Series: Bleach, xxxHolic
Characters: Yuuko, other characters from Bleach canon
Summary: All he wanted was to get a gift for his little sister. He had no idea how high the price would be.
Notes: This is my very, very belated contribution to the "Butterfly's Web" series I have been remiss on working on with aishuu. Each of these stories (Bleach/xxxHolic crossovers, the lot of them) can be read as a stand-alone (which is a good thing, given that I write at the speed of glaciation).
A young man ran through the rain. He clutched a small paper bag against his chest as if it were a talisman.
The sudden storm was a mixed blessing. Less than two minutes into it, and he was completely and utterly drenched. The tented newspaper he held over his head only served to keep the driving rain out of his eyes. Even so, he couldn't see all that well; water was coming down so hard that the streetlights and the passing headlights turned the sheeting rain into a glittering and all-obscuring fog.
It masked the street signs. It masked the shop windows. It masked the landmarks. It masked all sound. But it also masked the various oddities that otherwise continually plagued his vision: ghosts both benign and grasping, fox spirits and cat spirits and everything-else-in-the-animal-cracker-bo
He wished he could be completely thankful, but with the rain falling harder and the temperature dropping fast, it was becoming increasingly difficult to see the whole 'blessing' part of 'mixed blessing,' especially when the sodden newspaper was threatening to turn into a fetching papier-mache hat.
No, he needed to get home, and get home now. Yes, the rain kept him from seeing ghosts, but for some reason he also never saw the blasted things at home. Aside from being blessedly ghost-free, home was warm and dry, which put it several billion points ahead of being stuck out here in the rain.
At the next crosswalk, he sprinted across, cursing as he ran, feet splashing through what felt like six inches of standing water. He could barely see the WALK signal on the other side. It had better not change--getting hit by a car wasn't exactly on his agenda for the evening.
It wasn't until he'd crossed two more streets that he realized he'd missed a turn or gone down the wrong street somewhere along the line. He had no idea where or when he'd gotten lost, but lost he was. What little he could see of his surroundings was utterly and irrevocably unfamiliar. He let the newspaper slip out of his hand. If it made a noise when it hit the ground, it was lost in the roar of the rain and the sound of his own moan of frustration.
"You'd better pick that up." A girl's voice carried sharp and clear above the din of the rain.
He turned and looked in befuddlement at a girl who stood right beside him and who he was certain had not been standing there a moment ago. Her umbrella was pointed in righteous indignation at the soggy newspaper he'd just dropped.
Other than the fact that she wore a very old-fashioned black dress, she appeared normal enough. But, on closer examination he found she had the sort of soft yet crisp-edged quality that he associated with spirits. He could also see her perfectly well, even in the rain. In fact, the rain seemed to be invisible around her, and it hadn't taken a bit of bounce from the corkscrew curls in her ginger ponytails.
"What? Oh, yes, yes. Right," he stammered as he stooped to pick up the newspaper. He clutched the paper bag between his teeth for a moment as he scooped up the newspaper. The newsprint fell apart in his hands, but he was able to corral the pulp and deposit it in a trash bin.
"Good." She was both prim and pleased, and it took him a moment to realize that there was something else rather strange about her. Despite the rain, her black umbrella was furled so tightly that it looked more like a walking stick.
"I wasn't littering," he said, not sure why he felt the need to explain himself to her. At least this spirit didn't seem interested in trying to devour him. If all he had to put up with was a little snippiness, he was getting off easy. Fleeing for his life through the driving rain had no appeal whatsoever. "It's just that I'm, well... lost."
"No you're not," she snapped. "You're headed in exactly the right direction." She pointed down the road with her umbrella. "Turn left at the corner, then go another two blocks that way, then turn right, and it'll be half a block down on your right." The umbrella twitched like a dowsing rod with each change of direction. "Even you won't be able to miss it."
He bowed to her, grateful despite the unnecessary insult to his intelligence. With spirits, it was always better to respond with politeness, no matter how much one might be provoked. "Thank you very much."
