It could be worse.
(This is how Watanuki comforts himself. By drawing a contrast between what could have been, and what is.)
It can always be worse, he tells himself, and watches Doumeki walk out the gates, limping slightly. His leg must hurt. His shoulders, too; he works constantly, and too hard.
Sometimes, Watanuki sees the tension in his back, the swell of aching muscles in his neck, and thinks, if I could just touch—but, well.
He should be—he is grateful for what little they have. This shrine, the wards, whatever it is about Doumeki that continues to tether him to existence. The illusion he was gifted, the sensation of almost-touching. Being able to cook. Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes.
And shouldn't that be enough?
Well, it never gets any better.
At first it bothers him a lot—the way Doumeki loses his appetite for food, his taste for life.
But that sort of thing often happens after traumatic experiences.
Still, he can't help but push the issue. The way you pick at a scab, slowly, just trying to scratch that itch, and then are still surprised when it bleeds.
"You need to eat more," he says.
"You're not eating enough. You're wasting away," he says.
Doumeki—now twenty, now twenty-two—picks at his food, saying nothing. There are shadows under his eyes.
"Eat," Watanuki repeats, almost pleading. He leans forward, towards Doumeki. His hand sinks through the table, empty, a pebble dropped into the sea.
The first time it takes them both by surprise. Watanuki is embarrassed by his own incorporeality. How inconvenient.
Doumeki is ashamed to have startled.
The second and third times come as less of a shock. More like a gentle reminder. Oh, that's right. Watanuki is dead.
Soon, Doumeki doesn't even bat an eye.
"Five years," he says to Watanuki, one time, turning his face away. Like it's a game. They're just playing a game. Once every year, like Christmas or Halloween, Watanuki will forget—
"Eight years now."
"I—I know, it's just that I—sometimes I—"
—and his hand falls through the broom.
"Twelve years, Watanuki." Doumeki's voice is raw, tender. He shrugs off his coat, but doesn't hand it to Watanuki.
Happy anniversary, Watanuki wants to say.
Over time he watches as Doumeki throws himself into his career, starting a rookie cop like anyone else, working his way up to Detective.
He's—proud, he is. Really. Detective Doumeki. He's overjoyed when Doumeki brings home his badge; talks about cooking, making something nice for breakfast. Something to celebrate.
Doumeki just puts the badge on the mantelpiece, expressionless, and goes to lie down on his futon.
He doesn't move all night.
Once in a while, though, he talks about work. Describing cases slowly, matter-of-fact. All the blood and torture and gore, documented in detail. Like a story. 'How to catch a serial killer'.
It's only when he does that Watanuki catches that rare flicker of emotion on Doumeki's face: a shred of disgust, a flare of rage.
On those nights he kneels by Doumeki's head as he rests, stroking at his hair with a cool hand, like the night breeze.
It's amazing what human beings can do to each other, thinks Watanuki, watching Doumeki breathe evenly, peacefully, as he only does in sleep.
Reaching out to hurt each other. While letting the things that really matter just fall through their hands. Like so much dust.
"Take a day off," he says to Doumeki, when he comes home. "You're exhausted."
"You can," insists Watanuki. "Just one day."
Doumeki says nothing. He pours himself a glass of water in the kitchen, under the tap. Gulps it down, pours another one. The tap overflows, water spilling into the sink. Doumeki doesn't move. Watanuki hovers behind, useless.
For a while, he used to consider resting ghostly hands on Doumeki's shoulders. A comforting weight.
Then he realized that there would be no weight and nothing of comfort at all in the act. Just the illusion of being able to care. To make himself feel better.
Selfish, Watanuki is reminded. But that, he knew all along.
Eventually, Doumeki puts the glass, still full, in the sink, and walks away.
Watanuki watches him go. Just watches, because that's all he can do.
"I know he paid a price for this," says Watanuki, afterwards, when Doumeki has left the room.
He sounds, well, just thoughtful. It's hard to be angry, even if he should be.
