Sakura and Snow

Chapter 7


By Natalie Baan



A soft wind swirled into the cul-de-sac that opened from a certain quiet street, entering under the beam of a protective torii. It scattered faint trailings of snow across irregular paving stones and made the outflung branches of a small tree scrape lightly against the wall of the low-roofed shrine building that faced the gate. Minutes passed, and then the wind outside the enclosure freshened sharply and shifted away to the east, sending clouds scudding across the sky. As it did so, the breeze that had briefly entered the walled yard lost its force and faded away to nothing.

A small chime hanging by the door of the shrine had been ringing delicately. Its sound fell away into the silence.

The priest who had been sweeping the yard shook himself, as if awakening from a dream. He noticed all at once a man standing in front of the shrine, and wondered that he hadn't observed the person before. Somehow he had the impression that the man had been waiting there for a very long time.

Leaning his broom against the wall, the priest made his way over to the man, who stood facing away from him, gazing at the building. The man turned his head as the priest drew near, tilting it to look down at the small, somewhat portly figure that approached. The priest saw a flash of green and white reflected in the stranger's sunglasses: the white of his own robes and the green of the parka he had on over them for warmth. Behind those glasses, the man was smiling.

Can I help you? the priest asked humbly.

Why, yes, the other replied, his voice soft and filled with amusement. I think you can.


* * * * *


"He said you were leaving us."

Subaru looked at the hidden priestess of Ise, met her dark eyes briefly, and then glanced aside. He could still feel her presence in the doorway, though, could sense her standing there and watching him with her usual calm alertness. She was a gathering of shadows in her sober skirt and sweater, like the storm clouds she was named for, and as serene in her outward manner as those clouds were too, before they turned to thunder. Swallowing down his apprehension, he tried to match her quiet with his own.

"Yes," he replied. "I'm leaving."


Inwardly he sighed, though he was careful not to let his unhappiness show. He had hoped--well, never mind. It had been foolishness to dream that he somehow might escape, slipping away without any explanations. He had been so relieved, though, to arrive at the house that the six Seals had shared and to find only Sorata at home. He had been grateful for that minor respite, and grateful also to Sorata, who hadn't demanded anything at all from him. Instead the young monk had simply listened silently until Subaru's words had stumbled to a close. We need you, Sorata had said then, and as Subaru had opened his mouth to reply the monk went on, We need you whole. Come back to us, okay? And Subaru had only been able to bow his head wordlessly, closing his eyes against the guilt and powerful release that trust evoked.

That had surprised him, but it probably shouldn't have. Of the seven Seals, Sorata might well be the one who saw certain things most clearly. It was easy to overlook the young monk's wiser moments, to be misled by his exuberant, boyish nature--and thinking of that, and of Sorata's headlong though still wholly futile pursuit of Arashi herself, Subaru felt a thin but oddly sharp pang. It was the pain of hoping that those two might somehow find a meeting place where they could come together, and of dreading that, after all, there might be no hope for them. He hadn't felt such pain for anyone in years--anyone but Kamui, whose circumstances had been so similar to his own that he wasn't really sure whose agony he'd suffered. It grieved him, and yet it made him feel as though he were slowly becoming a familiar person once again, instead of the stranger who for nine years had been walking through his life.

It also made what he would have to do that much harder.

Arashi was still waiting for his reply, he realized. He blinked and looked at her again. Slender and straight and unyielding as the sword she fought with, the priestess regarded him patiently.

"There's something I have to do," he murmured at last. "It's a personal matter." His gaze flickered aside once more, touching his reflection in the mirror uneasily before dropping to the narrow wooden boards of the floor. From the corner of his eye, he saw Arashi glance down too. Framed by the fall of her black hair, her face gave little away, as usual. Today, though, he thought he saw a glimmer of tension, a stress to her silken smooth veil of restraint that suggested she was trying to conceal some strong emotion. It was her nature to hold her deepest feelings close inside: to be a sky that hid its rain, inflicting neither her pain nor her happiness upon another person. Arashi preferred to guard her privacy; maybe she would respect his in turn.

