Notes: I actually did some research on Zashiki-warashi in general, and what I found really opened my eyes, just not about the character I had in mind. At any rate, my first purely xxxHolic fanfic, possibly the last.
Summary: Himawari has a plot to get Watanuki and the Zashiki-warashi together, and be rid of her curse all at once. She'll only have to give up her humanity in the process.
Unfair Weather Friends
An xxxHolic Oneshot by
Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)
Kunogi Himawari had always been a clever girl, but she was always amazed at how so many people, herself included, missed the little things.
She had known, for instance, the moment she met Watanuki Kimihiro, that he would love her for as long as was humanly possible.
She had known that Doumeki Shizuka, despite his somewhat dull appearance, was a lifelong friend for anyone lucky enough to have him.
Somehow, though, she had never thought anything odd of Watanuki's occasional companion, the Zashiki-warashi.
The very first time they were introduced, Himawari recalled thinking it had been a little odd. The Zashiki-warashi's eyes had widened, and then, with her head bowed in what could only be reverence, she had murmured softly, "Onee-sama."
After a lengthy pause, Watanuki had laughed nervously and explained that there was no need to be so formal. He had never, however, been able to talk the Zashiki-warashi into calling Himawari anything else. Himawari finally decided that it wasn't really a problem, but found herself unable to return the favor properly. Her simply addressing her new friend as "Zashiki-chan," for example, was enough to redden the poor sprite's face for a week. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, they became fast friends. Tanpopo was especially fond of the sprite, and would often sit on her shoulder and chirp songs that Himawari only ever heard him sing in the sprite's presence.
Of course, Himawari had been aware of the sprite's feelings for Watanuki all along. She thought it ironic that the Zashiki-warashi, who knew so little about human customs, could feel true, romantic love for Watanuki, while Himawari herself tended to classify her feelings for him as more of a sometime crush. Although perhaps she thought that way solely to keep a necessary distance between them. Watanuki had made it clear that he wasn't concerned about Himawari's curse, so one of them had to be.
The Zashiki-warashi wasn't at all worried about Himawari's curse. When asked about it, she only smiled softly and said, "I have my own constant misfortune to worry about. I doubt yours would have any effect on me, Onee-sama."
And it was true enough: Watanuki never really responded to the sprite's feelings, beyond mere friendship, and yet she continually got drawn into his messes, either accidentally or because she genuinely wanted to help him. In a sense, the Zashiki-warashi was just as stubborn as Watanuki himself, when it came to pursuing Himawari.
They were so perfect for each other.
But even before she realized that, Himawari had made up her mind about what she would eventually do. It was just a matter of discovering who could make Watanuki the happiest for the longest. At first, she'd pinned her hopes on Kohane, but the girl was spending more and more time with Doumeki, and Himawari knew it was only a matter of time before they made their intentions known to each other.
The only real trouble was convincing Watanuki to give up his dream. Himawari thought long and hard about how to accomplish that, and finally stumbled upon the answer one day while watching the Zashiki-warashi make a poor attempt at flirting with Watanuki. Someone had obviously coached her on the process, and she was trying her best, but she only seemed to be making random comments about the weather, which happened to be unusually cloudy and humid at the time. The sprite finally dragged herself away, managing not to cry only through great effort, as it would no doubt bring her faithful but overzealous tengu-karasu down upon Watanuki's head.
Watanuki was not a horrible person. He was a rather generous one, in fact. But even if he was aware of the sprite's feelings, he would refuse them as long as he believed there was a chance for him to be with Himawari.
All she had to do to fix the problem, then, was to make it clear that there could never be anything more between them.
All she had to do was break his heart, nearly beyond repair, and make it so that the Zashiki-warashi was there to pick up the pieces.
It had to be public, ugly, and horrendously painful, but also genuine, or Watanuki would never believe it.
Himawari chose to seek him out at work, figuring that the residents of Yuuko's shop mattered more to him than his classmates. With any luck, their witnessing the event would hurt him even more, but also make it more real.
She found Watanuki beating the dirt out of Yuuko's old rugs in the front yard. Maru and Moro were helping, somewhat, although in between beating rugs, they took extended breaks to beat each other, Mokona, and Watanuki himself. Yuuko was relaxing in the background with a cup that should've held tea, but most probably held sake.
