Sakura and Snow

Chapter 6


By Natalie Baan



Seishirou woke up with an arm wrapped around his waist. Fortunately he remembered the circumstances at once, before he did anything untoward to its possessor.

He lay quietly for a moment, recalling the events of the past days, then craned his neck to look behind himself. He was lying on his side at the very edge of the mattress with Subaru curled right up against his back, that one arm holding him close. Subaru seemed to be asleep, his cheek pressed to Seishirou's shoulder. Behind him stretched a wide and perfectly empty expanse of bed.

Seishirou groaned and let his head fall back against the pillow.

After another minute he stirred and opened his eyes again. He was awake now, and he didn't think he'd be able to go back to sleep like this.

He might as well get up.

Cautiously, then, he began to extricate himself from Subaru. With a great deal of care and patience, he managed to work his way out from the embrace and stand up. Subaru promptly rolled over into the space he'd vacated and buried his face in Seishirou's pillow with a little sigh. Looking down at the sleeping onmyouji, Seishirou suppressed a sigh of his own. Instead he shuffled his feet into his slippers, and, locating his robe, threw it on over his pajama bottoms. He wandered into the bathroom and paused, staring at the new toothbrush in the rack next to his own.

There was something almost surreal about the whole situation.

As he brushed his teeth, his gaze roamed the little room, taking in other changes: extra towels, an additional washcloth, the various necessities he'd gone out to buy for Subaru after that first night. He wasn't at all accustomed to the idea of living with someone; it had been a long while since he'd done so. The last time had been...hmm. Actually, it had been not so long after the conclusion of the bet. She had been a very nice girl, as he recalled--a bit unconventional, to agree to an unmarried live-in arrangement, but she had been vivacious and very pretty. Rather exceptionally so. He had thought it would be pleasant to have her always around him.

Then the first night had arrived, after she'd finished unpacking and settled in. They had shared a bottle of sake, and she had talked so happily about her friends and how she couldn't wait for him to meet them, about taking him to visit her parents in Kamakura, about all the things that they would do together, "their" lives that they would share with each her eyes had sparkled with the wine and with the absolute purity of her happiness. And he had looked into those eyes and seen a future of parties and clever answers to the question "So, what do you do?"; had seen the possibility that she would come to wonder why he went out into the night alone; or, if he hid such matters as he was capable of doing, that she would question why certain things did not connect, why there were places in her memory that were vague and unclear. Being an alert and sensitive woman, she would inevitably sense on some level that he did not belong to her in the ways that she might wish. There would be recriminations eventually, Seishirou had realized, there would be squabbling and other unpleasantness, and she would probably always remain ignorant of the real reason behind these things--the reason being simply that she was trying to make the two of them into an "us," a single entity, when she had no knowledge at all of the person he was.

Usually he found it amusing to weave around himself the tapestry of lies and illusions. On that night, however, as he had gazed at her across all the distance that separated their two worlds, he had considered the prospect of such a future and found it tedious. So he'd put an end to the affair almost at once. It had been rather a pity--she had been quite lovely.

Oh, well. She made a lovely memory, too.

Seishirou rinsed and spat.

Now there was Subaru, who claimed that he did indeed know what he was proposing to live with. Seishirou suspected, however, that although Subaru's mind "knew" he was cohabiting with the Sakurazukamori, his heart had never truly recognized the fact. To Subaru's heart he would probably always be Seishirou-san the veterinarian--surely that was the way it was now, the only way he could justify what he was doing. How else could he bear to live with the person who had killed what he'd held most dear, his one beloved sister--a person who used the art of onmyoujitsu for murder, something that it was his clan's duty to prevent. How else to become the lover of someone who was working to destroy all that his family had ever protected, someone who could kill him at any time, quite without remorse....

Still, Seishirou supposed that it could be possible. Subaru might have convinced himself that there'd been some truth to the illusion--that there was a "good person" inside his one-time friend who even now could be redeemed. It might be that a part of him had never really ceased to believe. He had possessed such an extraordinary quality of trust once, a tendency to see only the best in people. Seishirou had frequently it found quite charming, if also rather ridiculously naive.

