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"We can't do this forever," Kohane said, as they walked away from the shop. She'd gotten older, but sometimes it hit Doumeki, that he was looking at a young woman now, someone mature and poised. She'd grown beautiful. "Doumeki, we'll get old, and he'll be the same. Someone has to take care of him."

"I know," Doumeki said. 

"If there were children," she said. "That would--"

"Would that be fair to them?" He knew it wouldn't be fair to Kohane. She'd spent most of her young life just trying to make her own choices. To bind her to Watanuki, to him, just as she'd gotten free? "I'll find another way."

"Yuuko said there always was a price," Kohane said. "Maybe this is the price."

"There has to be another way," Doumeki said, doggedly. "I'm not giving up. You're not even Watanuki's age yet." And that was a jarring thought. She would be, soon enough. 

"We can't do this," she said. "The only ones powerful enough to are Watanuki and Yuuko, and..."

And Yuuko was dead, and Watanuki was still stubbornly insisting that nothing was wrong. He would live on the dust in the corners--or try to--if Kohane and Doumeki stopped visiting, and they all knew it.

"I'm going to be late for class," Doumeki said, and left her standing on the sidewalk.

 

At first, he'd thought his studies would get him closer. He'd visited temples, read books, carefully looked over crumbling scrolls wearing delicate cotton gloves. He'd worked, and studied, and it had taught him nothing but his own limitations. He'd meditated and volunteered for hours at the temple. Nothing.

But Kohane couldn't be right. 

There had to be another way.

He went to class, daydreamed about the life in medicine he was never going to have, did his homework. On days when Kohane checked in on Watanuki, he went to his study sessions, pretending for a little while that he was just a normal college student. There were a few students he was friendly with, but he kept them at a distance.

His thoughts always went in a circle. No deal without a price, no price without a shopkeeper to negotiate it, no negotiating with Watanuki. For a while, Doumeki thought there might be other shops, somewhere else in the world, but he could find no record of them, no hints. Yuuko had always been unique. 

Then he'd wondered if he could deal with the shop itself, but the shop didn't seem to have any interest in bargaining. He could enter when Watanuki was out working, and Maru and Moro always talked to him, and Mokona would always drink with him, but Domeki always knew without all doubt the shop wasn't his. He was just a guest, and not always a welcome one.

 

Once, when he'd gotten Watanuki drunk, he'd confessed that Yuuko told him she'd been dead for years, since before he even entered the shop. Doumeki didn't quite understand what she meant (and he wasn't sure Watanuki did, either), but it had stuck with him. Perhaps there was something of her, somewhere, that he could yet call on. Perhaps she would help him reach out to Watanuki one final time.

It wasn't as if he had any better ideas.

He started researching again, this time looking for ways to find a ghost, or perhaps the shadow of one. It took a month before he found anything even worth looking into.

It was another year and a half before he had a working theory. He didn't share it with Kohane; he didn't trust her to not do something foolish. But he told Himawari, just in case something went wrong. She fussed over him, as he'd known she would, but she made no effort to stop him. Instead, she asked, "What can I do?"

"I don't know if you can help," he said. "But if I fail...you'll need to help Kohane. Can you--"

"I promise," she said. 

 

He waited until Watanuki was out, which was the only way to get anything done in the shop at the best of times. He sorted through Yuuko's kimono until he found one that Watanuki wore rarely; it was patterned in silk butterflies, and still, when Doumeki shook it out, smelled a little of her perfume.

Watanuki appeared to have thrown out all the perfume, but there was a spare pipe in the closet, and Doumeki had bought plenty of tobacco since Yuuko had left. Behind the tobacco pouches was something black and tarry that Doumeki was fairly certain was opium. He wasn't sure if Watanuki ever touched it; he'd never asked. 

He took a little, sliding it carefully into the pipe.

He chose the back porch, where he and Yuuko used to sit and drink, and opened one of the few remaining bottles of Grandfather's sake.

The tobacco was a punch. The opium felt like drowning.