The moment he spotted her, Watanuki danced over in his usual way, looking like a surprisingly graceful, but still drunken ballerina. If things went right, he would never do that for her again.
"Himawari-chan! You look so lovely today! Come in, I just made some fresh-"
"No, Watanuki-kun," she said firmly. "We need to talk."
The goofy smile dropped off of his face at once, and his gaze went briefly to her shoulder. "Where's Tanpopo?"
"At home." What she didn't say was that she'd left him there with the Zashiki-warashi, who would head to Yuuko's shop the moment Himawari returned home.
"But you never go anywhere without him," Watanuki murmured, looking lost and hurt already.
"Things change. They should, anyway." She noticed that Moro and Maru had suddenly fallen silent and stopped running around. Now they were standing beside Yuuko, staring at Himawari with matching empty expressions. Yuuko seemed entirely fixated on enjoying her drink, for which Himawari was grateful.
"What did you want to talk about, Himawari-chan?" Watanuki asked.
Himawari flinched internally. Still there was warmth and affection in the way he said her name. Not a good sign at all. "You... you have to stop trying to win my heart, Watanuki-kun."
"You already have it."
There was a long pause, and then his face lit up. "You mean...?"
"I love you. I have for a while now. So you can stop trying. No, you have to stop."
Watanuki blinked very slowly. "Wait, what?"
"You should already know that it won't do you any good, Watanuki-kun. Or did you really forget about my... problem?"
He smiled. "I told you, I won't die. So you don't need to worry."
She shook her head. "You still don't understand. How am I supposed to feel, watching you suffer and knowing that I caused it? You didn't really ever expect us to get past that, did you? I've already had too many sleepless nights worrying about the people I hurt. I can't do that with you. I won't do that with you. Because I love you."
"Doesn't it matter that I'm willing to go through all of that, just to be with you?"
"Of course it matters," Himawari sighed. "It's exactly why I won't let you do it. A heart like yours deserves to be with someone who can nourish it. Not someone who will only rip it and you to shreds. So this is the end."
"That isn't a choice you can make on your own," Watanuki replied, frowning.
She smiled at him. "You love me, but do you trust me?"
"Enough to promise me something, before I tell you what it is?"
Watanuki hesitated. Definitely a good sign. "Only if it has nothing to do with staying away from you."
"It has nothing to do with me," Himawari answered truthfully.
"Then yes, I promise to do whatever it is."
"Good." She took a deep breath and released it. "After I leave, Zashiki-chan is going to come here. You are going to tell her that you accept her feelings, and that you will do your best to honor them. Then you are going to make the best meal you've ever made, pack it up, and take her out on a wonderful date. When it is over, you are going to realize that she is the single best thing that has ever happened to you, and you will tell her that every day, from now on. You are going to learn to love her, because if you do anything else, I will never forgive you, and I doubt her little friends will, either."
From the look on his face, it was obvious that Watanuki didn't intend to do any of it. He opened his mouth, more than likely to say as much, but something stopped him.
Yuuko had stood up, and was walking towards Watanuki.
She might as well have been the Grim Reaper for all the dread that settled in his expression.
But Yuuko merely leaned into his personal space (which was pretty much habit by now), placed her lips next to his ear, and whispered something that sapped Watanuki of his strength, sending him to his knees.
"Watanuki will not pursue you any longer, Himawari-chan," Yuuko stated calmly. "Now, I believe we have some business to conduct?"
"Yes, Yuuko-san," Himawari sighed. She quickly followed Yuuko inside, but couldn't help throwing one last glance over her shoulder. Watanuki was still on the ground, but Moro was hugging him gently around the neck, while Maru stood nearby, the blank look still on her face.
"Don't worry about Watanuki," Yuuko said once they were alone in her sitting room. "He'll snap out of it and do exactly what you told him to."
"But will he only do it because I told him to?" Himawari asked.
"No. He'll do it because it's the right thing to do."
"Aren't you angry with me?"
Yuuko actually looked surprised. "Why would I be angry?"
"I-I know he's precious to you. I can tell. I'm sorry."
