Title: Locked in Time

Rating: K+

Characters: Watanuki/Doumeki

Length: Oneshot

Disclaimer: I do not own xxxHolic or Clamp

Warning: Spoiler warning through the end of the manga

Watanuki lazily leaned back on the back porch, propping up his torso with his elbows, his dreamy gaze fixed on the sky. "You've been visiting my dreams with more frequency lately, Haruka-san," Watanuki said to the man sitting next to him.

Haruka smiled faintly. "It's not too much more than usual. Besides, I'm sure you receive far more troublesome guests."

"That's true. Though really, I seldom get any visitors who aren't customers these days."

"Yes, I noticed that my great-great-great grandson rarely has the opportunity to stop by these days," Haruka mentioned.

"Yes, not too often. I'm surprised Doumeki can find time to come at all, actually. He has a much larger family than any of the previous Doumekis," Watanuki commented.

"'Previous Doumekis' sounds awful," Haruka smirked. "Besides, as closely as you've known all of them, particularly Shizuka, you really ought to stop calling them by their surname."

"Ah, but even that would prove somewhat confusing now; remember that one of Doumeki's sons shares that name."

"Hmm, that's true, another Shizuka…" Haruka smiled distantly, as though he had something on his mind. Then he glanced at Watanuki. "Have you met that boy yet?"

"I've seen him a few times, from a distance. He's certainly of your bloodline."

"Oh? Does he look just like me, then?"

"There's a strong resemblance... But only time will tell just how strong," Watanuki mused. "Although come to think of it, that time may already be here. I seldom leave this shop unless it's to fulfill a wish, and I feel as though it's been a number of years now."

"That's surprising," Haruka commented. "After being confined in this shop for well over a century, I thought you would take advantage of being able to leave."

Watanuki lit his kiseru. He exhaled slowly, ghostly trails of smoke enveloping him. "Perhaps it's because this is the place I chose to be; if I have no reason to leave, then there's no desire to leave." He paused to take a long drag. "What I think is a more interesting topic is that you keep visiting this place within my dream, when it is not the place you truly wants to be, Haruka-san."

Haruka shifted his gaze toward Watanuki. "I don't particularly mind coming here, actually, as it gives me the chance to talk to Watanuki-kun. I won't be able to come forever, though."

Watanuki smiled slightly, almost knowingly. "I suspected that there was some reason you had this kind of existence."

"Very perceptive, but then, I wouldn't expect any less of you." Haruka paused, carefully choosing his next words. After several moments of silence, he finally spoke again.

"A very long time ago, I made a wish for the sake of another. Although I knew little about that person at the time, I did not want that person's existence to come to an end with a heart full of regret."

"Wishes like that have a heavy price."

Haruka nodded slowly. "Ah. It's almost been paid, though. I have no regrets."

Watanuki set down the kiseru and rested his head on his hands, deep in thought. "While I'm curious about the payment, I'm more interested in what the wish itself could be." He glanced sidelong at Haruka. "But the time for that to be revealed is not now, is it?"

Haruka did not reply, but only smiled in response.

And then the dream ended. Watanuki opened his eyes. He was lying on a large canopied bed, the airy sheets tangled around his slender body.

"So even Haruka-san is waiting for a wish to be granted," Watanuki murmured to himself. "There are still so many forces that I'm ignorant of..."

"Watanuki! Watanuki! A visitor! A visitor!"

Maru and Moro's voices chanting in unison woke him from his light slumber. He languidly stretched his body across the chaise lounge. The two girls grabbed onto each of his arms, struggling to pull him upright.

"A visitor, but not a customer, hmm?" Watanuki ruminated, pulling himself to his feet. Before he went to greet his guest, he took a moment to put kizami in his kiseru. Then he smoothed out any ruffles that might have appeared in his long, flowing kimono during his slumber.

Other than customers, it was unusual that anyone visited him these days who was not a spirit, but he felt no other-worldly presence.

As he approached the entrance, Watanuki understood why. Near the doorway was a young, but very familiar face—the face that resembled so many of this young man's ancestors before him. This face was still a bit immature, though. Watanuki guessed him to be around seventeen or eighteen years old.

"Good evening, Doumeki," Watanuki greeted, an enigmatic smile decorating his face. He glanced at the shopping bag in the young man's hand. "Hmm, and if you're a Doumeki, I suppose you want to stay for dinner."