There was no point in questioning how she knew where he lived, and no point in worrying about it, either. Home was only a temporary residence, anyway. In another month or two, they'd be moving on again, as ever tighter finances meant another squeeze in their living situation.
Besides, right now, all he wanted was to get home and hand over an unexpected but much needed present. As he ran off, he heard the snippy little spirit say something about how she had to do something for him in exchange for the gift, so there was no need for thanks, but he soon forgot it in his rush to get home.
Left at the corner, two blocks up, a right turn, and then he was walking through a gate he'd never seen before in his life. He didn't even remember making the decision to go through the gate, but he'd made it all the same, possibly even when he'd accepted the spirit-girl's directions.
The strange, not-quite-Western style house in front of him was quite obviously not home, but an instinct he'd learned long ago to respect (the same instinct that had told him that this was a good day to go shopping for a gift) told him that this was where he needed to be right now. As he crossed the courtyard, the rain slowed down to a gentle shower, and by the time he reached the door, it was barely sprinkling.
"I get it, I get it," he muttered, glaring up at the sky. "I'm not completely stupid, you know."
He turned and looked back over his shoulder, even though he knew from reading and rumor that this might not be the best of moves. Nothing happened as a result, but he was not surprised to see that just outside the gate, the rain was still coming down in buckets.
When he turned back, the front door was open.
"You know, I hope I can get back," he announced as he stepped through the open door and slipped off his shoes and socks. A towel sat waiting from him on the step up from the genkan and he was able to dry himself off well enough. The soft dry slippers that had been laid out for him felt like heaven after his cold and sodden socks. He still clutched the little paper bag to his chest--he didn't want to put it down somewhere and absent-mindedly leave it behind.
"Although I do thank you for your hospitality," he added, remembering his manners.
He padded across the entry hall, since there was a light visible through the paper of the screen on the far wall. Light, and a hint of motion. He smelled incense, jasmine, and something that might have been opium.
A woman's voice, dusky and touched with both laughter and solemnity, carried through the screen.
"You may come on back. My usual assistants are busy at the moment, or someone would have met you at the door."
What she said was probably true enough, but he also suspected that going through the gate and through the door and into the hall on his own was also meant as some sort of test. Thing like this were always tests.
The room behind the screen was softly lit, so that its corners vanished into shadow, so that the true size of the room was impossible to distinguish. A tall, slender woman lounged on a chaise at the back of the room, and her long hair trailed over the arm of the chaise, so that it appeared to blend into the surrounding darkness. She took a pull from her long pipe and looked up at him with hooded eyes.
"I don't suppose you'd care to tell me your name?" she asked.
"That... would depend on what you plan to do with it," he said carefully, knowing that offending this woman would carry a higher price than he could afford.
She smirked a bit at that. "Good. You've obviously learned a lot, despite not having a formal education."
He was about to protest that he'd completed high school and one year of college, but that wasn't what she meant, was it?
"I've done some reading." He'd gone through an alarming number of books on the occult, folklore, and mythology in order to make some sense of the visions that had plagued him since childhood. "Most of it was nonsense, but there were a few things that struck me as true--and important. Names were one of those things."
"You'll be safe enough, giving me your name. As for me, I am called Ichihara Yuuko."
Called, not named. The distinction was subtle, but he knew enough to pick up on it.
"Inoue Sora," he said after a moment's hesitation, bowing. "Pleased to meet you, Ichihara-san."
Yuuko sat up a bit, propping her head on her fist. "It's a nasty night to be out, isn't it, Sora-kun? But then again, you still need to get your little sister a gift, true?"
Sora was in no way surprised that she knew his errand. In fact, he would have been surprised if she didn't. But he was amused that she'd gotten one detail wrong.
"Actually, I already got her something. See?"
The fingers of his left hand had been clutched so tightly for so long around the top of the Piffle Princess bag that it actually hurt to unbend them. He reached into the bag, and the paper clung cold and wet to his hand until he reached a dryer and breezier sort of cold.
"Oh. Oh no..." The rain had weakened the bag, and a hole had rubbed through in the corner from where he'd clutched it against his chest as he ran. Somewhere along the way, the tiny card with the two hair pins must have slipped out. It was so light that he never would have noticed its absence.