Yuuko's face revealed nothing. "I have been warning him for some time to be careful with matters of the heart. I am not surprised that you were the one to deliver this blow, only that he took it as well as he did. He made this necessary, but he will learn from it. There is nothing to forgive. Now, do you have your wish prepared?"
Himawari nodded. "I want... Watanuki-kun to forget about me."
"As you have just done him a great service, I will give you some free advice. That wish would only undo all of your hard work just now. He needs to remember what made him set his sights on the Zashiki-warashi."
"Then... I want those two to always be happy together."
"As you have done her a great service... well, it's just a bad wish, or at least a redundant one."
"I... want to be surrounded by friends who are immune to my curse?"
Mokona popped up behind Yuuko's shoulder. "That's a very bad wish!"
Himawari frowned. "But... I can't do anything about the curse itself. The price is too high."
"You can afford to do nothing about the curse directly," Yuuko corrected. "You can, however, make a wish that indirectly impacts the curse. But you may consider the price for that to be even higher."
"There's a price even higher than my happiness?"
"Yes. But this price is higher in that it calls for three sacrifices, rather than just one. Are you still interested?"
It sounded very costly, but Himawari had expected that from the start. "Yes, I am."
"First, I must have compensation for even telling you the wish in the first place. It is something that an average human mind would never even think to grasp on its own, and placing the idea in your head is quite expensive. Next, I must demand a price for granting the wish itself, of course. Finally, I will have to place a restriction on this wish. If I tell you the wish, the exchange will begin immediately. This is your last chance to refuse. Once the process has begun, I will not stop it for any reason."
"What must I give up?"
"Your family, and your freedom," Yuuko answered. "If you can live without those, then you will never have to curse another person with misfortune."
Himawari didn't have to think about it long. While her parents were immune to her curse, they still had to deal with the troubles that it caused their family. She'd lost count of how many times they'd been forced to move, or how hard it was for her father to find a high-paying job to help deal with the costs of all the accidents Himawari caused. They would be far better off without her, and if that meant she would be a prisoner somewhere, it would be worth it to ease their suffering.
"I accept your terms, Yuuko-san."
"Such a good girl. I hope that's still true after our business is concluded. I expect this will be rather painful."
It was the only warning Himawari would get before her clothes burst into flames.
Himawari came awake with a violent jolt, her hands raised to start beating desperately at the flames that threatened to consume her. But there were no flames, and the clothes she'd been wearing before had been replaced by a loose-fitting, bright blue kimono.
"Don't worry. You're not on fire, Onee-sama. Not anymore."
She jumped again as the Zashiki-warashi sat down beside her in the grass. "Why are you here? You're supposed to be with Watanuki-kun."
The sprite gave her a pained smile. "Yuuko-san said he wasn't feeling up to having company, and that I should try again tomorrow. Besides, this was more important. Someone had to explain things to you."
"Explain things?" Himawari asked, glancing around. "Where are we?"
"My home. And yours now, I think. Unless you've changed your mind about your wish."
Himawari froze. "What does this place have to do with my wish?"
"This mountain is a place of purity," the Zashiki-warashi answered. "Evil cannot reach us here. But whenever you leave, your curse will follow you. Even now, it waits outside the mountain's barrier."
"But that means... Yuuko-san wasn't able to do anything, doesn't it?"
The sprite shook her head. "It only means that she didn't eliminate the curse entirely. But that wasn't the wish."
Himawari frowned. "But if she didn't burn away the curse, what did she burn?"
The Zashiki-warashi gave her a hesitant smile and whispered, "Your human body. Now we truly are sisters."
Yuuko always had a certain presence about her, to the point where Watanuki could almost always tell when she was nearby, unless she was intentionally hiding from him. It was always a little unnerving to sense her while he was just waking up, though, because she'd snuck into bed with him a few times just to get a laugh from Mokona. And while Watanuki could definitely feel someone pressed against him as he woke up, he was pretty sure that it wasn't Yuuko.
"Finally back with us, Watanuki?" Yuuko asked from the doorway. "Good. Mokona and I want pancakes and sake for breakfast."
Watanuki thought about yelling that she shouldn't be drinking so early, or that he'd just had his heart broken and that she could show him a little sympathy. But staring into Yuuko's red eyes told him that there would be no point in either. She was going to have breakfast, and he was going to prepare it.
