iridaceaena: (Default)
[personal profile] iridaceaena
Title: And Knowing That We Are Not Alone
Beta: [livejournal.com profile] ephemeralize, with many thanks
Fandom: xxxHOLiC
Genre: WAFF. Christmas WAFF. And a touch of angst, and something that may or may not possess sharp pointy teeth. But mostly WAFF.
Pairing: Mostly gen, some D/W/H affection of an ambiguous nature.
Rating: PG
Spoilers: Through volume 12
Note: Written for [livejournal.com profile] iambickilometer's Carol of the Bells challenge. Issued last year. It was supposed to be D/W. This is why I don't participate in Yuletide.



"Here we come a wassailing among the leaves so green!" Yuuko sang, bursting through the door as though it were stage right and coming to drape a companionable arm over Watanuki's shoulder.

Watanuki stoically continued stirring as though he were the only one in the kitchen. Denial had served him well in the past.

"Here we come a wassailing, so fair to be seen!" Mokona chimed in, hopping onto Watanuki's other shoulder and nuzzling his cheek affectionately.

"Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too!" the two continued together, positively radiating a near-lethal dose of peace on Earth and goodwill toward man. Watanuki stirred harder, but the determined carolers clung to his shoulders like a pair of very festive leeches. "And God bless you and send you a happy New Year! And God send you a happy New Year!" they finished gleefully before settling into an expectant silence.

Watanuki held out as long as he could - which is to say, not very. "You can't have any until it's done!" he said irritably, although he had to refrain from adding his usual emphatic flailing for fear of splattering the icing.

"Mokona doesn't think Watanuki understands the true meaning of Christmas," Mokona stage-whispered to Yuuko over the top of Watanuki's head.

"So sad in one so young," Yuuko agreed, shaking her head mournfully. The tiny silver bells woven through her hair chimed softly, like a sad reprise of a theme.

"Alcohol and Christmas cake are not the true meaning of Christmas!" Watanuki snapped, thrusting the bowl forward in alarm as a lock of Yuuko's hair threatened to fall in it. He plucked Mokona off his shoulder and dropped it into Yuuko's hands before shoving the both of them toward the door.

"Oh, but Watanuki, don't you know it's bad luck to send carolers away at Christmas without giving them something in return?" Yuuko asked, lowering her voice with the exaggerated confidentiality of an older sibling informing a younger that Santa rewards children who take over all the chores.

"Is it?" Watanuki asked absently, his attention already back on the icing.

Yuuko nodded earnestly. "It's an ancient tradition. Very bad luck. It would be terrible to start the new year off so poorly, don't you think? Especially when it could so easily be avoided," she sighed, favoring the brandy on the counter with a lingering, meaningful look.

"And Watanuki needs all the luck he can get!" Mokona added cheerfully.

Someday, Watanuki swore, which was really as far as he ever got when formulating threats. "I said I'd bring it out when it's ready! Until then, make yourselves useful and go help Himawari-chan and that jerk decorate!" he insisted, gesturing toward the door with his spoon. Yuuko and Mokona dragged themselves out slowly, pausing every so often to make sure Watanuki knew there was still time to call them back and avert his horrible fate. If there was one place Watanuki ruled supreme, though, it was in the kitchen, and he would suffer no insubordination in an undertaking as delicate as Christmas cake.

"It's okay, Yuuko," Mokona said as they lingered in the doorway, patting her arm comfortingly. "There are lots of other Christmas traditions. Like ghost stories!"

("Oh, not again," Watanuki groaned, but Yuuko and Mokona were far better at ignoring people than he was.)

"Excellent idea, Mokona!" Yuuko declared, straightening up at once. "Something exciting and scary, but with a good message for the audience! I'll start us off." She cleared her throat, and Mokona assumed a position of rapt attention. (Watanuki snorted, then quickly pretended that it didn't mean he'd been listening.) "Marley was dead, to begin with," Yuuko pronounced solemnly. "There is no doubt whatever about-"

"OUT!" Watanuki shrieked, and the two fled (less because of his awesome and terrible wrath and more because they had accomplished their true mission of raising his blood pressure another few notches, Watanuki reflected sourly).