Splashing away the last traces of soap, Seishirou reached for a towel, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes. To be so accepting, so blind to the reality of his situation...that was very much like the boy that Subaru had once been. One might have thought that he'd have changed more substantially, but perhaps not. Perhaps behind Subaru's shell of pain that innocent child remained, essentially unaltered.

Or perhaps this was merely an elaborate masquerade after all.

Lowering the towel, Seishirou gazed at his reflection in the mirror, eyes narrowing as he weighed the opposing possibilities yet again, turning them over in his mind as he had ceaselessly since that night. At last he shrugged. He didn't really think that Subaru's change of heart was a lie, but he couldn't be entirely certain. He would wait, therefore, and be patient, not wanting to make any mistakes in this. Subaru would reveal himself eventually, one way or the other, and Seishirou had no doubt of his own ability to handle whatever might ensue. To kill Subaru out of hand, merely to end a possible might be prudent, but it was also an inelegant response.

He could do so much better.

Seishirou hung up the towel. Running a hand through his hair, he made a slight face at himself in the mirror. Subaru-kun, I probably shouldn't indulge myself like this.

Really, I'm getting too old to play these games with you.

The ludicrousness of it didn't escape him: the sheer risks that he was taking only because he wanted to explore whether there was satisfaction to be had in tending to this "relationship," to see whether he could be successful in this even without the feelings of love. Although he found parts of it enjoyable enough, he couldn't say whether it wasn't more trouble than it was worth--and while he debated with himself, swinging back and forth between interest and mild annoyance, there was Subaru, quiet and completely inexplicable, constantly present and yet somehow unobtrusive: as gentle and compliant a companion as one might wish.

It could also be that Subaru was insane. He hadn't yet discounted that possibility.

For the moment, though, he'd probably taken about as much time in the bathroom as he could. Touching the door, Seishirou "felt" the room on the other side and discovered that Subaru was up. Preparing himself mentally, he stepped out of the bathroom and caught Subaru in mid-stretch, arms lifting high above his head and the white silk of Seishirou's spare pajamas falling loosely about him, the cuffs slipping back from those slender wrists. Seishirou paused and observed the graceful line of that motion until Subaru, realizing he was there, made a small, self-conscious start. Subaru dropped his arms and smiled shyly at Seishirou.

"Good morning, Seishirou-san."

"Mm," Seishirou answered, a little distractedly, as he watched Subaru rise from the bed and walk toward him, a flowing ripple of white...really, those pajamas were much too large for him, but there was something oddly appealing about it, and the white silk suited Subaru far better than it had ever suited himself. His glance shifted to Subaru's face as the other drew near, and he saw the smile falter, a hint of worry at his lack of reaction. He smiled at Subaru then, putting out an arm to fold Subaru against himself, and he could feel the small, artless breath of relaxation as Subaru accepted the touch and nestled close. Seishirou turned his face briefly against Subaru's hair.

It was pleasant.

He held the embrace for a moment more, then released Subaru with a little pat. Stepping past him, Seishirou went over to begin making the bed.

"I can do that," Subaru offered.

"No, I've got it," Seishirou replied cheerfully. "You might think about getting dressed, though, if you're going out." Last night Subaru had mentioned wanting to get some clothes and other things from the place where he'd been staying. It was a perfectly reasonable desire. "Unless you're planning to go as you are?"

"," Subaru answered, his tone faintly nonplused, as if he wasn't really sure whether he was being teased or not.

"That's good," Seishirou said, flipping aside the covers so he could straighten out the sheet. He had turned his back on Subaru, leaving himself "open" to attack quite deliberately: it was something he'd done once or twice already just to see what Subaru might attempt. So far the bait had not been taken. "The neighbors would be distraught...although you do look very cute like that, Subaru-kun."

There was a pause. Then Subaru murmured, "I think I'll go and get dressed now," and those words, which once might have been said in skittish avoidance, held a hint of almost-laughter instead, as if in recognition that this was teasing, and with that a suggestion of playing along. Seishirou didn't turn, but he remained aware of Subaru's every move as the other collected his clothes and wandered off into the bathroom. He finished making the bed, then dressed swiftly himself and went out into the kitchenette to start preparing coffee and breakfast.

