Sakura and Snow

Chapter 8


By Natalie Baan



He could still feel Kamui's shivering, which had started the instant they'd embraced, but those tremors were beginning to subside. Breathing a sigh of relief, Subaru held Kamui close, sheltering him until he could regain his self-control. Kamui would be embarrassed, otherwise, to have his grief made visible like that, when he tried so hard to be invulnerable and strong. Though nearly all the Seals had been with him in his greatest anguish, though they'd watched over him in the extremity of his sorrow, he still didn't like to reveal any weakness. He didn't like anyone at all to see him cry.

Because of that, Subaru thought, even now he wasn't crying, only quivering with the effort of holding back those tears. Kamui's slender body was tense and upright, his hands knotted in Subaru's coat as if to pull Subaru closer or to thrust him away. His head buried in Subaru's chest, Kamui swallowed once, painfully. He took a shuddering breath, and then was still.

When it seemed that Kamui was calmer, Subaru relaxed his grasp. Pulling back, he brushed a bit of hair from Kamui's face, then took both of Kamui's hands in his own. Kamui's eyes widened at the unaccustomed gestures, and Subaru felt a stinging pang of remorse. Kamui deserved so much better than this--this little tenderness, offered so late and after so much loss and suffering--and Subaru realized with a jolt that Kamui had a certain power over him, that Kamui could in fact hold him here, if the Dragon of Heaven chose to exercise it. The desire to protect Kamui, combined with duty and a growing sense of himself as someone who belonged in this place, on the side of people who were defending such things as love and human was just strong enough.

But for him there was still that greater need, and Kamui had others who would stand by him.

For Seishirou, there was no one else.

"Kamui," Subaru murmured, "you already know, don't you? You know why I have to go." Misery crumpled Kamui's face again, and he quickly turned aside. There was a long, anguished silence.

"Would you deny me the chance to resolve this?" Subaru pressed, at last.

"No." Though choked, the word was honest. Despite the fierce, defensive stubbornness that he sometimes showed the world, this was Kamui's true nature: a generous and loving heart, a heart more than capable of sacrifice. Kamui would give him his freedom--and even as that realization winged through Subaru, a soaring flight of relief and release, he gazed into Kamui's face and discovered that, for him, the price was after all too high.

He squeezed Kamui's hands and waited for Kamui to look at him once more.

"I promise," he said then, with all the seriousness that he could muster, because he wanted to offer as much as he could back to Kamui, given the constraints of his wish, "I promise. I'll come back to you on the final day. Whatever else happens, I will not abandon you."

The words were said almost without thought, in a flash of instinct, and then, once they were spoken and the promise made, it was as if once-solid walls around him began to crumble away. He could the stillness of balancing between those two needs, trying to give himself to both, he suddenly grasped what had been eluding him: that for him, divided as he was, this was the best hope of peace. To live between those two worlds, in that place of tension, and to find his own form of harmony there, moving with the flow and ebb...he saw in a single blinding vision what he had always been and what he had been going toward, the shape and pattern of his entire life. He saw what he could do to heal and what was not his to do, and then he saw the price--

But until then, the chance for so much happiness.

Could he do it? Was he strong enough to live like that, and for the promise of that end? The answer flooded him, luminous and absolute: a simple and inexorable yes. He gave himself up to that assurance, falling as he'd always fallen, but attentively this time, with the hope of that one most particular wish, and in that moment of surrender he found the answer he'd been seeking all along. That there was a place, a brief and jewellike instant that could be his, marked off by conflicting necessities, and that it could be enough--enough, and with that thought a sense of liberation, a feeling of such joy....


Slowly he came back to himself, still with that conviction, that soaring sense of rightness and grace. There was sorrow too--now and always, there would be that sadness--but somehow it only sweetened the happiness that he felt and made the fact of his feeling it sharper and more dear. Glancing at Kamui, he noticed a change in the young man's expression, its somberness dimly lightened by surprise. "What is it?" Subaru asked, and Kamui jumped and flushed, looking more than a bit embarrassed.

"N-nothing," Kamui replied, "it's just...I don't think I've ever seen you smile before. At least...not like this, anyway."

Had he really never smiled at Kamui? Subaru thought about it, then caught Kamui's gaze once more. He smiled again wholeheartedly, this time just for Kamui, because it probably was true--and it was a sad thing, to have been unable for such a long time to give something so small and simple, and yet so healing.