In the moment before the kitchen door slammed shut, Watanuki heard Doumeki ask, quietly but distinctly, "Did you tell him to remember to cut the strawberries into poinsettias?"

This time, there was no saving the icing.

*******

Watanuki emerged from the kitchen some time later, carefully balancing the cake on a tray. The intense concentration required to craft a miniature strawberry-and-icing Christmas tree on top of a cake (and the clusters of strawberry poinsettias were there because they were seasonal and traditional, thank you very much) had given him a headache and done little to improve his temper, but even he couldn't help but be impressed by the scene in the main room of the shop. Yuuko had acquired an absolutely enormous Christmas tree, and even half-trimmed, it was beautiful, with the glass and mellow wood of the ornaments catching and reflecting the light from the candles that glowed in clusters throughout the room. (The plastic ornaments of all of Yuuko's favorite manga characters, meanwhile, were generally capable of flashing little blinking lights without the candles' help.) Himawari was standing on a stepstool next to the tree, holding Mokona over her head so that it could reach the uppermost branches. Tanpopo fluttered back and forth, bringing Mokona ornaments from the box at Himawari's feet. Watanuki was alarmed to see the bottom branches of the tree bobbing wildly, but a sudden flash of white fur wriggling through an open space between branches indicated that Mugetsu was doing its part to help decorate, carrying one end of a garland in its mouth and threading its way through the bottom of the tree. Doumeki was following along behind it, patiently catching and re-hanging any ornaments that had been a little too close to the tips of the branches to be sufficiently pipe fox-proof.

Yuuko was presumably supervising all this from her position on the couch, although Watanuki certainly didn't understand how she could see anything at all through the fog of smoke coming from her pipe. She seemed to be paying more attention to the smoke anyway, her gaze dreamily following the swirls as they wafted away to curl around the room's other inhabitants. Upon catching sight of Watanuki, though, she brightened and set the pipe aside. "Watanuki!" she trilled. "I was just thinking about you!"

Watanuki winced, recognizing the silvery note of schadenfreude in her voice. He set the cake on a side table and looked down at it contemplatively. Was the one large tree in the center really the best way to handle the decoration? It was certainly aesthetic enough, but it would be difficult to cut and distribute evenly. Maybe he could run back to the kitchen and make individual-sized ones to put with each piece...? Not even Watanuki's well-practiced denial could stand up against such overwhelming futility, however, and he finally slumped forward in defeat. "What do you want now, Yuuko-san?" he asked, pinching the bridge of his nose in anticipation.

"Now really, Watanuki, you act as though I'm going to ask something terrible of you!" she chided, still entirely too cheerful for Watanuki's good.

"That's because you usually do," he pointed out (quite reasonably, he felt).

"You should take pleasure in bringing joy to others. 'Tis the season, after all," Yuuko said primly, then gave him an uncomfortably toothy grin. "And speaking of the season, it's awfully dull in here, don't you think? The tree really only livens up that half of the room. Don't you think some greenery would give it a nice, festive atmosphere?"

"Greenery," Watanuki repeated blankly.

"You know, like holly and ivy and evergreen boughs. You can find it in the woods quite easily."

"We're in the middle of Tokyo! We don't have any woods!"

"I've arranged transportation for you," Yuuko said, her tone implying that she was doing him a favor, the kind she usually added to his tab. The thought did not contribute to Watanuki's holiday spirit.

"It's ten o'clock at night on Christmas Eve!" he protested. "It's going to be freezing and dark and - "

"Of course, you don't have to go if you don't want to," Yuuko interjected, all surprise and wounded innocence. "I would never force you to do anything, my dear, dear Watanuki." Watanuki remained unimpressed, and Yuuko continued, "I'm sure Himawari-chan and Doumeki-kun won't mind going by themselves to gather the mistletoe. It's quite lovely in the moonlight, you know. Terribly romantic, rea - "

"I'll get our coats!" Watanuki interrupted, hating himself just a little for the way he let himself be played so easily.

