An xxxHolic vignette

Part I

Exhibit A

Akie was bored. She sat at her desk, watching the students at the American university where she worked amble through the lobby in loose clusters. She sighed and checked her myspace page for the hundredth time that day, wondering if anyone would even notice if she just got up and left. Probably not… at least not until they had some computer problem and came whining to her for help.

Akie didn't go to this university any longer – she had already finished her undergraduate degree, had completed her Masters degree two years later, and was very well paid. Although her parents were poor, Akie had attended this very prestigious private school which had a pricetag to match; money was no object for her education because Akie was first in her class, first in the entire Kanto region, and almost first in Japan, earning her a full ride at whichever institution she chose. Her mother had tearfully objected when she chose to leave the country, but her father threw out his chest and rumbled that she made him proud and they would always be there for her. A nice sentiment, but useless when you're halfway around the globe.

Akie sighed again. She hadn't expected it to be like this. She had breezed through middle school, earning perfect marks without trying. She didn't even have homework until she reached the middle of high school because she always did it in class or on the bus home. As a result, Akie developed a love of reading and music. What else was there to do while riding home with a bunch of strangers? Akie's classmates were busy with their homework until late at night (she didn't really have any friends), and she lived far from the school she attended, so Akie read until her parents went to sleep and then snuck out of their tiny apartment and walked to the local live music venues where she reveled in thrashing guitars and screamed poetry. Her love of reading led her to the University library where she met Chris, a young American-Italian who was studying business and also sang for a garage band with a very 90's-rock sound. She adored his sparkling chocolate brown eyes, easygoing manner, and gorgeous tattooed body a body honed to perfection by six years in the Army. He looked amazing behind a microphone too, although he didn't sound too great, but she kept that detail to herself. Instead of becoming a research assistant or professor, jobs that would have required more studies, Akie took a job as a librarian at the university while Chris finished his degree. She had more than her fill of classrooms for the moment, and this job had appealed to her because she was around people her own age, she was working in education (which was helping people, not just selling something), it paid well enough that she had all the party money she wanted, and it involved no manual labor.

A student walked up and plopped down his ID card. "How are you today?" Akie asked. Instead of returning her greeting, he leaned into her personal space and said, "do you need some kind of special number to get on these computers? I tried my name and it won't let me on." Of course you do, Akie thought, that's why it asks for a UserID and PIN to log on, not your IDIOT code. She pointed out his permanent access code, a 7-digit code which was on the back of all Student ID cards, and asked if he remembered his PIN number. He just snorted air out of his nose and said, "yeah, like I know that." Akie's blood boiled. How hard is it to remember four numbers?! She brought up his account on the screen and asked him what he would like to set it to, 4 digits. He responded, "how about, 'bigdog1984'?" She stifled the urge to scream and repeated that it had to be 4 digits and ONLY 4 digits. He changed his mind twice as she advised him to pick something he could remember easily. She waved her hand at the bank of computers full of typing students and told him that he could use whichever computer he wanted and that he could log on 3 times every day. He shuffled over to a terminal and said, "is this one OK?" Again, the urge to scream at him surfaced as she repeated that he could use ANY computer he wanted.

Why can't they just listen to what I say?, Akie thought. She checked her email. There was a note from her supervisor asking her to have her purchase order ready to go by the end of the day. She replied that it would be on his desk within the hour. In reality, she had finished the order before her first break, but she had learned long ago that if she submitted her work as soon as it was finished, she would be assigned meaningless repetitive tasks designed to fill her time so that they could justify paying her. This way she could decide how to best fill her time, and that usually involved lots of blogging, reading ebooks online, and doing research on any topic that sparked her interest.

Akie closed the email, read the news online for the third time, and browsed a bunch of deviantart. She got up and walked around the bank of visitor computers, the ones for non-students who needed to use the university (for whatever reason), and was flagged down by an elderly man.

"I'm sorry, but I think the internet's broken on this one. Can I switch computers?" His blue eyes peered out beneath thick and sincere eyebrows.

"First let me see if I have a solution. What exactly is the problem that you're having?" Akie smiled at him. She didn't mind helping older patrons who didn't know all the ins and outs of computers.

"Well, I've been typing in this email address and it just won't take me to it." She leaned over and immediately spotted the problem: the man was typing the email address into the web address bar.

What she wanted to say was, "Really? You've tied up this computer for 30 minutes because you're a freaking IDIOT?! Don't you know anything?" But what she ended up saying was a simplified explanation of the difference between a website and an email while she helped him set up a web-based email account. He thanked her profusely and proceeded to tell her three times about how bad he was with computers. Akie smiled her nicest smile as she ground her teeth and wondered why he thought it was necessary to tell her what she already knew.

When she got back to her desk, there was a pretty brunette waiting for her with an apologetic look. "Can you help me with the copy machine please? I'm sorry, I just don't know what I'm doing wrong. I've tried it three times and all I get are blank sheets of paper." Akie didn't even have to walk across the room to see the problem: the girl's book was laying in the paper feed tray on TOP of the copier. Akie used the same 'it's ok to be dumb because I'll be smart for you' facial expression that she had used with the email-man as she explained how to open the lid of the copier and position the paper between the 8 ½ x 11 arrows.