Getting up proved difficult, however, as Moro was still attached to his neck, and Maru was clinging to his back so snugly that he first mistook her for a second nightshirt.
"They really are quite fond of you," Yuuko noted, smiling as he attempted to pry them off.
He finally got the girls to loosen their grips by lightly tickling their armpits, then quickly attaching them to each other. Neither one woke up. Watanuki stared at them for a long moment before murmuring, "Was it true? What you told me yesterday, about Himawari-chan?"
"It is as I told you then, Watanuki. Only her parents, Himawari-chan herself, and Tanpopo are completely immune to the curse's effects. Any children she carried would not be so fortunate, and I doubt any could survive being at the eye of the storm for nine months in the first place. Even if they did, their chances of survival would only worsen outside of the womb."
"So, she... really did make the right choice..."
Yuuko shrugged. "She made a choice, and it must have seemed right enough to her at the time."
He laughed weakly. "It's so stupid, though. I mean, I want children someday, but that's a dream I'd give up for her, if it meant we could be together."
"She would never allow that, for a number of reasons. Nor would I, for a great many more. Now, aren't you supposed to be getting my breakfast ready?"
Watanuki sighed. "Yes, Yuuko-san." He started to walk past her, and stopped when she abruptly embraced him from behind, gently and briefly.
"I am sorry, my Watanuki," she said into his ear, "but the gift you have been given more than makes up for the one you've lost. It may take you years to see that, but you will."
Himawari woke up in the grass a second time, only she could now feel her head resting in the Zashiki-warashi's lap.
"I'm sorry, Onee-sama," the sprite apologized at once. "That must have been quite a shock for you. I should have found a better way to say it."
"I think I would've fainted no matter how you said it," Himawari sighed. "But, what you said before. If I'm not human any longer, what else is there?"
The Zashiki-warashi actually looked surprised. "You don't know? I was sure you'd made the wish because you already knew what would happen."
Himawari shook her head. "I only wanted to get rid of the curse."
"Oh, but you can't. It's a part of you. It always has been. Just like mine is a part of me."
"You? But you're not cursed!"
"Aren't I?" the sprite asked. "Look how much you had to suffer, just to give me something I should've been able to earn myself. But that type of hardship is quite common among our kind."
"What do you mean?" Himawari asked. "We're not the same."
The Zashiki-warashi's face fell. "You don't believe? I suppose there is only one way to prove it, then." She closed her eyes tightly, scrunched up her face, and let out what was obviously a fake sob.
They were surrounded a heartbeat later.
"Who did it?!" screeched the five tengu-karasu. "Who made you cry?!"
"Calm down, everyone!" the sprite ordered, having to shout to be heard over their growls. "I only summoned you so that I could introduce a friend of mine!"
The tengu-karasu all looked at Himawari and froze, their growls fading at once.
Himawari was suddenly very nervous, having seen what they'd done to poor Watanuki on numerous occasions. "W-Why are they looking at me like-"
"OYABUN!!!" the tengu-karasu bellowed, leaping off of their snowboards and bowing at her feet.
"What?! I'm not-"
"Stop that!" Himawari cried. "I'm not your oyabun!"
The tengu-karasu traded confused looks, but none of them said the word again, as they'd been ordered not to.
"Do you see now?" the Zashiki-warashi asked quietly. "The only difference they see between us is that you are older, and therefore more deserving of their loyalty. We are the same, Onee-sama."
"But this doesn't make any sense! I think I'd know if we were related! Just because you call me that, it doesn't mean that we're-"
"Did you really think I was only doing it because we were friends? You have had the soul of a Zashiki-warashi all along. But because you were trapped inside a human body, the curse that was only supposed to follow your departure managed to catch up with you and engulf you. Now things are as they should've been. You are no more cursed than I am, which is to say that our curses only follow our paths, but they do not define us."
"Then... Yuuko-san really did free me?" Himawari asked slowly.
"Up to a point," the Zashiki-warashi corrected. "That you are no longer human only means that you can outrun it, but it will always follow you. Any place that you call home will attract the curse, and if you ever leave, the curse will ravage it until there is nothing left. This mountain is the only place that the curse cannot enter."
"So I have to live here now?"
