Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
Seishirou stood between the window and the bed, the thin, weak light of the winter's day coming in at his back. He watched his still-unconscious visitor. Beneath the magical sleep that had been laid upon him, Subaru was restless now, his eyes flickering under their lids, his fingers knotted in the bedspread. Something inside him knew that things were amiss.
The shield that he had been hiding behind had been broken.
Seishirou walked over and reached down to stroke Subaru's hair and his face, then sat down once more on the bed. It was probably about time to let Subaru wake up so that they could get on to the third part of the plan.
I've healed you.
I've opened your heart.
Now, I'll hurt you.
Not too much, of course. Just enough pain to prod Subaru into action, replacing his apathy with a new, fresh sense of purpose--sort of like lancing and cleaning out an infected wound. He was positive that Subaru would be a lot more energetic when it was done.
You're going to bleed a bit now, Subaru-kun.
You'll find it very therapeutic, I'm sure.
He slipped the bond of sleep from Subaru, who almost immediately made a soft sound and began to stir. Seishirou pivoted slightly, so that Subaru was to his left side. He raised his head and gazed serenely out the window, although he still kept a watch on his patient from the corner of his eye.
Subaru's own eyes began to come open in small, fluttering blinks. He stared off to one side, sleep-fogged, and shifted his head against the pillow, looking confused. Seeming to register that he wasn't where he ought to be, he rolled his head. His eyes tracked slowly across the room, taking in his surroundings...and Seishirou, sitting next to him. Subaru's gaze stopped there with the natural inevitability of a falling leaf settling to the ground. "Seishirou-san," he murmured, still seeming not to know where he truly was, or when, as if it might be that the last nine years had been a dream.
Seishirou turned his head and let Subaru see the other eye.
There was a frozen moment.
"You!" Subaru gasped, and he scrambled upright.
It was not a polite word. Health obviously hadn't restored his boyhood manners.
Seishirou smiled and said, "Feeling better, Subaru-kun?"
Subaru's gaze whipped around the room, seeking an exit.
"It seems you've been pretty sick," Seishirou went on blithely. "You look a lot more fit now, though." Subaru tried to bolt from the bed. Seishirou's arm flashed out, so quickly that it was almost invisible, and Subaru rebounded from it and fell back onto the mattress.
"A little rest...and some food..."
Disoriented, Subaru tried to leap to his feet. Seishirou uncoiled gracefully from the bed, and as he did, he swept Subaru's legs out from under him in a casual, thoughtless manner. Subaru went sprawling.
"...and you'll be good as new."
Subaru thrashed his way back to a sitting position.
"Are you hungry? I've made some soup."
The look Subaru gave him was a priceless blend of near-hysteria and fury. Seishirou controlled himself sternly to keep from laughing.
"Just wait there, and I'll go heat some up." As he moved around the end of the bed, Seishirou added, "Better get back under the covers, Subaru-kun--you don't want to catch a cold." He looked rather pointedly at Subaru, who abruptly realized just how little modesty the hospital gown left him and snatched the blankets over himself with a glare. Seishirou beamed and strolled out of the room, although still with a certain amount of caution. He didn't quite turn his back upon the other onmyouji.
Out in the kitchenette, Seishirou turned up the heat beneath the tea kettle and stirred the pot of soup that he'd left simmering. His eyes were on what he was doing, but he kept his other senses entirely attuned to the bedroom. He heard and sensed no movement at all, could feel no gathering of magical energies.
Perhaps Subaru still was in shock--it seemed that he actually was going to wait.
Seishirou ladled out a bowl of soup and made tea for Subaru and for himself. Fishing a breakfast tray from the closet, he arranged everything on it neatly and carried it into the bedroom. Subaru was sitting rigidly upright, staring out the window with a fixed determination. He remained silent and immobile as Seishirou entered the room, but his body language clearly was declaring martyrdom.
Seishirou set the tray down in front of Subaru, who flicked a cursory glance at it--and at him--and then went back to glowering at the view. Seishirou reseated himself comfortably on the edge of the bed and helped himself to his tea.
"It looks like it's going to snow again," he remarked, following the direction of Subaru's stare. The clouds had gotten a bit lower and heavier, and their gray color had deepened. "It's unusual, this much snow so early in December." Subaru did not respond.
