[Original flavor Tokyo Babylon, cute, and also rather sad. You have been warned. Please see my disclaimer page for copyright information regarding this story. If you like, you can also check out the Italian translation by Shu.]
A Tokyo Babylon fanfic
By Natalie Baan
Raising a hand to hold his hat in place, Subaru tilted his head back. He gazed up the short, steep slope toward the ruined walls jutting above him. Charred, they made jagged silhouettes against the flawless blue sky, their edges cast into sharp relief. A breath of air shivered the light-filled leaves of the trees that surrounded them, struck a faraway note from some windchime at another house along the street. Subaru let out a small sigh, then began to climb the narrow stone steps. He moved slowly, brushing past twigs of boxwood and yew that straggled into the stairs from overgrown shrubs on either side.
The property had belonged to a family of four: a young couple and two little girls. All had died when sudden fire ravaged their home, destroying everything but that shell of burned, broken walls. Since then, the neighbors had reported strange lights and noises: an unwavering yellow glow glimpsed at night through the trees, the sounds of childish laughter and play. The man who had bought the lot wanted to demolish and rebuild--in such a desirable area, a new house would resell for a great deal of money--but he feared trouble with the contractors, feared being burdened in the end with a house that no one would buy because of a reputation for hauntings. So he'd called the Sumeragi clan--not, he'd remarked offhandedly, because he really believed that an onmyouji's visit would lay any ghosts to rest, but because word would get around and quiet those gossiping whispers: the matter taken care of by the most prestigious means available, reputation opposed by reputation.
Work was work, Subaru supposed, but still it made him sad when people treated it like an empty formality or a status symbol.
He reached the top of the stairs. Sunlight fell straight down onto the tiny front lawn, making it glow like a green jewel set between the trees. If there'd been any damage to the maples that screened the house from the road, the spring's leafing had covered it over. Subaru studied the roofless building, its front door gone and the upper part of its walls eaten away, then glanced back down the steps toward the walk that vanished under branches, leading to the street. It wouldn't have been easy for the fire department to get in, he thought--but then, the house had been old, and would have gone up so quickly. By the time the firemen had arrived, it might have already been too late.
Approaching the empty doorframe, he stepped up onto the sill, balancing with one hand on either side of the opening. He peered through at the burnt-out interior. Fallen beams and roof tiles, charcoal and crusted ash covered the ground that had once been hidden beneath a raised wooden floor. Ever so cautiously, he lowered himself onto it, testing its solidity with one foot first, because Hokuto would be really appalled if he fell into a basement and would lecture him for at least an hour about putting himself at risk. He didn't want to worry her unnecessarily. And Seishirou, joking about rescuing him--
He'd be really, really careful, Subaru decided.
His face a little warm, he moved forward through the bones of the house, picking his way over debris, giving a wide berth to the possibly precarious walls. At the same time, he let his other awareness unfurl, seeking significance in temperature shifts, the play of light and shade, the threads of psychic influence that might lie behind such things. Somewhere in this desolation there was a spiritual locus: a knot of energies, at the center of which was the entity or entities that were disturbing the mortal world. Finding it was the first part of his job. Concentrating his attention, he reached out, opening himself, poised between alertness and trance....
Something low, sinuous, and abrupt moved at the corner of sight. He jerked about to face it. A small tabby cat paused in mid-step beneath the angle of a fallen lintel. It stared at him, its eyes two pale green, inscrutable sparks, shaded from the sun.
For almost a full minute, he returned its gaze, startled back into the world. Then, as what he was seeing settled in on him, he relaxed, breathing out the tension of surprise. Smiling, he sank into a crouch, holding out one hand in invitation. "Hello, there." The cat started, one paw lifting as it eyed him with profound suspicion. "No, I won't hurt you." He held himself still, both body and heart, without demand or urgency, allowing the cat to read the essence of his good intentions. "Come here, kitty. Come on."
The cat wavered, then put its front paw down once more, followed by the other one as it stealthed toward him. He watched its delicate approach, a precise single line of steps, its head lowered, its narrow shoulders rising and falling in alternation, and he admired how that graceful body moved, wary yet unselfconscious, silver and black-ticked fur rippling as the muscles beneath played in perfect concert. It stopped at the edge of reach and craned its neck; he lowered his hand minutely, letting the cat sniff the dark fabric of his gloves. At last it inclined its head and pushed its cheek brusquely against his fingertips. Curling them, he scratched at the corner of its jaw. The cat leaned into the caress, imperious and ecstatic, its purr immediately becoming audible, and as he stroked its back and it gave itself up to that touch, arching against his knees, he smiled a trifle more wistfully. "Good kitty. Is it all right if I...?"