"Indeed," says Yuuko, quietly. She looks very different with short hair. And not spilling out of her kimono as usual. Watanuki's not sure if he can get used to it.
"But you're not going to tell me what that is, are you."
"It isn't me you should be asking," says Yuuko, opening the door.
But actually, if he thinks about it, and if he's really honest with himself, he doesn't really want to know. What it was that Doumeki gave up for him.
It's enough. Having this much. It has to be.
Because even if it isn't—even if what he really wants is to do is crush his face against Doumeki's chest and cry until his eyes swell, kiss the corner of Doumeki's mouth and his hands and his crooked knuckles, sit at the table and brush his toes against Doumeki's ankle, squeeze the knots out of Doumeki's shoulders after he comes home, tear off Doumeki's shirt and slam them both into the wall or onto the floor, rub himself frantically into the heat of Doumeki's condensation-wet palm and yell as he comes—
—this has to be enough.
"It's my birthday today."
"I know," says Doumeki (twenty-eight).
Doumeki looks at him, but doesn't say, I never forgot.
There are reasons why Watanuki forgets, sometimes. Even after twelve years.
It's not like he does it on purpose.
It's just—he's like this now, so he forgets what it's like to grow, to age. He barely notices the passage of time, although he observes it remotely, feels it by proxy—the grey hairs on Doumeki's brow. The wrinkles.
Meanwhile, Doumeki is still alive. Growing old. Putting years on the mantelpiece next to his badge.
Watanuki sees him as a ship disappearing over the horizon, a comet traveling through space. Disappearing into the far reaches of the universe.
Time, now an unseen force that Watanuki will never understand, is slowly—but surely—taking Doumeki away.
There was a baby boy brought to the shrine on his first birthday whom Watanuki prayed over, playing the part of a dutiful shrine priest.
Now ten years old, he visits the shrine with his mother every month. Happy to see that familiar old priest, the one who lives by himself in the temple, the one who watched him grow up. Watanuki is, well, happy to see him, too. Kind of. When he remembers to be.
He wonders now, sometimes, why people are afraid of growing old.
He's found out that the alternative is much, much worse.
Watanuki frets constantly.
High-strung in life, high-strung in death. Some things never change, he supposes.
But many things do.
He works as a priest during the day, in the illusion, to keep his mind off the fact that Doumeki's at work. The fact that he's off chasing psychotic killers, protecting the innocent.
The fact he might not come home.
That's something they don't ever talk about. Doumeki dying. But they both know it will happen. And now more than ever, Watanuki feels it, but he can't parse it. It's just... it's nonsense to him. Laughable. Just the idea of it.
(One day, Doumeki will die.)
He feels it when Doumeki gets up in the morning, moving stiffly, like an old man. ("Like an old man", but not yet, thinks Watanuki, insistently. Not yet old. Still a good many years to go. Doumeki will live long. God willing, he'll live forever.)
When Doumeki dozes off halfway through reading the newspaper, jaw slack, head lolling awkwardly. (—if I could just touch—but, well.)
When Doumeki pours himself more sake, and his eyes are bloodshot.
One day, Doumeki will die, Watanuki tells himself.
The thought hurts. He repeats it over and over in his head until it melts into a string of nonsense syllables, and then it doesn't mean anything at all.
Sometimes he hovers behind Doumeki's chair as he sits at the kitchen table, poring over a case file. A scene of domestic tranquility. Doumeki turns the pages slowly, one by one, reading with care.
It gets so that the silence is too much—well, there's silence, and a single quiet heartbeat, and a clock ticking on the wall. It's too much, so Watanuki breaks it, he says,
Doumeki immediately stops reading, and instead looks up, gazing into the middle distance. Waiting.
Don't be so attentive, Watanuki wants to scream. Don't care so much!
Instead he says, "You know." And then, "Your job is way too dangerous."
Doumeki looks up and around, surprised. His face is lined. His hand rests on the file, palm facing upwards.