"Is something wrong?" Seishirou asked, putting on his best "concerned" expression. He let his gaze drop to the tray, then rise slowly back to Subaru's face, aware of Subaru watching him sidelong while pretending not to. "Well," he said at last, "I know I'm only a poor bachelor, Subaru-kun, but I don't think my cooking has ever done you harm."
Subaru rather obviously bit back a response to that. He ducked his head instead of speaking and tried hard not to look at Seishirou or the soup. He had to be ravenous after his illness and healing, though, and the soup did smell good--Seishirou actually considered himself to be quite a competent cook. Subaru couldn't help glancing at the tray once or twice. Seishirou sighed and gazed with mournful patience into his tea, playing the part of rebuffed host while he calculated how long Subaru would hold out.
Not long, as it happened. Subaru's hand crept out furtively, and he picked up the bowl of soup. He sniffed at it, tasted it, and then warily began to eat. Seishirou favored him with a delighted smile.
He wondered a bit, though.
You're being awfully quiet, Subaru-kun. And it isn't just that you're not speaking; other than that rather feeble attempt to escape, you haven't done anything. That's a bit too pliable, even for you. Not even an incantation...although it's true that you're probably still too drained to be effective with your spells. Perhaps you're just biding your time until you've gotten your strength back.
Well anyway, I'd better start shaking you up a little.
He let Subaru take a few more slow swallows of the soup. "My condolences," he said then, "on the death of your grandmother."
Green eyes flicked up above the rim of the bowl and stared into his face for a moment before dark lashes veiled them over.
"I saw the announcement in the papers...a stroke, wasn't it?" Seishirou nodded to himself seriously. "At least it seems that she didn't suffer." He watched Subaru's fingers on the bowl, the subtle tension in them, which was all that Subaru allowed himself to show. "It really is the end of an era, isn't it, with the passing of the older generation. Even in that company, she was a remarkable woman. Truly remarkable....
"I respected her."
Perhaps Subaru was contemplating the nuances that Seishirou had put into the phrase: the implications of where respect was given and not given. Seishirou allowed him some time for that.
"Did you go to Kyoto for the funeral?" Subaru looked up at him again with that same stiff wariness, met Seishirou's eyes briefly before wincing away. He didn't speak, but that might have been a short, curt nod of his head as he lowered his gaze. He took a sip of tea and returned to the soup.
"Is the soup all right?" Seishirou asked. Subaru hesitated, and then nodded again, just a little.
"Good," Seishirou said, with pleased emphasis. Subaru's eyes came up, which was what Seishirou had been aiming for; Subaru glanced at Seishirou's face, and once more there was that flinch. Before his gaze could shift entirely away, Seishirou inclined toward him, a slight but emphatic move that snared Subaru's attention: that caught him looking and held him fast.
"Subaru-kun," Seishirou said, staring intently into that pale face, those strikingly dark eyes, "do you still blame yourself--" and he indicated his own eye "--for this?"
Subaru's breathing stilled. And yes, the mirror was cracked, vulnerable places in his heart were losing their defense, because there was an instant of pain in the green depths of his gaze before he camouflaged it by reaching for his tea. His hand was shaking, though; this time there was no doubt. He really was an amazing one for self-recrimination.
"I thought we'd already had our talk about this," Seishirou said, amused. He'd never understood Subaru's obsession with this guilt. "I'm not the one who's blaming you, Subaru-kun; that's your own choice in the matter." He gestured to his lost right eye again. "There's nothing you could have done for this."
"I was afraid you were going to go blind," Subaru said, breaking his silence at last, in a way that Seishirou hadn't expected. The murmured words were so soft and so taut with strain that he sounded almost hoarse. "Because you already wore glasses anyway. I wanted to get you a seeing-eye dog. I would have gone all the way to 'Morristown' for you, if it had meant that." Something twisted in his face and voice, and he ducked his head once more.
He really was exceptionally cute.
"That was sweet of you, Subaru-kun. Unnecessary, but sweet nonetheless...I never really needed the glasses, you know." Seishirou sat back comfortably. "I appreciate the thought, however."
"Seishirou-san." Subaru's quiet voice had gone flat, and his manner had suddenly become very formal. His gaze was fixed on the stitching of the bedspread. "Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" Seishirou asked quizzically. After all, "this" could be any one of a number of things.