There was no way of finding them again. They could have fallen out anywhere along his journey. Plus, there were so many pedestrians out on the street, even with the rain; by now the pins would have been trampled into twists of wire and shards of plastic and washed down some drain.
"They were perfect, absolutely perfect. Little pink crystal things, hearts--crystal hearts. As soon as I saw them, knew she'd love them--they were perfect." He knew he was babbling, but the woman still listened to him with alarming intentness, as if he were explaining some complex point of philosophy or theology. Her eyes may have been hooded, but they showed nothing but concentration as they gazed at him through shadow and smoke. "She'd been having trouble at school--some of the girls, you know how cruel they can be--and I thought a little gift might cheer her up, something pretty that would make her feel better, somehow. And now they're lost, lost in the rain."
I had to do something for you in exchange for your gift. The words, all but forgotten, flickered in his mind's ear, and he thought about the power of offerings left at a crossroads.
He took a breath and collected himself. "I just want her to know she's being watched over."
A long puff of smoke snaked out of Yuuko's mouth, preceding or perhaps carrying her actual words.
"Is that what you truly want? For her to know that she'll be watched over?"
He heard the words in his bones.
Before he could answer that yes, of course that's what he wanted more than anything in the world, Yuuko clapped her hands twice, the sound bringing to mind sharp slaps against a tiny body. But instead of a wail of pain, the only sound that followed was that of rapid footsteps somewhere further back in the house.
"And if it's not you doing the watching, would you be content with that?"
"I--I'm not sure what you mean." Who else would watch after her? Who else knew what kinds of food she liked, the things that made her sad, her favorite songs, which brands of laundry detergent she was allergic to, or how to comfort her after a nightmare? Who could he count on not to tell her she was wrong for putting red bean jam on leeks, or for singing made-up lyrics to traditional songs? Yes, she had friends, very good friends, but that was not the same as family. No one else knew Orihime as well as he did.
Yuuko didn't answer him directly. She simply stared at him coolly as if trying to tell him that yes, he knew exactly what she meant. Before he could press her on the matter, the footsteps came to a halt and a door at the one end of the room slid open.
A small child with pink hair and a blank expression stood in the open doorway. Sora wondered if the little wings on her back were actual wings or part of a costume, then quickly stopped wondering because he realized that he'd really rather not know the answer to that question.
"There is someone who is able to watch over her better than anyone else. The trick in this case is unlocking that ability." She waved her pipe towards the child.
The child came trotting into the room. She held a small lacquer box, which she held out to Yuuko.
Yuuko took the box, and after thinking it over for a while, opened it and pulled out something that he couldn't quite see from where he stood.
"Come here. Hold out your hand."
Sora did as instructed, and Yuuko placed something in his right hand.
Two hairpins rested on his palm. Somehow, even they'd just come out of their box, they felt as warm as if they'd been snugged up against living skin for hours. They were nothing like the pins he'd lost. Those had been glittery and to be honest, a little gaudy in their aggressive pinkness. He could almost hear Orihime warbling in delight as she tucked them into her hair.
These, on the other hand, were nothing much to look at--at first. At a casual glance, they were nothing more than flat asterisks of color glued to ordinary bobby pins. But they were oddly heavy--not oppressively so, but enough that he knew he would have known at once had he dropped them. On closer examination, he also found that the metal of the actual clips wasn't quite like the plasticized steel on the other ones. No, these had the patina and pitted smoothness of bronze. Old bronze.
He held up one of the pins and turned it this way and that between his fingers so that it caught the light. They were darkly luminous in the way of certain blue flowers, the kind that glow like a twilight sky against the dark of their greenery. The shapes were crude and simple in the way of things that are old, very old, and he knew without being told that they were from somewhere far off in a direction that couldn't be measured in miles.
"What... what are they?" They didn't feel anything like the creatures that constantly flickered in and out of his peripheral vision, but there was something there.
