Sakura and Snow

Chapter 2


By Natalie Baan



Seishirou had awakened early, after his usual dreamless sleep, and having dressed, made coffee, and smoked the first cigarette of the day, he was tending to his plants.

He took a certain pleasure in them. They were attractive to look at, and he'd found that the twice-weekly ritual of grooming and watering had its own benefits. That small amount of care was like a very minor meditation, producing a subtle centering effect with almost no effort on his part. In addition, seeing the plants thrive was a source of satisfaction, especially since he'd challenged himself to use no magic in their care. And he hadn't lost a single one yet, although it had been touch-and-go with the two ferns.

He was examining those now, parting the fronds with gentle fingers as he checked for dead or dying growth. They were his favorites--he found their airy grace deeply appealing--but they were also troublesome. They were constantly threatening to shrivel up and die. It was the arid heat in the apartment that did for them, he had discovered, but humidifying trays and proper vigilance in watering seemed to be turning the trick. Anyway, the ratio of dead shoots to green, living ones was much improved: there were only a couple of brittle fronds, which he picked off diligently. Both ferns were dry, though, as all the plants seemed to be this morning--dry and a bit dusty.

"Well, how about a shower?" he asked them. "Would you like that?"

He imagined that they would like that very much. Scooping the ferns off the spiral plant stand, he carried them into the bathroom. Rather than risk dropping anything, he made a second trip for the little inumaki at the top of the stand. Humming off and on to himself, he pinched out a few of its growing tips so as to encourage greater fullness, then tucked it into the crook of his arm and went to gather the half-meter dieffenbachia from the corner by the bed. He glanced out the window as he passed. It certainly wasn't sunny, but at least it was somewhat bright outside. The cloud ceiling was high and thin, a very pale pearly gray. A substantial amount of snow had come down overnight: he could see the fresh layer of whiteness mantling the low roofs opposite. Below, however, the street cleaners had probably already reduced it to the usual thin brown sludge.

Leaving those two plants with the ferns, Seishirou went back to the kitchenette to freshen up his now-lukewarm coffee, and also to collect the ivy from the window there. As he poured a new cup from the coffeemaker, he eyed the happy little decorative pot that the florist shop had sold the plant in. It was very cute, he thought, but one of these days he was going to have to find something slightly more...appropriate. The ivy could stand to be pinched back as well, but he decided to leave it for the moment. Perhaps he could let grow it longer and train it up the side of the narrow window. It would be more pleasant to look at than the wall of the neighboring building. At least the large picture window in the bedroom did offer its expansive view of sky and rooftops, and in the distance parts of downtown Tokyo. It was one of the apartment's better features.

He took the ivy and his coffee into the bathroom, put the plant down with its colleagues on the shower stall's white tile floor, and switched the spray to a gentle setting. While the water pattered down onto the leaves, he turned and looked back into the bedroom. That was another benefit to having plants, he thought: even though these were few and mostly small, they still managed to transform the energy of what without them was a somewhat boxy room. They gave it a much-needed quality of life and vibrancy.

Still, it wasn't a bad apartment, only perhaps a little ordinary. He'd lived in places that he'd liked better, but this one sufficed for his needs. And it did have what all real estate agents claimed was most important--"location"--even if not every person would agree that it did. It was distant from Tokyo's center, yes, but not inconveniently far from mass transit, and it had the distinct advantage of absolutely no major kekkai in the vicinity, and thus little danger of earthquake or nearby magical battle. That had been his primary factor in choosing it. Even Dragons needed to sleep, and having the roof fall on his head in the middle of the night was not something he wanted to experience.

At one point he'd been invited to join Kanoe and her children in their lair, but of course he had declined. The thought of living under the Government Building was amusing, but aside from that the idea didn't appeal to him at all. It made them all too obvious and attractive a target. Besides, he'd always been a solitary hunter--it was his nature--and although he understood his role in the coming events precisely, he didn't consider involvement in the end necessarily to mean involvement with the other Dragons of Earth. It certainly wasn't required that they all live together. The Seals were doing that, and he was amazed that they hadn't killed each other off yet and saved the Angels the trouble.