Subaru would be seeing his friends today, the other Dragons of Heaven, and that was a bit of a problem. Seishirou watched the flame of his lighter dance as he lit up a cigarette. It could be that Subaru would "escape" him--that Subaru's entanglements with these people might draw him back unwittingly, or else that Subaru might intend some manner of betrayal after all. It was necessary for Seishirou to go out too, to attend to some "work" he'd been meaning to do, and realistically he shouldn't plan on being able to return.

Of course, it might be that Subaru really did just want a change of clothes: that he'd cast in his lot with Seishirou and wouldn't rejoin the Dragons of Heaven. In that case, Seishirou wondered what on earth he was going to tell them.

Subaru's timing was impeccable; he came drifting out of the bedroom, dressed once more in his jeans and black turtleneck, just as the coffeemaker finished brewing. He smiled at Seishirou again as he sat down on one of the counter stools. Aesthetics was a powerful excuse for keeping Subaru around, Seishirou thought, noting the slow, fluid grace that was unique to the older Subaru, although seeds of it had existed in the boy that he'd been; the luminous smile that was more in the eyes than anywhere else; and the gentleness of the hands that took the cup Seishirou offered and made him think suddenly, surprisingly, of sex: of the way Subaru touched him, the memory of which stayed with him, he found, more clearly than the fleeting experience of release.

Seishirou blinked. Putting that thought from his mind, he held out the cigarette pack and lighter. He wasn't expecting Subaru to decline politely. "I'm going to quit," Subaru explained.


"Mmm." Subaru sipped at his coffee slowly, a far away look in his green eyes, then started and set down the cup. "It's not for health reasons, or any other kind of reasons, really," he said, looking earnestly at Seishirou. "It's just--" Subaru made a small vague gesture and glanced aside, the barest hint of a frown in his expression. "It's just to quit."

Seishirou smiled at him. "Subaru-kun, you don't need to justify yourself to me," he said, turning away to check on how their breakfast was coming. "If you want to stop, then that's your decision."

"I didn't want you to be uncomfortable smoking around me," Subaru replied. "I didn't want you to think I expected you to change."

Seishirou looked back at Subaru for just an instant. He wondered if the potential subtleties in those words were truly there.

Perhaps he was only imagining them.

They ate breakfast quietly, exchanging just a few soft pleasantries. When they had finished, Seishirou scooped up the dishes and began the washing-up, deftly fending off Subaru's tentative move toward helping. As he ran water into the sink, Seishirou asked casually, "So, you're going out now?" From the corner of his eye, he saw Subaru nod.

"Well," Seishirou said, smiling at Subaru over his shoulder, "you be careful out there."


* * * * *


That summer....

He was on the train, coming back from the Sumeragi house in Kyoto, and at his core that familiar knot of smouldering anger and frustration had drawn itself tight. He stared out through the window at the fields they were passing through, fields that shimmered under the July sun, their heat denied by the relentless air conditioning that blasted down on him.

Then a slow blink, a shift of memory, and when he opened his eyes it was the same train, but a different season: there was darkness outside the window, and through his own reflection he could see dim hills rolling by at great speed, their edges smoothed out by snow and by the night. The landscape matched the coldness locked inside him now, a featureless winter covering over old resentments, though sparks of them still lay dormant somewhere deep within, buried in their own ash. A vast frozen nothingness, empty--even though the train was warm, with heat seeping out from all its radiators, that warmth had nothing to do with him.

And as he stared out through the glass a voice in his mind was crying Free! over and over, high and crystalline and brittle, while another answered it dully, a soft snow falling over the peal of that cry and smothering its bright sound--

No. You are not free.



Subaru opened his eyes. Looking up from the drawer that he'd been emptying, he gazed at the clouded mirror hanging above the dresser. Dust covered the mirror's surface; it had been that way when they'd moved into this old house, and he had never bothered to clean it. Through that dust his reflection was a vague outline, nothing more than a shadow.