"You don't have to. But if you live anywhere else, you should never leave that place, if you don't want it destroyed."
Himawari said nothing for a long moment. Then a dazzling smile slowly spread across her face. "That's great!"
The sprite stared at her uncertainly. "Is it?"
"Yes!" Himawari cried, seizing her hands. "Now there's absolutely nothing stopping you from being with the one you love!"
The Zashiki-warashi said nothing. She had seen Himawari smile many times before, and they were all lovely in their own way. But this one in particular was the one she had always dreaded, as it was also the most beautiful. It meant that Himawari was pouring all of her strength into that smile, because if she did not, she would collapse under the crushing weight of her own sadness.
Watanuki tried to put Himawari out of his mind, but it was difficult to ignore her when she was absent from school the next day. He told himself that it was just more of her trying to stay out of his life, although he thought this was a little extreme. Even Doumeki had not heard from her, and that was what convinced Watanuki to ask if Yuuko knew more than she'd said before. He would probably have to pay a price for the knowledge, but he needed to know that Himawari was okay.
But as he arrived at Yuuko's shop that afternoon, it seemed as if he wouldn't need to pay a price at all. Moro and Maru were laughing and chasing Mokona around the front yard, while a small, yellow bird that could only be Tanpopo flew circles around them.
"Watanuki, Watanuki!" Moro and Maru sang as they ran up and flung themselves at him.
He ignored Mokona's usual "first of April" teasing and patted the girls on their heads, staring directly at Tanpopo as the little bird vanished into the shop. With a rising sense of urgency, Watanuki ran after him. He had no idea what he would say to Himawari, but that hardly mattered. So long as she was safe and happy, all would be right with his world.
But Himawari was not in the shop at all. Instead, Watanuki turned a corner to find the Zashiki-warashi sitting in the dining room with Yuuko, carefully sipping from a teacup. The moment she spotted him, she nearly dropped the teacup, but caught it without managing to spill. Tanpopo landed on her head and began to sing loudly and flap his wings, as if trying to draw attention to himself... or perhaps to the person he was sitting on.
Watanuki took a very good look at the sprite in that moment, for no other reason than he hadn't in some time. He had always thought she was pretty, just not in the terribly obvious way that Himawari was cute. Some part of him now insisted that idea was wrong, that she was and always had been beautiful, and that he'd just been too much of an idiot to see it. He had a fairly good idea that it was originating from Doumeki's eye.
"You look nice today," Watanuki said at once, and immediately wondered why he'd done it.
The sprite turned bright red and looked down. "Um, thank you..."
"Why is Tanpopo with you?" he asked, and instantly regretted it as his right eye began to itch fiercely.
"He said he wanted to come with me, just for today." The Zashiki-warashi hesitated before adding, "She's safe. No harm will come to her."
Though he understood, Watanuki did not quite have Himawari out of his system yet. "You won't tell me where she is?"
The sprite started to open her mouth, paused, and looked away. "I... I don't want to," she whispered.
He had not really expected her to lie, but he wasn't expecting her to be quite so honest, either. "You don't?"
She shook her head, unable to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry. I just... I wanted you to look for me, instead."
Watanuki was still trying to make sense of that when something crashed into the back of his head.
"You, Watanuki Kimihiro, are a fool, a louse, and an eyesore," the Ame-warashi stated with a scowl, lifting her ever-present umbrella for another blow. "If I had my way, I would assign you a personal rain cloud, and wait to see which you would drown in first: the rain, or your own ignorance."
"Don't hit him!" the Zashiki-warashi cried, rushing over to snatch the umbrella from her friend.
"Why not? He's just going to make you cry again, and your guardians aren't here to stop him, so I might as well!"
"I'm allowed to cry! There's nothing wrong with it!"
The Ame-warashi sighed and shook her head. "How dare you say something so foolish to one who holds you dear! He must be rubbing off on you."
The Zashiki-warashi looked a little less upset, but did not return the umbrella. "Swear that you'll never hit him again. I don't like it."
"Wait," Watanuki said, still rubbing his head. "She's right. If I've hurt you, or if I hurt you in the future, an umbrella to the head is the least that I deserve." He did not care for the sinister smile that bloomed on the Ame-warashi's face, but did his best to ignore it. "Have I done something to hurt you?"
