Disclaimer: …. Nope. Nada. Zing.
Notes: This was my second fic for the xxxholicminibang up on LJ (see my profile for links to the prettier, LJ-formatted version of this story), the other one being (of course) "Pearls That Were Her Eyes". Original prompt: "Doumeki visits Himawari at college. Her dorm mates and the rest of the world come to all the wrong conclusions. /CUE ANGST. Secret!OT3."
Credits: Title comes from one of the two Casiotone for the Painfully Alone songs that inspired this, the other being "Cold White Christmas". Youtube the songs, worship 'em, then drink a gallon of whiskey to burn the loneliness away.
Don't They Have Payphones Wherever You Were Last Night
Always, he came bearing gifts.
Small beribboned boxes of strawberry mochi in the spring time, cunning thermoses of cold chrysanthemum tea in the summer, knitted gloves and scarves and hats in the winter and autumn. Sometimes there were letters - pale, crisp stationary and graceful, old fashioned calligraphy - or recipes carefully copied out on stiff rice paper. One of her house mates, Sato Suzuran, always snatched up these recipe cards with wonder and went whirling to the kitchen - but her creations never had quite the same taste, even when the directions were followed to the letter.
There were other gifts as well. The steady warmth of his hand on hers underneath the kotatsu her first December away from home; she had blinked and told herself that her eyes were watering from the steam of the hotpot, nothing more. There was the comforting scratch of his tweed jacket against her cheek, when all the other couples went strolling down the starlit streets of Sendai in wintertime and she tucked herself into him as if she could vanish herself. And there were the scents she could inhale from the hand-knitted scarf knotted around his throat: cedar and sandalwood incense, rustling parchment, and beneath all of that, a thread of heavy, velvety smoke from a kiseru pipe.
It was winter in Sendai. He came to her, as he always did, like a gift in himself. She waited for him on the train platform, her strawberry lip gloss sticky on cold-roughed lips, cupping together her hands which were snug in her favourite marigold-coloured gloves. The large, crocheted petals curled shyly over her wrists, like a lover's grip. She knew that the hollow ache in every single one of her limbs had nothing to do with the cold.
When he stepped out of the train compartment, tall and broad-shouldered and calm-eyed and just Doumeki, she hugged him tightly, before there was even time to say hello. She felt him gently drop his bag of presents, even letting the blue folder of half-marked term papers slide to the ground, so he could put his arms around her properly.
She could hear the coos from people passing by - Oh, what a lovely couple - Hey, why don't you greet me like that anymore? - In public, really, have they no shame - and ignored them all. She just concentrated on hugging Doumeki tightly, as if the space between their bodies, where a third person lived, could simply disappear.
That night, they got drunk at her favourite little pub. Eri's wasn't for the college crowd that flooded most of Sendai, but for the old timers, the locals. It was smoky and dense and cheap and good, and no one tried to hit on Himawari. That kind of thing always ended badly, especially for the men. The hot, sweet sake burned its way down her throat and she licked the rough sea salt crystals off from the pods of edamame, trying to think of a way to tell Doumeki that she wasn't going home with him, this time, or maybe ever again. The alcohol made her slow and sleepy and loose and warm, and the words got lost somewhere around the third round.
Leaning against each other, they walked back to the house she shared with six other girls. It snowed almost silently as a million fairy lights lit up the trees down the main avenues downtown, a forest of starlight shining in the darkness. If there were any chance of her ever falling in love with Doumeki, it should've happened then, on a night filled with winter magic made even more beautiful by the alcoholic haze. When they got in, Sato and Tanaka were in the kitchen, talking quietly over mugs half-filled with half chocolate, and by the way they fell silent when she appeared in the doorway, she knew they had been talking about her.
"We lost track of time, and Doumeki-kun missed the last train back to Tokyo," Himawari said, speaking slowly and carefully to avoid slurring. It wasn't the first time this had happened, but this was probably the most drunk she had been while phrasing her request that wasn't really a request. "So he'll be staying the night."