For a moment, Doumeki appeared frozen as he stared at Watanuki, his mouth slightly agape. Watanuki raised an eyebrow. Other than Haruka's pleasant smile, it had been uncharacteristic of Doumeki's family to show much expression, particularly surprise.

Then Watanuki's features softened—of course, this Doumeki had never actually met him before, and Watanuki had no idea what his father had told his son of him or Yuuko's shop. He also knew little of the upbringing this boy had had; the world outside was far less into antiquities like folklore and the supernatural. It was likely the Doumeki standing in front of him had no idea how to interpret the nature of the shop; the ageless man in front of him, enveloped in silk and smoke; the two impossibly perfect girls dancing around him, chanting in unison; or Mokona, the unidentified creature bouncing up and down on of the floor by his feet.

Watanuki took a few steps toward Doumeki and gently pulled the grocery bag from his hand. Doumeki snapped out of his shock, closed his mouth, and resumed the disinterested disposition that was archetypal of the men of his family.

"Ah, yes," he finally responded to the question about dinner. "My father said to bring this if I was coming here. My name is—"

"—Doumeki... Shizuka," Watanuki finished, carefully pronouncing the given name. "The second son in your family, named after your grandfather's grandfather." Watanuki almost expected him to start at the recitation, but the young man just watched him carefully.

Watanuki glanced inside of the bag. "Carrots, potatoes, onion, mirin... Hmm, pork loin. I have some shirataki noodles, so I'll make nikujaga." He looked up to meet Doumeki's gaze. The young man appeared to be studying him.

"I wonder, are you picky like your father is? He had certain textures he didn't enjoy, no matter how delicious I prepared it for him," Watanuki called over his shoulder, as he headed toward the kitchen.

"No," Doumeki responded simply. "If it's good, I'll eat it."

"Ah, you're much more like that Doumeki, then," Watanuki murmured quietly, so that his visitor could not quite hear him.

Though even in his younger days, his father before him had seldom stopped by the shop, this young Doumeki Shizuka began to visit with increasing frequency.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, years passed; the father never came again, nor did his other four children. But the second son, Doumeki Shizuka, reached the point where he was visiting every single night. Indeed, as Watanuki became more familiar with him, he was surprised to see just how much he was like the original Doumeki. He had now grown to the same height as him, and he had even picked a similar educational path, studying antiquated topics like folklore and mythology.

Even his knack of drawing irritation from Watanuki was similar.

On one particular evening, the uncanny resemblance was almost more than Watanuki could take. Doumeki and Mokona shared the porch with him as he smoked his kiseru, the thick fragrance slinking around him, as he stared out at the inky night sky, lost deep in thought.

"Oi, we're out of sake," Doumeki said abruptly, forcing him out of his reverie. "Bring more."

Before Watanuki could think about a response, he felt words leave his lips that he had not uttered in a very long time. "That attitude of yours really pisses me off," he snapped. Then he automatically rose to his feet to retrieve more.

Suddenly, he realized what he had done, and stopped dead in his tracks. He turned around and stared at Doumeki, his eyes wide.

How long has it been since I felt that level of irritation from a comment made by a Doumeki? ...Or from anything, for that matter? he thought. That prickly feeling running down the back of his spine, the embodiment of his aggravation, was an emotion that had been dormant in him for more decades than he could possibly recall.

Yet after a moment, Watanuki relaxed; after all, even if he did not allow his feathers to be ruffled like he did when his soul was still young, his body remembered, and it responded in the way it used to.

While Watanuki often treated the young man as though he were troublesome, he did not actually mind the company. Of those original friends he once had when he was still a member of the human world, who had long since passed on, Doumeki's descendant's were the only ones with whom he was still associated.

"Indeed, it is quite amusing that this one, named after his grandfather's grandfather, would share in his entire personality as well as his looks," Watanuki mused one evening, as he shared a bottle of sake with Mokona.

"He's just like that Doumeki!" Mokona agreed. "His brothers only look a little bit like him, though."

Watanuki nodded in agreement. "They're undoubtedly from the same family, but the resemblance ends there. They also don't have a spiritual purity to match him."

"It's a good thing that he's the one that wound up with the same name. It could have just as easily gone to his brothers."