Two myspace surveys later, another patron approached her desk. This time it was a blonde woman in her mid-40s who was clearly irritated. "I need to get to my employer's website to take a test. This is a testing center, so why is the university blocking my website?!" Akie reassured her that she would help and followed the woman to her computer. Sure enough, the webpage on the blonde's screen was a university page. "See, I typed it in this search box and it keeps telling me that it doesn't exist!" The woman pointed to the site search box and began typing in the web address to demonstrate the problem. Akie closed her eyes for a second of zen before she patiently explained that the woman was only searching the university's computers, not the internet, and then pointed out the web address bar at the top of the screen. She typed in the URL and presto! Instant success. The woman merely huffed, "FINally…" and started clicking away without even thanking Akie.

I'm gonna lose it, Akie thought as she crossed the lobby to her desk. She could feel the blood rising in her face. Why are all these people so STUPID? Why don't things just click for them? It would be so much easier if the world was like me…

Exhibit B

Akie stepped out of the shower and grabbed a folded towel out of the cabinet over the toilet. It wasn't her shower or her towel. She had just gotten out of the pool where she and Chris had been swimming with her best friend, Carson, and his girlfriend, Macie. She pulled out the thin black shirt and skirt combo from her purse-sized travel bag and quickly did her makeup. Chris was waiting for her in the living room, drinking a beer and bouncing his foot up and down. "Wow! Did you borrow that from Macie?" He grinned up at her from the couch.

"No darling, Macie is a size 2. I'm a size 12." Akie grimaced as she thought for the thousandth time that day how badly she needed to lose weight. Chris knew her size, so she couldn't make up her mind if it was a compliment or a brain fart that he would think it was possible for her to borrow Macie's clothes. "I had the foresight to pack other clothes so I wouldn't be sitting around getting our friends' couch wet."

"Oh crap!" Chris jumped up from the couch, spilling beer on his shirt as he looked back at the damp spot on the cushion. "Ummm…." he hummed as he looked around the room in confusion. Akie was already striding to the bathroom to get the towel she had dried off with, and she tossed it to Chris who tried unsuccessfully to wipe the damp spot off.

"Just fold it in half, put it on the spot, and press down." Akie thought her instructions were pretty clear, but Chris wadded up the towel and started jabbing at the cushion. Akie sighed and told him to forget about it, that it was just water. She and Chris had agreed to make an Italian dinner tonight, and they would have run out of daylight earlier in the pool if they had gone shopping beforehand, so now that the sun had gone down it was time for them to go to the store. As she grabbed her purse, Chris began patting the pockets of his wet shorts. His jeans were in her trunk, but in the excitement of jumping in the pool he hadn't brought them inside.

"Where are my keys?" he asked, looking directly at her.

"Wherever you left them," she joked.

"No really, where are my keys? Do you have them?" He spun around in a circle, scanning the room.

"Why would I have your keys? You really don't remember where you put them?" Akie was a little incredulous. She never lost important possessions like that.

"No… Who was the last one out of my house?" He looked utterly perplexed as he tried to remember their mad dash out of his apartment earlier.

"You were." Akie distinctly remembered racing down the stairs with Carson while Chris laughed at them from the landing above.

"Dude… I'll bet they're in my apartment. Oh man, I hope it's OK! I suck. Can you drive me back to my place?" He looked so worried that Akie felt sorry for him instead of irritated, and told him to grab the towel on their way out the door. "Why the towel?" he asked.

"So you don't soak my car seat like you did the couch." She grinned at him.

Eight miles later they pulled up in front of his apartment. He ran up the stairs and sure enough, his front door was unlocked. A minute later he jumped back into her car and dangled the keys in front of her. "Yep, they were on the coffee table," he panted, his face flushed from the run up and down two stories. "Let's go get some rockin' Italian food!" She loved the way he pronounced it "ih-TAH-yun" without the "l", very ethnic. She wiped the voices yammering about lost time and wasted gas from her mind with a deliberate sweep, focusing instead on his disarming dimples and lean, perfect body. All was forgiven.

Akie's moment of smiling amnesty lasted exactly the length of time it took for her to drive from the apartments to the freeway. Beside her, Chris started riling through his pockets again, reaching under his seat, twisting around to look in the back seat, until she finally asked, "What are you doing?"

"Um, I didn't want to tell you, but I need my wallet to buy the food and I don't know where it is." He looked at her and shrugged.

"You have GOT to be kidding." Akie's eyebrows knotted together. "Should I turn around?"

"See, this is why I didn't want to tell you." He looked down at his hands in his lap. "I know I had it earlier when we stopped to get beer at the gas station on the way to the pool." He put one hand to his forehead as if it was all too much to process.

"So, you had it after we left my house, before we got to Carson's place, but after that you have no idea because we jumped in the pool right straight out of the car…" She was getting REALLY tired of this.

"Yeah… I mean, Carson and I changed into our trunks at his house, so maybe I left it there." Chris looked at her and cringed.

Akie almost screamed. Carson's house was 10 miles on the other side of Macie's, directly opposite of the apartment they just came from. Carson's dad, a retired Dallas detective, wouldn't take too kindly to the beer on their breath. "Are you SURE you left it there?" she questioned, trying to be patient.