She didn't answer, but Tanpopo chose that moment to chirp loudly and flap his wings.
"That you even have to ask does not bode well for either of you," the Ame-warashi sighed. "If no one else tells him, then I will!"
"You have a promise to fulfill, Watanuki," Yuuko said. "I do not think it is ever wise to go back on your word."
Watanuki didn't say anything at first. He knew that if he kept asking, the Zashiki-warashi would eventually tell him everything. But even if he did confront Himawari, what then? She certainly wouldn't be happy to see him, and he'd be breaking his promise to her. Yuuko would be disappointed in him, and the Ame-warashi might actually carry out her threat to drown him. Even so, giving up on Himawari was not something he was prepared to do without more advice. But that was still no reason to ignore her wishes entirely.
"Have you ever had crepes beneath a cherry blossom tree?" he asked the Zashiki-warashi.
Blinking, she shook her head. "No..."
"You will," Watanuki promised. "I just need to pick up a few things first."
Kohane generally received no less than two visits a week from Watanuki, and that was only assuming that Yuuko was keeping him busy. Although it was never required, he always brought food that he'd prepared himself, and even if she wasn't hungry, Kohane always made sure to eat a few bites in front of him. Occasionally, he might ask her opinion on certain things, but never for a prediction, and certainly not for advice. Kohane knew he would feel like he was taking advantage of her if he'd done so, and while he was one of the few people she would've done a favor for at any time, she did not press the issue.
But when Watanuki turned up on her doorstep one evening, empty-handed and desperate for her help, she needed none of her powers to know how things would unfold.
Watanuki told her of the situation with Himawari (which Kohane had foreseen, at least somewhat, but she did not tell him so), and asked flat-out what she thought he should do.
It put Kohane in a position she greatly disliked, but Watanuki was a dear friend, so she had every intention of helping him. She would just need to make him a little uncomfortable first, to get her point across.
"Do you think I'm pretty, Kimihiro-kun?" she asked.
From the blank look on his face, he hadn't been expecting that. Then he smiled, and reached out to fondly brush her hair. "I think you're beautiful, Kohane-chan."
"If I was a little older, would you consider marrying me?"
He laughed, not unkindly, but was obviously not getting her point. "Of course I would!"
Watanuki stopped laughing. "Kohane-chan?" he asked hesitantly.
"What would you do if I told you that I had a crush on you? That I had strong feelings for you? That I wanted to be your wife one day? How would you respond?"
He had no answer, beyond clear shock, not that she'd expected him to.
Sighing, Kohane slowly walked over to where he was sitting and slid into his lap, looping an arm around his neck and drawing his head close to hers. "You saved me, Kimihiro-kun, so I'm going to try and save you. But I'm afraid I can't be nice about. Just remember that I'm only saying these things because I love you. Okay?"
He nodded numbly, which was about the best she had expected.
"The Zashiki-warashi loves you. She has for a while now. She's been watching you, and I imagine that while she would never admit it, you hurt her each time you displayed such strong feelings for Himawari-san. It isn't your fault, but you need to know. Despite that, she never failed to help you if you needed her assistance. She has treated you far better than you deserve. But she is fragile, and the cruelest thing you could do is ignore her while she's right in front of you. If you reject her, she will never recover. Himawari-san would be disappointed. Yuuko-san would be angry. I would still be your friend, but it would change things between us. Do you understand?"
Watanuki nodded again, closing his eyes as Kohane pecked him on the cheek.
"It isn't your fault," she said again. "You can't help being a boy. But I'll forgive you this one time."
Himawari adjusted to life on the mountain far faster than she wanted to. All of the creatures there more or less viewed her as the tengu-karasu had, although she was able to convince them that just calling her "Himawari" was fine. She could not keep them from bowing when she passed by, but told herself they were just being polite.
The tengu-karasu waited on her hand and foot, constantly bringing her exotic fruits and berries that she'd never seen before. It took some effort, but she talked them into showing her where they retrieved the food, so she could get it herself in the future.