"Ah, but that was not mere chance," Watanuki murmured. He cast a sidelong glance toward Mokona, so that only the brown eye that he had shared with the original Doumeki Shizuka was visible. "Remember, Mokona... There is no coincidence in this world, only hitsuzen."

In the time since Watanuki had succeeded Yuuko's shop, the storeroom had grown more swollen with the precious items people had traded for the sake of their wishes. While that storeroom never seemed to run out of space—presumably because it, too, had magic that prevented it from ever being completely filled—it became time to organize and dust the treasures it contained.

Since Doumeki was present, Watanuki ordered him around in the same way he ordered Mokona, Maru and Moro.

As the sky turned dark, and Watanuki decided that they were finished for the day, he told everyone that they could rest until dinner was ready. Only Doumeki was slow to leave the storeroom. Watanuki stepped outside into the humid night air, and turned and looked at Doumeki, who was still standing at the storeroom's outside door.

He had picked up a simple umbrella, one that looked like the kind seen in older times. It was a simple design, with a wooden frame and a plain dark-colored cloth covering it. Doumeki studied it carefully, his face a blank canvas. After a moment, he held the umbrella outward and opened it, revealing a charm pasted to the inside containing several rings of circles—the serpent's eye.

Watanuki tightened his jaw. Although this Doumeki had no way of knowing it, that umbrella held a rather difficult memory for him. A memory that went back to the time when Watanuki was still bound to the shop...

Doumeki Shizuka—the first Shizuka—and he were sitting on the porch, sharing a bottle of red wine and discussing a wish Watanuki had just granted for an apparition that had been appearing in the shop's yard. She was a beautiful woman, who desperately clung to an umbrella, tears pouring down her cheeks, as she waited for a person who said he would meet her secretly underneath the umbrella. Watanuki had corrected the placement of the charm, called the serpent's eye, which would prevent others from being able to see her and that other person beneath the umbrella.

"So it was a relationship in which they couldn't be seen in public," Doumeki remarked slowly, when the story was concluded.

Watanuki could not pinpoint why, but the way that this sentence was pronounced had an impact on him. They discussed the matter for a few moments more, but that comment resonated in his mind, repeating again and again. It had been spoken in an academic tone, as though Doumeki was merely summarizing what he had been told; yet Watanuki saw a flicker of grief in his eyes as he said it... Those eyes, which Watanuki was all too familiar with, particularly since he shared one of them.

He didn't know if it was because he disliked seeing Doumeki make a face like that, or because he subconsciously knew the source of that gloom his companion kept hidden away, but as they spoke, Watanuki mustered the most convincing cheerful smile he was capable of, as though his forced gaiety would raise his companion's spirits

He held the umbrella open over him, despite the clear skies overhead. He stood up and smiled brightly at Doumeki, as he beckoned toward the umbrella and told him, "I've certainly received payment for the wish."

Doumeki observed him quietly. He took a sip of his wine, set the half-emptied glass next to him, and brought himself to his feet.

Watanuki turned his body to face the taller man as Doumeki advanced a few steps forward. He started to let the umbrella tilt to his side, so that it was no longer covering his head, but Doumeki grabbed the handle of the umbrella, forcefully keeping it over Watanuki's head, while he kept just enough distance so he was standing beyond the umbrella's circumference.

"What are you doing?" Watanuki inquired curiously.

Doumeki looked at the serpent's eye charm, which looked more like a pattern made of circles than an eye. "So if two are standing under here, no one can see them," Doumeki muttered.

Although he had not asked a question, Watanuki nodded in affirmation. "That's right."

"And no one can hear them?"

"I suppose that's true as well."

Doumeki stared at the charm a moment longer, contemplating. "Then I'll use it," he said finally. He took a step forward, and when both men were underneath the umbrella together, the charm's picture transformed into that of a fierce eye, squinting at the two men standing beneath it.

Watanuki felt his pulse quicken. The look on Doumeki's face was gravely serious, and the flicker of pain he had noticed earlier was now much more apparent. "Dou...meki?" Watanuki said hesitantly.

"It does look like an eye when it's being used," Doumeki commented, nodding his head in the direction of the charm. He still tightly gripped the umbrella with his right hand, which was positioned directly above Watanuki's. He could feel the warmth radiating from that hand, although they were not quite touching.