"No… wait, pull over! My pants are in the trunk. Maybe it's in there!" Akie almost laughed as the proverbial light bulb came on over his head. She took the next exit and popped her trunk as they pulled up to the line at the stoplight. He jumped out and opened the trunk (pulling up on the spoiler, which she would never do because that's how spoilers come loose from the trunk) and proceeded to rummage around in his jeans, sticking his hand in each pocket while he stood behind the car. The light turned and he finally realized that he had to get back in the car when the people behind started honking. Akie shook her head and wondered why he didn't just grab the jeans, close the trunk, and search them while he sat in the car. He jumped in the passenger's seat as she took off, triumphant with wallet in hand. "Sweet! NOW let's go to the store!"

When they eventually walked through the front door of the store, she had to send him back to get the list out of the cup holder. He grabbed the $6 package of 86% beef, not noticing the $4 package of 94% on sale right next to it. He walked to the end of all the aisles, not reading the signs hanging from the ceiling before she asked what he was looking for and then pointed him back to the second row they passed. "Turn your brain on!" she told him at one point. He looked at her abashed and said that he agreed, and he didn't know what was wrong with him right now. "But that's what I love about you, sweetie… you're so smart and helpful," he told her. She knew he was very intelligent (after all, they both went to the same elite university), but for some reason he just didn't take notice of things… or of time. Why doesn't he just notice the things that are right in front of his face? It's not hard… I always take note of my surroundings and my belongings! It's like he just looks right through things sometimes, like he doesn't even see them. I wish he would get on my level.

As the four friends sat around the table later, wine glasses raised over a feast of garlic bread, stuffed mushrooms, salad, and spaghetti, Akie looked at Chris over the rim of her goblet and wondered if all the heat in Iraq had damaged the brain inside his pretty little head.

Exhibit C

Akie toyed with her cell phone charms, contemplating texting Chris again. She was going home to Japan for vacation, and it would be a long time until she got to see him again. The line for the baggage check was ridiculously long, and the man currently at the counter was arguing with the lady behind the counter about the size of his luggage. His carry-on was clearly larger than the dimensions allowed, but he still demanded that she let him take it on the plane. The lady explained why he could not take it in the cabin for the third time, then left to call her manager who explained the same thing to the man for the fourth time. The line of people behind him let out a collective sigh when the irate man grabbed his ticket and flung his bag at the lady to be checked. Why couldn't he have just read the travel requirements online like I did, or at least tested out the dimensions in the "check your size" display over there before getting in line? Akie thought. Idiot. The line moved forward another foot and stopped. The next man was patting down his pockets, trying to find his eticket. Everyone sighed again and put their bags down. It was going to be a long day.

One day, four plane transfers, and two bus rides later, Akie stood in the middle of Harajuku Station. Even though her parents lived in the Meguro ward, Akie stopped in Shibuya to remind herself of what it was like to be home. As young summer cosplayers whirled around her, Akie took a deep breath of good old Tokyo air. Her moment of nostalgia was broken as four boys on skateboards rode by, shouting at each other over her head. Akie decided to grab a bento box for supper and eat at the Meiji Shrine as she watched the sun go do. As she walked slowly towards the closest sushi stand, a young thug with his pants so low that the crotch came to his knees whistled and leered at her. She shot him the finger and wondered what on earth anyone saw in the dumb-as-a-rock look the boy had clearly achieved. He shouted obscenities at her as two of his friends joined him. Akie ignored them and ordered her dinner. Seriously, what makes them think I would be anything but offended by that? Stupid wanna-bes.

Just before sundown, supper in hand, Akie began walking down the oh-so-familiar route she used to take to the shrine, but somehow things had changed and before long she found herself on an unfamiliar street. Hearing footsteps behind her, she glanced back to see the thug and his two friends about 15 meters behind her. She quickened her pace, hoping to turn the corner and get off this deserted street. The footsteps sped up too. In a few thumping heartbeats, Akie knew she had to run, but her luggage was too heavy to go fast. Don't panic, just turn into one of these houses as if you know the person who lives there. The solid fence, however, was not part of her plan, and just as she was about to drop her luggage and break into a run, she reached a strange gate. Something about the arch above it reassured her, and she felt almost a tingling across her skin as she hurried across the threshold and up to the door.

Part II

Yuko lounged lazily in the heat, draped over her chaise chair in her favorite red butterfly kimono. Occasionally she reached down and delicately placed her hand on a wing to calm its fluttering. Sunset was her favorite time of day (or night), when light and dark mixed and shadows lengthened and blurred, so she had moved her late afternoon drinks out onto the porch where she could watch the sun go down. She tapped out her pipe into the crystal ashtray at her side and gestured to Maru, who instantly packed it full again. She sparked the embers, took a puff, and lifted the tiny bone-white sake cup to her lips… "WATANUKI!!!" she screamed.

"I'm right here! You don't have to yell." Watanuki stuck his head around the paper door, apron askew. "And your dumplings are almost done, so you better not be complaining about how long they took."

Yuko's head lolled backwards until she could make eye contact. "MORE SAKE!"

"Sake! Sake!" chanted Maru and Moro, patting their hands together.