"Doumeki, you idiot," she said, as he slumped lifelessly onto the deck. "What are you doing?"

 

Watanuki was shaking him. "Doumeki! Doumeki, damn it, listen to me! I can't--"

Doumeki coughed. 

"Damn it," Watanuki said again.

"Stop shaking me," Doumeki said, ineffectually trying to slap him away. "I'm--I'm fine."

"You weren't breathing. What the hell were you doing? You reek."

"I'm breathing," Doumeki said. "I'm...I'm right here. I'm breathing."

"You weren't." Watanuki's eyes were wide behind his glasses. My eyes, Doumeki thought, his brain still sluggish. We still share that. He can't escape that, no matter how hard he tries to escape me. "What did you do?"

"I--let me sit up," he said.

Watanuki took his hand and helped him upright. "Don't think I'm going to let you get away without explaining," he said, sullenly.

Doumeki saw the red marks on his arms, long, thin scratches, like claws. "You're hurt," he said.

"I'm not dying," he snapped. "You weren't breathing."

"I'm breathing," Doumeki repeated, stupidly. "Stop yelling."

"I came back and I thought--I thought it might have been--"

He'd thought it was her. The smell of her perfume, her tobacco, the opium. Of course. Doumeki felt his stomach roil; he'd betrayed Watanuki, after all. "I'm sorry," he said. "I needed...I needed to be at the balance of life and death."

Watanuki slapped him, and Doumeki thought, dimly, that he deserved it. The blow didn't have much force, but Doumeki was still unsteady, and Watanuki had to catch his shoulder so he wouldn't fall. It's strange, Doumeki thought, that you have to save me from myself. "Why?"

"Because," Doumeki said. "I have a wish. And I'm here to make a deal."

"No," Watanuki said.

"Watanuki," Doumeki said, taking extra time to form the words properly. "I'll pay the price. And you can't refuse me if--"

"I'm not granting your wish."

"She told me," Doumeki said. "She told me you have to, if I ask. If I know the wish. You can't refuse me."

"I can--"

Doumeki put his hands on Watanuki's shoulders. His mind was starting to clear again. "I'm not going to stop," he said, remembering the helplessness, remembering every time he'd held his breath and willed Watanuki to live, thinking of the red marks currently on Watanuki's arms. "Do you understand? Grant my wish, or I won't stop."

"You can't do this," Watanuki said.

"I've already done it."

 

Watanuki didn't speak to him for a month.

Doumeki stocked up on groceries, went to class, threw out the last of the opium when Watanuki wasn't in. He told his mother he was moving in with a roommate. That lie wouldn't hold, but it was a start.

He told Kohane, and she yelled at him, but he'd been expecting that. He wondered, too late, if she had hoped to make the trade instead. But Watanuki was his responsibility. Watanuki had always been his responsibility.

Himawari didn't yell. She took it as calmly as she'd taken Watanuki's scars on, so many years ago. "So you're like that woman in the myth," she said. "The one who married the god of death."

"Sort of," Doumeki said. "She only stayed underground three months out of the year, for the Greek winter. It's not exactly the same." He had agreed to half the year, broken into pieces; three months in the shop, three in the world, endlessly cycled.

"I wish I could be in the shop," she said. "I could have--"

"Yuuko would say there was nothing else we could have done," Doumeki said. "Hitsuzen."

"But--"

"I made a promise," Doumeki said.

 

Three months wasn't so long, anyway. Kohane promised to stop by, and Himawari bought him noise-cancelling headphones. Watanuki still wasn't speaking to him, but Doumeki could live with that.

He'd told his professors he had to finish the semester early--a family member was having surgery and needed care. Somehow they believed him. His grades were good. He doubted he'd ever graduate, anyway.

It rained the first night, a cold drizzle that hit against the windows like a thousand tiny punches. Watanuki sat on the back porch drinking sake. Doumeki washed the dishes. If Watanuki wasn't speaking to him, he couldn't say Doumeki was doing anything wrong.