"Doumeki," he repeated, raising his free hand and gently pressing it on Doumeki's left arm. "Tell me what's wrong. It's not like you to have such a pained expression."

Doumeki's lower lip trembled, but he immediately clenched his teeth to minimize it.

"There are some things that are easy for me to discuss, and some that are more difficult."

"I can see this is a difficult one. Please, take your time." Watanuki nodded his head in the direction of the charm. "With that, no one can even notice us to interrupt, and I'll wait."

When Doumeki spoke again, he had regained a little of his composure, and the words flowing from his mouth seemed less difficult, at least at first. "I've agreed to a marriage arrangement," he said.

Watanuki did his best to mask his surprise. He knew that someday, this kind of thing would happen—after all, time still flowed in the world beyond the shop's walls. Even though Doumeki had never mentioned the topic of marriage before, it should not have been that surprising to Watanuki that he was thinking about it. He nodded at Doumeki, gently urging him to continue.

"My parents are beginning to press the issue with more urgency. I'm their only child. If I don't have any children, there will be no one to take over the family shrine. That thought is becoming more and more terrifying for my parents, particularly my father."

Watanuki squeezed him arm gently. "I'm sorry. But I know you still have many women who admire you—do you really not want to try it out with any of them?"

"No. It may as well be arranged. That way, we'll have fewer expectations of each other."

"That's true." Watanuki said softly. "Arranged marriage is happening less and less these days. The people agreeing to it understand that there may not be much romance involved."

"Ah," Doumeki murmured, agreeing. "And since it has to happen, I thought it was the most right decision I could make."

Doumeki's hand slipped down the pole of the umbrella, just the smallest distance, but it was enough to make their hands touch ever so slightly. He looked at their hands, a surprised look on his face. Then he looked to his other arm, where Watanuki's hand rested on his shoulder. Finally, he let his head drop.

"It's not what I wanted to do, but it was the right choice."

"I would have expected no less of you... You're selfish when it comes to things like food, alcohol, and dropping in to stay at people's houses unannounced," Watanuki said with a slightly critical tone. "But," he added, more softly, "When it comes to truly important decisions, you have never been selfish. I'm only saddened to see that it's dampening your spirits so much."

Unconsciously, the two men had been drawing closer and closer together during their conversation, until at this point there were but few mere inches away from each other.

"What I wanted to say, so that things wouldn't be misunderstood, is that I made a decision a long time ago to stay by you and do what I could for you," Doumeki said with great difficulty. "I don't know exactly what's going to happen, but I still intend to do just that, as best I can."

"Doumeki," Watanuki murmured. He couldn't tell if it was he who pulled Doumeki near him or the opposite, but either way, he found himself in an embrace.

At first, the embrace was perhaps like that of friend, in a moment where one needs comfort; but as Doumeki pulled Watanuki closer to him, it turned into something far more complicated. He held the shorter man against him tenderly, protectively, like he was a precious thing he never wanted to let go.

Watanuki closed his eyes tightly. This was a thing that had been taking shape for quite some time, though perhaps much longer in Doumeki than in himself. But it wasn't unpleasant or undesired, and so Watanuki let himself succumb to it.

Doumeki loosened his grip slightly, but before Watanuki could back away, he leaned down until their faces were so close, he could feel the heat of other man's skin.

Their lips met, at first tentatively, and then in a more desperate way. Doumeki had always been direct in the way he spoke, and the way he kissed was no different. His feelings resounded clearly and loudly in Watanuki, leaving no room for misinterpretation.

Neither of them wanted to think about the consequences for just the briefest moment. They pressed their lips together rashly, exploring one another's mouths, trying with great difficulty to pull even nearer to one another.

Then the moment was over, doomed to become nothing but a painful memory. They pulled away, although hesitantly, both breathing slightly more heavily than before. Doumeki stared into Watanuki's mismatched eyes, his expression both longing and melancholic.

Watanuki smiled sadly, and reached up to brush the taller man's cheek.

Doumeki grasped the hand for a moment, and then let his arms drop to his sides, sighing heavily. Only Watanuki now held the umbrella.

"So that..." Doumeki said, his voice low, "that was all."

"If there is anything—"

"There is nothing to be done."

There is nothing to be done. Doumeki's words were so final and desolate that Watanuki said nothing more. Doumeki stepped out from underneath the umbrella, and the power of the serpent's eye charm dissipated.