"Sheesh! Don't you think you've had enough? The whole neighborhood can hear you, so don't yell. I can hear you just fine from the kitchen." Watanuki rolled his eyes and ground his teeth, but brought out the tray of sake anyway.

"Are those dumplings done yet?" Yuko slurred.

"I told you, they'll be done in a few minutes." Watanuki had returned to the kitchen and was clanging around. "Didn't you have a meeting or something this evening?"

"Whaaaaat?" Yuko half-rose from her slumped position. "Why didn't you remind me of that earlier? Now it's too late. That's too bad, and I so wanted to see them fly…" Moro poured her another pale cupful of sake and set the matching sake carafe on the tray below her.

"Me remind you? It's your meeting! Wait, what is going to fly?" Watanuki poked his head out again, clearly irritated by her forgetfulness.

"Nothing that concerns you." Yuko fluttered her pipe hand at him, dumping ashes and embers into the fresh carafe of sake. "Oh, son of a shinigami! WATANUKI!!!" she screamed.

"I'm RIGHT HERE," he screamed back, "so DON'T YELL!!!" He had already seen the problem, and felt like his head was going to explode. What was with her today? He stalked over and grabbed the carafe.

"More sake," Yuko implored, looking up at him as Maru bounced over to refill her pipe.

"I know, that's why I have THIS in my hand," he growled, pointing to the carafe.

"… and do be careful with that. It's so hard to find good sake sets nowadays, and Aoki's son would have my head if I broke his father's…" Yuko put on a mournful expression.

"Broke his head! Broke his head!" chanted Maru and Moro.

Watanuki held the bone-white carafe out from him with wide eyes, seeing new meaning in the age and texture of the pale container. He disappeared around the corner and back into the kitchen.

"Today is… Wednesday, right?" Yuko lazily tilted her head to the side towards the kitchen.

"Yes it is, you know that," said Watanuki as the sound of water draining drifted out.

Yuko lazily raised the pipe to her mouth, inhaling deeply then sending a thick stream of smoke swirling out of her nose. "Oh goody, then you can stay overnight and help Mokona catch fireflies. They're essential for my spirit lanterns which, as you know, must be lit tomorrow on the full moon." A smile quirked the corner of her mouth and she winked at Maru and Moro, who winked back.

"I can't stay over, I have class early in the morning. I always have class on Thursdays!" Watanuki reappeared with a beautifully arranged tray of dumplings, celery sticks, dipping sauce, and a full carafe of sake. "I wrote down my schedule for you the first day and you memorized it in one glance. You always seem to know exactly where I am or need to be anyway… so why on earth would you think I can stay over tonight?!"

"Because I know how much you looooooove Mokona. And I need those fireflies." Yuko put on a pleading face while the girls giggled. "Mokona just doesn't have the kind of reach that you do… Mokona can only get the ones right next to the ground. I need you, Watanuki. You wouldn't want to see some terrible spirit on the way home, now would you?"

"Mokona! Mokona!" Maru and Moro did a patty-cake dance in the background.

Watanuki couldn't believe his ears. Was she really trying to blackmail him into staying the night here? He sighed and reconsidered; Yuko wasn't above blackmail, and she seemed to be having a really rough day. Forgetting appointments and schedules just wasn't like her, and clumsily wasting her precious sake with pipe ashes was especially out of character. Perhaps she really did need him here for some reason. "Fine," he growled through clenched teeth, "I'll help you catch fireflies, but they only come out at dusk, so I don't have to spend the whole night here. Just keep that obese, shifty-eyed, overgrown rabbit out of my way!"

"Splendid!" exclaimed Yuko as the girls did a victory cheer in the background. "Let's have biscuits with jellied strawberries, waffles, and fruit for breakfast to honor your fabulous night-of-firefly-catching here! I can just smell it now…" Her face took on a distant expression as she imagined the morning feast.

"Wait, I said I was only staying until just after dark! Besides, I'm the one who has to cook all that, so how is that celebrating me?!" Watanuki was exasperated. She was being especially irritating tonight. His shoulders slumped as he sighed and gave in, resigned to his fate as Yuko's servant. Sometimes he wondered if this was all worth it. He just had to trust her that someday the spirits outside would finally leave him alone. He plopped down on the edge of the porch, dangling his legs over the side and hanging his head. Shadows of leaves played over his thin chest as the evening sun began its descent through the neighbor's trees.

Yuko breathed out another swirl of smoke. Out of the corner of his eye, Watanuki could see unearthly figures and strange letters that danced briefly in the fumes, disappearing when he looked directly at them. He was used to stranger things by now and no longer tried to make sense of them. Yuko delicately dipped a dumpling in sauce (Watanuki had brought out the red lacquered chopsticks to match her kimono) and lifted it to her mouth…

"WATANUKI!!!" Yuko turned straight toward him and yelled right into his ear, spewing chunks of vegetable on his cheek. "These are pork dumplings! I wanted shrimp!" Watanuki remained frozen in place, not even blinking. "Did you hear me? I said I wanted…"

Yuko trailed off as she watched him slowly get to his feet with stiff movements. A single hand brushed off the vegetable chunks as he silently turned towards her. His shadow, enormously elongated, fell over her face as he glared down at her. She could almost see the flames erupting behind his eyes as he seethed, "yes, I heard you. The whole NEIGHBORHOOD CAN HEAR YOU. My ears are still ringing, SO STOP YELLING!!!" He was breathing hard by this time, his irritated rage barely contained. "You said you wanted pork! We went shopping and you BOUGHT this pork! Don't you remember putting it in the bag?!"