It might have been fun to take Kanoe up on her offer though, just to see how long he could hold out against the temptation to merge Yatouji Satsuki's parts with her computer permanently. He had to chuckle at the thought. Children, these days...but the girl was very good at what she did, and that really was what mattered.

As he saw it, the others would do their things, and he would do what he was best at, and as long as no one got in anyone else's way it would all be satisfactory.

The plants had probably had enough, and Seishirou turned off the shower before too much dirt could wash out of the pots. He decided to leave the plants there until they drained. Wandering back out to the bedroom window, he sipped at his coffee and gazed across the snowy rooftops toward the distant view of skyscrapers.

No, not a bad place at all. Of course, his favorite apartment had been the one in Shinjuku, above the clinic. It had had so much space. Walking into it had been like an act of liberation, like an indrawn breath. But now those high-rises made the area a deadly place to live, and anyway he couldn't have stayed there after the conclusion of his little bet with Subaru. He accepted that completely--it was simply one of the minor inconveniences he'd had to deal with as a consequence of his actions. Giving up veterinary practice had been another. This enemy would watch animal hospitals, knowing the little that he knew, and one could not hide a clinic. It would be ridiculous. As much as the novelty of being hunted amused Seishirou, he didn't intend to make things quite so easy for the Sumeragi. He had found other ways to earn his living.

It was a pity, though. Using his patients as alternates had been such an elegant solution to the problem of magical return. But of course, there were a lot of other lives in Tokyo....

Thinking about Shinjuku and the clinic and the year of their bet, Seishirou remembered the previous night's play under the cherry tree, Subaru's peculiar behavior, and his eventual collapse. He wondered if Subaru had wound up spending the entire night out in the snow. His curiosity tugged at him, insistent as usual, and he gave into it with a smile. Focusing himself, he caught lightly at power and threw a faint thread of seeing out toward the familiar locale of the sakura. For a place he knew so well, it took no time or effort at, Subaru wasn't there. So he'd come to his senses eventually and taken himself home--either that, or someone else had found him and carried him off, which Seishirou supposed could be possible. Still feeling inquisitive, Seishirou extended his senses further, sweeping out across the city to where he knew Subaru lived.

At a certain invisible boundary he stopped short and with utmost care began feeling for that well-known presence, for the answering touch of his signs. The house where the Seals hid was warded exceptionally well, its interlocking walls of warning and defense masked to all magical perception, even his. At best, one might notice a sensation as of a flash of sunlight or the shifting suggestion of a cloud: nothing solid or certain, nothing that would draw the eye or the mind, but an indiscreet touch would alert the will that had created it, and a direct attack would unquestionably be met with violent return. Seishirou suspected that it was the work of the girl from Ise, and he admired its subtlety.

He wondered how Subaru would feel, though, if he knew that he was Seishirou's entrance into this warded sanctuary: that the marks carved into him were a gateway through which Seishirou's farsight, at least, could pass those secret walls. If this means of passage were not potentially so useful, Seishirou would be tempted to let him discover it just to observe his reaction. However, that would be a terrible waste. There was much that could be learned from watching these Seals, and someday he would want to do far more than merely study them. That flaw in their protections would be invaluable then. Seishirou did not confuse his play and his work; he would never throw away such an advantage merely for the sake of his own amusement.

He wasn't sure precisely where the wards began and ended, but he knew that they didn't extend to the place where he was, and so he remained there, sending out that silent, most intimate call. Nothing answered, nothing opened up to him within the wards. Subaru was not there, either.