"This. Why--" Subaru lifted his hand, the beginning of a gesture of distress, then dropped it swiftly as he caught himself. He was trying very hard to hang onto his aloofness and self-control. "I know I was sick," he said, "and now, I'm not. And also, underneath the tree...was it last night?" Seishirou nodded. "I remember you being there. I would have died, the spirit was too strong and it would have killed me, but you stopped it. You broke its spell." Subaru's voice rose a little, despite himself, once more growing tight with stress. "And then waking up here, and this," he managed not to slop soup as he held up the bowl. "Why, Seishirou-san?"
He looked into Seishirou's face as if it might offer him some revelation, and Seishirou smiled tenderly back. "I'm not a wasteful person," Seishirou said then, the tone as caressing as the words themselves were cold. "I don't throw things away before I've finished with them."
He watched the impact of those words on Subaru, observed the further shattering taking place behind Subaru's eyes, in his heart, in his soul.... Did you still hope, Subaru-kun, that I was your friend? He appraised those places of weakness, measuring them, because if Subaru broke too easily, too entirely, he would be little good at the end. But something at Subaru's core still held, the discipline required of an onmyouji sustaining him, perhaps, and although his eyes were filled with pain, they did not fill with tears.
"Bastard." Subaru breathed at last, the word thin, sharp, and aching. "Bastard....
"I loved you."
It gave him pause. Hokuto had mentioned something to that effect once or twice, but he hadn't really credited that it was so.
Considering the strength of her intuition, maybe he should have.
It certainly put a whole new face on things.
"Did you?" Seishirou said lightly. Despite the surprise, he had retained his smile. "Did you really? What did you love, Subaru-kun? You never even knew who I was."
"I...no...you were...." As Subaru struggled, Seishirou leaned forward across the breakfast tray that separated them. He let the mask of ordinariness slip as his stare bored into Subaru's confusion--the hunter's gaze, carelessly intense--and Subaru froze as he had time and again: froze just like the helpless and betrayed teenager he had once been, like the little child who had looked up into a sakura's flowering branches and met a killer's eyes.
Seishirou reached out across the small distance that separated them. He laid a hand against Subaru's cheek.
"You mistook 'congeniality' for 'a nice person,'" Seishirou said, his voice very gentle. "You believed in every word I said, everything I did." He leaned nearer still, until his breath touched Subaru's face. Subaru shut his eyes. "That was painfully stupid."
He removed his hand from Subaru and sat back again, his manner now unconcerned. "Ah well," he said, shrugging, resuming his usual bantering tone, "I guess it's true after all. You got all the magic of the Sumeragi clan, and your sister inherited the brains. Too bad--"
He had been expecting the inchoate cry of rage and anguish, had felt it building for some time--had expected as well the bowl of soup that was flung at him in fury, and he threw up an instant small shield to deflect it.
Somehow, though, he hadn't quite expected Subaru to lunge at him physically, hurling aside the tray: a two-fingered 'jitsu strike aimed directly at Seishirou's good eye. Seishirou jerked his head aside. He felt only the wind of Subaru's strike as it skimmed past him and thought that he'd been missed entirely until sudden pain flowered along his cheekbone. He grabbed at Subaru's wrist, and with his other hand he caught the onmyouji by the throat. Green eyes blazed at him with a fire not so very unlike madness; Seishirou met that rage with cool laughter in his own. He dug his fingers into Subaru's windpipe, cutting back the flow of air.
"Subaru-kun, you're getting a little over-excited," he murmured. "I think it's time for you to rest now." Subaru struggled against his grip, and he tightened his fingers further.
"Sleep, Subaru-kun," he whispered.
He reached out with his magic. Subaru fought him, all the way down, Subaru's will wrestling to escape the bindings that Seishirou lay upon him, but the combination of anoxia and the pure force of Seishirou's intention overcame him at last. He slumped, unconscious, into Seishirou's arms.
Seishirou let the limp form fall to the bed. For a few moments he examined Subaru, making certain that the bonds of sleep were fast, before he tucked the onmyouji back underneath the covers. He straightened out the blankets, then smoothed Subaru's rumpled dark hair once more.
The remnants of soup and tea were splattered all over the wall and the floor, and there was broken china as well...he would have to clean that up. On the way to the kitchen, though, he paused, going over to the full-length mirror instead. He turned his head to study his reflection, the red mark seared along the left side of his face, barely more than a few centimeters below his eye. Not even a direct touch, but merely the power in the blow brushing past him...a killing blow, possibly, if it had landed squarely and with enough force.