"You're going to find the Sakurazukamori," she said, immediately shattering that weak hope. He found that it didn't really surprise him, though, that she would make that guess. He hadn't said even so much to Sorata, but it was what any of them would have naturally assumed. He had never made any secret of his reasons for fighting.

And that she would want to know, that she would insist on having the truth of it from him--there was no real surprise in that either. It was simply the kind of person that she was. Clear-sighted and incisive, never turning aside from what needed to be faced, entirely uncompromising in her determination....

"I already found him," Subaru said quietly. Although he dreaded having to confront her over this, he could not lie.

Those few words wouldn't be enough, however. She would never take that answer for what it was. She would believe that he was still trying to die, but he wasn't, and he couldn't see how to explain it to her: how to explain a mystery as profound as the transition from one life into the next, as inscrutable as what shaped a person's deepest, most essential nature. He only knew in his heart that he was right, that there was nothing else he could do that would offer any hope, and his heart was as mute as it had ever been.

How could he make her understand?

"Sumeragi-san," she was saying as he groped for words, "there can't be that much time left. Surely you'll face him when the final day comes. Isn't that enough?" In her taut voice he heard an echo of how little time remained: a few weeks, maybe a month or a bit more. No one was certain. He could feel the same tension in himself, precious seconds slipping past with every breath. It made him even more anxious to be gone. "Everything that's happened so far, as terrible as it's been, has only been the prelude," Arashi was continuing. "You know that the real battle is still to come. Now more than ever, we can't afford to lose you. We need you to be here, with us."

"No--" and he hurried the rest out before she could respond, "that isn't true. You don't...." Not as much as someone else does, he realized, and there was surprising courage to be found in that thought. Taking a deep breath, he let it calm his nervousness, and he slowed, trying to speak patiently and rationally. "There hasn't been any serious fighting since the summer--a little skirmishing sometimes, but nothing that you really need me for. Mostly we've just been waiting. " And if they had needed him--no, he was right that they didn't, and it would do no good to worry about things that weren't so. He caught at certainty again and clung to it, a talisman against the difficulty of telling her the truth. "You won't need me for the fight until the final day comes, until the Shinken have been released. And I...I have to go. I...."

"Then not for the fight."

Blinking again, Subaru refocused on Arashi. This time it was her glance that slid sideways, avoiding his in what almost seemed like a flinch. Her fingertips played against the fabric of her skirt, smoothing it unnecessarily. "For us," she murmured, surprising him with the softness of her tone, "if not for any other reason, then because we need you to stay. Because we...because I...." She faltered, then inclined into a bow, her fingers knotting in the cloth to still themselves, her hair falling forward around her face once more. "Please," she said, the word low and urgent. Subaru stared at her, and for an instant he thought he saw something tremble in her gaze, an unusually strong flowering of care or concern, its dark petals shimmering, before she ducked her head even further, cutting off that glimpse...a glimpse of something unfamiliar, something outside her ordinary self-sufficiency.

Something that did, after all, suggest a certain need.

He was gaping, Subaru discovered. Shutting his mouth, he quickly glanced away. That wasn't what he thought it was...was it?

That Arashi felt something for him?

Oh...oh no.


It could be that he was imagining it, that being under the spell of his own feelings he saw those feelings reflected everywhere, but he didn't think so. He certainly wasn't imagining her distress. Maybe Arashi didn't realize it herself, didn't fully recognize what had prompted her to make such an extraordinary outburst, but something was most definitely there.

And he found that he couldn't tell her the whole truth, not after that. Even if what she felt was only the barest stirrings of attraction, as he thought it might be, even though it might be kinder in the long run to be as blunt as possible, to tell her that he was leaving because he was given over to one of the greatest of their collected enemies, to make her see that she had nothing that could weigh against that love--he couldn't do it to her.

But neither should he lead her on....

It's no good, he thought despairingly, suffering for her sake, for what he imagined that she must be feeling. It's no good at all. If we had met in some other time, some other world, then maybe...but even then, I don't think it would have worked out. In some ways you and I are very much alike, and maybe that's what you see in me: a quiet person, a private person, someone unworldly, like you. But Kishuu-san, I think we're too similar. There's no space between us for anything to grow. Maybe it has something to do with being a magical or spiritual person, but...we go to what's opposite us, always.