His gaze soared up and away from that place, flashing back to his body after casting one last glance at the nondescript building. Nobody would guess that it was the only home and headquarters of the Dragons of Heaven. Six of the seven Seals lived there, and the seventh, the woman from the soapland Flower, visited with great frequency. Seishirou couldn't resist a slight, feline grin. None of the other Dragons of Earth knew the identity of the seventh Seal. None of them had even been able to track the Seals to their hideaway or to discover, let alone pierce, those shifting, enigmatic wards.

So there, little Satsuki-kun. Your computers don't know everything yet.

Back in his apartment once more, Seishirou stared speculatively out the bedroom window. Subaru wasn't in either of the two most likely places. Therefore, he could be anywhere. Tokyo was a very big place, and it would be too tedious to feel his way across all of it, seeking for the occult brilliance of those stars. There was a quicker way.

Seishirou raised his cup to eye level. There was still the slightest hint of steam rising from it. Good. He blew lightly on the steam, and as it swirled and spun away from his breath he wove that movement into the semblance of wings fanning the air, into claws and gray-white feathers, sharp beak and bright hunter's eyes--a peregrine, pale and ghostly, and far smaller than the eagle shikigami that he used as a weapon. He called the bird out of the air and onto his hand. Reaching into himself, he summoned up the recollection of Subaru, the image and essence, the soft radiance of life perceived through the conduit of the bond that marked him--felt the actual bloom of that life then, faint and tenuous against his palm, and let it pass into the creature that he had made.

"Please find this person."

The bird cried without sound and hurtled from Seishirou in a flash of translucent feathers, passing through the window's glass and disappearing rapidly into the pallid winter sky.

Seishirou took another sip of his coffee and contemplated snow for a minute or two.

Like the ringing of struck crystal, the peregrine's psychic cry echoed in his mind. It had found its quarry.

Sometimes it was just so much more efficient to delegate matters.

He let his perception fuse with the shikigami's, watched the city wheel madly beneath its circling flight, and then felt its small, mindless exultation as it stooped from the sky toward a certain building, one that was eminently familiar.

Shinjuku General Hospital.

Subaru-kun, why am I not surprised?

In casting his spell, he had noticed that the pulse of life was thinner than usual. Obviously, this was the explanation. Subaru had been ill enough last night, and after an extended vigil in the cold it was no surprise that he needed to see a doctor. Subaru had always been vulnerable to sickness and its complications.

The bird winged invisibly through the substance of the building. Walls and corridors blurred by it, a flicker in Seishirou's sight. It swerved left suddenly, flew through a door and between a set of cloth partition-walls, and alighted on the foot of a bed. Emptily its yellow eyes stared at the bed's occupant, and at the array of monitors, lights, and transparent strands of tubing that surrounded that person. It understood none of these things. It knew only that it had achieved the purpose of its creation, and now it waited with insentient patience for its form to be dispersed.

Seishirou, who did understand the significance of the equipment, studied it for a moment through the bird's eyes. Then, with a minor releasing of his attention, he allowed the shikigami to fade back into a ghost of steam and vanish.

No, he wasn't surprised at all. He smiled a little at Subaru, who was so cutely predictable. Of all the onmyouji of the Sumeragi clan since time out of mind, Subaru had to be the only one who ran himself into the ground so consistently and with such small regard for his own body. This time, though, he really seemed to have outdone himself.

Seishirou finished his coffee in a leisurely way, then went to clean out the cup and the coffeemaker. Once he'd tidied up the place and put back his plants, he'd go out. There was that little shrine he had been meaning to see to, with its kekkai...and perhaps he would stop, on his way, and pay a bedside visit to a certain onmyouji.


* * * * *


Seishirou strode easily down the hospital corridor, carrying a small, tasteful arrangement of flowers. None of the hurrying doctors or nurses spared him a second glance. Of course not; after all, he was entirely unremarkable, and they were much too busy with the victims of an unsettled city, the people caught in earthquakes, strange explosions, fires, or simple human violence such as rioting and looting. They had better things to worry about than whether or not his visitor's pass was in order.