A blinding one, certainly.
Nasty, Subaru-kun. I honestly wasn't sure you had it in you. And the fact that you managed to fight against my spell.... Perhaps I need to be a bit more careful around you. It would be a waste if you forced me to finish you too soon.
Seishirou touched power, extending himself to catch the slightest wisp of healing flame. He used it to smooth away the mark.
Still, I'd much rather be surprised than disappointed.
Only...you're not going to surprise me quite like this again.
He grinned at his now-unblemished reflection and went to get the mop.
* * * * *
Subaru stirred a little, deep in disturbed slumber, a prisoner of those magical bonds...and Seishirou, standing by the head of the bed, gazed down at him and wondered.
What do you dream about these days, Subaru-kun? Still the sakura? Still the wind in its branches, the flowers falling, and the blood?
Still "that person" you met, underneath the cherry tree?
He was curious. Dreams were endlessly fascinating to him, who so seldom had them, and he knew from past experience what Subaru's dreams were like: lovely and sad and strange.
Maybe you're dreaming of your sister, dying, in magic and blood and white shikifuku.
Seishirou looked at his watch. His intention was to keep Subaru asleep for the rest of the afternoon, to restore the onmyouji's strength before giving him one last trial. There were hours yet to go, and he was feeling bored and restless.
He really wanted to see what Subaru was dreaming.
If anything is ever going to kill me, he thought with amused resignation, it'll be my curiosity.
Still, if he were sufficiently careful and didn't allow himself to be drawn in too deeply.... Seishirou toyed with the possibility, then decided to go ahead, to be just a trifle reckless. It wasn't as though he'd never spied on Subaru's dreams before. He would just look on for a little while, stealthily, and Subaru would probably never even notice.
And if Subaru did, it would be an interesting test.
Having made his decision, Seishirou acted upon it at once. He reached inside for and embraced that center--
--he shut his eyes and dropped into the dark.
He found himself there instantly, in the customary blackness of dreams: that endless, infinitely reshapable landscape. He passed through it with fluid grace, letting his sense of Subaru guide him to a spot just at the edge of the sleeping consciousness. There he found a promising vantage point--a place that felt "higher" than any other place, like a rocky crag or a rooftop--and he settled in to wait and to watch.
Dreams, he had discovered, often came to the observer.
After a few seconds, he could feel something like a slow wind or a current of invisible water approaching the place where he was. It passed him by obliviously, but the fringes of it touched him--
--opened to him--
...dark...still dark, but very cold...dark glass, and a landscape rushing by behind Subaru's lit reflection, a rumpled landscape unrelieved by lights, traveling at high speed...coldness that had nothing to do with the heat from a radiator beneath the window, a cold that was inside, an empty soul....
And the rushing became air, and a child's voice called out, high and light: "I'm sorry...I couldn't hear very well because of the sound of the wind...."
And another voice, his own voice, spoke: "Who was that person...?"
And blood...blood falling onto the sakura's petals, blood spreading out onto white cloth...the deafening rhythm of a heartbeat as it accelerated....
A person, two people, vanishing into the sakura blossoms....
Two people vanishing....
There was a sudden wrench as the flow of images and sensations stopped, and then there was stillness. For a moment, Seishirou felt a strange sense of presence, almost like a familiar person pausing at the far end of a room to turn and to look back. There was an odd quality to that presence, something that didn't quite belong...but it passed, and nothing seemed to be alerted to him. He took a cautious breath, then glanced down into the darkness. A figure was lying there, sprawled on the black, nonexistent ground: a teenaged boy, the slight body wearing his sister's bright choice of clothing, the long, dark fringes of hair brushing his face, those green eyes closed in sleep.
That's me, Subaru's voice said quietly.
I was sixteen.
There was no light, but the figure was perfectly clear against the darkness.
Sometimes Subaru appeared to feel it necessary to narrate his own dreams. Seishirou had noticed it before and found it charming, if bizarre.
Nine years have passed since that time, the soft, disembodied voice whispered, and nothing has changed.
Nothing ever changes.
After so long, on that day in Nakano--
...smoke and dust, the sudden shock of winds, the distant cries....
--still, I couldn't do anything.
Facing that person, I tried to fight him and failed.
A shadow moved in the darkness--a person. Advancing slowly, it sank down next to the unconscious boy. Its form remained unclear; only pieces of it could be seen, a vague outline of the body, the knees as it settled to the ground, the hand that reached to caress the boy's face.