"I'll drink with you," Mokona said.

"It's fine," Doumeki said. "I don't want to run out of sake on the first night." Kohane was still too young to buy them any. He opened a book instead, and read for a while before he went to bed. 

He heard Watanuki come in, much later, his steps unsteady. He hesitated for a moment by Doumeki's futon. Doumeki wondered which eye saw him more clearly. 

Watanuki's futon was in the other room--he'd taken Yuuko's, when he'd taken everything else--but he kneeled down by Doumeki. Doumeki could hear him breathe.

"Idiot," Watanuki said, when Doumeki had almost fallen asleep again, and left.

 

"What will you do?" Watanuki asked abruptly at breakfast, and Doumeki did his best to not appear surprised. "They're going to notice."

"You think I don't know that?" It had been different for Watanuki. Reality had warped itself around his choice. Doumeki would have people remember him, people wondering why he'd abandoned his studies, where he disappeared to. Doumeki's parents would notice, sooner or later, that the years refused to wear on him. That was part of the price he'd accepted. 

Watanuki got up and started clearing the dishes. 

"You're going to break them if you keep slamming them around like that," Doumeki said, mildly, and was rewarded with the sound of the bowls crashing into the sink.

 

Kohane came in the second week with cookies. "He's not speaking to you?" she asked Doumeki.

"More than he was," Doumeki said.

She sighed. "I warned you."

"You weren't wrong," Doumeki said. "But this was the solution. I don't mind if he's angry."

"Maybe you will twenty years from now."

Doumeki shrugged. "He'll adjust. He always has. When we first started working together, he complained constantly." That had been a different Watanuki, more nervous, louder. But Doumeki had been different too. Everything changed. Yuuko had taught him that, too.

Watanuki emerged from the kitchen with the hotpot. He and Kohane made small talk, and Watanuki encouraged her studies, in school and in magic. "I'm proud of you," he said, and that was when Doumeki finally understood why Kohane was angry with him, because her glow at Watanuki's words was so wrenchingly familiar it hurt.

"She would have done anything to provide for you," Doumeki said, after she left.

"Don't tell me you've done this for her sake," Watanuki said.

"Don't tell me you'd want her to give up her life for you."

Watanuki cleared the dishes, less angrily than he had the night before.

 

Mokona drank with Doumeki on the porch that night. "You're wearing him down," he said. "I admit, I'm surprised."

"He loves Kohane," Doumeki said. "He wouldn't hurt her."

"He's right that you didn't do it for her."

Doumeki smiled, grim. "I honestly didn't think he'd ever notice."

"Be careful what you wish for, isn't that what they say?"

"It's what they say," Doumeki said. "But...this is what I wished for."

"I know," Mokona said, a little sadly.

"Do you think I would have been happier doing something else?"

"No." He smiled. 'But that's your tragedy, isn't it? Doumeki."

 

He drew a bath before bed. He got into the water, closed his eyes, and let himself drift.

"She told you," came a voice, through the scented fog of the bath. "She told you to make the wish."

Doumeki opened his eyes and blinked through the steam. "I told you," he said. "The boundary between life and death."

"Why did she talk to you and not me?"

You've certainly tried to get yourself killed enough times. "Maybe she thought she didn't have anything more to tell you. Maybe I hallucinated, and it wasn't her at all."

Watanuki came into the bathroom and sat on the threshold. He didn't say anything, but his shoulders shook.

"I know you miss her," Doumeki said. "We all miss her. But I know...it's different for you."

Doumeki could hear Watanuki's ragged breathing. He ached to move.

Watanuki stood, his kimono slipping from his shoulders onto the floor. "I'm taking a bath," he said. "Are you staying?"

He looks young, Doumeki realized. It was hard, now, to believe they had both been that young. Had five years gone so quickly and changed them so much?

"Get out or move over," Watanuki said. There wasn't enough room in the bath for two. 

Doumeki stayed in place.