"You're not alone," Subaru said. "You have friends, people who care about you," who would die for you, he almost added, but it wasn't something that would comfort Kamui, "people who will never leave. If I were different, if my past had been different, then I'd stay too...but I can't. I have to go." Sorrow drifted down over him like the falling of soft things, the delicate weight of flower petals, or of snow. He closed his eyes briefly, then opened them to gaze soberly at Kamui. "Everything I have to give is yours, everything but this. Kamui, I can't be something other than I am--not even for you, whom I love. I'm sorry."

Kamui ducked his head at that, his hair falling forward to hide his eyes. Subaru could see the tightening of his mouth, though, could feel the tension of the fingers twined between his own. "What?" he coaxed, and when Kamui didn't reply he went on, "You don't want to tell me. Are you sad for me, thinking of what I'm going to?" Gazing down at the top of the bowed head, the dark hair as usual windblown and wild, he murmured, "Are you sad for yourself?" Kamui jerked his head up again, revealing a stricken and guilty look, and Subaru smiled at him.

"It's okay to be sad for yourself," he said. "You don't have to be ashamed of it. No one in the world can even guess at what you're going through, so nobody has the right to blame you for being sad and angry. And there's no reason to be sad for me." Kamui's eyes searched his face; Subaru returned that gaze without a flinch. "Even if I knew for certain that I'd die, I'd still have to do this," he said, "and not knowing, at least I have hope. I really do believe that I'll come back to you, Kamui. I wouldn't have promised it if I didn't believe."

"But if you're killed...!"

"We face that risk every day, just being Seals." Subaru shrugged. "Because of who we are, none of us can be protected. But to face even this, and still imagine that I can make a difference...." He found himself smiling once more. "I'm happy. I really couldn't ask for more than that." Subaru paused then, hearing those last few words and realizing how they might be taken the wrong way. "Kamui, I'm sorry. After everything that's happened--do you think I'm being selfish?"

"No." Kamui''s answer was stronger than he'd expected. Those violet eyes held his own now, unfaltering; there was no shadow of resentment anywhere that he could see. "That time in my dream, at the bottom of my heart--I said that you chose well, remember? So I honestly don't blame you, if you say that you have to go." Kamui swallowed back obvious grief. "I understand it. I understand, it's just that--it's just--" His shoulders slumped, and he turned away once more.

"It's not fair," Kamui whispered, those few words painful as a cry.

Not that Subaru had chosen to leave but the necessity of that choice, and more so, the fact that so many tragedies had happened all around Kamui, and in almost every case there had been nothing he could do. Supposedly he held the future of the earth in his hands, and yet so many things had already been decided, either by the older generation who had set these wheels in motion or by the inscrutable workings of his own fate. To be told from childhood that his survival was essential, that he was important to the future of the world, and yet despite his power to be so helpless to save the people all around him--that was the source of Kamui's anger, and also his suffering.

Subaru slipped one hand out of Kamui's grasp. He touched the boy's cheek with his fingers, and Kamui turned minutely toward that touch. "No," Subaru whispered, scarcely aware of what he was saying, his attention wholly focused on Kamui's pain. Kamui was as unguarded and vulnerable as Subaru had ever seen him, even in the deepest recesses of his heart. "No, it isn't fair at all, is it? Nothing in this world is fair, but that's the way it is. And yet, we go on." Subaru looked at Kamui's pale face, at the eyes that, had they not been closed, would be the living, changeable purple of sunset clouds. "We love, even knowing that love ends, and that every person we love will someday die," he said. "We keep on looking for love and happiness, every day until our lives are over. That's the best thing that we humans have, I think: the ability to love and hope regardless. Even though we're powerless and afraid, it's because of that that we can live."

From somewhere that improbable joy had come flowing back to him, lapping at his heart, making him smile--and then he started, coming back to himself, somewhat abashed at the way he'd been going on. "My sister would say I was defeatist," he murmured, letting go of Kamui's hand. "She always used to say that I thought too small. Kamui, with your power maybe you can make a world where there's no unfairness. I think...I think I'd like to see that world someday. But anyway, no matter what happens in the end, I have faith in what you'll do."

There was no reply, and as the silence in the hall began to drag out awkwardly Subaru cast around for a distraction. He found one in the two bags resting on the floor. "I should go," he said awkwardly, "I need to--" He started to turn, and Kamui seized him by the arm. Startled, he glanced back at the Dragon of Heaven. Kamui raised his head, his eyes struck by light, by the brilliance of a powerful emotion.