"Because of you."
A familiar voice.
That figure leaned forward and came into clarity, entering vision as if light were flowing over it, although there still was no light at all. It was Subaru as well. The young man's expression held an emptiness that might be mistaken for serenity.
He touched the teenager's face again.
"You're the part of me that still can feel something. That's vulnerable to pain, to confusion...and to other things."
The long fingers stroked the sleeping boy's brow, and then withdrew.
"It may be that you're a good person, but...you're weak.
"Because of you, I lost the fight that day in Nakano Sun Plaza. Because of you, I can't fulfill my promise. I can't do what I must....
"Because of you.
"Therefore...." The older Subaru picked up something that lay beside him, a slender object wrapped in white cloth. He undid the ties around it, and the cloth unfurled to reveal the ceremonial knife of the Sumeragi clan. Still without expression, he raised the sheathed blade up before his face.
"Therefore," he said, as gently as a petal falling to the ground--
"I'll kill you."
Slipping the scabbard free of the blade, he raised his hand to strike....
"Hello! What are you doing?"
In the darkness, the soft, high-pitched voice rang like a chime. Subaru lifted his gaze to meet that of the white-robed child standing before him. He stared into those wide, guileless, entirely innocent eyes that understood very little of what lay in front of them.
That hadn't yet learned the significance of murder.
Subaru's hand began to tremble. He looked down at his sixteen-year-old self, and the mask of his expressionlessness broke. His gaze became stark and horrified.
The sixteen-year-old opened his eyes.
I couldn't do it.
The scene froze, like a still shot from a movie. It cracked, as though made of glass. The fragments began to fall apart from each other, to separate and drift upward, weightlessly. They carried pieces of the three figures away.
To become the person capable of that....
I couldn't do it.
The tableau faded until it vanished altogether into the darkness.
Even though there are things that are expected of me, even though there are things I said that I would do....
To do that....
To become that....
Snow began to fall like stars, appearing from a pinkish sky: the small flakes growing larger, dancing down. There was a soft sound, like wind moving in branches.
But if I do nothing at all, Subaru murmured, what then? What kind of person does that make me? After all that's happened, just to do nothing....
The past would become meaningless.
And so would I.
If only there could be some other way....
The impression of the moving branches had become more distinct. They were almost visible, a slender, shifting lattice that was deeply familiar to Seishirou: the light and shadows and sounds of a grove of sakura.
So I was thinking about it: about whether there was anything I could do that would make a difference, any difference at all. Even if it only was a little thing....
Even if it only was for me.
An action without an evil consequence.
And then I had an idea.
If I could go back...if I could do what I was trying to do all those years ago, and exorcise the sakura....
Wouldn't that be worth something, at least?
To find what I've been looking for for so long....
Wouldn't that make everything all right?
But then, in that too...I didn't succeed.
Streams of darkness grew across the sky. They began swallowing up the snow. The darkness spread wider and wider until, after only a few brief minutes, there was nothing more to be seen.
So all I wanted then was to die.
And even that was denied me.
Through the darkness of this place of dreams, the wind was still blowing. Seishirou could feel it; it touched his face, fanned his shirt against his skin.
Now, I have no more answers.
There was just the darkness, the wind...and the voice.
Seishirou turned. Subaru was standing behind him, facing away but looking back over his shoulder: Subaru as he was now, pale and much too thin, with the flimsy cloth of the hospital gown billowing around him in the wind that also stirred the fine dark silk of his hair. His eyes as they looked at Seishirou were wholly green, pupilless, unseeing, as if they focused on infinity, and yet somehow aware. The two of them faced each other, their long, white shadows stretching out into the night.
"Seishirou-san," Subaru breathed. "In this dark place, you are my only landmark...my only guide. You are the only meaning that I know."
In the manner of dreams he was suddenly near--he was reaching out his hand to touch Seishirou.
"Who am I?" Subaru whispered.
That hand came to rest over Seishirou's heart.
"Who are you?"
Seishirou opened his eyes with a jolt.
He looked down at Subaru, lying there in the bed, and he checked closely to make sure the spell of sleep was secure. It was. Subaru slept: still now, and quiet, with his breathing the only motion. Seishirou watched him for several minutes, just to be certain.
Interesting little psychodrama, he thought then, coolly.