Tanaka opened her mouth in protest, but Sato levelled a look at her that made the younger girl just snap her mouth shut and put down her mug with a little more force than necessary.
"You know where the extra futon and blankets are," Sato said placidly. Tanaka fished a handful of marshmallows out of the half-open bag and stuffed them in her mouth, chewed furiously as if to keep herself from ranting, refusing to look at Doumeki. Himawari bid them both good night.
She spilled birdseed into the little turquoise dish by Tanpopo's perch. He chirped once, drowsily, and then tucked his head back underneath his wing. She and Doumeki undressed each other slowly as children just learning what clothes were, figuring out how to slip open buttons and loosen ribbons. They shed jackets and scarves and gloves and shoes and felt lighter with every moment, as if they were shedding themselves. Doumeki helped her pull on her nightgown, not even blinking at the sight of her in her slip, and she hung his suit jacket and his button down shirt - he had gotten on the train directly from work, as soon as the last class of the day was done - off the back of her only chair.
In the darkness, they breathed together, her and Doumeki and always, always one other person whose name never left her lips. He shifted his arms, she folded her knees. She held his hands in her own, absently; they were cold. His feet were warm though, in their thick socks, and she needed exactly one guess to figure out who had made knitted them. Later on, she wouldn't remember if she managed to murmur a drowsy "good night" before she fell asleep.
She woke up to find her own pale hands wrapped around Doumeki's throat. What surprised her, distantly, wasn't that her hands shook, but that they didn't. They were sure and steady and knew precisely what they were doing, just as well as Doumeki seemed to know. He looked up at her, not with fear or anger or panic, but with complete and open knowingness - with sadness, too, but also with something that may or may have not been love. She knew without having to ask that he was already forgiving her for this. They always did. And maybe that was the hardest thing of all, harder even than the curse itself.
When the shine left his eyes and his entire body fell still beneath her, she leaned forward. She had cut off her hair a long time ago; there was no need for the long curtain of hair to hide the scars crisscrossing her back as she changed for gym class, not anymore, since high school was over (but was it ever really over?). But there was still enough of her hair left to fall forward and brush his face as she very carefully angled her mouth against his. His lips were smooth and very warm, and she marvelled at how anyone who knew him for longer than five minutes could think of him as cold.
Then she was opening his eyes and pushing the dead, doll-like weight of her now lifeless body off of her - off of Doumeki's body, rather. The Himawari-body looked very sad, really: too skinny and too pale, with a dark halo of curls that couldn't hide the thinness of the face it surrounded. A sad, empty body in a childish nightgown decorated with daisies. She had always been indifferent to it, her home for twenty long and mostly lonely (except for those brief bursts of happiness, so bright that they hurt her eyes) years, but now that she was free of it, she could find some charity for it, her poor abandoned flesh.
Still, she didn't bother to arrange the body, before she left. Let it look natural. Let Tanaka and Sato walk in, let them do the screaming and the crying and frantically try to breathe life into it again. She was glad to be done with it. Doumeki's body was large, calm, confident, and solid, balanced and grounded like tree roots, like mountains; she felt herself filling it out perfectly, without the blanks or gaps or cold numb spaces that she felt when inhabiting her own body.
With Doumeki's long, steady strides, she made her way to the train station, knowing that after this simple two hour train ride, she would walk into a shop that sometimes could and sometimes couldn't be seen, and that she would be able to sink into the touch of someone who existed for her almost entirely as a ghost; mourned and remembered and dreamed of and cherished, but impossible to meet in her real and waking and present life, except for a single day of the year that was always too slow in coming and over far too soon when it did. For Himawari, in Himawari's body, he could only exist for her as the thread of a voice saying I love you on the telephone, a sheet of paper trembling with ink, the tender friction of her gloved fingertips rubbing together, the sweetness of the strawberry at the heart of the mochi bursting on her tongue, as a shape filled in with the fragments of her flawed and flickering memory. But in Doumeki's body -
She could see his smile already, and it burned in her mind like a white flame, far brighter than the parade of starlight that lit up the streets of Sendai.