"You will come back," he declared, almost savage in his intensity. "You will, because I've never doubted you in anything. So if you have hope for that, then so do I." Without warning, he smiled, a smile that was almost shockingly beautiful, although no less fierce. "And if you don't," he promised mock-severely, "then I'm coming after you. The hell if I won't!" It was pure attitude that Kamui was showing off for him now, a spark of the fire that Subaru had seen only in mere glimpses--that he'd felt as a dream of itself, deep in the subaqueous terrain of Kamui's heart. It was Kamui, whole and complete: that strange mix of courage, sadness, and loyalty combined with the perversely stubborn spirit of a prickly teenager. Kamui's smile flared out at him, lighting the hallway like a newborn star, and Subaru found himself smiling back involuntarily.

Then Kamui flung himself onto Subaru, locking both arms around Subaru's neck. "I believe," he hissed into Subaru's ear, words that were part affirmation and part demand. "You won't die...." And as Kamui's breath tripped on the last words, breaking into a sob just as heartfelt as his smile had been, Subaru whispered back:

"No. I don't think I'd dare to, Kamui."

Still smiling helplessly into Kamui's rumpled hair, Subaru held the boy close as he cried--really cried this time, an unrestrained and forthright flood of tears. There was more than a touch of hysteria in Kamui's weeping, but perhaps he'd needed that release. He had fought so hard against letting the other Seals into his world, as if afraid that he'd lose yet another person to his destiny. For so long he had been holding back, desperately afraid to give, or to let go.

But Kamui, after all you're very brave. Brave enough to love, and brave enough to grieve.

You have a good heart, a very human heart.

I'm glad.

Even if you're "the one who represents the majesty of the gods," "the one who hunts the majesty of gods"..."it's a human who has to decide the fate of human beings."

In the end, this whole thing isn't about "power," anyway. It isn't "power" that will decide our human destiny.

After a while Kamui sniffled, then pulled away enough to wipe at his face. Subaru let him go. They looked into each other's eyes for a moment before Kamui smiled again. There was nothing else that really needed saying, so Subaru simply returned that look with affection, then turned away. He picked up his bags, swinging the one onto his shoulder, and it was then that he noticed the two Seals waiting partway down the hall, just the other side of the foyer. They'd probably witnessed his entire conversation with Kamui, although they might not have heard every word. Feeling a bit foolish, Subaru walked slowly toward them, Kamui trailing behind, and as he reached them he bowed once, briefly. Leaning against the wall, Arashi looked up at him, her dark eyes unusually bright. Sorata wore strange expression as well, although he cracked into his usual grin as Subaru and Kamui approached. He was standing very near to Arashi, with one arm propped up on the wall so that the priestess stood within the crook of his elbow. Arashi didn't seem to have noticed.

"Now, you take good care of yourself," Sorata instructed, waggling a finger at Subaru and adding a long-suffering appeal in the general direction of heaven: "This guy's got no sense of self-preservation...don't forget," the monk bounded on irrepressibly, "because if you don't come back, you'll miss the happy day!"

Subaru blinked at the rush of words. "The happy day?"

"Yes! The day of my marriage to--oof!"

"Oh," Subaru said, as the monk doubled over from a well-placed jab. "That happy day. I see."

Arashi turned away from Sorata, who'd crumpled to the floor, and gave Subaru a look of deeply surprised dismay. "Sumeragi-san, please don't encourage him!" she urged, trying to ignore the monk as he writhed at their feet, moaning something about the pain of love. "You're only going to make him worse."

"Nope," Sorata broke in, "'s not possible. I'm already incorrigible. Besides, Miss, just looking at you's all the encouragement I need." Arashi twitched and glared, giving the strong impression that she'd like to hit the monk a second time. Apparently she thought the better of it, though, and opened her mouth instead to say something else.

"Oh, would you just get over yourself," Kamui muttered, his arms folded over his chest. Subaru glanced down at the teenager in some surprise. He found the sarcasm strange, maybe because he'd seen so much of Kamui's sorrow. "The way you two're always going at each other, people would think you were married." Bewildered by this fresh assault, Arashi looked from Kamui to the monk and back. At her obvious confusion, Subaru found himself struggling against the terrible urge to laugh. Arashi would be upset, though, if he joined in the teasing also. He turned it into a suppressed sneeze instead.

Sorata, having climbed to his knees, was gazing at the priestess with starry eyes. Noticing him, Arashi glowered. "Not one word," she warned him.