How your mind functions, I just can't imagine.
No harm done, at least. Subaru hadn't struck at him, hadn't tried to ensnare him in the dream. He probably hadn't even realized that he was speaking to the actual person, rather than to a construct of his own mind and memory. Subaru had had trouble before, distinguishing dream from reality.
So that was all right.
Seishirou filed the events of the dream away. He would consider them further at some other time. He realized then that he was propping himself up on the wall, and he pushed himself to his feet with a sigh.
A few minutes down, and the whole rest of the afternoon to go.
So what was he going to do now?
* * * * *
He was still restless.
He had been pacing in the bedroom. Now he stopped beside the window again and gazed out at the lowering gray clouds. It was really very dark for early afternoon.
Definitely more snow coming.
Perhaps it was the gloom that had him feeling somewhat out of sorts. He could appreciate most kinds of weather--sun, rain, snow, wind--and was equally comfortable with daylight and darkness, but the atmosphere at that moment wasn't quite any of these, as if it were hovering, waiting on the transition point of becoming whatever it was going to be.
He wished it would just get on with it.
Perhaps the feeling was adrenaline, too--the tension of having one's enemy in one's own bed, helpless though he might be. Perhaps anticipation, thinking of the final part in today's little play....
He was going to let Subaru sleep, and wake alone, and then, if Subaru were capable of it, allow him to fight his way out of the apartment. Seishirou had been working on the set-up. Some wards, a few with backlash built into them, some set spells as traps, definitely some form of illusion--perhaps himself in illusion, to finish it. Let Subaru think that he'd faced down his enemy and gotten away.
I'd thought as much, and now your dream has confirmed it: there have been too many failures. You have so much promise, you're so intriguing to play with, and it would be a shame if you broke now underneath their weight. A very small success will give you hope, and that false hope will sweeten the event when the final day comes.
Of course, that assumed Subaru did manage to run the gauntlet and get out alive. But if he didn't--well, then he wouldn't have fulfilled his purpose as a challenge. In that case, it would be just as well if he died today.
But you'll make it, Subaru-kun.
I'm quite certain that you will.
Seishirou frowned and rubbed his temple. He'd had a bit of a headache earlier and had taken care of it, but he could feel it returning. He focused on his breathing for a minute or so, readjusting the levels of his body's energy flow. That seemed to do the trick; the nascent pain melted back into nothing. He glanced out the window once more.
He would have to find a new apartment once this was over. The plants, too, would probably be lost in the scuffle...ah, well. Neither was a great concern. Actually, he thought, the situation offered a pleasant prospect for change. He had the luxury of plenty of money and very little future in which to spend it. Perhaps he might live someplace truly palatial for a while. It would be a novelty.
He looked at Subaru again, who was naturally still asleep, and then prowled into the living room. He ignored the pile of magazines that was waiting for him. Earlier he'd started on them but hadn't quite managed to finish, and just then he didn't feel like reading. He picked up the remote control instead.
Rather than choose a CD, he decided to skim the airwaves. His usual station, unfortunately, was in the middle of a DJ talk session that he tended to find misguided and shallow at best, and outright stupid at worst. Leaning on the back of the chair, he thumbed the seek button and listened to the whisper of static as the radio shifted upward through the stations. It stopped at the first clear signal. A song was just ending in an indeterminate trail of notes, and the DJ mixed the next song in practically on top of it: a couple of lines of repetitive chant, sung by a male voice. It didn't sound too promising. They were followed by a rising surge of instrumental music, shimmery and full of synthesizers and drums, and then the voice began singing in English.
Who allowed people to import this kind of thing? Impatiently, Seishirou pushed the seek button.
Kore ijou arukenai....
Oh tell me why...oh tell me true....
Ugh, Seishirou thought. He hit the button again. On this third try he found an enka, and he made it through about three lines of that before giving up and switching off the stereo in disgust. He tossed the remote control onto the side table. His lighter and a pack of cigarettes were lying there, where he had left them after his last smoke, and it reminded him that he sort of felt like having another. He picked up the pack...hmm. He could have sworn there'd been one more cigarette. Well, no matter; there should be a pack in his coat as well, he thought. He walked over to the rack--
Fortunately there was a vending machine downstairs. He checked the spell on Subaru again, grabbed a handful of change, and headed out.