Shizuka woke somewhere around four or five in the morning, stone cold sober. Kunogi was sitting upright, her knees drawn up to her chest, compact as a doll. The scars climbing up the nape of her neck flickered silver in the half-light, and her hand felt cold and fragile in his. When he reached up to touch her face, the tears dripped steadily and mechanically from her cheek to his fingers. He drew a cool line down her face, and then sat up to hold her in his arms. She shifted, settling against him like a baby bird stirring in its egg.
"I'm sorry." Her voice was thin and worn and wound too tight, a strand of hair wrapped around a bone. "I had a dream."
He stroked her curls, springy beneath his hands. He didn't ask if the dream was a nightmare or not. Sometimes, he knew, it was hard to tell the difference.
And she said, almost inaudibly, "I'm sorry that I hate you sometimes."
Her curls pressed back against his fingers. Her breathing was shallow and painful, as if her beating heart was exposed to the open air of the winter dawn.
"It's just jealousy," she whispered. The bone rolled away, taking the strand of hair with it, unravelling in the darkness that was almost light. "It'll pass."
"Kunogi," he said, and then that sounded wrong, so he said, "Himawari," because that was Watanuki called her, and that was how he knew her now, too: by her absence from Watanuki's life, by Watanuki's absence from hers. "You know, I don't hate you."
"I know. That's because you're an idiot," she said, but he saw her mouth pull itself up and down in a happy-sad smile, like the bow of a violin. "The both of you. I think that's why you always got along so well."
They kept talking after that, but the conversation slid gradually into a sort of unreality. They talked about things that had happened and would happen, and some things that never happened at all. They were silent for long stretches of time as well. He had a craving, at some point, for a clove cigarette, the kind that Grandfather used to smoke. She fished out the pack and the lighter from his jacket pocket, and lit it for him, and he was only faintly surprised to see her take one for herself. He draped his jacket over her thin, bare shoulders, and she shrugged into it, the edges overlapping the hem of her nightgown while smoke tumbled from her mouth. He thought, later, that he remembered her singing very softly, sweet and hoarse, and that it sounded like birds rustling their wings. But that might've been a dream too.
They fell asleep with her lips half-fallen against his collarbone. In the morning, the tears in her kiss had dried from his skin, and her hands were finally warm, cradled in his.
They woke up late to a table of breakfast dishes covered by Sato to keep them warm, and to Tanaka's silent disapproval.
"She's usually much nicer," Himawari apologised, pouring him tea, once her house mate had backed out of the kitchen, still giving Doumeki the evil eye.
"She thinks I make you cry," Doumeki half-explained. He sipped his miso soup with enviable grace. "The phone calls."
"…Oh." A thread of rosy colour crept up Himawari's throat as she fiddled with her chopsticks. Not that it was anything new, but it was just… it was Doumeki, and people had talked for years. It was her own fault if she had never bothered to gently correct them. No dictionary that she could get her hands on had, as of yet, invented the words for what precisely they were to each other. She then decided to stop caring about the whole thing, propriety be damned, merely setting her shoulders, and letting out a firm, "I see."
Doumeki just quirked his eyebrow. He probably did see. She felt another burst of inordinate fondness for him wash over her.
At the train station, he pulled along one of her brown suitcases, the one with the squeaky right wheel. As they ran towards the closing train doors, they held hands through knitted gloves. They slid into the doors at the very last second, Tanpopo trilled three liquid notes as his claws dug into the wool of her jacket, the rest of the compartment stared at their flushed cheeks and bright eyes, and for a moment, she could almost pretend that she was happy.
During the train ride, Doumeki marked research papers with his free hand. The red pencil went swishing calmly through the black type, and she found her eyes drawn to the motion, letting her mind drift instead of being swallowed by the numbing terror of going back home.