"Bring them to the front of the shop," Yuuko instructed with the insufferably complacent air of one who has predicted game, set, and match and who has been right in every particular.

Watanuki was still hunting down everyone's scarves and mittens when his muttered litany on Yuuko's employment practices was interrupted by a muffled cry from Himawari. He quickly snatched up a haphazard armload of assorted wraps and ran for the entryway, where Yuuko, Himawari, and Doumeki were standing silhouetted in the doorway. Watanuki skidded to a stop behind them and had just managed to pant out "Himawari-chan, what - " before his attention was arrested by what was waiting outside the shop and he no longer had to ask what had startled her.

Reindeer, Watanuki reflected once his initial incredulity had faded into disgruntled acknowledgment that yes, this was exactly like something Yuuko-san would do, were much larger and hairier than children's Christmas specials would have one believe. The three standing in front of them now were particularly impressive specimens, with a wide spread of antlers that did not bode well in conjunction with their alarming habit of shaking and tossing their heads. The fact that they wore saddles and harnesses did little to create the illusion of domestication.

"They're so cute!" Himawari gushed, stepping forward to pat one on the neck. It snorted but held still, even when Himawari reached out to stroke its nose. Watanuki, meanwhile, pranced back and forth frantically, torn between the desire to pull Himawari away from any creature that so blatantly advertised the reasons why it should be given a respectful amount of personal space and the grudging knowledge that Yuuko-san usually waited until they got out of the shop grounds before putting them in danger of being mauled.

"Himawari-chan, your coat!" Watanuki finally cried, in an attempt to break the problem down into more manageable issues. In between radiant smiles at Himawari as he helped her into her coat, Watanuki looked reproachfully at Yuuko. "Yuuko-san, you can't possibly expect us to..." he trailed off as he glanced over to see Doumeki already sitting astride one of the animals and looking remarkably blasé about the entire thing.

"You coming?" Doumeki asked.

"Just because some of us have the sense to stop and think for a minute before climbing onto a wild animal-" Watanuki snarled as he thrust Doumeki's coat viciously up at him (and then was treated to the maddening sight of Doumeki shrugging into it without even having the decency to look like he was going to lose his balance).

"Better hurry, Watanuki!" Yuuko sang out from the (warm, well-lit) doorway. "You don't want to be out all night, do you?"

Watanuki looked helplessly at Himawari for support, but she had already pulled herself up on her reindeer's back. She smiled apologetically back at him. "I took horseback riding for a little while when I was younger. It's really not so bad," she said encouragingly.

Watanuki had always felt that for all of Himawari-chan's many outstanding qualities, she did have a rather broad definition of "not so bad". After several aborted attempts, however, Watanuki finally managed to settle himself in the reindeer's saddle (and while the reindeer had been remarkably patient about having a gangly teenage boy flinging himself at its back, Watanuki had been laughed at often enough to know perfectly well what all those whuffing exhalations had been). "Where are we supposed to be going on these things?" he asked irritably, tightening his grip on the reins as the animal shifted alarmingly beneath him.

"The reindeer know the way," Yuuko said dismissively. "Be sure to get the fresh stuff!"

Before Watanuki could even begin to enumerate the number of things inherently wrong with the former statement, something smacked against his reindeer's flank, and the animal started and took off running. Watanuki had just enough time to glance over his shoulder and see Mokona lobbing snowballs at the other reindeer before he felt himself jolting to the side and decided to focus his full attention on not falling off.

In a way, the bone-jarring movement as the reindeer thudded along was almost comforting; it meant they were still firmly on the ground without Watanuki having to actually open his eyes and check. (Truth be told - not that he would, of course - Watanuki felt obliquely cheated that Yuuko-san had not, in fact, produced a trio of flying reindeer. Not that even earthbound reindeer weren't flashy enough by normal standards, but for Yuuko, they were almost prosaic.) The cold air bit at him sharply as they ran, but the reindeer was warm beneath him, and it didn't seem to mind when Watanuki buried his fingers in the long hair of its neck and leaned forward to press his face against it. The cold had given the air that peculiarly brittle quality in which sound carries effortlessly, and Watanuki found himself listening closely to the few noises that broke the stillness - the steady crunch of the animals' hooves breaking through the crust of the snow, their heavy, snorting breaths, the light jingle of the bells attached to the harnesses, the occasional small sound from Himawari, and Doumeki's palpable silence. It had a rhythmic quality that was remarkably soothing - not that Watanuki felt any qualms about spoiling the moment when the reindeer finally slowed to a walk, dismounting at the first possible opportunity (dismounting deliberately, not falling off, no matter what some people might say later).