By now Watanuki is used to the urge to reach for Doumeki's hand, and so does nothing. He doesn't even twitch.
"You worry too much," says Doumeki, quietly, and almost smiles.
(Sometimes Watanuki has bad days.)
It was me, thinks Watanuki. I did it.
I ruined you.
(Nope. Still nothing.)
A man who should have grown up to marry a nice woman, had kids, and died fully content with life while surrounded by dozens of his grandchildren—
Reduced to boiling water in a little pot on a Sunday night. Making soggy instant ramen which will end up in the trash. Sitting in the front room, legs crossed, cleaning his gun.
Watanuki knows, distantly, that all this is his fault. He watches the slow erosion of Doumeki's youth and vitality, the hardening of his heart. Doumeki himself doesn't seem to notice.
It's a gradual process, Watanuki supposes. Sort of like dying.
On bad days, they sit near each other, but not too near. Just close enough to sense another presence, but not so near as to actually touch. Or fail to touch.
This way they can pretend. Almost. That it's not so bad. Things aren't so bad. It could always be worse.
I want to touch you—
"Do you think it's wrong to want more?"
—touch your hair, your collarbone, your belly—
"No. No, I guess it's normal. To want things you can't have."
—kiss your eyelids while you sleep—
Silent for a while, and then Watanuki says,
Doumeki looks up, eyes open, expectant. Watanuki falters, then, and doesn't finish his sentence.
There is something he remembers very clearly, and that is the day he died.
(Sometimes it feels like the only thing he can remember anymore.)
Pain probably isn't the worst thing in the world. If it's the last thing you have to feel, thinks Watanuki. At least it's memorable.
He never really noticed his pulse until it was gone. The absence of a heartbeat. A hole in his chest.
The last few moments were—interesting, to say the least. Watanuki almost bled out once before. This was just like that, except this time he didn't wake up.
As his heart slowed and stopped, still desperately trying to pump life through empty veins, so did time. And after a while, there was no pain, as though he were experiencing his own death from a distance. He looked up into Doumeki's tear-stained face, and could only feel a vague sense of regret.
Goodbye, goodbye, he thought, then, as consciousness slipped away. Goodbye—
—but before that, clearer now than ever, this is what he remembers, a moment frozen in time:
Kissing, open-mouthed, on the floor, first gently, then deeper and deeper still, wanting, needing more. Hair slipping between fingers, the solid feel of Doumeki's jaw cupped in his palm. The weight of Doumeki's flank against his. Blood rushing to his cheeks. Light-headed and warm, drunk on sloppy tongue-kisses. Doumeki's smile pressed against his own.
Sometimes it's funny to think that that was the day he died.
But only sometimes.
The most difficult times are when Doumeki wakes, eyes flying open, murmuring something that sounds like Watanuki's name. When, for a moment, he looks around wildly, as though searching for something, and Watanuki imagines reaching out, holding him, comforting him, pressing a kiss to his brow—
At those times, it's all he can do to stop from screaming. Howling a breathless ghost-scream. Punching at air, at nothing, with immaterial fists.
What he says is, softly:
"You need another day off."
Doumeki blinks. Fuzzy from sleep. (Watanuki recognizes that feeling remotely, as though he read it in a book somewhere.)
"No, I don't."
Doumeki reaches out to cover Watanuki's mouth, palm hovering over the gap where warm breath should flow.
(For two who cannot touch each other, they've gotten very good at pretending.)
"Please," he says, voice hoarse.
So Watanuki gives in. He lies down, aligning himself with the futon. Hovering aboveground, really, but one can barely tell. Barely.
"I'm tired, too," whispers Watanuki. "So tired."
(He really is.)
Doumeki closes his eyes, wearily. Watanuki doesn't close his, because he's leaning in to kiss Doumeki, and he has to know when to stop.
He can't tell if Doumeki kisses back.
touch without touch
feel without feel
are we both really hoping
this just isn't real?