And that might be part of it too, that she sensed on some level that he was not for her and therefore he was safe: a distant fellow star, traveling his destined pattern but never coming near, something to be longed for but always out of reach. Nothing that could change the order of her world.

It was a world he understood so well. The resolve that he had misplaced came out from its eclipse, a slow and steady dawning of light. "Waiting," he said softly but with a certain vehemence. Arashi straightened, her expression surprised. "All my life, that's all I've done--and you too, Kishuu-san. Isn't that right?" He met her gaze, noting her puzzlement and slight, startled affront. "It's been the same for all of us, all the ones from the temples and shrines and magical families. All this time being prepared for that final day, even before we knew anything about it. Even before we could understand." He hesitated, then kept on, fumbling his way through the unfolding thought, trying to encompass in words his frustration and urgency so that she might understand. "Aoki-san, what he's suffered...even so, I envy him. I envy him because again and again he chooses this fight. He chooses it of his own free will."

And Kasumi-san, too, he thought, who of us all has the least reason to be involved. The two of them...the value of their gift to the human world awed him, now that he thought about it: the sacrifices they made not merely because they had been created for this battle but because they chose it as well, even knowing the price they might be forced to pay. They fought despite that risk.

They fought because they loved.

Whether it was devotion to the memories of particular people and the things that those people had cared for, as it was for Seiichirou, or whether it was Karen's open-heartedness toward everyone who was lost or lonely, that compassion made all the difference.

And Kamui too--despite everything that the shapers of his destiny had done to destroy any personal attachment, still, Subaru knew, Kamui was in this struggle because there had been people that he had loved, and even though one of those people was dead and the other was sundered irreparably from him, he had never ceased to think of their happiness. That love was what guided him still, what gave meaning to a fight that otherwise would be a heartless, soulless thing, an empty moving of pieces upon a cosmic board.

And Sorata--you, too? Is that why...?

He saw it then, suddenly, brilliantly: a brief glimpse of what the monk from Kouyasan must have seen. It was a hope so very much like his own. He and Arashi stared at each other from across the room, and as he looked deeply into her--really looked--he realized that she simply wouldn't understand. Even the subtle attraction that she felt for him was something she was largely blind to, whether because she didn't know how to read the character of her own emotions or because she didn't want to know. She was so self-contained in her dedication, so ingrained with tradition and the necessity for restraint, the stirrings of the heart must seem at best a distraction, and at worst a threat. No wonder she was always so baffled by Sorata's devotion.

But Kishuu-san, there's so much more than all of this. Sorata knows it, and now I can remember. I had a dream once--a dream that I'll never achieve, but I won't forget it again. I won't forget what it was like, to dream of an ordinary life.

Kishuu-san, I wonder--what do you dream of?

What kind of world would you build?

"So you're giving up?" Arashi demanded, and there was outrage in her voice for all that it remained measured. He could almost hear the ring of metal, could almost see the blade's flash in her eyes. "You're choosing to abandon your place, just because you're tired of waiting? Is that how you honor the ones who've already paid in blood and in grief--the ones who've suffered?" Like Aoki-san, and hearing the accusation that she did not speak, he shut his own eyes against it, and against the memories--


--of the liquid red veil that fell thickly, drop by drop, inside a doorway, partially hiding the room beyond, and Aoki Seiichirou standing transfixed before that curtain, his back to the rest of them as he stared through at what it concealed--

--his anguished, stricken cry--


"Do you really care so little for the future of the earth?" Relentlessly, one after another, Arashi's words fell into his soul. Each one settled there, each one leaving its mark like those slow rains of blood that were seared into his memory, each one a death that he had failed to prevent.



Seiichirou's wife and child....


...a little girl, under a blossoming sakura tree.


"Do you care about nothing?"