He turned away. There were a few more items left in the drawer; he removed them, and, bending, placed them in the duffel bag at his feet.

He straightened up and closed the drawer firmly.



The door to the shower stall slid shut, and Subaru let the water's coldness flow around him, a shock against his overheated skin. He turned his face up into the stream. Stretching, he arched his body, his hands clasped against the tightness at the back of his neck, and every impulse toward anger that threatened to bloom in his mind he picked off methodically, until the garden of his thoughts was an empty, orderly place once more. Calm at last, his frustrations and resentments forgotten, he let the steady, gentle battering of the shower become his whole world. It was a brief and precious peace, a time of not-thinking.

Of not-feeling....

He stayed under the cascading water until he began to shiver despite the sultriness of the summer night. Then with slow and measured gestures he turned off the shower, attentive to the balance of each movement. Such focus, such concentration held him perfectly in that place of stillness, a place that he would remain in for as long as he was able. It would break apart around him eventually.

Invariably, it did.

He stopped that thought at once and returned himself to center. Stepping out of the shower, he dried himself and drew his jeans back on. He draped the towel over his shoulders to catch the last drops falling from his hair, then turned off the light and waited the few moments it took for his eyes to adjust before he slid open the bathroom door.

In house shoes, he threaded his way noiselessly up the dark, narrow stairs to the second floor. He hesitated a moment, then looked to the right as he came up the last steps and into the hallway. A dull wash of moonlight fell in a square at that end of the hall, the waning moon's glow thrown in through one small window, and between that illuminated piece of floor and himself a shadow knelt in a half-open bedroom door.

He stopped entirely, looked at that figure, and waited.

"Hey," the monk from Kouyasan said quietly. When Subaru didn't reply, he conjured into his palm a tiny column of energy that hummed and crackled faintly, a sound just at the subliminal edge of hearing. The column cast a faint blue-white gleam over Sorata's face and on the T-shirt and shorts that he was wearing, and lightened somewhat the darkness of the open doorway to Sorata's room. The very edge of its illumination caught Subaru. In that light he kept his own face still and without expression.

"Kinda late to be taking a shower, ain't it?" Sorata asked. "Or now, maybe I should say early...I didn't know onmyouji practiced austerities."

Subaru was silent. The words fell into the tenuous quiet he had found and disappeared. They were not important.

"I know you're one of those scrupulous sorts, but this is just ridiculous--even in the monastery, the first sittings didn't start until four-thirty." Sorata yawned hugely. "That's not for another hour and a half."

"Then why are you awake, Arisugawa-san?" Each word was soft and precise.

"I heard a sound. (And you could call me 'Sorata,' especially at this hour)," the monk said, the aside grumbled under his breath. "So I thought I should investigate it. Who knows what might be creeping around at this time of night? Mystical sendings, the minions of the Dragons of Earth, some pervert chasing after my own 'hidden shrine maiden'...." A pair of tiny insects had begun to circle Sorata's light. "After all, it's July, and the middle of a heat wave too. People have been known to go crazy, lying awake sweltering, with no relief in sight." He clenched his empty fist, his eyes suddenly brimming with emotion. "I have to protect the one I love!"

Subaru stared at him for a long time without speaking. Finally Sorata gave a little start of self-recollection and then laughed softly, changing moods. "But it's you after all," the monk said. "So that's okay." Lifting his head, he returned Subaru's look with a level gaze of his own and the slightest of smiles. "Right?"

They regarded each other in silence across the hallway. Then with a faint bzzzt one of the insects brushed against the bar of energy. It tumbled toward the floor, singed wings fluttering, and a pained expression came over Sorata's face. The other insect continued to circle the light erratically.

"Good night, Arisugawa-san." Subaru turned his back and walked away.

"Uh, hey--!"

Subaru closed the door of his own room behind himself, shutting off further conversation. He could feel a light sweat breaking out on his skin once more as the heat undid all the good of his shower. Glancing at his mattress, dimly visible in the wan light from his window, he chose not to attempt to sleep. Instead, he folded himself slowly to the floor. Sitting there, he drew on those long years of discipline to free his mind from all distraction. He sought after and then touched that place of quiet, that too-temporary haven where no discomfort or pain of any sort could reach him. He touched the deepest of the dark places within himself. There, the needs of the body were nothing.

