Disclaimer: xxxHolic is the property of Clamp.
Immortality Changes Nothing
"I will stay and take care of the shop, until Yuuko-san returns."
You watch him. He is smiling sadly as he dons the fallen yukata, his movements slow and deliberate, almost funeral-like. Then he is walking past you, the folds of the yukata sweeping the floor silently, ghosting the sides of your feet as he passes.
And just like that, he is gone.
The next day, you don't think about it, don't ponder on what to say or do once you're there. When the bell rings signifying the end of school for the day, you put on your shoes, pick up your bag and, calm as ever, head for the shop.
Once you arrive, you pause outside the gate. It's still a little strange to see the shop instead of that abandoned patch of land you remember seeing the first few times you came here and you wonder what it would be like if he hadn't fallen out of the window that day. Would you never have known the shop then? If it weren't for that, would you never have needed to see this building?
You're still thinking about this, trying to figure out why the idea of never knowing the shop bothers you so much more now than before, when the door flies open and Maru and Moro dance their way towards you, laughing and smiling and announcing your arrival loud enough for the entire world to hear.
He comes out then, looking at you strangely. You are not surprised that he isn't surprised to see you. In fact, you may even be a little pleased at that, because it shows that he must know you well enough now to expect you today. He steps out of the way to let you in, and then leads you to the waiting room where there is a small table and a sleeping Mokona at the centre of it. To the two girls, he says, "Make some tea, please."
As they dash off eagerly, you sit down. After a short pause, he joins you. "How was school?" he asks, not quite meeting your eyes.
"Uneventful." You say and then, because you know it's his next question, you add, "Kunogi sends her best wishes."
"Is that so?" he says, his gaze unfocused. He doesn't ask if she's planning on dropping by and you in turn, leave it at that.
There is silence then, uncoiling slowly to hang between the two of you and getting heavier with each passing second. It calls unbidden thoughts to mind and you find yourself questioning, not for the first time, if this will work out. If so, how? If not, then what? You're not sure how to deal with this; it worries you.
When you look up again, you realize he is watching you. There is something in his eyes, something that is a little angry and uncertain and wary that for a moment, you wonder if it worries him too. "What?" you ask.
His mouth opens, as if to say something before he seems to immediately change his mind and closes it, looking away.
Just then, Maru and Moro appear, carrying a tray between the two of them and he rises, bustling about as he attends to the task of pouring you a cup of tea. You eye him silently, feeling slightly cheated and in revenge, the moment he sits back down, you ask him about dinner.
He explodes at you then, splashing a bit of hot tea on the table and only barely missing Mokona who wakes and, blinking sleepily, demands a bottle of sake.
In the end, you do stay for dinner. While setting the food on the table, he half-yells half-mutters something about having to make do with leftovers, since the fridge is almost empty. You take note of that and, with a quick "Ittadakimasu," grab one of the rice balls. He's yelling at you again but this time you ignore him in favour of savouring the onigiri in your mouth, chewing on it, searching.
When you do find what you're looking for, you swallow. "Huh."
So you were right, after all.
Now the question is: what to do about it?
This time, when he sees you, there is surprise in his features. You expect that, although you're not entirely certain whether this is because you are here again, half an hour after school lets out or because of the grocery bags in your hands. Either way, it doesn't matter; you silently hold out the ingredients to him. When he doesn't respond immediately, still looking at you with that same wary expression, you say, "I'm hungry. Make food."
That, at least, gets a response. His eyes narrow to almost-slits and he snatches the plastic bags from you before stomping away. "The nerve of some people! Coming to my own home and demanding food. Demanding! Doesn't even have the courtesy to ask like a proper guest."
"And bring some sake," you say, just as he disappears around the corner and you have the pleasure of hearing him start a whole other rant about drunks and their alcohol. Luckily, Mokona seconds your request so you head towards the same room you were in yesterday to wait, listening to the argument in the kitchen unfold. Maru and Moro bring you tea again, setting it down on the table a little unsteadily, so that it almost spills, before running off to help him in the kitchen. At first there is silence but suddenly, you hear the clang of pots hitting the floor and him telling Maru and Moro to quit playing around before he starts shouting at Mokona to stop eating the batter.
You sip your tea.
Later, after all the food is gone, he pours you some sake and joins you at the table. He is subconsciously tracing the patterns on his cup, wearing that strange expression again; that mixture of feelings you saw yesterday, only this time there is something else as well, except you cannot quite tell what it is just yet. You wonder if he'll mention it today but just as quickly decide that it's too soon for that; around you, he is too proud to admit his worries.
In fact, you realize, he may never even bring it up.
You come again the next day, and the day after, and the day after. Sometimes you even stay for dinner. Although his complaints never quite stop, it slowly loses its usual vehemence. Then one day, when you ask for deep fried tofu to go with the sake he rises without a word. The response, or rather the lack of one, sends a shiver down your spine and you glare at the tea leaves resting at the bottom of your cup. You remain seated a while longer before rising to head to the kitchen.
When you arrive, you're just in time to see him successfully wrestle a bottle of wine away from Mokona. He looks up when he notices you there and pauses just long enough for Mokona to jump up and slide the bottle out of his grip.
"Hey! Come back here!" He shouts after the small figure bouncing away and looks about ready to give chase when Moro sets the stove on fire.
You drink in the scene hungrily, silently – the picture of Maru and Moro dancing around him, singing "Fire! Fire!" as he flaps frantically at the flames, bewailing the ruined food.
It makes you feel better.
You still have lunch with Kunogi sometimes. It's quieter now without him around but it isn't uncomfortable. She makes small talk as you eat; she talks about class, Tanpopo, something about her latest favourite psychic show but mostly she asks about him. You answer her questions to the best of your abilities but you know that it's not enough, not really.