"Where are we, anyway?" Watanuki grumbled half-heartedly as he brushed the snow off his coat.

"The woods," Doumeki said patiently. He had managed to dismount while Watanuki was flailing around in the snow and was holding the harness of Himawari's reindeer so she could get down more easily.

"Anyone can see that, you moron!" Watanuki snapped. "What woods?"

"Aren't they impressive?" Himawari interjected, clapping her hands together and looking around.

The reindeer had stopped at the edge of a large clearing, bordered on one side by a stream and completely surrounded by heavy, dark trees that did not reach for the sky so much as hold it up. The clearing could have been artificial, with the trees cut down to create a field for a family farm, or perhaps harvested by loggers... but Watanuki knew better even as the thought crossed his mind. He couldn't imagine these trees being cut down any more than he could imagine them as saplings. If this place had been created by anyone or anything at all, it had been done so long ago as to be an entirely different concept of time.

Watanuki was so distracted by the presence of the place that it took a minute for him to notice that Doumeki was giving him That One Look. Watanuki hesitated, but eventually shook his head. Of course something was here; he would have been far more concerned if someplace this ancient hadn't had some kind of spirit in residence. It didn't seem malevolent, though. Watchful, certainly, but not actively threatening. As long as they were careful, they should be fine.

Doumeki seemed satisfied by that; he nodded and turned to check on Himawari, who had also left off her contemplation of the woods for more practical pursuits. A lantern had been attached to each saddle, and Himawari had found pouches hanging next to them that contained matches, small knives, and bags (presumably to hold the greenery, although if Yuuko-san expected them to fill that many, she was going to be grievously disappointed. Watanuki went to ridiculous lengths to humor his employer's whims, but he was not going to be responsible for hauling an entire forest of dead plants out of the shop the day after Christmas). Himawari carefully lit each lantern before passing them around. The warm yellow light was swallowed up by the light from the full moon - so bright that the shadows looked more real than their counterparts - but it was comforting all the same.

"So, um, how should we start?" Himawari asked after the equipment had been divided up, looking down at the knife in mild puzzlement.

Doumeki shrugged. "Yuuko-san wanted evergreen, holly, and ivy, right? All we have to do is cut some - just a little from each, or you'll kill it."

Technically, Yuuko had also mentioned mistletoe, but as Watanuki had taken his lesson about self-preservation very much to heart, he had already exercised selective memory loss in that regard. "Do you know how to choose what plants to cut, Himawari-chan? I can help you, if you'd like!" Watanuki said instead.

"Thank you, Watanuki-kun!" Himawari said, with one of those smiles that inevitably sent Watanuki into gloriously shameless paroxysms of joy. "But - " (which was also inevitable, really) " - I really like Christmas decorations, so I think I know what Yuuko-san wants. Maybe you should help Doumeki-kun cut the evergreen branches? They’re awkward, and you two work so well together!"

"Himawari-chan..." Watanuki sighed, like the air going out of a balloon. He rallied admirably, however, and gathered himself enough to say, "Stay close by then, okay? We shouldn't get separated out here."

"You're the one who's likely to get distracted and wander off," Doumeki pointed out.

Watanuki had also taken his lesson about not taking people for granted very much to heart, but Yuuko-san had reassured him that he was human, which meant he couldn't be blamed for reacting when he had been so clearly provoked beyond the limits of human endurance. That idiot Doumeki didn't even have the grace to look properly chagrined when Watanuki informed him of all his shortcomings, however, just stood there with his fingers in his ears and with that infuriatingly bored expression on his face - and then Himawari-chan kept laughing, which just made him want to strangle Doumeki more, and all in all it was quite some time before they actually got around to harvesting any greenery.