Watanuki closed the umbrella as Doumeki walked away from him. As he was almost in the house, he turned back and looked at Watanuki. "Make karaage for dinner," he demanded. All traces of his sadness were no longer discernible.

Watanuki seldom found himself in dream that seemed to have no beginning, but in this dream, he seemed to be playing the shamisen as soon as it began. Yet this shamisen, made from the underbelly of a cat, which had taken such a liking to him, often appeared when it felt it wanted to be played. Therefore, Watanuki was not too startled when he found himself playing it within the dream.

Nor was he that surprised that Haruka was with him, singing along softly to the music. "Meeting... Meeting and parting, the bitterness of parting..."

It had been a very long time since he had played the shamisen with Haruka, perhaps not long after he acquired the affectionate instrument. However, Watanuki recognized the song instantly as the same one Haruka had sang before.

"Meeting without parting, I hope..."

The tone of the song was very sad, but from the tenderness of which he sang it, he could tell that the ethereal man was very fond of it. Watanuki was also a much better player than the last time Haruka had sung it, so he hoped that he was doing it justice.

"I am in love with you..."

Watanuki paid close attention to the words, thinking if he could memorize them, this would be another thing to add to his song bank.

"...And there is nothing to be done."

The same words Doumeki had used underneath the umbrella... The vision of Doumeki's pained face flashed through Watanuki's mind, and he gasped inwardly.

His finger slipped, hitting the string awkwardly; the shamisen made an awful noise. As he gently stroked the top of the shamisen and whispered an apology to the instrument, he realized his hands were shaking.

"Are you alright, Watanuki-kun?"

"Ah," he lied, nodding affirmatively. "I just let myself get distracted for a moment." He tried to stop his hands from shaking, wondering why the final words of the song were exactly what Doumeki had said to him that day, all those decades ago. That day that he had just been recalling so vividly, as he watched another Doumeki Shizuka clean the storage room.

"Did you ever sing that song to Doumeki—your grandson?"

"To Shizuka? Yes, Shizuka has heard it many times."

"I see." So perhaps that's why, he thought.

"This Shizuka has heard it many times."

Watanuki nodded slowly, lost in thought, until he realized Haruka had said this Shizuka. "Ah, Haruka-san, don't you mean that Doumeki?"

Haruka nodded slowly. "This Shizuka or that Shizuka... It doesn't really matter which one I refer to, since they're both one in the same."

"...Haruka-san?" Watanuki said weakly, his head beginning to feel light.

"The Shizuka who's currently in your shop. The similarities that are far beyond just appearance and simple personality traits. This Shizuka now—"

Watanuki opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. Even if they came, he had no idea what to say—he simply felt like his mind might not be ready to take what Haruka was about to say.

"—is the same Shizuka from that time."

Watanuki clutched at his chest, his heart pounding at an alarming velocity. He tried to conceal his physical symptoms of the shock, but Haruka's words were too jarring.

"As I told you once before... The things coming to pass now are the result of my wish, at least in part. I told you that I met Yuuko in a dream once, but I didn't tell you that before that time, I met her on many occasions for the sake of my wish."

Watanuki looked at him anxiously. "What was that wish, Haruka-san?"

Haruka smiled. "It was just after Shizuka was born. My grandson, though a pure soul, was fated to have a life filled with sadness and dissatisfaction, because he would have to make decisions in the best interests of those around him rather than himself. I wanted to wish for his life to be happy..."

"The greater the misfortune he was going to suffer, the greater the price though," Watanuki murmured.

He nodded. "That's right. And the price of that wish was too much to pay. So I made another wish: to give him a chance to overcome the decision that would undoubtedly leave him overflowing with regret when he died.

"My price was that I would not be able to live to see my grandson turn into a man; and that I would have to wait, in others' dreams, unable to cross the bridge, until after my wish was fulfilled. And also another thing... But, well, that's enough to give you the gist."

"That was still such a heavy price..." Watanuki muttered.

Haruka smiled sadly. "Maybe it was, but I have no regrets. At the time, I had no way of comprehending that this was how my wish would be granted, though."

Watanuki stared down at the ground, comprehending the full breadth of Haruka's wish. "Then that Doumeki is really—"

"He is Shizuka."