The cat stiffened as he slipped his hands beneath it and picked it up. He was careful, holding it securely but without clutching at it; he gave it a moment to consider the situation, and at last it settled, its front paws tucking into the crook of his elbow. Folded within his arms, its purr seemed to intensify, resonating against his chest. He looked around, then walked through a gap in the wall into what he guessed, from the scorched hulks of appliances, had probably been the kitchen. The back wall of the house was mostly gone, and part of the foundation was exposed; a couple of shallow stone steps showed where a door had been. He sat down on them, near the blasted remains of a shrub or small tree that had been planted too close to the house to survive the fire, and let the cat puddle in his lap. Smoothing two fingers over the inverted "M" on its forehead, he watched it close its eyes in utter bliss. Its fur must be so soft, he thought. Even the slight breeze had faded, and the air was bright and still, with only an occasional desultory bird call to tell him that he and the cat weren't alone in the world. He was tempted, just this time, to take off his gloves. Surely no one would see him. He hesitated, but his grandmother's remembered voice restrained him, as always. Instead, he removed his hat and set it beside him. Folding forward, he rested his cheek on the top of the cat's head, and the cat endured the indignity--seemed to welcome that awkward embrace. Its purr continued unabated, and Subaru felt a tiny prickle at the back of his eyes at such perfect trust, such a hunger for and unquestioning acceptance of affection.
Straightening, he looked out over the small back yard: a swath of grass surrounded by more trees; a stand of peonies abloom with great flower-bursts of pink and white; a sandbox, empty of toys. He let his gaze drift up to the sky's perfect clarity. Then he shut his eyes, his head still tilted back a little, and tried to be as clear, as open. The cat had laid its chin on its paws, and he ran his hand down its spine in even strokes, each timed to the rhythm of his breath as he centered himself and waited in that stillness.
As he became that stillness....
He sensed presence first, after an unknowable time, undifferentiated, subtle pressures that grew stronger, gradually becoming distinct from each other: a warm, slow steadiness; another that was swift and impatient, yet tender; and then a paired fluttering, like rain pattering onto leaves, like wings beating above still water. They swirled and lapped around him like the sea about a pier, no more heedful of him than that. Voices caught at the edge of hearing, rose as that spiritual tide deepened, yet refused to cross over into intelligibility, a murmur of disconnected syllables that hovered just shy of meaning. A thin music came and went in the spaces between them, tinny strands of song, vaguely familiar but never quite recognizable. There were scents as well, surprising in their intensity, their evocativeness: the richness of warming oil, the strong aroma of fish--tempura, he thought, almost tasting the batter--the steamy, starchy smell of cooking rice, all so real his mouth watered, and he had to swallow quickly against a sudden, painful tightening in his throat. The cat's paws kneaded contentedly at his leg, a pricking of half-unsheathed claws. The music faded, but other sourceless noises took its place, grew louder and crested, slow steps, rapid ones, a trilling of high-pitched laughter--and more tangible than sound or fragrance or even the drowsing cat beneath his hand was the unexpected upwelling of joy: the sense of being enfolded in a belongingness so total that it made the back of his closed eyes ache once more, a damp, poignant burning. The sun, which had been bright on the other side of his lids, lost its force, was replaced with a dim, gently stirring shade. Swept up, touched to the heart by that sensation of being perfectly at home, safe and loved, Subaru shivered, caught his breath.
"I'm sorry," he whispered at last. "I'm so sorry. But--
"It's time for you to go on to the other world."
Moving with care, so as not to disturb the cat, he reached into his jacket and drew out a single ofuda. He raised it to the level of his forehead, holding it between two fingers, then snapped it to face outward.
He opened his eyes. Translucent, luminous petals were floating down all around him, as languid and otherworldly as tiny jellyfish medusae, adrift in twilight. He only half-saw them, briefly noted how his surroundings had darkened--a normal shift in his perceptions--his attention mainly focused on the working.
"/On--batarei ya sowaka./"
He could feel those presences inhabiting the air, brushing about him, still showing no reaction to his spell. It was as he'd thought.
"/On--sowa hamba shuda saraba taraman wa hamba shudokan./"
Lowering his hand, he touched the charged paper slip to the cat's head, between its ears--
--and the cat dissolved with a faint, singing sound, like the cry of one of his shikigami: a thin and plaintive note, like a questioning mew.
His lap was empty.