Watanuki got into the water, splashing it over the side of the tub. He straddled Doumeki. His eyes were red-rimmed and wide, locked on Doumeki's. Doumeki steadied Watanuki's hips with his hands. "Is this what you wanted?"

Doumeki didn't know the answer any more. Watanuki felt alive, and more than alive, and also as fragile as a wisp of smoke.

Watanuki lifted a hand up and closed Doumeki's jaw. When had his mouth opened? Doumeki wasn't sure.

Watanuki shook his head. "You're still an idiot," he said. 

"Did you want me to change?" 

"I don't know," Watanuki said. His hand was still on Doumeki's chin.

Doumeki could still see who Watanuki had been, once upon a time, remembering him in his school uniform, remembering the way his eyes--matched, then--focused tight on the basket before he took a shot. Even then, there had been nothing he would have stopped at. Nothing he wouldn't have done. "Would you rather have Kohane here?"

Anger flashed in Watanuki's eyes, but he didn't move or speak.

"I chose this," Doumeki said. "Did you really think I'd choose differently?"

Watanuki closed the difference between them, his mouth on Doumeki's, and Doumeki knocked the back of his head on the lip of the tub.

 

Doumeki sat in the bathroom with a bag of ice while Watanuki finished soaking.

"Sometimes I forget that I'm not the only one who remembers her," Watanuki said, after a while. "Sometimes I start believing that I've always been the shopkeeper. If you're here with me, who remembers?"

"Himawari," Doumeki said. His head was throbbing. "Kohane, and--"

"It's you, though. It's always been you. It'll always be you. If you're here, who am I?"

"Who you've always been," Doumeki said.

Watanuki rose from the bath, grabbing a towel. "Come on. I can't leave you alone with that bruise."

"I'm fine," Doumeki said, but he let Watanuki lead him out of the bathroom.

Watanuki put fresh ice in the ice bag and gave it back to Doumeki, but not before carefully checking the back of his head again. "I can't believe you."

"You've said that often enough."

Watanuki snorted. "I suppose I can't trust you to sleep in your own bed."

"I don't think I'll die," he said. Protection from injury hadn't technically been part of the deal, but...

"Come on." Watanuki took his arm, none too gently, and dragged him to bed.

 

When he woke, there was still a dull, angry throb at the back of his head, but it was better. Watanuki was sleeping next to him, his back almost against Doumeki's chest. The red marks on his arms had faded almost to nothing, but he still seemed fragile. Doumeki knew how deceptive it was, but it never stopped him from worrying. Never stopped the ache in his chest.

He put an arm around Watanuki's waist. Watanuki didn't stir.

Doumeki closed his eyes and let himself drift again.

He never really fell back asleep. Watanuki stirred a little, and Doumeki pulled him closer. It was probably another hour before they crossed into wakefulness, Watanuki moving against him, his breath picking up.

At some point, Watanuki tipped his head back against Doumeki's shoulder, and Doumeki dipped his face down, his mouth at the nape of Watanuki's neck. Watanuki took in breath--it wasn't enough to be called a gasp--and reached his hand up to touch the side of Doumeki's face. "Your head--"

"I'm fine," he said. He was hungry. He turned to kiss Watanuki's fingers, and Watanuki shuddered, just a little. He tasted like last night, the jasmine of the bath oil, tobacco and sweat.

Doumeki had put on sweatpants after the bath, the kind of modern clothing that felt out of place in the shop. He could feel his cock pressing against the fabric, against Watanuki, half-clothed, against him.

He reached forward and pulled at the ties of Watanuki's hakama. Watanuki pressed back against him as Doumeki unwrapped the hakama, sliding his hand into the fabric. He closed his eyes when he made contact with Watanuki's cock. Watanuki did gasp then, his hips shifting of their own accord. 

"You're impossible," Watanuki said, and turned around, pushing Doumeki's back to the futon, straddling him as he had in the tub. They had more room, and this time, when Watanuki kissed him, he cradled the back of Doumeki's head. Doumeki felt a little insulted, but also oddly moved by the gesture.