Yuko looked down for a second, then raised her hand to her forehead. "Oh that's right," she mused, "I did buy that. Sorry, I forgot." She grinned up at the boiling boy in front of her and held out her pipe. "Well, I guess you deserve to relax now. Have a puff."

"I don't smoke, remember?!" Watanuki whirled around on his heel and stalked off into the house, sliding the hall door closed with a thud. He was angry and confused. What was wrong with Yuko? She was always graceful and wise, not clumsy and forgetful. Why didn't she remember things that were important to who he was, like the enormous facts that he has school during the week and that he doesn't smoke? He marched to the guest room and plopped down on the tatami mats, letting out a rush of air. He had worked all evening, making the dough and filling for the dumplings and then shaping and cooking them… how could she forget what meat she had told him to use? Didn't she care? Watanuki's heart grew heavy and he slumped over on his side in a fetal position. He was deep in self-pity, wondering if Yuko even valued him, when a thought came to him: what if she had been poisoned? What if she had eaten someone else's food and it had hurt her? Worse still, what if some evil spirit had put a curse on her?! Suddenly he was ashamed of himself and felt guilty for yelling at her. He really didn't know what she did all day while he was at school. What if something really bad had happened that was influencing her?

Watanuki hoisted himself upright and took stock of himself. Maybe I'm just not worthy of her attention, he thought. He got up and looked in the mirror. That tuft of bangs was sticking out on the side of his head like it always did. His glasses had slid down his nose, and his apron was stained and wrinkled. He felt bad about storming out. I know, I'll put on a new apron, make her favorite dessert, and ask her what's going on.

In the mean time, Yuko lay on the chaise, watching the clouds turn gold and then pink. A red butterfly stirred and slunk closer to the edge of the kimono. She turned to the girls and asked, "Do you think that was too much for Watanuki?"

"Too much for Watanuki!" they chimed in unison and posed.

"I suppose you're right. I am overdoing it a bit," she sighed as she took another bite of dumpling. "These are really good, exactly what I wanted." Cicadas thrummed in the late summer heat as the first of the night stars peeped out of the clouds overhead. "Any time now…" Yuko muttered to herself. Just then the doorbell rang. "Girls, would you show our guest in?" The girls bowed to her and skipped off to open the front door, almost running into Watanuki as he stepped around the corner.

"Yuko, would you like some mizu-yokan? It's going to take a while to cool, so I should get started now if you want it…" He stood at the end of her chaise, a crisp new apron over his school uniform, looking drained.

"Why Watanuki… how thoughtful! I would love that. Please make some for our guest as well. She's going to want some dessert after dinner."

"Dinner?" Watanuki no longer questioned Yuko's premonitions about unexpected visitors, but he was surprised she hadn't asked him to make more dumplings if they were having a dinner guest.

"Don't worry, she brought her own. Besides, I want you to hear what she has to say."

Part III

Akie sat in front of the strange woman, eating a tuna roll as the woman gracefully dipped another dumpling and placed it in her mouth. The girls who had welcomed her in stood behind the lounge chair, perfectly distanced on either side of her to give a framed effect to the scene. This was definitely the strangest "shop" she had ever been to.

"Why don't you just tell me what's bothering you?" the woman prompted. "And please, call me Yuko."

Akie swallowed her roll and gulped down the cupful of sake she had been offered. She needed some liquid courage right now. Returning to Japan, being chased by thugs, and now having dinner with an "Interdimensional Witch" who granted wishes… it was all a little much.

"Well, it's really just everything." Akie began.

"Everything or everyone?" Yuko prodded.

"Everyone. Things are going great for me… I have a really nice car, a gorgeous sweet boyfriend, and a sit-down job. I should be really happy, but I can't help but be irritated all the time." Akie looked down, ashamed. I really should be happy and stop complaining.

"And what irritates you?"

"Stupid people. Delays caused by stupid people. Being hassled by stupid people. I mean, the whole reason I'm here is that this ridiculous gangster guy whistled at me so I shot him the bird. He deserved it! I hate being hassled, and I don't know why anyone who is clearly all about drugs and violence would think that he even has a shot with someone well-dressed and well-off like me!" Akie sighed. "I know that sounds really harsh, and maybe I'm a harsh person, but all he was doing was harassing me, and I don't think I should have to put up with it. People constantly ask me the most ridiculous questions that they could answer for themselves if they only looked around. They just don't understand how much time and money they waste when they don't observe what's going on around them. That's why there are so many traffic accidents too. The world would be so much better if people would just think." Akie didn't realize she was clenching her fists until she finished speaking. Moment of zen… she thought as she closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down. "I just… I get so irritated when people don't listen to me, or do dumb things that could be avoided if they just took a second to think about what they're doing. I'm not a real genius, and I know I've taken a lazy course in life, but I'm a lot smarter than the majority of people, which I guess is why things are easier or more obvious to me."