The woman stretched back out on her chaise, resting her cheek on the back of her hand. She gave him a one-shouldered shrug as she answered his questions. "Hairpins. Nothing more. Their provenance is a bit unusual, perhaps, but there's nothing magical about them."
"Not directly," Sora said quietly, as he again turned one of the pins to better catch the light. Now that he looked at it more closely, he thought he could see subtle variations deep in the color, as if the tiny flowers had been made up of layer after layer of transparent enamel, each in a slightly different shade of blue or green. "They're... tools, right? Something like that?"
"A focus," the woman said, nodding in satisfaction. "Very good. You're pretty sharp, you know that? I'd love to take you on as my assistant, but I'm afraid there's simply not enough time."
He blushed a bit at the compliment, both pleased and embarrassed. "True, that. My job takes up far too much of my time anyway. I barely have any left at the end of the day to spend with Orihime."
"That, too," she said softly, and he wondered what caused her to smile so sadly.
Sora held the pins, one cupped in each palm, savoring their weight and wondering what Orihime would think of them. They weren't pink crystal hearts, but there was something about them that seemed so... her despite their weight (he wondered if they'd feel quite so heavy to her) and age.
"What do these have to do with someone else looking after her?" he asked. The slight emphasis on 'else' was the only doubt he allowed himself to express on that particular topic at the moment, but the way Yuuko's sad smile turned into something a little harder and a little more knowing told him she'd picked up all that and more.
"Tell me, Sora-kun--who looks after you?"
He looked at her and tried to think about what she was really asking. "No one?"
He wondered if that was the right answer.
Okay, so it wasn't the right answer. He had a feeling he was missing something obvious.
Again, Sora looked down at the pins. He tilted his hands a little to see the play of light that made them seem like something alive. Alive, he thought, but sleeping and far beyond waking. If they were a focus, he wondered, what was it they were supposed to focus, and what would be the result?
"Well, Orihime does. A little bit. I suppose." She cooked, or at least tried to cook. She did her share of the chores and kept the apartment more or less tidy.
The look Yuuko gave him, the gentle curl of her lip that wasn't quite a smile, told him that once again he was missing something that should have been obvious. Perhaps it was too obvious, something like air or gravity that he wouldn't miss until it was gone. Before he could ask her about it, though, she took another pull on her pipe and changed the direction of the conversation.
"All of which brings us to the question of price."
"Yes. Of course." He chose to look at the pins rather than her. Everything had a price. Like the power of names, it was another constant. You paid them even if you didn't know you were going to be receiving something. And often, he thought wryly, you didn't know the value of what you were giving or what you were receiving until well after the deal was struck. "I haven't accepted these yet, have I? I mean, I bought the directions to this place without knowing that's what I was doing. I didn't know I needed to come here, and I wouldn't have needed to come here if I hadn't lost the other hairpins in the first place, and there's more going on here than just hairpins and people looking after each other and... and I'm babbling again, aren't I?"
Yuuko laughed. It was a loud, merry, and very human laugh, and it was so incongruous (and yet so perfectly fitting at the same time) that it startled a laugh out of Sora. "Sit down," she said, waving her pipe towards a velvet cushion. "Moro will bring us some tea."
The pink haired girl dashed off without need for a direct order and soon Sora heard the sound of water and metal and pottery. He also heard not one, but two voices raised in a merry, girlish sing-song that made it hard to believe that she had been standing there for so long, silent as something that was not and never had been alive.
"You have probably figured out that your coming here involves more than just a present for your sister. Or your sister herself. Or the ame warashi who sent you here and who will be a client of mine one day in the future. Or the person who gave up those hairpins you're holding as the price for his own wish." As she spoke, she waved the hand with the pipe in a lazy circle. Smoke spiraled out from the pipe, forming ring within ring that grew and spread like ripples on a pond. "Are you familiar with the concept of hitsuzen?"
Sora hesitated, then nodded. He knew of it, but couldn't exactly define it. It had elements of destiny, but also of serendipity, fate, luck, and karma, all wrapped up with other concepts such as inexorable or even gravity.
He had a feeling that he--and Orihime--were becoming part of a much larger story than their own little tale of escape and survival, and he wasn't sure he liked it.