"Why not?" Kamui put in wickedly, a contrary smile creeping over his face. "It's not like you're not interested. Wasn't that you I heard upstairs last week?" Clasping his hands together, he trilled in a startling falsetto, "'Oh, Sorata!'" Arashi whipped her head around to stare at him with horror.

"That absolutely was not me!" she insisted, her voice rising dangerously. "It was Karen-san, making jokes!"

"Sure it was," Kamui purred.

"It was!"

"'Oh, Sorata,'" Kamui sang out mercilessly. "'Ohhhh, Sorata!'--wah!" He skipped back a step in mock terror, turned tail, and fled for the stairs as Arashi took a step toward him. For a moment it looked as if the priestess might pursue, but she was halted by Sorata's hand on her arm.

"Miss, just think," the monk declared with rapture, blissfully ignoring the expression on her face, "if you said it was true, you could make me the happiest man in the world--aughh!"

"You know," Subaru said, gazing down at Sorata's now-prostrate form, "maybe it's a good thing the end of the world is coming soon. I don't think you could survive much more happiness."

"Whew!" Sorata sat up, and the two of them watched Arashi's back as she stalked down the hallway and vanished upstairs. Subaru hoped that Kamui had had sense enough to make himself scarce.

"Well! That was a surprise," Sorata went on gleefully. "Kamui's been depressed for so long that I'd forgotten what it's like when he's being a badass. Although he needs to work on playing nicely with others...anyway, I just hope his temper doesn't come back too. I don't want to be caught in the middle again, with him and Miss both glaring at each other. Especially when she's already mad at me!"

"Um," Subaru replied noncommittally. "Sorata-san, why do you do that?"

"My friend, you're just not looking at the larger picture." There was a familiar gleam in Sorata's eyes as the monk folded himself into a cross-legged position and placed both hands emphatically upon his knees. "It's always like this. If you'd ever watched any anime at all, you'd know that it's the guy the girl can't stand at first who winds up together with her at the end. Besides," Sorata slapped his fist into his empty palm, "the greater the difficulties, the greater the obstacles, the greater the passion in the end! Ahahahahaha!" He stopped laughing abruptly and tapped one finger thoughtfully against his cheek. "Although at the rate we're going, I might not survive that much passion either. Hmm." Eyes closed, Sorata nodded seriously to himself. "That's a problem."

Quietly, Subaru sighed.


* * * * *


Subaru closed the door behind himself. After wishing him luck once more, Sorata had gone upstairs to apologize to Arashi; as he put it, "Being teased on all sides like that, and even by Kamui...if she started to cry, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself." Subaru thought it unlikely that Arashi would actually cry, no matter how much her feelings were hurt, and besides, she'd seemed more angry than upset--but of course he couldn't know her heart. And he certainly wouldn't want to see her in any pain.

It was easy to understand, though, why Sorata had done what he did--the real reason, beyond his at best semi-serious answer. They had all needed it, including Arashi herself. The distraction that Sorata offered, the release from tension through laughter or through turning their irritations upon himself, was the monk's gift to each and every one of them. The Seals would have fallen apart long ago without it.

Subaru smiled inwardly, hoping that Arashi would forgive the monk after all. She usually seemed to, or at least to forget until the next time.

As he turned and began walking along the shoveled-out path to the front gate, Subaru blinked in the sunlight. The thought occurred to him then that it was over--the difficult explanations were done. Seiichirou was at his tutoring job and wouldn't be back before nightfall, and there was no telling when Karen would drop by next. And Yuzuriha...he wasn't even sure where she was. She was often away from the house these days: scouting with Inuki, she said. He couldn't help worrying about her, even so--but he didn't have to wait, because Sorata, Arashi, and Kamui could tell the others everything they needed to know. He had met his obligations, he realized, and the immediate future was swept clear in front of him.

For a moment, at least, he had found a way to live.

The wasn't what I'd thought at all. To choose one side or another--thinking of it like that, as something forced upon me from outside, it was a decision without any meaning. But in the end, the choice that I made was so very simple: to love, and to accept that I loved.

Snowflakes lay across the path in thin, glittering veils, having been strewn there earlier by the wind. They crunched beneath his sneakers as he walked.

Because I love, I'm a Dragon of Heaven. Because I care about other people, I can't be any other way. Subaru laid his hand on the latch of the gate. And more than just "other people," there's also you.

Seishirou-san, if humanity is wiped out, then you'll die too. And you'll never'll never even find what it is that you've been looking for.

So therefore, in loving you, I have to stand against you. By making me capable of loving again--

You've also made me capable of leaving.

