Sakura and Snow

Chapter 9


By Natalie Baan



Sitting up in bed, a pillow propped behind his back, Seishirou was reading, if indeed it could be called that. He was working his way through the last and most inanely self-important of the New Age magazines, and the only reason he was even making the attempt was that in the past he'd occasionally gleaned bits of useful information about rising spiritualist groups from between its lines of fatuous prose. Tonight, though, whether because the more serious practitioners had all gone underground for the end of the world or because he wasn't paying proper attention, he couldn't even find that much. He should probably just give up and go to sleep, but he kept on reading stubbornly.

Of course, the reading would go more smoothly if his concentration weren't divided. While a part of his mind slogged through yet another article on extraterrestrials, the rest of his attention remained fixed on the person lying so quiescently next to him. Subaru was still awake as well, although his eyes frequently drifted closed in almost-slumber. From time to time, though, those green eyes would open fully, turning up toward him, and if Seishirou happened to be gazing back at that moment Subaru would start, then smile shyly, as if the only thing on his mind was a naive diffidence at being caught looking. As if Subaru were entirely oblivious to the now-buried tensions between them....

Seishirou wondered whether anyone could really be that oblivious.

Subaru chose that moment to reach for Seishirou's hand, almost as if responding to his thoughts. Although he wasn't precisely surprised, since he remained constantly aware of Subaru's movements, neither had Seishirou quite been expecting the gesture. Controlling his instinctive reaction, he instead glanced down questioningly, then smiled with deliberate serenity as Subaru laced fingers through and around his own. He moved his fingers against Subaru's in answer; then, frowning, he tried to find his place again among the welter of ads.

It wasn't that things were going so badly. In fact, if anything they were going rather well. Indeed, Seishirou could pride himself on how solicitous he'd been, on how skillfully he'd been playing the role of attentive lover. Subaru, for his part, seemed to have forgotten the incident of the writing box completely, as though it had after all meant nothing, and he'd shown no other signs of anger or conflict. Instead, he appeared perfectly meek and passive, and more than content to remain where he was, sharing an apartment and a bed with the Sakurazukamori. It was all very harmonious and very domestic, and it made no sense to Seishirou, who was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Disengaging his fingers from Subaru's, Seishirou resettled himself to a more comfortable position. He tilted the magazine at a better angle to catch the light. This experiment of living together might have been very agreeable, too, if not for the need to remain alert at every moment. Subaru had a number of appealing traits. If he had only been an ordinary person, Seishirou would have reckoned the "relationship" about as perfect as one might wish. Unfortunately, Subaru wasn't ordinary at all, and Seishirou wasn't stupid enough ever to forget that. As a result, he was beginning to have doubts about this whole affair.

Seishirou made it to the bottom of the column at last. He sighed and turned the page. Certainly they'd have problems sooner rather than later, too, if Subaru persisted in his current nightly routine. Now that his health had been restored, it seemed he was returning to a "normal" pattern, which, if the last two nights were any indication, meant sleeping like the dead for three or four hours, and then getting up to roam for a while before coming back to bed. Of course, as long as Subaru was up and about Seishirou had to remain awake as well. He'd spent the last night lying alertly in the dark, listening, following every heard and sensed motion, wondering what that onmyouji could possibly be doing in the other room. It was already becoming quite annoying, and he didn't intend to let it continue.

Subaru rolled onto his side, inching closer to Seishirou, his hand shifting to lie against Seishirou's leg, a timidly affectionate touch. Seishirou flicked a glance toward him, noting the dark head nestling into the pillow, the half-focused eyes, the serious, somewhat uncertain expression, as if Subaru wasn't sure that he was allowed to be doing this, and then the faint, self-deprecating smile as he apparently decided that it was all right and snuggled even nearer. It was like having a puppy around: a quiet, well-bred puppy too polite to whine for attention, which instead contented itself by pressing as close to its chosen person as it could get. Seishirou studied Subaru for another moment, then turned back to his reading.

Anyway, staying up later like this might disrupt Subaru's inner clock, perhaps enough to solve the problem. An alternative would be to put a spell on him, but Seishirou was reluctant to do so. Not only might Subaru begin to learn too much about his abilities, but magic was a subtle power, inclined to capricious effect, and Seishirou was disinclined to bring it into this volatile situation until he had a clearer sense of what was going on. The experience with the healing spell had made him warier than usual, and right now there were just too many uncertainties.

Perhaps another solution would present itself, too. He'd see about that.