The needs of the heart were nothing....

For an instant, though, his rebellious memory opened up a vision to him: coppery sunlight on a tatami floor in the Sumeragi house in Kyoto; a pair of innocent eyes that were raised, shy and hopeful, to his own; and then that loneliness, an empty place that could never, ever be filled. He pinched the memory off, the faded head of a flower that had never had the chance to grow aright. Anger rose briefly in him too, roused by the memory and what it signified, before he cut that off as well. Then he closed himself to the heat, and to the past, and to the sense of suffocation that was wed to everything around him on this night. Shutting his eyes as well, he went wholly into the darkness, seeking to endure until the dawn.



Subaru gazed at the ghost of his reflection. Reaching out, he ran his fingertips along the mirror's glass, wiping away a thin streak of dust. The glass smeared, distorting the image, and he stopped. Tugging at his coat sleeve, he pulled the end of it over his hand and used that to clean the mirror's surface instead, leaning forward over the dresser to reach every corner. Piece by slow piece, he and the room both became visible in the glass.

When the mirror was clean, he stopped and stared into the eyes of his reflection.



He glanced aside, evading the wide, puzzled stare of his child-self, the silently wounded gaze of the sixteen-year-old boy lying on the ground before him, but as his glance moved he turned the knife in his hand and saw a muted flash of green on its steel blade. It was his own eyes, reflected in the polished metal, eyes that were different and yet still the same--that were inescapable, in this place where there was only himself and himself and himself.

He knew intimately what he had been about to do, and what the cost of that would have been.

A part of him still wanted to do it.

He stared into the narrowed eyes that were looking back at him. Something inside him coiled and twisted like a sickness. He raised the knife high once more--

--flashed it down--

--and a cry was ripped out of him by the fierceness of the pain, as he plunged the ceremonial knife into his leg. The darkness vanished, the other selves vanished, and as the landscape of his spell dissolved around him he was huddling on the floor of his room, surrounded by the square of his wards. Before him was the little shrine that he'd erected, the small white-draped table, two vases of greenery and the round mirror that they framed...he tore his eyes away and looked down. Blood was seeping from around the knife, soaking gradually into his sweatpants. He stared at that spreading stain. Jerking the blade free, he drove it down again--a second wound, deeper than the first. There was more pain, searing like fire, a dizzying gush of blood from the original cut. Leaning on the knife, he felt the faint grate of metal scraping bone. His leg throbbed with agony.

There were sudden, pounding footsteps in the hall outside. Somebody shouted, "Subaru-san!" and his door was flung open. Sorata took one horrified look, and then leaped across the room toward Subaru. The wards should have held him out, but they were fraying, and the monk tore through them heedlessly.

Subaru yanked the knife clear again. He turned it in his hand, trying to turn it toward himself--but he was cold, as cold as the night outside his window, he was shaking, and a greyness had come over his vision. He was too slow. Sorata had his wrists; Subaru tried to twist away, and the monk's foot skidded in the growing pool of blood. He fell on Subaru, driving his knee into the injured leg, and Subaru choked back another cry.

There was a high-pitched shriek from outside the door. Sorata yelled over his shoulder, "Go and get the others! Go and get them now!" That person cried out "Inuki!" and then disappeared. Subaru could hear a vanishing patter of light feet, the sound of urgent voices, drawing rapidly nearer....

He had lost the knife. Somehow, though, it no longer seemed important: all of this was becoming more and more remote. The greyness was drifting nearer, muffling everything around him; unconsciousness was coming over him, and he was watching it approach--


Turning his face from Sorata's anxious stare, Subaru looked at the shrine instead. It had been kicked over in the struggle. From where he was lying he could just see the mirror, which had rolled away to the side. The mirror was cracked by lines that ran from its center had shattered radially, an exploding star....

Voices all around him were talking about healing, about helping.

Subaru closed his eyes and fell away from them.