Subaru found that he'd paused, gazing at the little drifts of snow that flanked the gateway. Now he shook himself and pushed at the old gate, struggling a little with its finicky latch. Despite the clumsiness of his gloved fingers, he finally got it open and stepped out onto the sidewalk. He latched the gate once more behind himself, then looked down the length of the narrow, empty street. Above the walls that lined it rose the second stories and roofs of houses, and beyond that just the pure, translucent blue of winter sky.

Subaru smiled once more, lifting his face to the sun's faint warmth.

But what's to come--I won't be frightened of it. Instead, I accept. That's the freedom that I never found before. In surrender, in no longer fighting, I'm free at last.

I'm not afraid. I'm happy.

And...I'm free.

Turning from the gate, he stepped out along the sidewalk, and as he did he spread his arms in a wide, impulsive sweep, as though to embrace the sky and snow and all those silent houses. He felt the pull of the duffel bag as it swung at the end of his arm, felt that soaring leap of joy within his soul--

Until the final day, I'm coming home.

I'm finally coming home.

To you.


* * * * *


The wind had risen again, and the rolling clouds of dust in the shrine's yard were subsiding more quickly. They flattened and thinned themselves out until a tumbled skeleton of beams and pillars and the rubble of walls gradually began to appear. Despite the noise that the building had made in falling, the streets remained empty of people. The city, it seemed, was holding its breath. None of the neighbors had left their homes to look upon the little disaster.

No one had come by to assess the damage, or to mourn.

On the peak of a nearby roof, though, a man was standing, balancing with perfect ease, his arms folded casually across his chest. The wind flared the hem of his black coat around himself and stirred waves of dark hair across his forehead; light glinted off the sunglasses that dangled carelessly from one hand. There was a subtle hint of a smile on his face he gazed at the newly created ruin--as he looked into the vanishing clouds of dust, seeing neither the swirling motes nor what they hid but instead the momentary vision of a faraway place...

...of a faraway person....

As those clouds dissipated, Seishirou watched the image at their heart fade into nothing. He unloosed the last threads of his farsight and let them fall. Closing his eyes, he considered the possible implications of what he had just seen, analyzing their significance.

Subaru had seemed inordinately happy. He wondered what it meant.

Distant sirens were growing closer; one of the local people must have mustered the will to call an emergency team. Seishirou's eyes snapped open, and he slipped his sunglasses back on. Turning, he sprang easily across the gap that separated him from the next house over, sweeping an illusion of blue sky around himself. It didn't really matter whether he was seen or not--there was nothing that any of these people could do to him--but he had a certain standard to uphold.

He touched for a moment on the neighboring rooftop, then leaped again.

Seeing Subaru like that, the brief flash of a smile that had belonged to an earlier time and place, to another person--it had been a trifle unexpected. Still, there was probably no reason for concern. In fact, mabye he should find it reassuring that Subaru was returning with such happiness. Apparently Subaru's desire to move in with him was genuine, as peculiar as it seemed.

Seishirou landed on the roof of a corner store, several houses away from where he'd been. Amused, he thought about their improbable circumstances--about what it would be like to have a live-in situation with the other onmyouji, to have him always around, day and night. It would be an interesting challenge, he was sure.

But before taking up that challenge, he was going to find a cafe where he could have a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and perhaps a nice pastry too. Or maybe a doughnut. He'd pick up a paper as well and read it at his leisure. There was no particular hurry; in fact, he'd prefer to get home after Subaru had finished unpacking.

Having decided that, the rest of the afternoon promised to unfold in an agreeable way.

Seishirou glanced back over his shoulder. In the distance, he could glimpse the signs of his work. Emergency lights flashed on the walls and roofs of buildings, and he could see a break in the line of houses where a minor kekkai had stood.

One more step toward the final day, Seishirou thought.

He smiled.


* * * * *


The unpacking had gone quickly and smoothly. Seishirou must have cleared space for him in the closet and dresser; there was plenty of room. Everything was meticulously organized, and Subaru had easily found where to store his few belongings--although it was awfully strange, and a little embarrassing, to be putting his clothes in with somebody else's. To be seeing, right next to each other, his and Seishirou's--

Subaru finished what he was doing and closed the drawer firmly on that thought.

Now there was only his writing box, which for the moment he'd left sitting on the dresser, and of course the bags themselves. Folding them together, Subaru found an empty space on a shelf high in the closet. It was a bit too high for him, and he had to jump to push the bags into their place. Turning from the closet, he spotted Seishirou leaning up against the door frame, and he almost sprang into the air again.