"No!" There was a flash of mild shock in Arashi's face; he answered her more gently, though he couldn't keep the pain from his voice. "I do care. I care about all of you." It seemed as though she'd forgotten or perhaps just laid aside her more personal appeal, but he thought that she might want to hear those words anyway. And they were true, so true...for him, caring for anything meant caring for everything, and it had left him suspended where he would far rather not be, caught between one side and the other. "That people are being hurt as a result of this war...I do care about it," he said. "That what we do matters...I understand."

"But for you it isn't the important thing," Arashi murmured in reply, "and of what's important to you, the past matters most of all. Am I right?"

Subaru sighed. "No--although for a long time that was true, I'll admit it. But I was wrong. The past is gone. It can't be changed, and it isn't here, just as the future isn't here, with us, now. The future doesn't even exist until a choice is made, to do one thing or another. To fight only for the sake of the past that was or the future that might come to's a mistake." Realizing something that he hadn't known before, Subaru drew in a quiet breath. "That's exactly what the Dragons of Earth are doing: just doing everything in accordance with their hoped-for future. But because they've decided that the future is so important, they don't even see what lies between then and now. That's why they fight so fiercely and unfeelingly--because for them there's only 'the future' and nothing else.

"I was like that too, for a long time, thinking only, 'when that day comes, I'll do one thing.' That's why my life has been an empty space. My whole life, just spent waiting for some distant fulfillment...but the present is the only thing we can ever possess."

"But the future...."

"That isn't what we're fighting for, is it? We're fighting to save the 'now.' All those people--we're not fighting to decide the future for them, because we don't have that right. No one group could ever have that right." He shook his head. "We're fighting so that they can decide their futures for themselves. That's what I believe. " Turning to glance at Arashi, he was surprised to find himself smiling, having stumbled upon the conviction that he'd longed for and yet hadn't really owned until then. Arashi's dark eyes flickered; he wondered what she'd seen.

"Maybe you're right," he went on, "and maybe I'm needed here, but there's another need too, one that's been waiting for me to answer it for a very long time. If I don't, I may lose the chance forever, so I have to decide. So I've chosen this, even knowing what the cost might be, because otherwise my life will have had no meaning. To be capable of choosing--that's what matters to me now, more than anything else." He hesitated, realizing how selfish that made him sound, and yet it was the truth. He added, "That we can make such choices, that we can choose for ourselves--it's what makes us what we are. Even choosing for our smallness, for our imperfections...that's part of what it means to be human."

He'd always found it hard to express himself; the things that seemed so clear inside his own heart turned muddled when he tried to speak of them. It seemed, though, that for at least a moment he might have managed to close that gap. He could see Arashi mulling over what he'd said, and her demeanor eased. She relaxed, nodding to him slightly. She was hearing and seeing him now--the person he was, not the symbol she expected the Sumeragi to be--she was turning over the pieces of what he'd said in her mind, and although it was obvious that she was unhappy and still didn't fully understand, for now it seemed that she'd accept what drove him. She made another fractional bow, then took a step backward, clearing the door for him to pass. He tasted sweet freedom in that motion, and for an instant closed his eyes to savor it. Then he bent down and picked up his bag.

"You have my beeper number," he said. Hooking his arm through the small bag's strap, he swung it over his shoulder. There was a second duffel on his mattress, and he turned to claim that as well. Everything the head of the Sumeragi clan owned now, in two bags--and himself too, the one thing that truly was his own, and that was already given elsewhere. That was all he had. The Kyoto estate and everything that went with it, he somehow felt, had never belonged to him. "If you need me--if any of you do--you only have to call and I'll come." He still wanted to offer her something, and that promise, as little as it was, was the best he could do. That, and the chance to understand...he wondered what else he could say that would be of help.

He glanced up and Arashi nodded once more, silently acknowledging his offer. Her silence, her stillness crystallized something inside him, and as he walked toward the door, toward her, he said quietly, "There really is so little time left. Too little, before the final day. But the future is being made now--every moment, it's being made.

"Kishuu-san, don't just wait."

He stepped past her and into the hall; he was turning toward the stairs--


He looked back as Arashi took a half-step after him. Then the priestess stopped, visibly collecting herself. The hand that she had nearly stretched out to him fell back to her side as she whispered, "Forgive me."