For the time being, though, he'd lost the thread of his article, and the words he was skimming no longer made even marginal sense. He went back and reread the last paragraph. Apparently, he discovered, "gray aliens" were undermining the earth's crust beneath key metropolitan centers, but the "Pleiadian Brotherhood" would create a psychic field to lift those cities clear of the destruction by calling upon the energies of Star Age meditators. Seishirou snorted to himself, amused by that distorted mirror of the truth. Still, he supposed it must fulfill a certain need. Considering how overt the chaos had become, so that anyone at all could sense the danger, and yet only a select few knew what it meant and what was to come...for the rest, there was just that dread of the unknown future, and so they responded with violence, or despair, or the pathetic, futile belief that "good thoughts" and prayers alone could preserve them.

And all the while the future was closing like a door upon this earth. Hope died, and little birds, and parents before their children; stones cracked deep in the ground beneath their own weight. Surely the end of the world was approaching, the natural order of things having been forsaken--and there was an onmyouji in his bed, running a slow hand down Seishirou's leg in a way that was arousing a certain spark of interest, despite the fact that he'd thought that interest already more than satisfied for the night. Seishirou blinked, surprised and mildly vexed.

"What, again?" he asked, glancing down at Subaru. "Subaru-kun, it's not nice to make your lover feel old." Although he softened the gibe with a smile, it still had the desired effect: Subaru flinched, flushed hotly, and removed the intruding hand at once. It was so easy to manipulate Subaru, to make him feel guilt and remorse, or embarrassment--and at times like these, it was very convenient too.

Right now, Seishirou decided, readjusting his pillow and settling back, he really just wasn't in the mood.

He returned to the magazine again and--dammit, he'd lost his place. Seishirou took a deep breath, calming that irritation, then plunged into the text one more time. Pleiadians...the importance of meditating for a safe future...cities flying through the air under psychic shields...yes, that was it. Closing his mind to other distractions, he willed himself onward. There were just a few more lines to go, and--

"What are you reading?"

He was not going to be diverted again. Seishirou held the magazine up and let Subaru see what it was for himself. There was a profound silence, during which Seishirou recalled the really idiotic self-help ad on the magazine's back cover. Well, anyway, who cared what Subaru might think? Seishirou lifted the magazine higher in front of his face, shutting the other out. Focusing his attention in earnest, he reached the column's end at last, and that was the end of the article too. He congratulated himself as he turned the page--and felt a decidedly unpleasant sensation as he discovered that the next piece was an interview with some woman who claimed to channel an "Ascended Master." He'd had plenty of encounters with such titles in the past. Staring at the woman's smiling photograph, Seishirou heaved a deep and noiseless sigh. He wondered whether a prolonged exposure to stupidity could eventually be fatal.

Still, if he got through the rest of the issue quickly at least he'd have it out of the way forever. No more New Age magazines in the world was certainly an appealing thought. Encouraged by the prospect, Seishirou began reading the editor's introduction--and he found himself gazing at his own two empty hands, as the magazine was snatched away and flung to the side.

Although he was alert at once, Seishirou didn't respond. Instead he listened to the soft thwap of pages hitting the floor somewhere off to his right, to the sound of his own calm breathing, and to that of the person next to him, which was somewhat more energetic. Turning his head, he studied the Sumeragi. Subaru was sitting up, the covers swathed around his hips, and he regarded at Seishirou with the fixed, intense look that he got only on those rare occasions when he was truly angry.

Seishirou returned that look levelly, although at the same time he was conscious of a distinct quickening inside himself. So here was the conflict at last. He had known that it would come. The divisions that lay between them were deep and wide; to believe that such could simply vanish was to believe a lie. He smiled at Subaru, a smile with no affection in it.

"No," he said, very quietly.

Subaru tensed at that word, and Seishirou watched him carefully. The teenager he had known would have been abashed long since; this was the new Subaru, changed and definitely dangerous. Whole seconds dragged by, though, and Subaru merely stared at him, taking no action. Cautiously Seishirou shifted his glance to the right. The magazine had fallen to his blind side, and he couldn't see it without turning away from Subaru. It wasn't ideal, but he supposed that it would do for a test. With a measured lack of haste, he began to get up from the bed, and as he put one foot on the floor Subaru reached for him, as he'd half-suspected would be the case. Too predictable, he thought, hiding a smile. Pretending not to see that outstretched grasp, Seishirou brushed it aside, curious to observe the other's reaction, and Subaru grabbed Seishirou's hand, pulled it up to his face, and bit him.

"Ow!" Seishirou exclaimed, more from surprise than pain, and he jerked his hand away. He'd been expecting a bitter words, an argument or an attitude of reproach--or a spell of some sort, if this was truly a tearing of the veil that masked their hidden enmity--but not that, even gentle as it had been. He studied Subaru more warily. Subaru faced off against him, still wordless, but quivering with electric, vibrant emotion. Never the most articulate of people, he seemed almost to have lapsed into a subverbal state. Experimentally Seishirou made as if to turn away once more; Subaru went for his hand again, and Seishirou pivoted, catching the other's arm and twisting it. Putting a hand on Subaru's shoulder, Seishirou pushed him down, holding Subaru's arm out at a painful extension. Subaru stiffened and made a thin, brittle sound. After another moment, he collapsed onto the bed.