The biggest change, literally, was Tanpopo, who for some unknown reason, became giant-sized after only a few days inside the mountain's barrier. He was even able to return to his original size at will, though it was easier to do so outside of the barrier. Himawari never questioned any of this, nor why Tanpopo would sometimes leave and return without warning, how he knew the way, or where he went: he was always trailed by an unusual amount of fireflies, both going and coming. Many of those same fireflies would often surround Himawari, no matter what she was doing at the time, but they never seemed to want anything other than being near her.
It was, at first, easy to put Watanuki out of her mind. She was far too busy familiarizing herself with the mountain and all of its inhabitants, not to mention the other worlds mysteriously connected to it. Nearly a month had passed before Himawari finally gathered the courage to leave the mountain. She had never really tested the limits of her curse since arriving there. It was probably safe to assume that any world connected to the mountain also benefited from its purity, but to be cautious, she'd always slept on Tanpopo's back while he flew, to avoid staying anywhere overnight. She didn't really think it was possible to "live" anywhere for less than twenty-four hours, and hoped that her curse was of the same opinion.
Himawari had never doubted the Zashiki-warashi's words, but she still received a great shock the moment she passed through the mountain's barrier. A vast, purplish black cloud was slowly circling the mountain like a hungry predator, and seconds after she spotted it, the cloud began to float, lazily but with what she thought of as unwavering determination, in her direction. Tanpopo sped up without having to be asked, and the cloud soon vanished in the distance, but Himawari knew it would follow her no matter where she went.
It seemed to her as if hours passed before she finally spotted a familiar sight: Doumeki, sitting at the base of one of the cherry blossom trees that surrounded his temple. Spread out before him was a mostly empty bentou that had to have been made by Watanuki, as she'd never seen Doumeki eat much else.
Doumeki looked up as Tanpopo landed beside him, but made no move to rise. "You should hide if you're going to be here for a while, Kunogi. They'll see you."
"You don't seem surprised to see me, Doumeki-kun," Himawari noted as she slid to the ground on Tanpopo's tail.
"Why would I be? You come here all the time."
"On a giant bird?"
"It's just Tanpopo." As if to prove this, he picked up a few large crumbs leftover from his meal and tossed them at the bird, who quickly snapped them up with a chirp of thanks.
Himawari gave up, realizing she wasn't going to get any other reaction out of him. "How is Watanuki-kun doing?"
"He doesn't dance like an idiot anymore, and his cooking is different. He makes too much."
She suspected that the extra portion would be enough to feed a single missing person, at first... but then it occurred to her that Doumeki could easily eat that much, and then some. "Does he still talk about me?"
"He doesn't have to," Doumeki replied. "It's in what he doesn't say."
"Is... he happy, at least?"
"He doesn't know it yet. His head has convinced him that he's supposed to be sad." While he was talking, Tanpopo suddenly shrunk to his original size and hid himself among the tree's higher branches. Doumeki watched the bird go and grunted. "They're coming."
Having nowhere else to hide, Himawari ducked down behind the tree, hoping that Doumeki's body would help keep her hidden.
It turned out to be entirely unnecessary, though.
Watanuki and the Zashiki-warashi were strolling around the temple, simply talking. They did not appear to be especially close or anything of the sort, but Watanuki seemed far more attentive to her than he had been before, and the sprite was smiling more and blushing less. In fact, she even shyly (or perhaps slyly) brushed her hand against his... though she had to do it three more times before Watanuki got the hint and took her hand in his own. She immediately turned beet red and hid her face with her free hand, but Himawari imagined she knew what would happen next.
"AH! YOU MADE HER CRY AGAIN!!! WE'LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!!!"
Himawari groaned softly as the tengu-karasu descended from the sky, heading straight for a panicked Watanuki. Before they could get too close, she whistled sharply, and Tanpopo reappeared in his giant form, chasing them away with little effort. She had hoped that Watanuki and the Zashiki-warashi would go back to what looked to be their first date, but instead...
"Doumeki!" Watanuki shouted, stomping over and more or less dragging the sprite with him. "You mean you could've just whistled all this time, and saved me from their beatings?!"
Doumeki looked at him blankly and took a bite from a spring roll. "No."
"So you just refused to do it out of stubbornness, huh?!"
"Um... maybe it was just supposed to happen that way, this time," the Zashiki-warashi suggested softly. "You know. Maybe it was inevitable."