Tokyo was not a healthy place to live these days.

Soon he reached the correct wing of the hospital and found the room that he was looking for. He slipped inside. It was a large public ward, but the bed he wanted was conveniently situated next to the door. Seishirou had been observing his target off-and-on for most of the trip, so he knew that Subaru at present was unconscious and alone; he therefore stepped through the privacy curtain with perfect unconcern, not even bothering to prepare himself for discovery or a fight. It seemed as though Subaru was likely to be out for a while, and if he threatened to wake he could always be lulled back to sleep again.

Seishirou drew the curtain closed behind him and looked down at the still form of the person he'd come to see. Subaru had certainly had livelier moments. He was thin and drawn, and the wintery-sky color of the hospital gown he was wearing did nothing to contrast with the stark pallor of his skin. One slender arm lay atop the covers; his hand was wrapped in bandages, and they had him on an IV. He had tubes down the throat, unpleasant. All in all, he was looking less than lovely.

Seishirou cradled the flowers in one arm as he picked up Subaru's chart from the end of the bed. He peered at the schizoid spiders of the doctor's handwriting. Advanced pneumonia, loss of digits, though. Well, that was some good news. Apparently he'd been found unconscious and with no identification: that was even more good fortune. If his name had hit the hospital's computers, it would have all been over quickly. Seishirou doubted, however, that Satsuki checked up on every anonymous patient. Subaru was safe, at least for now.

You've fought her before and won, but right now you're at a bit of a disadvantage.

I'd probably have to do something uncivilized if she tried to interfere with my fun.

He continued to study the chart. That was quite serious medication, and Subaru was on some sort of respirator. I think you're going to be here for a while, Subaru-kun. I wonder if your friends are looking for you? Well, I probably shouldn't stay too long, just in case. Amusing as it might be to play with them, I do have errands that I need to attend to. They'd only be a distraction, and not so very appealing a one.

He would go in one more moment, he decided, but--he glanced at the monitors. He just wanted to do his own examination first. Those vital signs looked poor, and the record on the chart was puzzling.

Not responding to treatment?

Seishirou let the chart drop back into its place and walked toward the head of the bed. Reaching to brush back the dark bangs, he touched Subaru's burning forehead; he ran his hand down the length of the thin arm and measured the thread of the pulse. He frowned just a little.

No, that wasn't very good.

Seishirou passed his hand over Subaru's face and down his body: not actually touching him this time, but probing for inner energies, the bright, fiery currents of life. After a moment, he stopped short. He went back and checked that life force again, thoroughly, just to be sure, and found the same thing. It was...weak. In fact, it was very weak, much weaker than it ought to be--that fire was barely perceptible at all. It was a scant flickering under his fingertips that wavered and at times hinted it might disappear. He dug deeper into Subaru, eyes half-closed as he concentrated on sensations other than sight or physical feeling. He brought his hand to rest over Subaru's, over the mark inscribed there, and let that serve as a channel guiding him far down into the tenor of Subaru's body. A dim light pulsed through the bandages, the lines of the star diffused by the gauze into a featureless glow. The heart rate on the monitor fluttered, and he felt the small increase of its beat through those other senses--Subaru's unconscious reaction to this invasion--but it was a surface matter only, and not what he sought to uncover.

Seishirou reached down as far as he could go without entering the inner landscape of Subaru's heart. He touched the place where spirit joined with body, the true source from which that life, that fire, sprang, but it felt cold under his touch and somehow empty, like a room on which the door had just been shut and locked. Empty...he laid gentle, noncorporeal "fingers" on Subaru's will to live, and he felt...ash.


Seishirou moved his hand away, ending the exploration. He rubbed his fingers together absently, as if the sensation was from something that might linger on his physical being.