Watanuki nodded slightly. "With this, is your price paid?"

Haruka smiled again. "Most of it. Although I wouldn't entirely mind staying in dreams a bit longer... Yuuko-san did ask me to look after you when I last spoke to her. I've enjoyed watching you grow over all of these years, and waiting a little bit longer to cross the bridge wouldn't be all that difficult."

"But in case we don't meet again, Haruka-san..." Watanuki said softly.

Haruka stood up, walked over, and embraced him. "If we don't meet again, then be well, Watanuki-kun."

Watanuki hugged him tightly, feeling the pang of sadness in his heart that always accompanied losing a friend. He had lost so many over the years, but it never seemed to get easier. "Thank you for everything, Haruka-san," he whispered, as the dream started to fade.

Watanuki awoke with a start. He sat up abruptly and looked around. He was resting on the chaise lounge that had belonged to Yuuko, yet he did not remember how he had gotten there.

"Are you alright?" Doumeki asked. He had been sitting on the floor from a distance, waiting for Watanuki to awaken.

"I'm fine," Watanuki said. "Did you carry me here?"

"Yeah. You collapsed outside."

Watanuki's heart skipped a beat as he remembered. He had last seen this Doumeki in the storage room, as he held the umbrella Watanuki had received as payment long ago, and reminisced about a time long since passed with the former Doumeki Shizuka. When he collapsed, he had entered the dreamworld and met with Haruka.

And according to Haruka, this Doumeki was...

He studied him earnestly, his eyes wide and searching. He looked the same, but many of the men of that family had. Yet as he stood in his presence, he realized that the feeling that had had when he was with the first Doumeki Shizuka was identical.

"You're really that Doumeki," he murmured out loud.

Doumeki's eyes widened in surprised. "You realized..." he started.

"I thought you were so much like him, but I didn't imagine you were one in the same until just now. In the dream I was having, Haruka-san told me..."

Doumeki nodded slowly. "That's right. Even I didn't know about my grandfather's wish until after I had died. I had to wait for many years, in an empty place, until it was time for me to come again. I had to wait until one of my ancestors had a larger family, since if I was reborn to parents like mine, who only had one son, it would've been the same predicament."

Watanuki listened carefully, but he had no idea how to respond to this story. The power to grant such a wish was not yet something he was capable of, despite how strong his magic had become. Yuuko-san truly is amazing, he thought to himself.

"I had memories of the past, although I couldn't really sort through them when I was a child. They were hazy and unclear, so it was mostly just a feeling that these jumbled images in my head were part of what I needed to do. It wasn't until I saw this that I truly remembered." Doumeki produced an egg, which he held in his outstretched palm for Watanuki to see.

"That egg!" Watanuki exclaimed. "It looks the same as the one that Yuuko gave me."

"It's the same," Doumeki said, "or at least, it was once one egg, and turned into two... Except this one would never hatch. Yuuko told me that I would have to use it when the time came. I didn't know what to do with it though. After awhile, I got the wrong idea."

"What do you mean?"

Doumeki sighed. "Don't get angry."

"I can't say I won't, if I don't know what it is you'll tell me," Watanuki snapped.

"That's fair, I suppose." He paused for a moment, his eyes closed. "I thought... I'd have to use it to free you from here."

"Free me? It was my own choice to stay here and wait for Yuuko-san."

Doumeki was silent, unwilling to elaborate. After a moment, Watanuki comprehended Doumeki's logic... The only way Watanuki would have left the shop was if he had forgotten about Yuuko.

"How could you even consider such a thing, to make me forget my precious memories of Yuuko-san!" Watanuki shouted angrily, jumping to his feet and advancing toward Doumeki, fist raised. This boiling anger was not something he thought he still had in his repertoire of emotions, but now it vehemently bubbled forth.

Doumeki grabbed his arm, gently, but firmly enough to stop him from completing his violent act. "I could never do it. I kept telling myself it wasn't the time to do it. I even passed that egg onto my own son, and told him it was our family's duty to watch out for you, waiting for the moment to use it."

Watanuki stopped struggling, and Doumeki hesitantly released his arm.

"Even now, not one of them had been able to use the egg for that purpose..." Doumeki continued. He clenched his fists, and cast his gaze downward, an expression of painful regret on his face. "Thank god they didn't."