Bowing forward onto the dresser, Subaru buried his face in his arms. When he remembered that night now, he felt a dazed horror. At the time, though, there had been only pain and emptiness, and in the midst of that emptiness a swelling self-loathing that had drowned his heart and soul. Afterward, when he'd awakened healed of the physical injuries, opening his eyes to meet the inugami's calm regard before the dog spirit melted out of the room to tell its mistress that he was awake, the pain had gone, leaving only those other things. Drawing back the covers, he had touched the two small scars on his leg as if they were something far removed from himself. I'm sorry, he had said when the others came to him, the words automatic and polite.


Subaru rolled his head to one side and gazed at the wall. He had never given them any real explanation. They all assumed that grief had driven him to it, grief and despair over the death of his grandmother, but that wasn't exactly true. For nine years he had let her expectations govern his life, because he himself had only cared about one thing. In his mind, his grandmother's remembered voice had ordered him to eat and sleep the little that he did, to carry himself in a particular way when performing his "work." Because of her he had been as he "ought" to be, so that when the day came he would be ready and capable of doing what was necessary. Then she had died, and her death had been the shifting pebble that destabilized the avalanche above it. Once her presence had been removed, there had been nothing to restrain from the things to which his nature led him.

To prevent him from surrendering himself....

As a child, as a boy, as the adult he now was, he had always been the same.

Always falling toward his own annihilation.

Why? he wondered, head still pillowed on the cradle of his arms. Why am I like this? Being this kind of person...truly I'm the last person on Earth who should be the head of the Sumeragi.

And instead, he seemed likely to be the last person on Earth who could be the head of the Sumeragi. The last one he had defied his grandmother in a few things after all. Subaru sighed. That and the cigarettes--no matter how many times she had criticized him he had clung to the habit doggedly, devoutly, every breath a breath of silent rebellion, for years his one defiance. He noticed where his mind was wandering before his hand went into his empty coat pocket, and patiently he halted them both. The craving would stop if he ignored it long enough, and if it didn't, then he could endure it. It was tolerable, more so than other things he had lived with.

To give up cigarettes wouldn't be hard at all.

There's nothing wrong with my mind or my will. I'm an onmyouji, and just to be one there are certain requirements. Although I've seen people who shouldn't practice magic, I know I'm competent--but still, unless I watch myself, there's that darkness.

Unless I pay attention, I fall.


He couldn't understand that essential movement of his nature, however much he thought about it. He could only feel its truth with the surety of a changing season. When nothing else was present to affect him, when he didn't remember to hold back from that edge, he simply slipped away. Not even an active self-destruction, but just a silent descent, like a frozen rain falling from the sky, a flake of snow coming to rest on a mittened hand and gone in a child's breath.

And he had been alone for far too long.

But now.... Unbidden, a kind of wonder rose up at the thought. Now....

There's you.



"In this dark place, you are my only only guide." That man looked at him, incongruous mismatched eyes widening, the wind blowing dark hair, white shirt. A person, a person here, somehow warm beneath the billowing cloth, a person who was alive...

...a long-lost love.



Straightening, Subaru tipped his head back, closing his eyes to his reflection. He savored those other memories, still complex and difficult, but so much sweeter.

You...that was you in my dream. I thought so, even though I wasn't certain. Somehow you looked so surprised to see me. I never used to dream of you like that.

And I felt you, too, as if you were truly with me. I felt as I always used to, when I was with you. The same way I feel now--although nothing is as simple as it was, although things have come between us, still there's this feeling....

When I'm with you.

Seishirou-san, why do you make me so happy? How do you sweep everything else aside, so that I think only of you? Even when I hated you, even after everything you did....


You make me want to live.



He struggled out of sleep, heart pounding. Clasping a hand to his throat, he felt the soreness there and remembered that relentless grasp, that smile so utterly without compassion. Now, though, there was no one else in the room. He was alone. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he thrashed his way clear of the covers and off the bed, almost falling into the big plant in the corner before he caught himself. Bracing himself on the wall, he fumbled toward the window, leaned against the glass, and looked out. Too high, too high to escape that way, weakened as he wasn't a window that opened, anyway. He turned and stared around the place.