Himawari was completely unprepared for the dopey yet amusing grin that appeared on Watanuki's face. "I'm sure you're right, Zashiki-chan!"
The sprite blushed rather badly, but thankfully, did not cry again. "It was just a suggestion, Kimihiro-kun."
"More like a theory. And it could be wrong," Doumeki added, chewing on another spring roll.
"You! Don't you contradict Zashiki-chan!" Watanuki howled, grabbing Doumeki by his throat and shaking him, for all the good it did. "And spit that out at once! I made those especially for Zashiki-chan, you bottomless brute!"
"They're good," Doumeki murmured, only enraging Watanuki further.
Himawari crept away with a smile, but couldn't help feeling a certain sense of loss. She would never take part in that again: not because she couldn't, but because it would be too hard on her, Watanuki, and the sprite. There was no sense in taking one step forward and three steps back. She had made the best choice for all involved, and it would have to be enough to know that they could move on without her, and still enjoy their lives.
"Why did you do that?"
She stopped short as the Ame-warashi landed in front of her, armed with her ever-present umbrella and her ever-present frown. Oddly enough, Tanpopo had shrunk again, and was perched quite stoically on her shoulder.
"Why did you do that?" the rain sprite repeated when Himawari didn't reply.
"They were going to ruin everything," Himawari said. "They're always attacking him, and I've told them that-"
"Not that," the Ame-warashi interrupted, closing her umbrella and pointing it at Himawari. "Why did you help her? Humans don't help our kind."
"What do you mean? Watanuki-kun did-"
"He's a freak," the rain sprite stated bluntly. "Anyway, he had no choice as Yuuko-san's servant. But none of that matters. What I want to know is why YOU are doing it."
Himawari thought before answering. "She's my friend, and she loves him. Does it really matter what any of us is, beyond that?"
The Ame-warashi glared at her for a very long moment, and Himawari started to feel extremely uncomfortable.
"Come on, then," the rain sprite said at last. "I'll escort you back to the mountain."
"I can make it on my own," Himawari assured her. She wasn't thrilled with the idea of spending any more time with the Ame-warashi and her attitude.
"You shouldn't have your pet shouldn't fly in this weather. Looks like rain."
Himawari glanced up, not sure what to say to that. The sun was shining, and there were no clouds that she could see. "I think we'll risk-"
The Ame-warashi arched an eyebrow, snorted, and calmly opened her umbrella.
Himawari shrieked as she was hit by a sudden downpour, only for it to end abruptly as the rain sprite stepped closer and shared her umbrella.
"I'll escort you," the Ame-warashi repeated in a tone that was both amused and unyielding, "back to the mountain."
"Um... thank you?" Himawari hazarded, smiling hesitantly.
The rain sprite said nothing, merely seizing her arm in a firm but not completely hostile grip.
"I'm sure Zashiki-chan still thinks of you," Himawari said suddenly.
The grip tightened almost to the point of pain, and then lessened considerably.
"You talk more than she did," the Ame-warashi noted without looking at her. "Are you always going to do that?"
"Only if I have a friend to do it with. Preferably one with an umbrella, if it should rain."
"I can't imagine why it wouldn't," the rain sprite said faintly, thrusting her umbrella into the air and instantly catching a strong breeze that Himawari was certain hadn't been there before. They quickly floated into the sky, accompanied only by a few loose, pink petals, and Tanpopo's upbeat singing, which Himawari suspected was a perfect match for her new friend's mood, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Not entirely pleased with the way this turned out, but it was taking up room in my head and I needed to get it out of the way. If it bothers me enough, I may go back and add another chapter, or at least a more definite ending onto this one. We'll have to wait and see.
To those unfamiliar with the term, an "oyabun" is the boss of a crime family (that seems to be the most typical use, anyway). Which is not to say the tengu-karasu are criminals, but if you saw a bunch of kids with bad hair, bad attitudes, shades, and snowboards beating up people, wouldn't you call them a gang? At any rate, I've only seen the term used in one anime, and the family in question was a bunch of pirates, so I think it still applies.
Zashiki-warashi are household spirits that are childlike in both appearance and attitude. Treating them well will cause them to reside in and bless a home, treating them poorly will cause them to leave and curse a home in the process.