"So what do you really want? At this shop we grant wishes, any wish in the world." Yuko was leaning forward, her eyes narrowed at Akie.

"OK, then I wish that just about everyone was on the same intellectual level as I am. I mean, if we were all the same then that would be boring, and I don't want to bring real geniuses down to my level, so if you could just make most people like me…" Akie trailed off and looked up at Yuko, a mixture of total trust and pleading in her eyes. She had always wanted to believe that there was some sort of magic in the world, something beyond the logical structured society around her, and now it seemed that she had found it. She fervently hoped she was doing the best thing she could for all the people in the world. Maybe life would be easier for everyone if they were collectively smarter…

"Now that is a hefty wish." Yuko took a pull off of her pipe and deliberately exhaled smoke right into Akie's face. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

"Yes, I think life would be so much easier for everyone!" Akie folded her hands on her chest in a sincere gesture of prayer.

Yuko leaned back on her chaise and gestured to Moro, who filled and handed her a cup of sake. "Payment is required, and it must be something of equal value to you, no more, no less. In return for banishing your biggest irritation, I will take your biggest source of joy."

Akie blanched as she thought about what this meant. Not my car! But… I can always buy another car. I'm smart, and I already have a good start on my career. I could always change careers if I wanted to… What if it's music?! But… I never was really outstanding on any instrument, and my voice is just OK… My cats? Akie jumped as a black rabbit with a red stone on its forehead poked its head out of the folds in Yuko's kimono. Nope, she's an animal lover too. This is for the whole world, all people everywhere. How selfish would that be if I didn't sacrifice my favorite thing to change the future of all people? She let out a big breath and said, "OK, I'll do it."

Yuko raised an eyebrow. Something seemed to move off of her kimono and into the air behind her. Then she leaned her head back and seemed to stare through the rice-paper door behind her. "Watanuki, we're ready for that mizu-yokan." She turned back to Akie, and smiled at her as footsteps suddenly thumped into the kitchen. "Won't you stay for dessert?"

Part IV

Watanuki sat on the edge of the porch, eating the jelled sweet dessert with Yuko. His mind was full of what had just happened. "Yuko?" he inquired. "Does this mean that everyone is going to get smarter?"

"Oh Watanuki. You know it doesn't work that way. That wish was her wish, not the wish of everyone else. But she will indeed be on the same intellectual level as the average person after tonight." Yuko looked at the fading glow on the horizon with pity in her eyes. "Poor girl," she whispered. "Can you understand the way she felt?"

"She was pretty full of herself, wasn't she? She couldn't get over her feeling of superiority." Watanuki elevated his nose. "She was a real snob."

Yuko raised an eyebrow. "Young man, you're doing the exact thing that she was doing: judging others. Do you remember how clumsy I was all evening? How I couldn't remember things?"

He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Yes, and it was really annoying. Whatever that was, you're obviously better now. What was wrong with you?"

Yuko's head fell back in laughter. "Nothing was wrong, I was simply demonstrating for you how she perceives others. People who forget dates and events, ask the same question over and over, and yell at her unfairly… these are the things she deals with on a daily basis. Irritating, isn't it? That's what it feels like to be surrounded by idiots. Then she feels guilty for being judgmental, and then she gets angry at others for making her feel guilty for thinking she's better than them. Do you see? Each gift is a burden, and each burden is a gift. Being highly intelligent doesn't necessarily mean that all things are easier for you. In fact, it can make some things much harder. Like relating to others." Yuko's eyes shown in the gathering darkness as Watanuki contemplated her words. "Do you ever wonder why I choose to live in such an obscure alley? As The Interdimensional Witch, I have the ability to see into the hearts and futures of men, so it would be easy for me to be the most interesting, mysterious, and entertaining person you've ever met. I could be famous in an hour if I chose. That girl is an example of what I would quickly become if I was constantly around 'normal' people: on edge, superior, harried, and unsympathetic." Maru and Moro danced from one end of the porch to the other, lighting the hanging lanterns, then finished and returned to stand behind the chaise. Yuko and Watanuki both gazed into the yard as the cicadas buzzed on into the night. Yuko sighed. "Enough of that. Let's get ready for those fireflies!" Yuko clapped her hands and porch sprang back to life.

"I'll get the wire nets!" sang Maru.

"And I'll get the buckets!" echoed Moro.

"And I'll drink the sake!" Mokona suddenly materialized from under Yuko's trailing robe.

Watanuki stepped backwards. "What are you doing here?! And why do we need buckets?!"

Yuko held out her hands and Mokona bounded up into her arms. "The buckets of water are for your own protection. Full moon fireflies aren't like normal ones, so please be careful." Yuko stroked Mokona's black forehead. "Mokona has napping been there all evening, Watanuki. He simply didn't want you to see him. He's very good at going unseen when he wishes."

"Yeah! This heat makes me sleeeeeeeepy." Mokona's ears drooped in a wilting movement. "Now where's that sake?!"

"Get your own sake, you fat deformed rodent!" Watanuki's hands balled into fists at his sides. The sounds of Watanuki's fight with Mokona mingled with the tinkling laughter of the girls and Yuko's deep silky chuckle, rising skyward as the moon peeked over the opposite horizon and began its nightly journey across the velvet sky.