Doumeki furrowed his brow deeply. "I realized just how wrong I was when I was lying in my deathbed. I desperately tried to tell my son—but it was too late. I had no strength left to say anything at all. I just felt powerless, full of despair... And then it was the end."

Watanuki felt like he was in a daze as he listened. He has never seen Doumeki wear his emotions so openly, or heard him speak so plainly.

"My body died, but my mind was suspended in limbo somewhere. I became aware of my grandfather's wish, but the entire time I waited, that terrible feeling never really went away. Each day, I was in constant fear that my son, grandson, great grandson... that one of them would use the egg."

Doumeki stared at the egg, which he now held cupped in both of his hands. "It felt like more than I could bear, but there was nothing I could do. My only hope was that I would someday get another chance. Then I'd use this the right way." He glanced at Watanuki. "She must've known I'd use it that way."

"What do you intend to do with that egg?" Watanuki asked hesitantly.

Doumeki backed away several paces from Watanuki, outstretched his arm in front of him, and looked at Watanuki confidently, a small hint of a smile on his lips. "Watch."

The egg shimmered for a moment, then appeared to slip into Doumeki's hand, like a ship sinking in the ocean. The egg disappeared inside of him, and a magic circle appeared at his feet.

"Doumeki!" Watanuki cried out, reaching for him.

"Don't worry," Doumeki replied calmly, the light of the magic circle swallowing him, making him appear to glow.

Then the light grew too bright, and Watanuki had to turn away. When the blinding light dissipated, he looked again, and saw Doumeki kneeling on the floor before him, looking winded but otherwise unhurt.

Yet Watanuki instantly perceived the difference. He knew what he had done. "Doumeki," he cried out again, only this time more softly. "Why did you..."

Doumeki slowly pulled himself to his feet. "That woman is amazing," he said breathlessly.

Watanuki's eyes widened. "That woman... You mean Yuuko-san."

"Ah," he nodded. "She knew exactly what was going to happen, and what I was going to do. I saw it all."

"But the price of that—"

"It's already been paid," Doumeki cut him off. "Mostly by my grandfather, but a part was paid by me as well. She knew that it was going to be paid by the time I used that egg."

Watanuki looked up at him, his eyes filled with sadness. "But why, Doumeki?"

Doumeki smiled. "Because I was determined not to make the same mistake twice."

"But you—you stopped your time!"

"Ah," Doumeki nodded affirmatively. "As long as I'm in this shop, anyway."

Doumeki took a step toward him, and gingerly rested a hand on his shoulder. "This was my wish, and this is also my way of fulfilling Yuuko's request to look after you. She asked me to use the egg for your sake.

"Don't take it the wrong way," Doumeki continued. "I'm not going to ask for anything or expect anything. All that I wanted, Watanuki, was—ah, no," he corrected himself. "I wanted the means to stay beside you, Kimihiro."

Watanuki's expression softened. Doumeki had sacrificed many things for his sake in the past, but he could have never anticipated he would go this far. Deep down, he had never wanted Doumeki to disappear from his life, but likewise, he never wanted him to give up everything for his sake either. He felt a tightness in his chest, a jumble of both joy and sadness over what Doumeki had just done.

"Perhaps this, too, is hitsuzen," he murmured quietly, so that his voice was barely audible.

"What?" Doumeki asked.

"Ah, nothing," Watanuki said. "So I take it this means you're planning on staying here from now on."

Doumeki nodded affirmatively. "Ah."

"That's just like you, suddenly decided to live at someone else's place without any advance notice..." he criticized, but then he smiled warmly. He gently took hold of Doumeki's hand and started to lead him out of the room. "If you're going to live here, you need to do your part. Come with me to the kitchen to help with dinner... Shizuka." He pronounced the name as affectionately as he could muster, although it felt a bit foreign on his tongue.

His back already turned to Doumeki, he started to lead him forward by their linked hands, but Doumeki tugged it away. Then Watanuki felt two strong arms wrap around him, embracing him from behind, and he felt the taller man's warm body press against his back. "Thank you," Doumeki murmured.

Watanuki reached up hesitantly, and rested his arms on top of his larger arms, pressing them tightly against him. As he stayed like that for a moment, wrapped in Doumeki's warm embrace, he could not help but think that this was one more thing he would have to thank Yuuko for someday.