"All I wanted was to give her something to make her feel better. To make her feel like there was someone watching out for her." Why did it have to be so complicated? And why did he feel like this complication was his fault? He was the one who could see spirits, and if he hadn't seen that girl (what did Yuuko call her? ame warashi?) none of this would have happened. He would have found a passing stranger, a human one, and asked directions.
But then he would have been without a gift, and he still could not shake the feeling that a gift was called for. No, required.
"Hitsuzen," he muttered, and it came out almost as a curse.
He thought about Orihime wearing the pins, their blueness rich and vivid against her chestnut hair, and as soon as the image came to mind, he couldn't imagine her not wearing them. They were as much a part of her as her goofy laugh, or the silly songs she sang, or the way she loved so unconditionally and left her heart so wide open.
"They're perfect," he said, and he knew it was an admission of surrender. "What do I owe you?"
Moro came in with a tray of cookies. Another girl, almost identical except that her hair was longer and as blue as Moro's was pink, followed with another tray, this one with a cast iron teapot and two porcelain cups.
"You've got a long walk ahead of you tonight. Too bad... I would love to have something stronger than tea," she said, and it sounded to Sora almost as if she was whining. The two girls put down their trays and in unison, shoved their fists in the air and chanted Stronger! Stronger!
Yuuko merely smiled at them indulgently as they took their leave.
She waited, and Sora eventually picked up that he was meant to pour the tea for the both of them. He did so, after putting the pins down on the tray. Yuuko was, of course, quick to take a cookie for herself.
"The price may be higher than you are able to pay," she said between enthusiastic bites of cookie. Somehow, she was able to sound completely sober while indulging in gluttony. "Inability to pay carries another price of its own: a heavy one."
Sora sipped at his tea and waited to hear more. Yuuko snatched up another cookie before he could even think of taking his first. It disappeared in two bites.
"The desire to protect can all too easily become a different kind of desire." She wiped the cookie crumps from the corner of her mouth with an odd deliberateness, and when Sora started to bristle at the implications of what she said, rapped him on the head with her pipe and told him to get his mind out of the gutter. "You've taken on the role of your sister's protector, and it was a good thing you did so."
"You know about our parents." He stared down at the cup in his hands, trying to see something in the light rippling on his tea and wondering how much Yuuko knew and how much she wasn't telling him.
Clairvoyants never said everything they knew. It seemed to be some sort of rule.
"I know enough," she said. "Enough to know that those who are meant to protect can become those who mean to harm."
"I would never hurt Orihime."
She ignored his automatic protest, or seemed to. She took another pull from her pipe and allowed the smoke to trickle slowly from her mouth, so slowly it almost seemed to stand still. "And enough to know that the desire to keep someone safe can turn into the desire to keep them."
Sora put down his tea and scooped up the pins again, as if they already belonged to him. Yuuko was warning him about something, but it made no sense. "I thought we were going to talk about price."
"We are." She looked at him, eyes hooded, and he realized he would never be able to tell anyone what color her eyes were. He couldn't even say if they were light or dark.
"We are?" he echoed. From the kitchen he could still hear the two not-alive girls as they cleaned and sang. Their happy noise only added to the silence that hung for a moment between him and Yuuko.
"You need to let go." Each word was enunciated with forceful precision. "That's the price. When the time is right--and you'll know without a doubt when that is--you need to let go and let the person who can best look after her take over."
It's too high he wanted to protest, but he held tight to the pins and the spiky petals bit into his palm. They were still asleep, but they felt alive the way the two girls in the kitchen did not.
"Who... who is it? This person who's supposed to look after her." He was not jealous. He wasn't. It was just that...
He was her big brother, for crying out loud. When their parents had failed spectacularly at their job, protecting her had fallen completely on her shoulders. Who else could do what he did? Someone he'd never met? Someone she'd only just met?
"I mean... who knows her as well as I do? I can't just let anyone look after her, Ichihara-san."
Yuuko raised one eyebrow and smiled at him in a way he'd find maddening if he had to see it more often. "Oh, the person I'm thinking about knows her even better than you do."