Part V

Akie awoke to the brightest light she had ever seen. Slowly she became aware of a constant beeping and the sound of machinery. Her eyes were swollen and it hurt to swallow. Everything seemed fuzzy, muted. Suddenly she heard a familiar voice calling for a nurse, and then a small woman was standing over her speaking to her in Japanese. Akie croaked out some short reflexive answers as more people began checking things around her. A man spoke in English and she felt him squeeze her hand. The nurse was pushed aside, and Chris' face filled her sight. Tears welled in her eyes as she realized she was in a Japanese hospital. What was she doing here? Why didn't she remember? She began to cry with helplessness and confusion. Everything hurt.

He was saying something that she couldn't understand, and suddenly tears were rolling down his face too. He leaned over her and put his cheek on hers, which was the closest he could get without laying down beside her. The nurses pulled him back, and as they hooked up a bag to her IV he said, "I'll see you when you wake."

She couldn't tell if it was an hour or a day later when she surfaced again. The beeping was gone, but her arm was still a mess of tubes and wires. She rolled her head to the side and saw Chris slumped in a chair to her right, asleep. She took stock of herself:

Right leg : sore but intact, probably scraped badly.

Left leg : extremely sore, knee unbendable due to massive bandages.

Abdomen : stomach sore, ribs wrapped in bandages.

Right arm : fine, other than the IV and wires.

Left arm : in a cast. Knuckles bruised and scraped, shoulder throbbing.


Akie lifted her right arm gently to her head. The entire top of her skull was wrapped in thick gauze. She flinched when her hand came in contact with her jaw. Tears leaked out from the corners of her eyes again. What happened? She tried to call Chris' name but all that came out was a rusty sound that made her head throb. She put her right arm down again gently and stared at the ceiling for a long time until she heard him stir. She croaked again and looked over as Chris stood up and came over to her.

"Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry. God, I should have come with you." He pulled the chair over closer and leaned in to take her hand. "Some kid says he saw the whole thing while he was out catching fireflies. He was here earlier. Look, he even brought you flowers." Chris gestured to a bouquet on the windowsill. "He said they caught the guys based on his description. So they won't get away with this." His eyes shown with held-back tears as his jaw clenched.

"Who?" Akie managed to squeak.

Chris looked confused. "Those thugs that beat you up. Don't you remember?" Akie shrugged. Chris' look turned from confusion to pity. "Do you remember anything?" he asked softly. Akie managed to say "plane." He wiped his eyes and then glanced down before steeling himself and looking her in the eye. "Akie, I'm going to tell you what happened. You were walking down an alley near this big mall or train station, maybe both 'cause I can't really understand what they're saying, and three thugs jumped you. They were wearing those baggy jeans and oversize sports shirts, just like in the United States! They beat you up pretty good, honey. Your ACL in your left knee is torn, your left arm is hairline fractured, and you have a broken rib." Chris' eyes began leaking again. "They… they kicked you in the head too. A lot. You were already unconscious when that boy came along and saw them. I'm just glad he came along, or else they might have…" he trailed off and hid his face in his elbow. Akie squeezed his shaking hand, and Chris took several deep pained breaths before he straightened back up. "The doctor's not really sure what state your head is in, but you have a crack in your skull for sure. They'll probably want to start testing you soon to see… if you have brain damage."

Akie felt something in her chest plunge into darkness. She stopped breathing and closed her eyes. "Sweetie?" Chris shook her hand, and she inhaled deeply to reassure him that she was still alive, letting the breath out in short whimpers. "Sweetie, don't cry. You'll hurt your broken rib. Open your eyes and look at me. Don't cry." He leaned over as she opened her eyes and squeezed her hand again. "I'm here now. I'm sorry I wasn't here to protect you, but I'm here now and I'm not leaving. Everything's going to be OK."

Within the week, she was able to go home to her parents' house. True to his word, Chris stayed with her as she recovered, arranging for his friend to take over his apartment temporarily and calling the university to inform them of the situation. He was using his military pay to feed himself, but they couldn't stay there forever. After a few more weeks, he told her that he needed a job if he was going to stay in Tokyo. He also admitted that he had made friends with the firefly boy and that he liked Tokyo very much. "Everyone takes English in school, so most places I go I can tell them what I need." Soon after this, he landed a job. His upbeat outlook contrasted with Akie's deepening depression. She was forgetting things, basic things, like the names of her closest friends Carson and Macie. Days were indistinguishable, and she sometimes asked what month it was. The simplest of words slipped away from her. When she could walk again after the ACL surgery, she often got lost. This must be what it's like to be stupid, she thought.

One month later, she was sitting in her room when Chris slipped in and closed the door. "Akie, I need to talk to you." He sat down next to her and took her hand, something he only did on important occasions. "My job… I think I'm going to start staying overnight there. My mistres- I mean, my employer has some really odd hours, and my coworker can't be there all the time. Besides, I don't think your parents like us living together in their house unmarried." He looked at her, pleading for her to understand with his eyes.

The world may have gone fuzzy for Akie, but she clearly knew what he was really saying. "Will you come back sometimes?" She looked down at his hand on hers, not trusting herself to look at his beautiful face. "You just… you make me happy. More than anything."