Watching Doumeki mark reminded her all over again at how they were supposedly "grown ups". How time had touched them, carrying all but one of them along. Sometimes she wondered if, like Alice, it hadn't all been a dream: if she wouldn't wake up to find herself toasting Yuuko-san in the park with yellow and pink confetti caught in her curls, or handing over her hair ribbons to two high school boys awkwardly standing outside her house in the rain. It was strange now, to think of those times, when a blue-eyed smile had made everything bearable. Even with the gruesome monsters and deadly vegetation and inexplicable school hauntings and sadly smiling ghost women and cursed artefacts and the constant, paralysing terror that, any day now, his instinct for self-preservation would kick in and he would finally, finally leave her behind - even with all of that, she had been happy. It hurt her, now, to think of how happy she had been.
She had been wilfully unconsciousness of that happiness, too. It was too dear, too fragile, too precious to put a name to; as soon as she did, she thought it would just blow away. There had been homemade lunches and strawberry sherbet and cheering at archery competitions and talking in between breaks and long walks after school and hands curled around cups of tea in coffee shops. There were cherry blossoms drifting into pale cups of sake during moon viewings and walking so carefully while wrapped in the cool length of her yukata and dark purple butterflies weaving drunkenly through the heavy summer air and ghost stories told in a round and the fierce bloom of fireworks shuddering into the sky and a voice she loved better than almost anything in the world saying sweetly, through the haze of pain and a dreamy, half-drugged sleep, I'm happy I met you, Himawari-chan.
And everyday she kept smiling as if all of it were ordinary, as if she wasn't always more than half-ready for all of it to be taken away. She had thought herself so wise to the world already, seeing how loving her hurt all the people around her, and she had been arrogant enough to believe that when he finally wised up too, she'd be able to walk away without being destroyed. She had been blind and selfish and happy and she wanted more than ever to be that again, to be fifteen and - in a way that she wouldn't be able to understand until much later - absolutely free.
But that wish was an impossible one, magic shops notwithstanding. She knew, now, in a way that she had only thought she knew back then, that she could never go back again to a time when she knew nothing.
"Almost there," Doumeki murmured against her hair, startling her out of her unexpected nap.
He dropped her off at her parent's home around eleven in the morning. On her doorstep, she held onto him, knowing it was childish and yet unable to let go.
"You'll come back tomorrow, right?" she murmured against his jacket. "I have his present already, and yours, and Mokona's and the twins', I'm just… I don't feel like digging around my suitcase right now."
"Mmm-hmm," he said. His chin rested comfortably on the top of her head and he seemed content to let her hang onto him.
"I'll come to the temple on New Year's," she said, knowing now she was talking just to be talking. "My parents too. Oh, and the New Year's card, remind to give you that too, to drop off." She could imagine that bafflement of the postal workers if she tried to drop off a postcard for a magic shop that existed somewhere in between dimensions, or on all of them simultaneously. What would she even write on the address?
"Mmm-hmm," Doumeki said again.
She knew, intellectually, that she would have to let go eventually. She knew this the same way that she knew that her parents were probably spying at her from inside the house, with her mother just barely managing to keep her father from leaping through the front door and tearing out Doumeki's throat. The same way that she knew that if her feet were to follow a certain, heavy, smoky-sweet smell in order to find a certain shop, she would find nothing but a vacant lot in the empty embrace of cold grey office buildings. The same way that she knew that Doumeki was a person, a human being, and not just a love letter to be passed between two people who couldn't see each other. The same way she knew that Doumeki loved the both of them enough not to mind as he keep drifting back and forth between them over the long days of the winter holidays - and over the months, and over the years.
"Doumeki-kun," she said, her voice very small and scratchy, "I really do love you, you know that, right? Even when I hate you. Beneath all of that, I love you."
"Mmm-hmm," he said. "I know."
Walking home from Himawari's, snow tangling in his hair, he remembered something that she'd mentioned about those infamous phone calls - the ones that Tanaka mistakenly thought were from Doumeki.
The last words Himawari and Watanuki say to each other before they hang up are always I love you and never goodbye.
Himawari told him, once, that she and Watanuki agreed never to say goodbye.