There had definitely been cigarettes in his coat, he thought as the elevator doors closed on him. He distinctly remembered buying a new pack this morning on the way to the hospital. He must have dropped them or left them behind somewhere. It was an unusual carelessness on his part.
Distraction, he murmured to himself, recognizing its effects then. Very dangerous....
Subaru-kun...it's you, isn't it?
He had allowed himself to become a little too preoccupied with his "visitor," he was realizing: too focused on his game and on the possibilities of the future. If he weren't more careful, it could become a problem. He needed to tie the matter up soon, so he could return his mind to what he was about in the present.
There was calculated risk, and then there was stupidity.
The doors opened, and Mrs. Nakamura from the fifth floor got into the elevator. The two of them bowed and exchanged polite greetings. "Sakurazuka-san, you're not going out, I hope," she said, looking somewhat askance at his shirtsleeves. He smiled down reassuringly.
"Oh, no," he replied, "just to the lobby for cigarettes."
Mrs. Nakamura, in her large and very fluffy second-hand fur coat, was most certainly going out. The elderly mother-in-law of a friend had just died, she informed Seishirou, and she had offered to help with the "arrangements."
"Yes...it's a terrible thing, Sakurazuka-san! Youko went upstairs to visit her one day, and there she was in the middle of the floor, all covered in blood! It was as if her heart had just exploded!" The woman shook her head. "I'd never heard of such a thing."
So that was where the backlash for that particular spell had hit. Seishirou suppressed a sigh. It was so random, not having precise targets for his magical returns. He would have to adjust his protections to try to bounce the next one further away. Too many deaths this close to him would be suspicious.
"She always did have high blood pressure, though...."
It was a very slow elevator.
"Oh, and Sakurazuka-san? Ko-chan's kitty has gotten out of the apartment again--if you see it, would you please try to catch it for her?"
If your child was the least bit careful with the creature, or--perish the thought--trained to close doors behind herself, you wouldn't be putting the building on alert for that cat every other week.
"I'll keep an eye out for it," Seishirou said, grinning down at Mrs. Nakamura. She looked up into his face and almost managed to restrain a little squeak. Perhaps he hadn't chosen the best way of putting that--and he really should have worn his glasses, even on this little trip. He kept an old pair around for when sunglasses weren't appropriate; they were enough of a focus to distract people somewhat from his eyes. His stare had been a bit disconcerting even when he'd had a matched set.
He gave her his politest and most innocuous smile, and as they stepped out of the elevator on the ground floor he touched her mind just enough to fuzz the memory a little. No, he wasn't anything out of the ordinary...not at all. He got his cigarettes from the vending machine and decided not to risk the elevator again. It made him feel claustrophobic anyway. Definitely, his next apartment building would be something luxurious and decadent, if he could find one of those that wasn't a Shinjuku high rise. He pulled open the door to the stairwell and took the stairs at a lope.
As he reached his own floor, he caught a flash of white at the edge of his peripheral vision. He looked up and saw something small and four-legged vanish around the corner of the next landing.
He went up a couple of steps further. "Here, kitty, kitty," he called. What was its name? He could never remember. "Puss, psss, psss, psss...come here." The creature had stopped and was staring through the railing at him with its pale green eyes. It was white with orange and black markings: a lucky, three-colored cat. He continued calling to it softly, inching up the stairs with his fingers held out invitingly, and after a moment it padded back down to the landing, came around the corner, and stretched out its neck to sniff at his hand. He scooped it up. The cat struggled briefly, but he held it by the scruff and crooned to it until it relaxed. He scritched under its chin, and it began to purr.
Animals were so easy to deal with. All it required was that certain combination of gentleness and firmness.
Seishirou carried the cat back to the apartment, cradled in his arms. He went first to check on Subaru. He was being exceedingly cautious--even if Subaru were able to unravel the spell while still asleep, which was not an easy trick, it would have taken more time than this--but he didn't feel at all inclined to take chances. And especially not now, when he'd identified Subaru as the source of his distraction and possibly of that strange restlessness he'd been feeling as well.
Very soon he'd start to work on getting Subaru out of the apartment. First, though, he wanted that cigarette. He took the cat into the kitchenette with him and set it down on the counter. Leaving it to its own devices for a moment, he put the kettle on for tea. He lit the cigarette and inhaled deeply and with pleasure. Much better. The first cigarette after a healing always burned going down; he hadn't really been able to enjoy that one. He felt a little of his jumpiness fade away.