He was lost, he had no reference points as to where he was or why these things were happening, but there was a door to another room and he had seen that person go through it. Stumbling over, his body still weak and trembling, he supported himself on the door frame and looked out. Another empty room, the living room of an apartment, and on the far side a door stood slightly open, offering a glimpse into the hallway beyond...a trap, absolutely it was a trap, but he took the futile chance anyway and made for that apparent way out in a feverish, slow-motion rush. It seemed to take an eternity to cross that floor, but finally his hand was on the edge of the doorway, he could feel the draft from the hall brushing his bare legs, and he hadn't been stopped. His head spun.

Free? It couldn't be so. And yet...he pulled the door a little further open. He could feel the threads of protective wards, but nothing active, nothing that would prevent him if he tried to leave. The hands he expected to seize him, the voice he expected to hear...there was nothing. Incredible as it seemed, he might be free after all.

Standing in the doorway, he risked a glance back over his shoulder.

And everything stopped.

Eventually he became aware of the rapid beating of his heart. He took a quiet breath. Pushing the door closed, he leaned against it for a moment. Then he turned and picked his way, step by unsteady step, back across the room.

At last he halted by the couch and looked down at the figure that he hadn't even noticed in his earlier headlong flight. That person just lying there, seemingly asleep, sprawled out at full length on one side, a slight, almost puzzled frown creasing the forehead beneath the fall of dark hair.... The world had grown profoundly still around the two of them, its only motion the faint rise and fall of their separate breaths, and then his own swaying forward, the movement of his hand as it hesitated toward the other's face.

The very tips of his fingers brushed Seishirou's cheek. There was no response at all.

His legs were about to give out, and he sank down into a nearby chair. Sitting there, staring at the man he considered his "enemy," he felt in one flash every moment of the history between them--every action and every word, every emotion he had known and every outcome he had ever imagined--and now here was that enemy lying in front of him, truly and astonishingly asleep, the Sakurazukamori for this little while wholly off guard and vulnerable....

He could not do it. The knowledge was bitter yet inescapable. He could not do harm to Seishirou.

Despite everything, he had no wish to be the person capable of that.

He had realized it under the sakura, and as in the past he had tried to forget. Overcome by the need to answer his sister's death, he hadn't wanted to know. But those emotions, the ones he had tried to kill--they were part of his innermost nature, like his gift for onmyoujitsu or his tendency to fall, and if those feelings were removed he would not die but instead would live silenced and crippled and bereft, a walking ghost. He would be empty--and afterward, what then, when nothing was left inside of him, when nothing at all remained for him to give?

What would he become?

Wrapped up in that desolate silence, realizing those things, it occurred to him then that the need to give, so central to who he was, found an odd sort of echo in Seishirou, who in his own emptiness still somehow seemed to want something, who wanted to take. If not for that impassible barrier, that unfinished business between them, they could have completed each other perfectly in that respect. The knowledge struck up an old ache inside of him, a pain he was too tired and broken to resist. If only he could forgive--but it was impossible. Impossible ever to let go....

Wasn't that right?

Looking down at the sleeping magician, feeling so exhausted and confused, he couldn't even begin to imagine what would happen next. Instead he sat quietly, near motionless, letting his strength flow gradually back. He let the minutes pass slowly, while piece by piece he turned the past over in his mind, thinking, remembering, watching over the man that he had loved.

For today, sleep. Because I'm with you.

Even if somebody comes....

I'll chase them away.

In all that time, his eyes never left Seishirou's face.



I wonder what you were dreaming of that day. Was I wrong to interfere? Was I wrong to put a ward on you when you started to get restless? I thought that you might be having a bad dream.

I thought you might be afraid.

Even so, when you woke up I was angry. To leave the anger behind, after everything that's happened--I didn't think I could do it. But even though I couldn't set aside that feeling, or any of the others, I still thought that I could walk away from you.

But I was wrong. Even turning away, I was holding on so tightly. Holding onto the past, and to her....


He froze the thought there: only the word, the fleeting impression of her, the memories as bright as her brief life, her flashing smile. He didn't call out to her, or speak as if she might be listening. He wouldn't do it.