Subaru nodded gently. "It's all right," he replied. "You don't need my forgiveness. You've been patient with me even when I haven't deserved your patience." He closed his free hand around the strap of his bag, not wanting to reach down and through his jeans touch those scars once more, not wanting to show how deeply they marked him, body and spirit. It had been Arashi who had healed him on that terrible night, on a suggestion from, of all people, Sorata, who had speculated that the magical shifting of muscle and bone that unleashed the priestess's sword might be turned to use upon another person. Just as it had been Sorata who'd ripped through his failing wards, preventing him from doing more harm to himself...those were debts he knew he never could repay.

"You healed me when I needed healing," Subaru murmured, "and I never thanked you for it. And now you've given me another gift. I owe you."

The priestess tilted her head, favoring him with the barest suggestion of a smile. It would probably take her a long time to sort all this out, but at least she was letting him go. He admired her graciousness just as much as her tenacity, and even more so the places where they met like this, in perfect balance. She was so consummately composed, so complete in herself....

No wonder she was lonely, he realized.

He bowed to her again, then turned for the stairs, sensing rather than hearing her follow him, her presence a graceful silence at his shoulder. "Do you want me to explain it to Kamui?" she asked as they walked.

Kamui.... Subaru sighed in resignation. "No," he replied, "I'll do it. I'll stay until he comes home." He hadn't been planning to wait, thinking that it would be easier on everyone if he just slipped away, but to do so would be wrong. He could admit that now. It was more selfishness than he really had a right to, wanting only to escape from a painful situation--and of all the seven Seals, Kamui was the one who most deserved his explanation.

It wouldn't be as easy as this, though.

"Of course he'll be upset," Arashi predicted, her words a counterpoint to his own thought. The two of them reached the top of the narrow stairs and began to descend. "But he'll understand...or if not, then he'll accept it. As long as you believe."

"I do," Subaru answered. His voice was soft but fervent. "I believe."


* * * * *


High above the city, grey clouds flowed across the sky. As they passed, the wind toyed with them like idle fingers playing with a length of silk: gathering and then releasing the filmy cloth, smoothing it thin until light could almost penetrate it before rolling it up again, like a memento to be laid aside. The clouds changed, moment to moment, and with them the quality of the light changed too, from the dimness of a winter day's uncertain weather to a flash of near-sunlight glimmering on the little drifts of snow in the courtyard's corners. Shadows appeared briefly on the shrine's white wall, cast by the tree's slender branches; brightness gleamed on the slickly wet paving stones, then faded away.

In the courtyard, dark eyes stared up at the sky, still wearing an expression of surprise. The light came and went upon them as well.

The man in the black coat lowered his hand from the shrine's front wall. He studied his work. With a nod of satisfaction, he stepped lightly off the porch, then turned to face the building, its once-pristine wall now patterned with a certain crimson marking.

He pressed his palms together as if he were praying.

He was not praying.


* * * * *


The stairway was narrow and steep, and Subaru maneuvered down it cautiously, trying not to let his bags or his coat get caught up on the hand rail. His mind was restless, with a thousand other places to be and one place in particular, but he tried to restrain it to what was at hand: the worn, grooved wood of each step, the pale flicker of daylight on the floor of the downstairs hall as the December sun came briefly out from behind its cloud, and the necessity of waiting for Kamui, which meant that there was no real reason to hurry down these stairs anyway. He wondered how long the wait might be, and whether Seishirou would be concerned. Should he call? But Arashi would never forgive him if he opened up a phone line across her wards, a channel for magic to cross between two distant places. That was why the phone lay unplugged in a downstairs closet--that, and a well-founded suspicion of everything electronic and even vaguely computerized, a foreboding that had developed in the Dragons of Heaven since the summer's disasters. Even to page Subaru himself, they would have to find a pay phone somewhere safely outside the house.

For a moment Subaru almost smiled to himself. Excuse me while I call up a Dragon of, that wouldn't be the best thing to say to Arashi.