It wasn't the feel of the death that he dealt in. The death that he brought came swiftly, with surprise--the sudden strike from the dark, the ordinary and familiar turned to something "other." Not this slow, extended fading-out of life. Nonetheless, he recognized these signs. This kind of thing....

It was something that most medical doctors never comprehended, and even if they did were not able to treat. No one could. It was the person's inner self that decided to live or not to live, and if the will chose not to fight then all the medicines or machines in the world couldn't save more than an empty, hollow shell. A hearth without a fire...a place without inhabitant.

Without any desire to live, Subaru would die here. He wouldn't even last until the final day.

It seemed their game already was over.

Seishirou gazed at the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan, unconscious in the hospital bed. Around them the machines hummed quietly and occasionally pinged. He looked down into that stillness and wondered, as he sometimes did, about the impulses that moved other people, or that failed to move them sufficiently.

He couldn't imagine what it was like, just to give up on life like that.

What happened, Subaru-kun? I wonder what it was that broke you, after hanging on this long. Did you just fail one too many times? I thought you were a little bit stronger than that.

In the end, it seems that not even your "one wish" was enough to keep you alive.

To have Subaru give out on him like this was something of a letdown. He'd rather been looking forward to the end.

I should have expected it, though. You've always been ready to lie down and die, sometimes for the most foolish reasons.

You've given me the win so easily.

You didn't even really try to fight.

Well, now you're dead, Subaru-kun...and after all the time I've put into you, it's sort of a pathetic way to end matters, isn't it?

Whether I kill you, whether I just leave you to die here--there's hardly any difference at all.

It made the whole affair rather stupid and pointless.

But I'll kill you anyway, before I go. You are my kill, after all.

Still, it's pathetic....

Was this what you were heading toward, all that time?

Is this all that you're good for, Subaru-kun?

Seishirou stared down into the bed, feeling his jaw set in what he admitted to be disappointment, and he felt something else then, a strange tension, an unaccustomed tightness in his body that matched a sort of mental resistance: a emotion that felt hot and sour and at the same time sweet in its unfamiliarity.


Subaru had managed to make him angry, just the littlest bit.

The feeling stopped him instantly, and he savored it, the differentness of it. Rare, exceedingly rare for anything to disrupt his usual equilibrium. Pleasure or displeasure, amusement or boredom, those sensations were one thing, but anger...he could count on one hand the number of times he'd been angry since he'd come into his full power, and he'd probably have fingers left over for the victory sign. There were just so few things that could thwart what he desired.

With all the other emotions that he didn't know, that he had never even experienced at all, simply to feel this one little spark was to him a most amazing thing.

He stood there and explored the feeling with fascination until it started to fade. Then he turned his attention back to its cause.

Subaru-kun, he thought, and smiled.

Maybe you've given up. But I haven't.

You're not going to escape me quite that easily.

Most definitely not.

Seishirou took a moment to deposit his flowers by a neighboring patient; it amused him, to think of the person's surprise upon waking. As he returned to Subaru's bedside, he flung the swift, subtle touch of a spell across the mind of the attendant at the nurses' station who was supposed to be watching the patient monitors. A simple diversion, along with the assurance that nothing could possibly be out of the ordinary...the attendant was ridiculously easy to distract. Satisfied with his result, Seishirou lingered only briefly, looking down at his currently unresponsive prey. Then he leaned over the bed and confidently began detaching Subaru from the machines. As he did so, he suddenly grinned.

He'd never stolen a body from a hospital before.

It promised to be entertaining.


* * * * *


Seishirou flipped back the covers one-handed and eased his "guest" down onto the bed. Subaru was heavier than the boy he'd once been, but he was certainly still manageable. Straightening, Seishirou surveyed the sprawled form, then shrugged out of his coat and went back to the other room to hang it up. Returning, he stowed Subaru's belongings in the closet and began to disentangle the onmyouji from the hospital blanket.

