover my ears. A hundred ghost stories in one night? I need you out of my temple sooner than that, if I want to keep my sanity. Kunogi's curiosity asks the question for me. She doesn't seem unnerved by any of this, and my suspicion of her solidifies.
"Four rounds?" I ask. "That means four stories each?" I may be rid of you in an hour or so, with any luck.
"Yes. They say a four–count is a count that can communicate with the underworld."
"I never heard that before!" Kunogi exclaims.
It's true enough. I explain the superstition of shikai – Yuuko seems impressed. "Doumeki, you're an expert!"
Hardly. "As I said, I learned a lot from my grandfather." I learned everything from him, not just about the preternatural, and that's the only knowledge I don't use on a regular basis.
By this point, you've reached your threshold of sanity. "What is with all this calm conversation?" You lean close to Yuuko, but I still hear your words. "Isn't it bad to be telling ghost stories right next to a corpse?"
Corpses aren't the trouble; I deal with them frequently, although I forget others aren't as comfortable with the idea of death as I am. I've seen it from every angle – corpse, funeral rites, and the grieving relatives. I want to remind you that corpses and the dead are very separate things, as Grandfather's abilities taught me.
"Now, now, you've haven't seen any spirits tonight, have you?" Yuuko chides, and suddenly, your strange behavior is illuminated – you can see everything that Grandfather saw. As you confirm that you've haven't seen anything tonight, I don't miss Yuuko's sideways glance, and I don't like it.
Yuuko asks after Kunogi's state, and you don't even attempt to hide your concern for her or contempt of your employer. Once again, every little flicker you've ever felt – including your dependency on what she thinks – is laid bare to the rest of us, and I wonder how you've survived this far without someone watching out for you.
Finally, finally we continue with the ghost stories. Yours is so eerily similar to some of Grandfather's that I give it my full attention, and I wonder how I never noticed the common thread before. You explain the impossibility of the boy standing outside a third story window, ending your story as if you're ashamed of it, something I realize must be natural by now, apologizing for sight you can't control. For just a second, I'm angry for the both of us – because of the weight of our knowledge, we will never be a part of accepted society.
You light your incense as Kunogi says, "It is strange. I wonder what that kid was."
It's obvious to me. "He was a ghost."
You're on your feet as if I spoke the answer to the meaning of life. "Can you see spirits?"
It's that moment, eagerness surging on your face and the closest thing to a friendly overture I have ever received from you, that I decide that yes, there are other existences to the world, and you can see every one of them. "No. Not at all."
You sink back, disappointment palpable, and once again I'm amazed at the near–contact high. "Oh."
"Even if one can't see them, it doesn't mean one can't deal with them." Yuuko cuts in, her words startlingly similar to Grandfather's – it's disconcerting to feel that same almost–grasp on their meaning.
The incense bowl is full, releasing lazy wisps of smoke around Yuuko as she claims her turn. "Now… That thing showing on the shoji paper door behind me… What do you think it is?"
I don't think – I know that shadow is trouble in my temple. It followed you in, making every frame crack and clatter. The sheer force of your anxiety is so thick in the air I can taste it mixed with the incense. But there is nothing I can do about either until I know more.
The roof thumps, the walls clack, wood creaks, the door pound against each other. Kunogi points out the four sounds as the pit of my stomach coils like a compressed spring, adrenaline trickling into my fingertips as it does in the final round of an archery meet. I can't help but keep you sideways in my vision, just in case, just in case.
The floor shudders, but it's not an earthquake; the suibon water doesn't tremble at all. Kunogi stands as Yuuko says, "The wards are in danger," and she stumbles at the next tremor. I catch her with one arm, breaking her fall. I don't miss your seething – something that makes me want to yell at you for dropping your guard in this situation – and Kunogi thanks me, turning to get to her feet.
And stops in her tracks, eyes wide with fear. "Watanuki–kun! Behind you!"
Her placid curiosity is gone, and the spring winds tighter – what scares Kunogi scares me, I realize – and I turn to see dozens of writhing, reaching shadows inches away from you.
You turn, yelp in surprise – the floors shudder again as one of the candles fall – I am on my feet, and they're taking me toward you without thought.
Those hands reach through the screen and wrench you away as you yell in fear; you're halfway through before I can take a breath. You're fighting, but it's not enough – you really do need a keeper – and if I don't do anything quick, you're gone before I can ever feel that contact high again.
Yuuko stops me before I can get any closer. "Doumeki–kun, you're in archery, right?"
This is not the time for idle questions, woman. "Yes."
"Grab the bow from that display stand." Its Grandfather's bow, the item I cherish the most in the temple, so sacred I don't dare use it for something as mundane as practice. "Aim at the shoji door and draw the bow."
"But I don't have any arrows," I tell her.
"It's all right," She says, as I line my grip up on the handle, fingers questing for the right point to draw on the string. "All right for you," She finishes quietly.
I hear her through my concentration, but the spring in my chest is ready to vault to you. I pull back the string, and as I release – the hum of it resonating to my core – something so essential dawns on me that I feel foolish for not seeing it sooner.
That blood flows in you, too.
Can you see spirits?
Even if you can't see them, it doesn't mean you can't influence them.
My aim is as true as I've practiced it to make it. My extra hours have been fruitful – you collapse to your knees, safe – and satisfaction spreads through me, dissolving the spring. But it's from more than my superb aim; there's relief, wholehearted, giddy relief swirling with the satisfaction. I sling Grandfather's bow over my shoulder and it fits, solid and perfect, now that it has a purpose. Something tells me you are linked to Grandfather, and I won't lose that again.
I look at you as you gasp on the floor, Yuuko's "stuffed animal" swallowing a mass of churning, oily blackness, and you don't seem nearly as loud or annoying as you did at the beginning of the night. Something has changed between you and me, something that will never change back. My right arm aches, and I realize I never want to forget this feeling; I feel closer to Grandfather now than I have since he was alive. He's with me, telling me to remember what it's like to save a life, a bond that is never broken. There is strength in even knowing, Shizuka, memory tells me again. Now that I know what it's like to hold a purpose, I can't go back – you've got yourself an archer now, Watanuki, and I pray to god it's worth the while.
You'd better make damn good inari sushi.