The thought of the smile faded, though, before a touch of inward pain: the ache of secrets, the strain of balancing between those two halves of his life. Even if it had been all right, if there hadn't been any risk to the other Dragons of Heaven, he would have found it difficult to make that call--and there was risk to them if he called, of course. He didn't want to delude himself. As a Dragon of Earth, Seishirou would take any advantage that he was given. For himself, Subaru had no fear at all--he could give himself up wholly to Seishirou's hands and killing instincts--but the others' lives were not his own, and he could not betray them. He would have to be exceedingly careful not to lay temptations before the Sakurazukamori. He would have to avoid drawing the man's attention to the Seals any more than was strictly necessary.

But when it did come down to that--when the Dragons of Earth did move against the Dragons of Heaven, and it was inevitable in the end that they would--what was he going to do then?

Subaru sighed hopelessly to himself. To be a Dragon of Heaven, deep down at the very core of his nature....

To love a Dragon of Earth....

To be bound to that person, with bonds of love and long history and his heart's most singular pain....

Kishuu-san, I wonder, if you looked at me through the circle of your hands--would you see his marks on me?

Absently Subaru swung his bag to the side, to give himself a better view of where his feet were landing. He began to take the next step, and between one footfall and the next--


--a shuddering, a downward slide that began slow and rapidly gained speed, a sense of weight and solidity coming apart in all places, the work of long years and many hands' care crumbling into dissolution. A low groan turned into a thunder of chaos echoing through his mind and heart as something fell--

--a cloud of dust, rising from that falling, was being taken by the wind--

--the wind--


Subaru staggered, barely catching himself on the railing. He clung there as the shadow that had come over his sight began to fade. His heart was beating its wings frantically inside his chest, a bird trying to backwing itself onto a more stable perch; his legs trembled, and his grip didn't feel at all secure. Struggling with that riot of body memory, still feeling the sensations of falling, of foundations disintegrating beneath him, he reached out after the experience anyway, trying to catch an image of what it had been--but it was already eluding him in the confusion of "waking," and the sudden disorientation of finding himself here, three steps from the bottom of a stairway in the house of the Dragons of Heaven. Standing there, looking down on a patch of daylit wooden floor, he couldn't feel any echo of that eroding wind. Everything was still. Dimly he registered Arashi's voice as she murmured from behind him, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah." Later, when he could sift the recollection properly, he would try to understand it. But for now...he shook his head slightly and found that he'd regained his equilibrium. Straightening up, he reassured himself of balance--

A door slammed, and he froze, listening. There was a brief quiet, as of someone taking off their shoes, then the familiar sound of a light, impatient tread approaching, quick steps half-running in the downstairs hall. Kamui whipped into view around the corner, his head down and thoughts clearly elsewhere. Grabbing the bottom of the rail, he swung up onto the steps, lifting his gaze--he paused there, catching sight of Subaru, and those wide eyes widened further with surprise and then with a burst of delight that seemed brilliant enough to illuminate every shadow of the narrow stairwell. "Subaru!"

In the next instant, he registered the bags and the coat that Subaru had never bothered to take off. That rare smile vanished as Kamui's mouth fell open with the realization that Subaru was leaving them again. He stared into Subaru's face, hunting for denials of the obvious, and their eyes locked, those violet ones gone desolate and wild.

Subaru ducked his head and began to descend the last few steps.


Though the cry ripped at his heart, he didn't answer it immediately. Instead he took his hand from the railing, and as he reached Kamui he caught the younger Seal by the arm. With a gentle tug, Subaru guided Kamui back off the steps and onto the floor, where the two of them could talk on level ground rather than in the awkward, in-between space of the stairwell. He was vaguely aware of Arashi as she brushed past, slipping down to the end of the hall where she would be politely unobtrusive yet present should any need arise.

Subaru released Kamui just long enough to drop the bags, then took hold of him again, gripping him firmly by the shoulders. He could feel Kamui's resistance to that touch, anger, loss, and betrayal tightening the muscles beneath his hands. Perhaps it was fatalism too that made Kamui try to turn away from him, that was closing Kamui's face against him like a temple gate: the experience of having had one's trust profaned too many times, and the growing sense that such betrayals were all one could expect from life. He was afraid that Kamui would break away from him and run, or, worse yet, would simply break--that Kamui would lose that passionately caring heart at last, and it would be his fault.