There had been no complications. Under the guise of illusion, no one had even seen them leave the hospital: Seishirou had just walked out, with Subaru over his shoulder. After that, a "borrowed" car had gotten them back to his neighborhood without much fuss. It had been a while since he'd driven--he'd almost forgotten how much fun it could be. He had been circumspect, though, and the transportation in question now rested happily on a side street a safe distance from his apartment building, not even scratched. Then a short walk, and a quick trip up in the freight elevator, and here they were. Subaru had stirred and whimpered a little in the car, threatening to wake, but a light touch on his mind had sent him back into unconsciousness. Otherwise, the trip had been perfectly quiet.

Really, the whole thing had been pretty easy.

He unwrapped Subaru the rest of the way from the blanket and began to arrange him on the mattress. He couldn't resist running his hand through Subaru's hair as he laid the young man's head on the pillow. Subaru had always had such soft hair, as light to the touch as the down feathers of a bird, much finer than was usual for dark hair. Seishirou trailed his fingers through it once more, then ran them around behind Subaru's ear and down onto his neck to feel for the pulse. Faint, as was to be expected. He cupped his hand lightly under Subaru's jaw, cocked his head and listened to the wet, almost bubbling rasp of Subaru's breathing, which had grown more labored during their journey. Soon he was going to have to do something about that.

Seishirou lay Subaru on his back and straightened out his legs. He really was too thin...the hospital gown had ridden up a little; Seishirou went to pull it down, and it was then that he noticed two small scars on the front of Subaru's thigh. They intrigued him--he didn't have any idea of how Subaru had come by them--and he examined them closely. Short, each one only a couple of inches long and very had been a cutting tool of some sort. Too crude to be wind-razors, though, and besides these were stab wounds, not slashes. It hadn't been a sword, either, judging by the size of the cuts, so most probably a knife...Seishirou touched the scars, probing at them carefully. Magically healed as well, he suspected. The smoothness and subtle silvering of the scars gave it away.

If they'd been magically healed, Subaru could have acquired them any time in the last nine years. Not knowing "when," Seishirou surely couldn't determine "how" or "why." But maybe he could do something to find out.

Jealous lover, Subaru-kun? he mused. Well, at least they missed. Seishirou tugged down the hem of the gown. He pulled the covers up over Subaru, drawing Subaru's arms out and laying them on top of the bedspread. Having settled Subaru more or less to his satisfaction, he noted once again the effort Subaru was making to breathe and decided he probably ought to get to work.

He sat down on the edge of the bed, one leg curled underneath him, and closed his eyes. Reaching inside himself, he swept away all distractions with the swift ease of practice, finding the center he needed almost instantly. A breath...another breath...he breathed into the stillness of magic, that place of clear and perfect intention, and from that clarity he put forth a silent call.

He nudged at the "mind" of the barrow tree, and it stirred to his touch.

Hello, he said.

You, the spirit acknowledged, recognizing him. Seishirou caressed it with his will and it submitted at once. It opened up to him even as it lapsed back into slumber, and he reached into its restless, dreamless sleep, into its heart, to tap its core of power. He brought that power back into himself.


Red and gold fire moved into him, fire that wasn't swift but slow, as slow as sap rising in ancient branches, fire that didn't sear with pain but that burned nonetheless, a sweet, fierce almost-pleasure that pulsed in every part of his blood. Fire of life and springing from the ashes of death....

Fire. His heart beat more quickly, and he could feel a sweat break out. On one level he registered these changes, while at the same time he concentrated on the power itself, on embracing it fully and turning it to his desire.

He tamed it. Inside him, the power coiled and flowed ceaselessly, contained by his will. At its touch, the incipient ache in his back faded away; the desire he'd been feeling for a cigarette vanished. He shaped its force slightly, while he was at it, and let it pass through his lungs, clearing away the damage that smoking inevitably caused.

Seishirou opened his eyes then, still holding onto power. The room around him seemed exceptionally vivid, every detail sharp and immediate. The living things--himself, the plants, and Subaru--were almost shining, as if their edges had been limned with light.