"I know, but I don't know about us being together, Akie. You're changed. You're not the bright, witty girl I used to know. I don't want to hurt you… but I don't want to be with you anymore." His voice thickened, and she saw his other hand clench in his lap. "I don't know what to do. I never thought I would go to another country for a girl and then fall in love with the country instead of the girl…" A tear splashed down beside his fist. "I'm so sorry…"

Akie went numb. It was a special skill that she had cultivated over years of having her heart twisted up and ripped apart. She didn't feel a thing, like her emotions had been dipped in liquid nitrogen. They would thaw out and break eventually, but during the crisis she simply ceased feeling… the crystalline lucidity of thought that usually accompanied the numbness didn't come this time, though. "It's OK. I'm glad you like my home country. I hope you find someone you can really fall in love with. I'll be fine on my own. Trust me." Now that she had become steel, Akie could look into his eyes. She focused a steady gaze straight into his soul.

His hand was shaking in hers and she could see his heart pounding through the vein in his neck. Another tear rolled down his cheek and fell off his chin. "That's it? This whole time we've been together, and all you say is, 'I'm fine'?!" He let go of her hand and stood up. "How can you be so cold? I came all the way here for you, stayed with you, gave up my whole life for you, and that's all you say?" He was shaking and his jaw was clenched. "I don't understand you. I've got to go…" He turned and walked out.

Akie knew he wanted her to run after him, to tell him how much she loved him (she did) and how much he meant to her (everything) and beg him to come back (he wouldn't)… Deep inside his psyche, he wanted her to punish him for leaving her so he could feel mad at her instead of guilty, and maybe he wanted a second chance with her, but Akie knew that eventually it would come to this again. Better to make a clean break, she told herself. She got up and walked over to the window. In a minute, she saw him emerge from the building below and run off to the east. She was still standing there when her mother came in and called her to supper. The moon rose, and she still stared out the window. She didn't move until she realized that she was sleeping standing up.

Part VI

"WATANUKI!!" Yuko's voice echoed through the house.

"Yes, your Majesty," Watanuki growled sarcastically as he stepped in the doorway to her room.

"Please prepare that wonderful steak we bought on the way home. I want stir-fried rice too, and some plum wine and sorbet for dessert." Her silhouette moved behind the silk screens as Maru and Moro helped her dress. "I'm going to work up quite an appetite, I just know it!" Her voice sounded triumphant and hungry at the same time. She stepped out from behind the screens, striking a stance in her simple black and white karate uniform. "How do I look?"

"Ridiculous." Watanuki rolled his eyes as he leaned against the door frame. "You're like the least athletic person I know! You always smoke and drink sake and lounge around in the most elaborate get-ups. Now you want me to cook for this stupid guy, as if Domeki wasn't enough! I'll never invite my beautiful Himawari here again!" Watanuki stalked off, waving his hands in the air as if to shoo the thought away from his head.

"Well somebody's jealous," Yuko put her hands on her hips and smiled down at the girls as they danced around her. "And I thought they were friends…"

"Jealous! Jealous! Watanuki's jealous!" Maru and Moro held hands and skipped out of the room and down the hall behind Yuko as she headed for the porch. She slid open the back door in one swift motion, revealing a lone figure stretching in the middle of the courtyard. Domeki stood to the side of the porch in his archery uniform, flexing his arms behind his back.

"Physical fitness is essential to one's well-being," Yuko stated, and then clasped her hands under her chin as she said under her breath, "especially when your trainer is a tall, dark, and handsome Italian!" Stars appeared in her eyes as Maru and Moro skipped out past her and flanked the doorway.

"I'm not Italian." Domeki drawled as he looked at her sideways out of bored eyes.

Yuko's expression went flat. "Then what are you doing here?"

"I want supper." Domeki did a side bend, looking like a horseshoe. "And I need to get in shape for my upcoming tournament."

"Well just don't get in my way," Yuko pouted as her trainer bounded up onto the porch. "Have you two met?"

"Don't believe so," Domeki sighed.

"Hi! I'm Chris!" The tall, tanned, tattooed guy exclaimed in English and held out his hand.

"I'm Domeki." He ignored the hand and bowed shortly.

"And I'm Mokona!" exclaimed black Mokona who stood before an enormous gong on the other side of the porch.

"He's The Trainer," said Yuko to Domeki, stepping through the doorway. "And now for The Workout!" Yuko's last words were drowned out because at the moment that she crossed the doorway, Mokona slammed an enormous mallet into the gong and proclaimed, "YUKO ENTERS!!!" in unison with the girls, who ran off giggling. Watanuki yelled from the kitchen, "keep it down out there!" as Domeki swayed like grass in a strong wind. Chris, who had never heard a gong that loud or that close before, put his hands to his ears and stepped backwards- onto nothing. He fell off the porch with a muted THUMP! and landed on his backside, blushing with embarrassment. Yuko laughed her deep, throaty laugh as Mokona jumped up and down. The girls ran past, still giggling, and eventually even stoic Domeki started chuckling. Chris stood up and wiped himself off, then dismissed his embarrassment and joined them laughing at his own expense. Sounds of afternoon fun filled the air, drifting up to join the lone red butterfly hanging in the air over Yuko's shop.