"Who?" he snapped. If he squeezed the pins any tighter, he'd be drawing blood.
Yuuko reached out, and gently pried open his hand. She took the two pins and held them up so he was looking straight at them. At first, they looked ordinary, as if they were something he could have bought at Piffle Princess. Then, it seemed that there were far more than just two pins in her hand and that there was motion and thought worked into the metal and enamel. For a moment, barely a second, he thought he could hear his sister singing.
Sora turned away, staring into the shadows at the back of the room as his jaw worked angrily. What Yuuko said made sense. He wouldn't be around forever, after all. Orihime would grow up, go off on her own, have her own life--connected to his, he hoped, but still her own.
That was the way things would go. It was the way they were supposed to go.
"She can't see the spirits that are out there," he said. "There are things out there... you know what they are. Some of them have tried to eat me."
"People like you are a delicacy," she said, telling him what he already knew all too well.
"And I've seen them sniffing around her, too. As if she has something they want, or maybe it's just because she's mine--my sister, I mean. But she has no idea. I think she knows I can see things, but she has no idea how much I see."
Yuuko nodded, but it was not in approval.
"The penalty for reneging on a price is quite high," was all she said. She still held the pins.
"When the time is right I'll know, you said? And those pins, whatever they are, really? They'll help her look after herself?" He hated the price, but he knew he had to bring her the pins. He'd known all day, and everything, including the rain, had only serve to bring him here, to this point.
A focus, Yuuko had said. A focus that might help her avoid all the things that were out there--or that could bring her even more to their attention.
Orihime was still young. She'd still need him for a while, right? At least through high-school, he supposed. Maybe by then, he'd see for himself that yes, she could take care of herself, that she could avoid all the dangers that too few people knew were out there.
He hesitated, then held out his hand. Yuuko waited for a moment, perhaps to see if he would change his mind, then put the pins in his hand. They were heavier than he remembered.
"Learning what to do with them is her responsibility. All you have bought her is the chance," Yuuko said. "And remember--when the time is right, you must let go."
"I will." It was a promise, and the pins now sat heavily in his breast pocket.
Then, Yuuko reached out and brushed a stray lock of hair away from his face, almost tenderly. Her smile was unaccountably sad. "You love her very much, don't you? She's everything to you."
His voice was gruff as he stood and told her he had every intention of keeping his promise and paying the agreed price.
She said nothing, merely watched and let smoke trail from her mouth as he turned to go. As he approached the door, the sound of rain grew louder and louder.
Out in the courtyard, the drops were few and far between at first, but the rain picked up pace and so did he, and by the time he was through the gate he was sprinting through driving rain.
As he ran, he tried so shake the memory of the past... half-hour? hour? He had no idea what time it was or how long he had been in the shop. All he knew was that Orihime must be waiting for him.
He hoped she'd like her present. He once again saw her smiling, saw the blue flowers glowing and dark against chestnut hair. They looked like they had always been there, been a part of her.
She'll love them, he told himself smugly, and the thought kept off the worst of the chill, for a little while at least.
One day, he'd pay the price that Yuuko asked, but surely that day was a long day away. He'd have time to prepare. Prepare himself, and prepare her. He nodded a greeting to the ame warashi as he passed, but she ignored him.
A young boy in a white outfit and carrying a strange bow simply glared at him for disturbing his concentration as he ran past, but Sora paid him no mind. But then the boy's head lifted, making him look for all the world like a dog going on point, and less than a second later Sora heard the horrible, hungry howl cut through the sky, drowning out the rain.
He turned to warn the boy, but the boy was gone, heading towards the howl. Sora thought about running after him, but he was so close to home. So close to Orihime, and who knew if that thing (he recognized it as one of the masked spirits, the hungry ones, the worst of them all) was after her.
So he ran even faster. He narrowly avoided being hit by a car as he ran through an intersection, but it didn't matter. Orihime needed him. The boy would have to look out for himself.
And if he remembered the promise he made, that memory was pushed aside in favor of far more important things.