He stopped himself barely in time--did nothing more than start at the unexpected presence. He tried to control the frantic racing of his heart as well, and wasn't quite as successful. He'd been so thoroughly surprised, he hadn't even heard Seishirou come in, but it was more than that. It was as if his wits were scattering, his strength of will being stolen--like a small creature caught in the predator's gaze, pinned down in the grass by the flash of a shadow of wings.

It had been the same before, he realized, during that one year they'd been together. He had known this feeling many, many times--had felt it, every time that they'd been close.

Seishirou pushed off from the wall and began strolling toward him. As the man approached, Subaru tried to remember to breathe, slow, even breaths against the urge to panic and bolt. It helped, but he still felt as if he were that boy, helplessly enveloped in Seishirou's nearness. All the old wonder and apprehension swept over him, threatening to leave him incapable of thought. Acutely aware of himself and of Seishirou, he fumbled after the still place, the clarity and certainty that he'd felt earlier, and as he struggled, Seishirou came up to the dresser and leaned on it, arms resting casually along its top. He gazed at Subaru, his manner perfectly composed.

"So," Seishirou said, "are you all unpacked, Subaru-kun?"

"Y- yes."

Seishirou's glance slipped past him. Subaru noticed a moment of expressionlessness, so quick as to be almost imperceptible, and he guessed at what the other must have seen: the ghostly white of his shikifuku, clearly visible in the open closet. His heart lurched. Then Seishirou was looking at him once more, smiling, warm. "No problems?" Seishirou asked.


"That's good."

A small, awkward silence fell between them. It dragged on, and Subaru didn't know what to say to break it--didn't know what he could say. Still staring at Seishirou in hopeless fascination, he watched the other's gaze wander restlessly back to the closet, return to the top of the dresser, and finally light upon the writing box. Seishirou reached out idly, almost distractedly, and ran a finger along the box's edge. As he began to lift the lid, the pressure of confusion and discomfort, of seeing him cross that boundary as if Subaru weren't even present, suddenly became too much. Stepping up to the dresser, Subaru slapped his hand down on top of the box.


And Seishirou was staring at him, startled. Genuinely startled by his outburst, and for a second those mismatched eyes widened, a crack in the smiling, confident mask--

In that instant, the world stopped all over again for Subaru.

He knew what he needed to do.

Catching his breath, he watched Seishirou make the adjustment swiftly, taking his hand off the writing box and drawing the usual smile across his face, but those things weren't important. Instead, he stared into Seishirou's eyes as one would gaze at the smoke of incense in meditation, simply taking in what was there, what they were, the one a flat, milky color, an opal that had lost its flame, and the other, as Seishirou leaned forward again, into a slant of late afternoon light, becoming a concentration of that fire, its amber brown struck golden by the sun.

I could lose myself completely. I could immolate myself in you.

I must not.

Subaru smiled at Seishirou then, and the man's forehead creased into what was almost a frown before he caught himself. Quickly, though, he recovered his good-humored expression. "Sorry, Subaru-kun," he apologized, not really meaning it, of course, but for the moment that didn't matter at all. Instead, in that one brief instant, Subaru had seen it--the person behind the cheerful, practiced mask. That was what he needed to discover, over and over again. To give Seishirou what the man might not even know he wanted, to answer his own wish too, he would have to get beyond that mask.

He even thought that he could see a way to do it.

Subaru let go of the writing box. Feeling strangely comforted by what he'd learned, he finally was able to relax into Seishirou's presence, to put aside that momentary fear. Remembering then what else he'd been wanting to do, he unclipped his beeper and laid it on the dresser next to the box. He noticed the quick, darting glance of disfavor that Seishirou gave the device, before that look was camouflaged by yet another smile. "Well," Seishirou said musingly, "so you still carry a 'pocket bell.' I'm kind of surprised. Although the Sumeragi family have always been big fans of technology, still, all things considered...." Seishirou trailed off, and Subaru nodded in understanding.

"It's not registered under my name."

"Ah, so one of your friends on the force must have arranged it." Subaru looked up, surprised, and Seishirou grinned. "I knew she made a mistake, giving all of you police records. Yamakawa-san, wasn't it--your old friend, the detective?"

Subaru managed not to gape at how Seishirou remembered things one would've thought long forgotten, or at the lightning quickness with which he fit those pieces together. Tentatively, Subaru nodded again. "Yeah," he said, and he saw the brief gleam of pleasure in Seishirou's eyes: a small victory, the satisfaction of being right. It struck Subaru as mildly exasperating yet funny at the same time, and he suppressed a little smile.