He reached out and placed one hand on Subaru's forehead, while with the other he took up one of Subaru's bandaged hands. Bringing it to his face, he touched the back of it to his lips. He opened the way between them, letting that healing fire travel into Subaru's body, and the power swept in as irresistibly as a tide, although Seishirou muted some of its force by channeling it through himself. It flowed into every part of Subaru, a liquid, burning stream that surrounded each physical illness, each hurt, and dissolved it into nothing, that took all pain and weakness and in their place restored the body's inner strength, its natural inclination toward health and life.

It took only moments as Seishirou guided the energy through Subaru, watching closely to be sure that nothing was missed. As he did so, he passed his awareness over that one thing he was curious about, those scars...recent, he discovered, a week or two at most. That was intriguing. Then the healing was done, and, satisfied, he unloosed the magic's power. The flow of fire surged back into its place, returning to the sakura, all but the small residue caught in their bodies, which Seishirou allowed to bleed off into the air. That red and gold light spiraled out around the two of them, shedding tiny wisps of flame before disappearing.

In the stillness of the next instant, Subaru took a slow, deep breath, and then after it second, clear and without any trace of difficulty. Seishirou lowered Subaru's hand from his face. He unwound the bandages on it, freeing Subaru's fingers, and turned it in his own. There were no blisters, no marks of frostbite. Seishirou touched the pulse point at the wrist and felt the steady strength of its beat.


Seishirou made sure that the bonds of sleep were secure on Subaru, and then stood up and stretched, shaking off the lingering, distracting energy of the healing magic. It had worked very well. He had never healed anything so serious, had in fact never healed anybody but himself, and that only very minor things, but he had been fairly confident that he could manage this. In fact, had his eye not been injured in the middle of a hospital, in front of doctors and nurses who had immediately taken him into their care and who had had certain expectations of the duration of the healing process, he probably could have fixed that as well. Perhaps the doctors' surgery and medicines were to blame, or perhaps they were not, but by the time he'd extricated himself and turned his attention toward such matters it seemed some window of opportunity had passed. Nothing he'd tried had had any effect on his damaged vision.

Oh, wasn't that important, and right now he had other things with which to concern himself. Healing Subaru physically was only half the battle.

He'd get to the next bit in a minute.

Seishirou walked around the room until he felt reasonably settled, then went back to sit by Subaru again.

Feeling better, Subaru-kun? I imagine you are.

Now that we've taken care of your body, it's time to do something about your spirit.

I think I know what the problem is, and it's probably my doing. I left you alone for far too long. I let the trail get too cold, and you've always been a low-key sort of person, haven't you? You're very passive when left to yourself. Perhaps you need a little more encouragement, a little inspiration.

I think it's definitely time to stir the pot.

He noticed that he had only unbandaged one of Subaru's hands, and he stretched across Subaru's body to get the other one. He unwrapped the gauze, and then, still leaning over Subaru, he paused. His gaze had caught on Subaru's face, which no longer had that bluish paleness or the deep shadows under the eyes. From there he found it wandering, tracing the vulnerable arch of Subaru's throat as he lay with his head turned slightly to one side, traveling down the vague outline of his body, all that was revealed beneath the blankets; and Seishirou felt the sudden, distinct urge then to touch both what he saw and what he didn't, became aware of the familiar sensations of desire.

He chuckled at himself. Healing magic did have certain side effects.

It was true, too, that he had always found Subaru extremely attractive. He smiled, remembering how long and seriously he had debated with himself at the beginning of the year of their bet. If he were truly to behave as if he "loved" someone, if he were to protect that person from everything, did that forbid him from seducing the person in question? He had wanted to achieve verisimilitude, after all. It was the same pride in his art that led him to perfect his illusions, down to the last detail. In the end, he had come to the conclusion that it was purely situational. To "take advantage" of Subaru would be "wrong," but if Subaru offered him any encouragement, any answering sign of desire, Seishirou was permitted to consider him fair game. Unfortunately, Subaru had been impossibly naive, not to mention vehemently modest, and had ignored or fled in panic from any suggestion. So much for that.

