Disclaimer: Nope, still don't own it.


To Absent Friends: Taiki's Story

"No need to apologize," Watanuki assured him. "You wouldn't have been able to enter this shop at all if you didn't have a wish, and I assumed the wish had something to do with this spirit. Would you like to tell me about it?"

Taiki looked down at his hands, which were clenched in his lap. In a slow, halting voice, he began to speak. "There was this girl in my class at school that I really liked. Her name was Kaede. Some of the other kids teased her because she had lots of freckles, but I thought she was really pretty. When she invited me to her birthday party, it took me a whole week to decide what to get her.

Then one day, she didn't show up at school. I figured she just had a cold or something and hoped she'd get better soon. But she wasn't there the next day either. The day after that, I started to think that maybe she was really sick. I got her a get-well-soon card that day on the way home from school. I took it with me the next day. When I sat down at my desk in homeroom, my best friend came up to me. 'Did you hear about Kaede-chan?' he asked.

'Well, I know she must be really sick to miss school four days in a row. I got her a card, though. I'll drop it off at her house on my way home today.'

'Taiki...Kaede-chan isn't coming back to school anymore. There was a car accident...'

'What's wrong? Was she hurt?'

My friend started looking like he was about to cry. I knew the news must be really bad, because he's always been tougher than me. 'She didn't make it, Taiki.'"

Doumeki had shifted closer to Taiki, and Himawari looked stricken. "Go on," Watanuki urged gently.

"When I got home that day, I told Tou-san and Kaa-san what had happened. I think...I think Kaa-san knew already, didn't she?"

Doumeki nodded. "She knew you were going to find out something terrible that day, but she didn't know what. She asked me whether we should keep you home from school, but I told her that wouldn't keep you from finding out. You'd just hear about it the next day, or one of your friends would call you at home."

"I kind of wanted to be alone, so I went up to my room. It was a lot colder than usual, but I figured the heater was just broken. It was weird, though, because that was the only room in the house that was cold.

The cold seemed to follow me around after that. And there was other stuff too. I'd put something down, and when I went to look for it later, it wouldn't be there anymore. Or I'd see a curtain or the leaves on a tree moving even when there was no breeze. Well, growing up with my parents, I'd heard all kinds of stories like that." Taiki looked over at Doumeki. "I know that when somebody dies, they're supposed to move on to the next world. But I...I missed Kaede-chan a lot, and I didn't want her to leave! So I didn't tell you what was going on, because I was afraid you'd exorcise her. I'm sorry. I know I should have said something."

"I understand why you didn't," Doumeki replied. "But if you're telling us now..."

Taiki nodded. "I want Kaede-chan to be happy! If she's stuck here because of something bad that happened or something she's worried about, then I want to help her. I want her to be where she's supposed to be, even if..." He trailed off, sniffled, then continued in a voice that was barely above a whisper. "...Even if that's not here."

"Is that your wish?" Watanuki asked.

"Yes."

"Then I will grant it." Watanuki stood and walked over to the screen. It trembled as he approached. "You don't need to be afraid," he said soothingly. "You heard what Taiki-kun said: I just want to help you get to where you need to go." He smiled. "He is a good boy, isn't he? Despite being Doumeki's son. It must be Kohane-chan's influence on him."

"I'm sitting right here, you know," Doumeki grumbled.

Watanuki bent his head, as if listening intently to someone hiding behind the screen, then turned back to his guests. "Taiki-kun, there's something Kaede-chan wants you to know. She says that you don't have to blame yourself."

The color drained from Taiki's face. "She-"

"Why would she think that you might blame yourself?" Doumeki asked slowly.

"Because it was my fault." Taiki stood and turned away, fists clenched. "That day, the day of the accident, I was thinking of asking her to visit the temple gardens with me. I was really proud of all the flowers Kaa-san and I had planted together, and I wanted to show her. But...I was scared. What if she said no? Every time I tried to get up the nerve to ask her, I just couldn't! And then class would start, or one of her friends would come up to talk to her, or something. And then, before I knew it, the day was over and she was getting into her parents' car. If I'd been braver, if I'd asked her to walk over to the temple with me and she'd said yes, then she'd...she'd...she'd still be alive!"

The screen rocked back and forth, wobbling ever more violently until it fell over. "See? She's mad at me! Kaede-chan, I'm sorry!"

"You're wrong," Watanuki said quietly. "She's not mad at you." He crossed the room and put a hand on Taiki's shoulder. "Yuuko-san told me once that only the person who was most affected by an event can say whether it's a big deal or not. If Kaede-chan doesn't believe that her death was your fault, there's no reason for you to feel that it is."

"Then why is she still here? Why is she following me around?"

"Because she's worried about you. She knows that you've been blaming yourself for her death, and she's been trying to tell you not to."

"Where is she? Can you show me?"

"She's right here." Watanuki waved his hand through the air next to the fallen screen, describing a vaguely human-like shape.

Taiki turned to face the spot Watanuki had pointed out and bowed. "I'm sorry to have made you worry, Kaede-chan. The truth is that I do blame myself for what happened to you, and I don't think that's something that'll go away overnight. But I'll keep reminding myself that you weren't angry at me, and that you even cared about me enough to stay behind. So over time, I'll change, right?"

Doumeki nodded approvingly, and Watanuki smiled. "We'll still need to recite the sutras for her."

"I'll do it," Doumeki said. "Taiki, would you like to help?"

They began to chant, one high voice and one low, and after a minute or two, Himawari joined in. A breeze ruffled the long sleeves of Watanuki's kimono and spread the smoke from his pipe through the room. The pipe smoke created a thin haze that made Taiki's eyes water. He blinked repeatedly, and raised a hand to rub at his eyes.

"Hey! What's-" For a moment, he thought he had seen a girl standing by the toppled-over screen in the corner, just where Watanuki had said Kaede was. Kaede-chan!

Doumeki's head whipped around at his son's outburst, and he stared hard at Taiki. Did he see her? Although he had reported feeling Kaede's presence, this was the first time he had ever actually seen a spirit. So whatever power I possess on my own, plus that granted by yhis right eye, has been passed down to him, huh? For his own part, he could see Kaede perfectly clearly. She had nodded solemnly in response to Taiki's vow, and now was growing steadily fainter.

The intertwined voices faded out, Himawari falling silent first, then Doumeki, and finally Taiki. As the last word of the last sutra hung in the air, Kaede disappeared.

"She's gone," Taiki said, sounding both relieved and disappointed. "I don't know how, but I can feel it."

"Yes," Watanuki confirmed. "She's gone where she needs to be."

"I owe you something, right? Tou-san says that every wish comes with a price."

"That's true. Hmm...do you have some toy that was precious to you when you were a little kid? A teddy bear or something similar?"

"I have a stuffed elephant I used to sleep with every night."

"That will do nicely."

As the guests gathered their things to go, Doumeki watched Watanuki. He insisted on helping Himawari into her jacket and answered Taiki's questions about the various knick-knacks in the room. Doumeki felt the weight of the egg in his kimono sleeve, but knew that the time to use it hadn't yet come. It still makes him happy to help those who need a wish granted, and he's looking forward to seeing how Taiki grows up.

When his friends had departed, Watanuki righted the screen. Kaede-chan, I'm glad that I could help you find your place. Please, give my regards to Yuuko-san.


A/N: Here we are at the last chapter. I hope you've all enjoyed the ride!