Finally, you say, "You should stop by sometime."
She sets a cup of water down on the floor. Tanpopo perches on the edge, drinking eagerly. "I know. But I'm not sure if I should."
"He'd be happy to see you."
At that, Kunogi laughs, a bright happy sound tinkling in the air. She touches a hand to the back of her neck, almost subconsciously. "Will you go with me, Doumeki-kun?"
Her silent request shimmers beneath the spoken words.
Will you protect him from me?
Later, when he is practically bouncing around Kunogi from sheer happiness, asking her about her day, what she'd like for lunch, inviting her to stay for dinner afterwards and basically just flapping around ecstatically, you take comfort in knowing that this, at least, hasn't change. Not yet, anyway.
One day, you decide to spend the night there. You announce this nonchalantly over lunch, to which Mokona responds with a cheer and he responds by waving his chopsticks obnoxiously in your face. "There's school tomorrow, right? Don't you need stuff from your house? Like clothes? Or books?"
"I brought them with me," you say, taking a bite out of your last gyoza.
"So you just assumed I'd let you stay? I don't believe it. You inconsiderate, assuming self-centered jerk—hey!" he exclaims as you steal a dumpling from his plate. "That's mine!"
Wordlessly, you pop it into your mouth. Then, you say. "I want spring rolls for dinner."
"Are you even listening to a single word I'm saying!"
Unsurprisingly, he does make you the spring rolls. They taste a little different from the ones he usually makes though and you mull it over, chewing silently but you can't figure it out. It bothers you throughout the meal and continues to nag at you after, even as he's taking down your futon for the night. He shoves it at you, muttering to himself the entire time; you take it.
As you crouch down to unroll it on the floor, you can feel his eyes on you. The intensity of his stare prickles your nerves, giving you goose bumps; when you turn to meet his gaze, he does not look away.
His fingers curl into tight fists. He glares at you openly. "Why do you keep coming back here?"
You don't have an answer for that. No, that's not it. You don't want to answer that, not yet. So you choose to remain silent.
It angers him. "This—you can't just do as you like. Okay? You can't just waltz around here and order me around like this. I'm not some kind of slave whose only job is to cook for you at your every beck and call."
"Then why don't you tell me to leave?" you ask quietly.
"I—" he hesitates, his shoulders shaking. That look is back again, swimming in his eyes. "I won't age, you know. Even when you're old, I'll still look exactly like this. I won't change.Do you really want to stick around for that?" he asks.
There is a new note in his voice now and with a slight start, you realize you know what it is. It's hope, you think, even as you're blinking in disbelief, hardly daring to voice such a thought to yourself. You have never seen him like this, never seen him lower his guard around you enough to show you, you of all people, this wary hope fluttering in his heart even as he continues to float in self-denial about the whole thing.
The realization touches something in your chest, spreading warmth as quickly as a flame growing in a forest; it clogs your throat, constricting, and words collect on the tip of your tongue, begging to be said. It takes everything you have to hold them back.
"I don't even have any powers, not like," here, his voice wavers, "not like Yuuko-san. There's nothing I can do for you. There's absolutely nothing for you here. So why…" he trails off.
You, you almost say. There's you.
But you can't say that; he isn't ready to hear it, may never be ready to hear those words from you and who knows, perhaps, you're not quite ready to say it either.
So instead, you say the next best thing. "I like your cooking."
He stares at you then, gaping at you as if you've just sprouted another head between your shoulder blades. A flush develops at the base of his neck, rising slowly to his face and his mouth moves slightly in an attempt to form words as he tries to decide if you're actually being serious or if this is another horrible prank of yours, designed just to make his life that much more miserable.
You stare back, deadpan.
Suddenly, he laughs. The sound surprises you; it isn't the same laugh he has around Kunogi, nor at all like the laugh he has around Kohane or the spirits he meets. This sound is completely new and unfamiliar and you can't help but watch him, dumbfounded as he throws his head back and simply laughs. The tension in his shoulders ease, like water dropping off the edge of a leaf – quick, without sound. He doubles over, hands folded across his stomach as he laughs and laughs and laughs.
Just as you're about to decide that he's finally gone and lost it, he straightens, springing back to a standing position. There is a smile on his face and it's a strange mixture of smugness, self-confidence, obnoxious arrogance and something else – something that you think is maybe, just maybe, the smallest hint of happiness.
He points a finger at you, his other hand settling on his hip as he says, "Tomorrow, I'm making dashimaki tamago for breakfast and it'll be the best meal you have ever been given in your entire life. It'll be so amazing that when you taste it, you will fall to your knees in gratitude and thank me over and over again for hours. Hah," he says, crossing his arms, "you may even call me Watanuki-sama from now on."
There is silence. And then, because you can think of absolutely nothing else appropriate for the moment, you say, "Idiot."
"What did you call me!" he yells, shaking his fist at you. "Right after Watanuki-sama agrees to bless you with his amazing culinary skills, that's all you have to say in return!"
And somehow, that's enough. It doesn't guarantee anything; in fact, everything can still change. One day, you might wake up to realize he's nowhere to be found, vanished into thin air just like that woman did. One day, you might miss the chance of stopping him from making that one stupid decision that changes everything and then you are left with no way of bringing him back. One day, you might walk past this shop without seeing it and wonder if he had ever actually existed to begin with – and that is the day you fear most, because that would be the moment he truly disappears.
But for now, you have this.
You smile and have the pleasure of watching him stop in mid-sentence. "Make some bento too, while you're at it."
And this is good enough.