"So, what do you want to do now?" Seishirou asked.

Knotting his fingers in the front of his turtleneck, Subaru tugged at it absently. "I was going to take a shower and change clothes," he said. It would feel good to do that; he had been in and out of the same clothes for the past few days. He absolutely wasn't expecting it when Seishirou's arms came around him from behind, enfolding him completely in their embrace.

"A shower would be a great idea!" Pressing his body to Subaru's, Seishirou murmured, his breath warm on Subaru's ear, "Would you soap my back?"

"E-eh-! Th- that-" Subaru stammered, frozen with shock. Seishirou laughed out loud. Then, with a brief squeeze, he let Subaru go.

"I was only kidding," he said as Subaru spun around to stare at him. "Subaru-kun, what do you want for dinner tonight?"

"D-dinner? Um, I don't know...whatever you want to make is good."

"O.K.! Then I'll make something really special to celebrate our first night of actually living together." As Seishirou spoke, he'd been melting toward the other room. Now he turned--and paused, looking back over his shoulder, one hand lingering on the door frame. "Take your time in the shower," he instructed, adding with a perfectly innocent smile: "I promise I won't peek." Then he vanished, humming contentedly to himself. That sound was soon joined by cupboard doors opening and closing. Subaru stared at the doorway through which Seishirou had disappeared, and then blinked.

After another moment, he blinked again.

Seishirou-san, you didn't give me a chance to answer you. An incredulous smile crept over Subaru's face.

Because maybe I would have said...yes?

Turning, Subaru propped his elbows on the dresser and clasped both hands over his mouth as sudden heat flamed in his face. To take a shower together--really together, not like strangers in the sento sharing a room of showers or using the same tub, but in the way that Seishirou's voice and body had suggested it to him--

Did people do that?

Ducking his head, Subaru recovered from the embarrassment and crazy, wild, inexplicable delight that followed that thought. There was so much that he didn't know, that he had never even contemplated...he was terribly naive about certain things, he realized, so much more so than a normal person. But he could learn, and maybe, sometime, he might even surprise Seishirou.

A little bit of surprise might do some good.

Subaru's eyes travelled back to the writing box. He rested his hand on its silky, polished wood. Remembering the startled alertness in Seishirou's gaze, that moment of unfeigned honesty when Seishirou had looked at him from across the dresser--had really looked, and had inadvertently let him see inside Seishirou as well--Subaru smiled. He had known that it wouldn't be easy, but as he regarded the box he nevertheless was completely and unfailingly happy, feeling that hope shining steadily within his heart.

One had to begin somewhere. Another idea occurred to him then, and for an instant his smile flashed more widely.

Shortly thereafter, he fled into the shower.


* * * * *


Preparations had been made, the pots were simmering on the stove, and now Seishirou was standing in the bedroom, listening. Through the bathroom door he could hear the faint hiss and patter of the shower, and the occasional splashing sound that let him know Subaru was in there, but nothing else. Apparently, even in the shower, Subaru still didn't sing.

Feeling restless, Seishirou wandered over to the closet and slid open the door. He touched the smooth, slightly stiff silk of Subaru's shikifuku. Stroking those ceremonial robes, he felt their familiar texture, something that he remembered well even after so many years. Lifting a sleeve to his face, he rubbed his cheek against it thoughtfully. The robes smelled vaguely of incense, and even more vaguely of herbs that they must have been packed in at some point. They smelled a very little like Subaru, but not much. He probably hadn't worn them often.

Seishirou let the sleeve fall. Carefully he rearranged it so that the robes hung smoothly between the other clothing; he made sure that there was no sign that they had been disturbed, and then he shut the door. As he turned, his eye landed upon the box that Subaru had left out on top of the dresser. Immediately he wondered what could be in it that Subaru hadn't wanted him to see.

Seishirou cocked his head, but the sounds from the bathroom continued unabated. He walked over to the box and studied it thoroughly. There were no magical locks or wards that he could sense, no floating threads of magic that might trigger an alarm, alerting Subaru to his intent. Seishirou touched one finger cautiously to the lid, feeling for the presence of any kind of spell.

There was nothing.

After a final pass of his hand over the box, Seishirou opened it and looked inside. He smiled. Obviously this was Subaru's writing box; there were the inks and inkstone and brushes, and a neat stack of the cards that Subaru used to make ofuda. Seishirou had his own, concealed in a drawer in the kitchen under the guise of illusion. It wasn't so surprising, then, that Subaru hadn't wanted Seishirou to be handling his tools of magic. The Sumeragi clan had always been unduly concerned with outside influences.