Not ever again.

I didn't even know, and I should have. I should have seen it inside myself. Those terrible things that I did to her, and to myself....

Maybe it's true that people can never see themselves for what they really are. Maybe it's true that we have to be mirrors for each other, just as my sister, when she was alive, was a mirror for me. In order to understand each other, and to understand ourselves....

Is it that way for you?

How different are you? When you came after me in the snow, when you offered me the key to the freedom of my heart--Seishirou-san, I think you needed me then.

You needed me.

Maybe I can't ever know what really moves you, but even if you don't understand what you've done, even if you don't feel anything like what I feel for you, so long as it's possible that that one thing might be true, that's enough to sustain me. I can live on no more than that. I can live on next to nothing, I can live on air...

...on one wish....

And a soaring though still impossible hope came with that thought, lifting skyward in a transfiguring rush of memory and raw sensation: grief and release, and Seishirou looking ever so slightly confused, with the snow falling into his hair; that otherness as close as his own skin, that touch, surprising and soft, and then a sudden strangeness, pain, a terrifying, incomprehensible pleasure; meeting Seishirou's eyes afterward, one a cloudy white and the other a faint glint of old honey in the dark kitchenette, and seeing the mute astonishment in them as he reached down to touch the other man's face; since then, sensing that constant presence--in sleep, the sound of Seishirou's breathing, the feel of his body....

Peace, in his embrace.

Subaru bit his lip. He wasn't even sure if he'd ever thought of Seishirou like that before the other night. He had been aware of desire in himself, of course, although he'd suppressed it; he knew also that he'd had feelings for Seishirou, and he had tried to repress those as well. But where those two things crossed--that he hadn't looked for before two nights ago, and now he only knew that they merged into a single whole and could not be sundered: two flames joining into one and burning on one wick.

And it felt so good. They had made love again last night, facing each other this time, and he had liked that--had liked being able to put his arms around Seishirou, to pull Seishirou closer, liked the warm breath caressing his throat and the solidity of Seishirou's weight and strength pressing him against the bed, more shelter than he had ever known. That closeness no longer seemed so strange or so alarming. It was growing more familiar, and the lessening of the pain by means of the lubricant cream Seishirou had provided was a further gift above the pleasure, suggesting that it was possible to be so closely joined and not to hurt. Something like that held implications for his heart as well.

Still, he didn't want to deceive himself.

It's not because you care, or because you're concerned that I might feel pain. It's because you want to keep me by you for a while, and what you desire you don't want to see damaged. I know.... Expecting you to be different than you are will cause only difficulties for us both. So I won't expect anything at all from you.

Having no expectations, all I have, that same wish.

Tears stung at his closed eyes, and he let them slip free for this brief while, now that he was alone. Grief was a blessing, a luxury he no longer needed to deny himself. Such tears purified the memories and premonitions that they arose from, and there were places inside him that needed that touch so badly.

Seishirou-san, I used to think about that day, and the things you said beneath the cherry tree in your maboroshi. And I used to wonder whether, if I had been a better person, if I had been more worthy of love, it might have ended differently. I don't know, I guess I don't really believe that, but still....

In a way, it's true. I did fail you. All that you gave me, whatever your real reasons might have been, all that time....

I gave you nothing.

You said you wanted to see if you could love me. That was your reason for the bet. I might be wrong, but I think that's only half the reason.

Seishirou-san, I want to give you what you most want. More than anything else, I want to grant your wish.

And then, if my own wish can be granted too....

Subaru stood before the mirror for a long while, lingering in that place of mingled hope and grief. At last he started, giving himself a little shake. Enough was enough for now--he had things to do. It was long past time for him to go. Brushing at his eyes, he glanced once more around the small, empty space that he had lived in, then knelt, zipping up the duffel at his feet--


Startled, he glanced toward the sound of his name. Then he stood and bowed to the girl in the doorway. "Kishuu-san," he murmured, feeling his heart suddenly sink within him, and as he spoke he could hear like an echo that inexorable whisper from inside himself: that soft and bitter voice reminding him still that he was not free.




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