The cat had its front paws up on the window sill, investigating the ivy. "That's not for you," Seishirou told it, and he picked it up again. It acquiesced happily. He stroked the short, soft fur, thinking, running things over in his mind...he scratched between the cat's ears and in the little hollow between its shoulder blades, listening to its warm, vibrating purr...he slipped his fingers underneath its chin to scratch there, and as it raised its head, its eyes shut in ecstasy, he gently closed his hand around its neck and crushed the fragile windpipe.
The water was boiling. He put the struggling cat down on the counter and went to prepare the tea. Slowly he sipped tea and smoked his cigarette as he watched the cat thrash and choke, trying to draw breath through its collapsed trachea, until at last, with a final brief spasm, it died.
He mashed the cigarette out in the ash tray. Stepping over to the cat, he ran his hand along its body, the fur just as soft in death as it had been in life.
Gratuitous, he thought. He hadn't really needed to do that.
But then, everything died someday. That was just the way things were.
And a little girl was going to discover, when her kitty didn't come home, that the world was an uncertain place, where nothing that one "cared" about could ever be secure. It was a useful lesson to remember. Of course, she wouldn't have much of a lifetime in which to benefit from it, what with the world coming to an end and all. Well, it didn't really matter, one way or another.
In the end, nothing really mattered anyway.
He looked down at the cat's twisted face, the slight froth of blood on lips drawn back from sharply pointed teeth, the eyes rolled up so that their green was half-hidden and the white sclera was visible.
For an instant, looking at those pale eyes, he saw vividly Subaru lying in death, the white shikifuku splattered with red and the dark green eyes half-closed.
He took a sharp breath--
He looked down at the cat again.
It was just a cat.
Its green eyes were nothing like the color of Subaru's.
A hallucination? he wondered. A foreseeing? He wasn't usually inclined toward either, but the vision had been so clear, so...real. Gingerly he reached out and touched the fur again.
Soft, and still, and very dead.
It was just a cat, after all.
Just another broken thing.
For some reason, looking at the corpse began to annoy him. Taking a garbage bag from under the sink, he stuffed the tiny body into it. He wiped down the countertop with a dishcloth, then tossed that into the bag as well. Walking out of the apartment and down the hall to the garbage chute, Seishirou shoved the bag through the door with perhaps a little more vehemence than was strictly necessary. He let the door thunk shut.
He stared at it for a long moment.
Anger, he realized.
He was feeling anger for the second time today--inexplicable anger and restless energy and the distinct sense that something was wrong. And his headache had come back again. That was out of the ordinary too.
He turned and strode back to his apartment, grabbed hold of the door knob--
It refused to turn.
His fingers brushed the empty fabric of his pocket--
He'd left his keys inside the apartment.
He'd just managed to lock himself out.
Seishirou took a couple of deep, centering breaths. He shifted his mental focus, blocked out the disturbing feelings, and made the headache's discomfort vanish from his conscious mind. He should have done that much earlier. Very calmly, he sent a minor bolt of magic through the locking mechanism.
The door swung open, and he stepped inside.
Almost immediately a flood of dizziness hit him. He gritted his teeth and made it to the couch on nothing more than the determination not to fall on his face. Dropping onto it, he leaned back against the cushions and pushed his hands wearily through his hair. His body felt weirdly drained of energy, but his mind was already hunting fiercely despite its disarray--was going back over the day's events, looking for clues that would let him track the mental and physical disruption to its source, because none of this was not normal, not for him. Somewhere, something had happened. He touched the magical traces of his workings and followed them. Had something gone wrong? Some outside influence that he hadn't taken into account...a bad aspect or...or an alignment of forces...or maybe...
If only he wasn't so...
He realized that he'd started to slide sideways. He slid until he was lying down, his cheek coming to rest on one of the pillows of the couch. The apartment was still spinning, but he didn't notice it as much from here, and that felt pretty good.
And he was just going to close his eyes for one moment.
Just going to go to sleep.
Wait a minute, he thought, I absolutely can't sleep now.
Subaru's still here....
He pried his eyes open with difficulty, tried to raise his head but didn't get far--and as he fell back again, his eyes drifting closed, a tremendous wave swept in on him. It was an undertow of power that dragged him toward unconsciousness, even as he identified it for what it was--
The healing spell...coming back....
The wave swept out once more and took Seishirou with it.
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