They did eventually get to work, however, and conversation petered out as they made their way around the edge of the clearing, concentrating on completing their task as quickly as possible. They worked steadily, and they had already managed to fill several bags before Watanuki (who had been preoccupied with trying not to speculate why the holly was European and not Japanese) noticed the uncomfortable sensation at the back of his mind. Before, the presence in the area had only been watchful; it hadn't seemed to resent them, even when they began cutting branches. Now, though, Watanuki was acutely aware of the rage building up around them, like electricity in the air before a storm.

Watanuki took a few tentative steps in the direction they had been heading, and the sensation strengthened, leaving him lightheaded against the pressure. We came too far, and now we're trespassing, he realized belatedly. A moment later, he also realized that he wasn't the primary focus of the thing's anger. With growing horror, Watanuki looked forward and saw that Himawari-chan had gotten ahead of them and was heading toward a particularly promising patch just across the stream - and in just exactly the wrong direction.

"Himawari-chan!" Watanuki yelled, already lunging forward, but it was too late. As Himawari stepped over the stream, the pressure increased exponentially, and through his nausea Watanuki understood that whatever it was must have had enough. He yanked Himawari back, and suddenly Doumeki had a hand around each of their arms and they were all stumbling back through the snow, running for the reindeer. The reindeer had sensed the pressure too, though, and the three were only halfway across the clearing when the increasingly skittish animals cried out and bolted. The three stopped dead in their tracks and, with nothing else to do, turned back the way they came.

"Where is it?" Doumeki asked, his voice low. "I can't see it."

"That's because I can't see it!" Watanuki whispered, looking around frantically. The tree branches were swaying, despite the expectant stillness of the air, and though the moonlight hadn't changed, the shadows seemed sharper, somehow, as though the edges were curling up. "I don't know where it is or what it is or anything, but - it's coming closer."

Doumeki's lips thinned and his grip on Watanuki and Himawari's arms tightened, but he didn't have his bow, and there was nothing to aim at anyway. Watanuki's mind was racing, his thoughts tumbling over each other meaninglessly, and he could only put them in any kind of order if he broke them down into the simplest possible terms. Yuuko-san had sent them here - she hadn't told Doumeki to bring his bow - Yuuko-san was usually content to let them almost get eaten - he wasn't done making Christmas dinner yet; there was no way she wanted him to die right now - so there must be something they could do - something - they had almost been eaten at that weird spirit parade, but he'd done a favor for the little kitsune - it had repaid him - but there was no way this thing owed him anything - unless he could -

Oh.

He hated it when Yuuko-san did that.

Under any other circumstances, Watanuki would have pitched a fit in protest, but unfortunately, he had been in danger of dismemberment often enough to know that timing was everything. He did get in a few good stomps as he pushed in front of the others, ignoring Doumeki's sharp "Oi!" and Himawari's panicked "Watanuki-kun!" He didn't give himself a chance to think about what he was doing, simply closed his eyes and began to sing the first thing that came to mind. "Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away..."

The air around them was deathly still, and there was nothing for Watanuki's voice to hide behind. Every mistake was painfully obvious - aiming too low or too high, stumbling over words that he seemed to be dredging from his memory by sheer force of will. He was mentally writhing at the thought of Doumeki and Himawari-chan listening behind him, but he continued doggedly, and after a moment, he felt the other two come forward to stand next to him. Watanuki risked sneaking a sidelong glance at their faces, his cheeks burning, but neither of them seemed to object to his abilities or find anything the least bit questionable about his decision to deal with the threat of impending doom by singing at it. Doumeki not-so-subtly positioned himself a little in front of the other two, while Himawari flashed Watanuki a quick smile before her expression changed to one of deep concentration. As Watanuki launched into a new verse, both of them joined in.