Considering that, Subaru-kun, you're still awfully trusting, to be leaving this out unguarded.

The writing materials were on a small tray. Seishirou lifted it out, curious to see what was underneath. He was amused to find one of Subaru's old handkerchiefs, embroidered with that cutely ridiculous "S.S." monogram. The silk had yellowed, and the folds were deeply creased; it had probably been tucked away for a long, long time.

Seishirou picked the handkerchief up, and something small and hard almost tumbled out of it. He caught the object in the cloth before it could fall and clatter on the dresser. There were two things rolled up in the handkerchief, he discovered, and after taking another moment to listen and reach out with magical senses, wary of being discovered, he shook the objects gently into his hand. Fish...they were a pair of jointed fish earrings, brilliant in red and pink. Clearly they had been Hokuto's--in fact, thinking back, Seishirou could almost remember her wearing them, or at least something very similar. He wondered why Subaru had chosen to keep these earrings out of all his sister's strange accessories--what meaning they might have had, that he would keep them as a memento of her.

It was a very minor mystery to be sure, but it entertained him to wonder.

Rewrapping the earrings, he laid them carefully aside, then peered into the box once more. There was a white folding fan, a pair of old black gloves--one of the many pairs that Subaru had worn as a boy--and between them, a small piece of paper. No, a photograph, Seishirou decided, one that had been folded in two. At some point the photo had been ripped in half right down the fold, and then painstakingly taped back together again. Seishirou picked up the picture and opened it.

He remembered it at once.

It was a photograph of himself standing next to Hokuto, on the sidewalk outside the veterinary clinic. That was the day Hokuto had just gotten her new camera, and she had badgered Subaru into being her photographer--not that it had required much badgering, as Subaru had been more than happy to be behind the camera lens instead of in front of it. In this picture, Hokuto was leaning forward, her eyes sparkling with emotion as she addressed the photographer. Seishirou, standing behind her and a little to her right, was smiling, but the light had caught his glasses in a gleaming reflection, hiding his eyes. It had been spring, and windy: his white lab coat was blowing out to one side, his hair had been whipped around his face, and Hokuto was holding her skirt down firmly with one hand. The rip ran exactly down the middle of the picture, between the two of them.

There had been a whole album of such pictures once, which Hokuto had brought into the clinic to show him. Shortly afterward, however, the album had had a little accident. When a person was a magician, it was risky to allow one's picture to be taken. Such things could be used against one, in a spell.

He hadn't realized, though, that this one picture had survived.

Seishirou stared at the photograph. There had been a time, years ago, when he had awakened in the night, grasping after the touch of a distant gaze even as it vanished, ghostlike, from his perception. He had stayed awake until morning, listening, watching, unfurling strands of magical perception around himself as he tried to determine who could have been observing him through the elaborate barrier of his wards. In the end, though, he had discovered nothing. That fleeting touch had never come again. For a while he'd been inordinately cautious--he had covered his tracks even more assiduously than usual, and he'd stepped up his plans to get out of Japan, leaving the country only a few days after the encounter--but when a great deal of time had passed without further incidents, he'd let the event slip from his mind. He had come to believe eventually that there had been no meaning behind that touch, that it had merely been some dreamer or restless spirit passing through.

Had it really been Subaru watching him, though, so many years ago?

Had Subaru come that close to him once, without his being aware?

Disquieted, Seishirou refolded the photograph. He went to put it back and noticed something else at the bottom of the box. Moving the gloves and fan, he uncovered a tiny, square piece of paper. Picking it up, he found written on it a single word: the kanji that spelled out hope.

Hope? Puzzled, Seishirou turned the paper over. He read what was written on the back.

Hello, Seishirou-san.

Seishirou stared at the paper for a good, long moment before he realized that the shower's noise had ceased. Hurriedly he replaced all of the objects in the box, careful despite his haste to return them to their exact positions. Closing the lid, Seishirou retreated to the kitchenette, where he listened intently as Subaru came out of the bathroom and began to get dressed. Nothing sounded out of the ordinary in the slightest.

Stirring one of his pots, Seishirou sampled the contents. He absentmindedly added a bit more spice. All the while, though, he was considering what he had discovered, he was thinking about what those things might possibly mean...he wasn't really sure what they meant, he realized, but he did know one thing for certain.

He would have to be even more careful than he'd thought.




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