That Kamui would know the emptiness he had felt....

Closing his eyes, he bowed his head against that grief and guilt. He pulled Kamui's tense form against himself, enfolding the other Dragon in a deliberate embrace. "Kamui," he whispered into the startled boy's ear, trying to offer along with that unusual physical closeness the truth of his love and his longing to see Kamui unhurt.




"Shirou-san. Are you ready to go?"

Sunlight poured in through the huge window, making a near-silhouette of the Dragon of Heaven. He turned to look at Subaru, his hands knotted in a waterfall of brocade curtain and the halo of pale golden rays that surrounded him obscuring his face. It had taken a while to find him here, in this distant room of the Imonoyama mansion; having found him, Subaru waited patiently for a response. A little more delay would make no difference.

"Why're you calling me that?" Kamui demanded, his voice curt and defensive. "You never used to." Subaru's eyes flicked away from the teenager; he glanced down at the floor instead, perplexed. He wasn't quite sure what he'd done wrong. His dealings with other people had grown more awkward over the years: it was a blindness that he was used to, and that he generally didn't care about. Nevertheless, he made the effort to excuse himself, and as he did he fumbled after why Kamui might be angry, and why it would matter to him if Kamui was.

Why he would be even the least bit concerned about it....

"When I first met you, I only knew the title that you'd been given in the predictions of the final days," Subaru murmured. "Now that I know it's more than just a title, to call you by that name so'd be rude."

"Why?" Kamui laughed shortly. "Everyone else does it, don't they? 'The one who represents the majesty of the gods,' 'the one who hunts the majesty of gods'--who wouldn't want to be called that?" The words were fierce and brittle, crackling with a sarcasm that even Subaru couldn't miss. Lifting his gaze, he saw Kamui release the curtain with a sharp, slashing gesture. "It's my name," Kamui snarled, as if daring Subaru to make something of that. Subaru couldn't see the younger Seal's face, but he could picture its expression--he knew with a precision that surprised him what the savagely luminous glare that it wore would be like. Subaru bowed his head once more before that imagined look, then closed his eyes as well when Kamui added, the boy's voice gone soft without warning, straining against the tensions that the Seal was under, those pressures that could force something fragile and unyielding finally to break: "I'm starting to hate the sound of it."

Subaru bowed his head still further. He knew what it was like to face those expectations. Having been what he was for so many years--the thirteenth head of his family, Sumeragi Subaru of the Sumeragi clan--he understood that burden all too well. To be seen always and only through the lens of one's name, so that the symbol and the self became the same in others' eyes, never to be spoken to as the individual human being but always in that impersonal way....

"But," Kamui whispered, almost inaudible now, yet Subaru's attention was drawn back to him at once, "but...I didn't mind it so much...when it was you."

That was other side of naming and being named. To have one's name called in a special way, and by a special person....

He knew what that was like as well.

Kamui turned his face away. Against the light, his slender frame was an insubstantial darkness. Outside, at the top of the window, there was a brief flutter of shadow wings as a pair of birds sought a resting place among the eaves and then grew still.

"Kamui," Subaru said. He saw the other's head come up a fraction; he heard, in the silence of the room, an intake of breath. Saying that name again, carefully, thoughtfully, he felt it echo just a little inside himself: a small reverberation where for so long there had been no sound at all.


Then he was walking forward across the expanse of floor, and as he reached the other Seal it was as though the light had diminished, allowing him to see Kamui's face. It was only an illusion--the light was no different, only his position in relationship to it and to Kamui had changed--but the result, Subaru thought, was the same. He gazed into violet eyes that reflected his own seriousness back to him: eyes that were gravely anxious but also yearning, with that particular, familiar ache. Reaching out, he laid one hand on Kamui's shoulder.

"And you," he said, for Kamui alone, "please--

"Call me 'Subaru.'"




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