If Watanuki's singing had left something to be desired, the others didn't help the matter. Himawari had a pleasant voice, but she didn't know how to support it, and it came out thin, with a tendency to go sharp on high notes. Doumeki, meanwhile, appeared to be completely incapable of actually carrying a tune. Watanuki would have been overjoyed to finally discover something Doumeki couldn't do, except that their lives sort of depended on it right now and wasn't that just like him. Together they probably would have been thrown out of even the most drunken karaoke party. They didn't let that faze them, though; as soon as one song ended, someone would start another - a solo or duet or trio, depending on how many of them were familiar with the song. The ones not singing would gulp down mouthfuls of snow or confer in frantic whispers, trying to come up with more carols. Watanuki dimly felt the pressure slack off bit by bit and eventually cease completely, but not knowing what else to do, the three kept singing.

Doumeki was fairly useless - as Watanuki had always known he was - but Himawari knew most of the cute children's songs and had an astonishing repertoire of sappy J-pop ballads. Watanuki, meanwhile, seemed to know every traditional Christmas song ever written. He had trouble at first, leaving out entire choruses and verses and ending a disproportionate number of songs with arbitrary fa-la-la-la-las, but the more he sang, the more easily they came. He couldn't for the life of him imagine where he had learned them all.

Watanuki was wondering about it when he found his mind constantly straying to the same image, as though something outside himself had gently entered his mind and was leading him to it - a large box full of sheet music in his closet that he had dusted a few times but otherwise tended to overlook. Watanuki couldn't read music, and he certainly wouldn't have bought it for himself. That same foreign tugging sensation insisted that there was a connection to be made there. Very few people had purchased things for the Watanuki household, especially luxuries.

Watanuki did not remember his parents at all. He knew a few things about them, however, things that he had been told or shown, and these he hoarded desperately. He had written them all down in a blank book, and every night before he fell asleep he recited them, like a protective charm against his losing these as well. He knew his parents were dead. He knew they had died in an accident, saving him, but that they were at peace now. He knew that his father had taught him how to cook, and that he had carried a silver pocket watch.

He knew that one or both of them must have loved Christmas carols, and that they had sung them so often he had memorized them.

Watanuki didn't remember his parents, but he loved them fiercely, with a child's unquestioning devotion and with an adult's understanding of loss. Now, though, he was surprised to realize that the guilt and feeling of it should have been me that had once accompanied the thought of his parents was nearly gone, the bitter edge smoothed down into a quiet sort of acceptance. Before, he had known that his parents had died because they wanted him to live, but he had known it in the same way that he knew his father had carried a pocket watch – a fact from a textbook, the context and motivation as incomprehensible as if it had happened to some historical figure in the distant past. He hadn’t understood it, and so he’d fought it. But now – Watanuki was also surprised to realize that at some point his hands had joined with Doumeki and Himawari-chan's, all of them holding on tightly, as though defying anything to try and separate them.

Well. He’d always learned best through repetition anyway.

Watanuki closed his eyes and sang for their invisible audience - a lullaby, a requiem, a love song - thinking of his parents and feeling the others' hands in his, warm in the gloves he had made them.

*******

Watanuki didn't know how long they sang. He certainly didn't remember falling asleep, but at some point the cold and snow and shadows had been replaced by warmth and the twin feelings of something prickly underneath him and something soft against his cheek. He cracked one eye open just enough to see that they were in Yuuko's shop, that he was lying on a pile of evergreen boughs, and that his face was buried in a pool of Himawari's hair. He would have liked to revel in the sensation, but that realization came simultaneously with the recognition that Doumeki still had hold of his hand. Watanuki felt that he ought to be irritated, or jerk his hand back, or something, but his head was too muzzy with sleep to hold the idea long enough to even consider acting on it. There would be time in the morning, he decided vaguely.

A cool hand suddenly stroked through Watanuki's hair, and he opened an eye again to see that Yuuko was sitting by his head, smiling down at him with something very like real affection. He thought she might be going to say something, but she just stroked his hair again. Watanuki barely had time to wonder what Himawari and Doumeki had received before that thought blurred, along with the rest, into sleep.
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iridaceaena

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