Watanuki rocked against him, pushed his sweatpants down and loosed Doumeki's own cock, pushed them together. This time, when they kissed, their teeth knocked. Watanuki rolled his eyes. Doumeki pulled his head back down.

It wasn't at all what Doumeki had pictured, but then, he'd never really been able to picture this at all, not even in high school, when he'd been foolish enough to let himself want, when he'd started on this long, impossible path. Watanuki had the same wiry muscle as he always had, still moved the same way. But he kissed like it was luxury, not hunger, like it was mere lazy pleasure that drove them both. 

Doumeki struggled underneath him,needy, eager to move, and Watanuki pressed his thighs tighter into Doumeki's. He let go for a second; Doumeki whimpered, and Watanuki just smiled at him. He took Doumeki's arms, pulling one behind his head and pinning his wrists together, then reached down again to take Doumeki's cock again. Doumeki gasped, and Watanuki laughed.

Doumeki couldn't remember the last time he'd heard Watanuki laugh.

He came first, across Watanuki's stomach, and Watanuki closed his eyes, jerked himself alone, harder, faster, his weight heavier on Doumeki's wrists.

"I'm still angry," Watanuki said, after he came.

"Of course," Doumeki said.

Watanuki got up, grumbling about needing a shower, and Doumeki stayed on the futon for a minute, looking up at the ceiling, listening to the shop and the city come to life with the morning.

 

"You haven't told me what you plan to do for the next three months," Watanuki said at breakfast.

"You didn't ask," Doumeki said. "I can still stay here in the shop. I'm just not confined here. So I can buy us food and supplies.

"What about university?"

"I finished my semester early. I might take summer courses. I haven't decided."

"Kohane asked me what would happen to you if I--" Watanuki looked at him. "She understood that you'd tied us together."

Doumeki nodded. If--when--Watanuki died or left the shop, Doumeki would take on all the years they had avoided. It had seemed like the right price, and it hadn't damaged Watanuki, so the balance must have been right. He wondered if Watanuki would have rather had Kohane here for three months every year. Too late for that. Doumeki had been selfish at the end. "What did you tell Himawari?"

Watanuki shook his head. "She says she'll send her husband by, if she can, to make sure we're still alive in a month."

That seemed like a reasonable course of action. "I know you miss her."

Watanuki nodded. "She's having a baby."

Doumeki looked up in shock. "Really?"

Watanuki smiled, clearly pleased to have one up on Doumeki again. "I wasn't alone here, you know."

"It wasn't about that," Doumeki said.

Watanuki looked at him, eyes narrowing behind his glasses, and sighed again.

 

The sky was clear and bright that morning, and Doumeki spent his time practicing archery in the backyard. He couldn't go too far back without feeling the pressure to return to the shop, but Maru and Moro were happy to fetch arrows for him.

"If you break anything, I'm not responsible," Watanuki called, but Doumeki knew that meant he'd been watching.

He read after lunch. Someone came in the early afternoon with a wish, and Watanuki banished him to the back porch, even though there was plenty of room in the shop. 

"How did it go?" he asked, when he heard the door opening behind him.

"An easy one," Watanuki said, sitting next to him. "I'm fine." He lit his pipe, and Doumeki watched the smoke curl and dissolve in the sunlight.

"All right," Doumeki said.

Watanuki pressed his thigh against Doumeki's, and Doumeki felt his heart pick up. 

"I know you're still angry," Doumeki said.

Watanuki nodded. "I'm making yakitori tonight," he said, "while the chicken is still fresh."

Doumeki nodded.

"Come here," Watanuki said, and Doumeki kissed him.

He let Watanuki take him on the porch, rough and hard, both of them sweating by the time they were finished. Doumeki had the distinct impression that he'd been watched. He ignored it, and helped Watanuki dress again, the heavy antique silk sliding across his hands like water. 

"Don't think this'll happen every day," Watanuki said.

"Of course not," Doumeki said, and smiled to himself.