Shakily he released his controlled breath. He hesitated, then squeezed his eyes shut yet again and reached out with other senses, searching the area. Where there had been that vibrant memory of life, there was simply absence; where there had been the echoes of voices, there was silence. He felt the sun's warmth return, falling over his face. Blinking upward, he stared at the black, bare branches of the tree, the sky as flat as blue porcelain beyond, and he saw them blur, spreading like characters written on wet paper as a familiar grief filled him: a pang for all that had to be destroyed, dispelled, the necessary duty of a member of the Sumeragi clan.
For the illusions of a poor, lost, and lonely creature that didn't understand that it and all it had loved no longer existed.
After a while, a bird sent up a tentative spiral of song. Subaru stirred and wiped absently at his face. Picking up his hat, he made his way back to the front of the house, going around the ruin this time, through the dappled shade of the trees. He went down the stairs, his steps coming a little quicker as he reached the walk, looking ahead in half-formed anticipation, as though toward something undefined yet filled with promise, and as he neared the street the sight of the tall figure that waited there set wings in him, fluttering, swift, and strange, and at the same time gave those wings ease, someplace to rest.
"Ah, Subaru-kun!" The man had been leaning against a small gingko's trunk, his arms crossed over his chest. He pushed himself upright as Subaru drew near. There was a trace scent of cigarette smoke lingering about him; he must have finished one just a minute or two before. "Are you done?"
"Yes." As he reached Seishirou's side, Subaru smiled up at the man, feeling the usual mix of happy relief and diffidence at that unfailing kindness: the way Seishirou always volunteered to drive him to and from his work.
"And did it go well?" Daylight spilling through the fan-shaped leaves made irregular yellow patterns on the sidewalk. Subaru's gaze slid toward them as he made a soft, noncommittal sound. Then strong fingers slipped under his chin, gently turned his face back and tilted it upward, so that he was looking at Seishirou from a very close range. A sliver of sun ray gleamed on the metal rims of Seishirou's glasses, matching the peculiarly intent light in the brown eyes behind them. "Subaru-kun," Seishirou murmured, and Subaru's heart started up inside him. That regard seemed to go all the way down into the still core of the whirlwind, the place at the center of grief and regret, confusion and inexplicable wonder that he himself couldn't even begin to see. Fascinated, frozen, as though on the edge of a mysterious revelation, he trembled between stepping back or tumbling forward into that vast unknown. Bending nearer, Seishirou ran the ball of his thumb along Subaru's cheek.
"You have soot on your face," he whispered.
For a heartbeat, Subaru stared--then self-awareness slammed back into him like thunder, the fact of the other's nearness, the intimacy of that teasing caress. He jumped back, both hands flying up and cupping in front of his face, hiding the burning proof of his embarrassment along with the soot. "Sei- Seishirou-san!"
Seishirou laughed aloud and straightened, grinning his usual, cheerful grin, seeming pleased with his joke as always, that intense scrutiny gone as if it had never been. "Sorry, sorry!" he chuckled as Subaru tried to scrub away the smudges, still mortified, only to discover that there was no way to tell whether the black gloves were clean or just making the matter worse. "I guess my affections have been getting out of hand lately. Here." He offered a handkerchief, and Subaru hesitated, not wanting to get it dirty, but when Seishirou tucked it into his fingers he closed them on it, not certain what else to do.
"Tell you what," Seishirou added, and Subaru glanced up cautiously as he rubbed that square of white fabric across his face. "Hokuto-chan should be getting home pretty shortly. Why don't we give her a surprise after a strenuous day of shopping? Let's go back to your apartment and make a nice snack. What do you say?"
Subaru gazed at the man who stood there, smiling so warmly, and the last constrictions of alarm and awkwardness unloosed inside him. He returned Seishirou's smile, struck with a wholehearted gladness, a glow like a welcoming light that belonged to a place one called home. "Yes--let's!" Together they walked away along the sidewalk, toward the van parked by the corner, and Subaru thought how lucky he was to have two people he cared about so much, and who were so good to him.
On the ground beneath the gingko, a cigarette butt lay in the dirt: crushed, acrid-smelling, burnt.
[Author's Notes: The blame for this one lies with the filk song "Little Green-eyes" (lyrics by Mercedes Lackey, music by Kathy Mar, available on the CD "Plus Ça Change" at Dragonsgate Music). I just rediscovered it, and it haunts me almost as much now as it did when I first heard it ten or so years ago. What always traumatized me most about it (other than the pitiful synthesized kitty mews throughout the song) is the idea that, since the cat's a ghost, it'll play out its sad story of abandonment for the rest of eternity. I was looking for some way to resolve the situation, when it hit me like a thunderclap of inspiration or madness: Subaru could exorcise the kitty! And from there the idea connected up with all sorts of things, as you will have seen.
Thanks to Kristin O. for most excellent C&Cs. Comments are welcome, as always!]
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