Every life has its lost opportunities...ah, well.

He picked up the gauze and began rolling it. Fortunately, he had never invested himself too heavily in sex. It was a pleasant and necessary release, one that he made sure to get often enough that frustration never distracted him from more important things, but it also tended to cause complications. For that reason, he had been sticking with paid professionals recently. It was just so much tidier and more convenient.

He finished with the bandages, went and got a drink of water, and by the time he came back to the bed he had managed to put the inclination out of his mind, at least for the moment. He sat down again and laid his hand over Subaru's face, fingers once more touching Subaru's forehead lightly. Taking a few deep breaths, he found his way back to center. "Soubou akyasha," he murmured then, "kyarbaya on arikya...maribori sowaka."

He didn't always use the words. He chose to this time, as a focus. It was not a time to allow distraction.

"Soubou akyasha...kyarbaya on arikya...maribori sowaka."

This was the potentially difficult and dangerous action... enter another person's heart...

...especially a person who was your enemy.

"Soubou...akyasha. Kyarbaya...on arikya. Maribori...."

He let his conscious mind slip free, from one body into another. Falling...


...into the dark.

He landed and gazed around. It always amazed him how dark it was inside other people--how dark their dreams were. Seishirou rarely dreamed, but when he did he found himself in endlessly open, radiant spaces, luminous and clear.

Never in such darkness.

And Subaru was in here someplace. Seishirou began to search, moving as silently, as softly as he was able to through that black and empty space--and the movement was very silent, very soft indeed. With the ease of power and the grace of long familiarity, he made himself seem no more than a part of that soundless night, invisible to any observation. There was always danger from the innermost defenses of a person, if one was seen as an invader: the threat of psychic rejection at best, and, at worst, outright attack.

Seishirou did not intend to be seen at all...not yet. He'd find Subaru first.

I marked you, Seishirou thought, and you're here.

Certainly, I'll find you.

It was the surety that led him, as he had known it would: the knowledge of Subaru that was the inner-world reflection of those Sakurazukamori stars engraved onto the flesh. At this level of existence, it was the thought that was important, and it was that which brought him at last to a place very deep in Subaru's heart.

Seishirou regarded the barrier before him. It was black against the blackness all around. The surface, though, seemed almost to catch a light that wasn't there. It had the shimmering, reflective quality of a soap bubble and gave a similar impression of delicacy, but it wasn't at all transparent. Nor, Seishirou suspected, was it quite so fragile.

He walked around it. It was in fact a globe, but not so very large--a little larger than a person. It seemed to float there weightlessly. Of course, there wasn't really ground to float above, just space, and Seishirou was only "walking" because he liked to imagine that he was, but he knew better than to worry about such things. Instead, he continued to study the sphere.

Soap bubble indeed, he thought, amused. Or a pearl, maybe.

A Dragon's pearl....

A little daringly, he put out his hand and touched the surface. It was neither cool nor warm, and the texture felt like glass, but when he tapped it gently his fingers made no sound at all.


He left his hand there a moment longer as he finished assessing the barrier, and then decisively he drew it back.

He called power into it--

--and struck.

He hit the barrier hard, and it shattered in absolute silence, broke into large and jagged pieces as though it were glass after all. Black shards hung in midair, revolving slowly, soundlessly, obscuring what lay beyond, but then through them he caught a glimpse--

--a glimpse of Subaru, turning to look at him: a stark flash of wild green eyes as Subaru saw him at that moment, as Subaru recognized him, was shocked aware--

"Hello, Subaru-kun," Seishirou said with a smile, "it's me."

And he leaped out of Subaru's heart.




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