"No," Seishirou repeated, firmly but without heat. He kept Subaru pinned for few more seconds, then released him and sat back. Subaru crumpled into a heap, pulling his arm to his chest and clutching it, his breaths ragged and forced. Seishirou waited to see what he would do next, but Subaru only curled up further, turning his face against the covers as if to hide.

Was that the end of the matter? If so, it was a bit anticlimactic. Seishirou watched until those gasps eased and Subaru lay motionless, showing no further sign of contention. Then he shrugged and started to get up once more. For the third time Subaru came up off the bed at him, and for the third time Seishirou turned back, blocking Subaru's lunge with ease. Predictable and stubborn and no less naive than ever--Seishirou hadn't been surprised in the least.

You're determined tonight, aren't you, Subaru-kun? And you still haven't learned. One would think that you'd know by now. If you go too far, if you cross that line into being a threat to me, I'll hurt you. And I won't even care that I do. Seishirou smiled. Just like this....

He lashed out his hand to seize Subaru, ready to subdue him and complete this game at last--and Subaru ducked that grab with surprising speed, hurling himself toward Seishirou. Flinging one arm around Seishirou's chest, Subaru clamped his other hand onto Seishirou's shoulder, and Seishirou felt an abrupt disruption in the flow of energy throughout his body. His entire arm went dead.

Shit-- Cursing his own foolishness, his constant forgetting of the fact that Subaru had of course been trained in martial arts, Seishirou threw himself forward, taking advantage of his size and weight to bowl the other over. They fell onto the mattress and rolled across the bed. Seishirou came up on top and tried to pull away, but somehow Subaru's grip had held despite the fall and struggle. The arm that still worked had gotten tangled in the covers--it was trapped beneath Subaru now--and Subaru had twined those long legs around Seishirou before he could sit up, pinning the two of them together. He couldn't get the leverage that he needed to escape.

He wasn't done yet, though. Seishirou bared his teeth in a feral grin. If he could just move his imprisoned arm a few more inches, he'd reach Subaru's vulnerable spine. Perhaps with the same intention, Subaru's free hand was moving up toward the back of his neck. Seishirou twisted aside, but Subaru tangled that hand in his hair and dragged him down. Subaru kissed him, bit him lightly when he didn't respond, kissed him again, all most thoroughly unexpected. Seishirou bit back in instinctual response. Then he drove his mouth down onto Subaru's: an inspired, utterly abandoned kiss. He could feel Subaru respond, at first with surprise and then with slowly growing ardor--could feel the other melting under that assault, the fingers on Seishirou's shoulder slipping gradually, one by one. Life was returning to Seishirou's arm, and he began to move it: he drew a sensual caress along Subaru's leg and up Subaru's side. He traced those fingers higher, his lips and tongue still devouring Subaru's, and as he forced the kiss deeper, more consuming, more passionate than ever, as Subaru yielded fully at last, his arms sliding up around Seishirou's body and his heart racheting wildly against Seishirou's chest, Seishirou put his hand on Subaru's shoulder and expertly popped the joint out of its socket.

Subaru arched against that stab of anguish. His cry, smothered by Seishirou's mouth, made no sound.

Seishirou finished the kiss to his satisfaction. Then he jerked upright, easily breaking Subaru's grasp. In a single triumphant motion, he caught Subaru's uninjured arm, wrenched it back, and pinned it to the bed. As Subaru writhed, he drew power into his empty palm, a brilliant flame of white, eruptive force. He gathered that burning power, tensed his fingers for the final strike--

"You're not old." Subaru's voice was fragile and harsh, the words gritted out against the pain.

Pausing, Seishirou eyed his victim. Subaru had ceased to struggle and instead lay watching him, that suffering gaze oddly dark in the flickering otherlight of Seishirou's spell. Aside from the sharp lift and fall of his breathing, he was quite still, but there was no defeat in that stillness, no hint of any weakness or surrender.

"Don't take anything for granted," Subaru said very quietly. "Especially not me."

Seishirou blinked once more. He stared down at the person that he'd been about to kill, and Subaru looked back at him with perfect calm. Those green eyes were fathomless and somehow sad. The anger that had burned in them a moment ago was gone without a trace, as if it had belonged to some other world and being irrelevant had like a ghost been sent back to its proper place.

But...why? And what had Seishirou done, or not done, to cause that change? He found that he had no idea, and if that were so, if there was a level to the workings of Subaru's mind and heart that had eluded him, one that he hadn't anticipated and taken into account--if the premises that he had been working from might be utterly incorrect--

Then what had this night's dispute even been about?

As he looked into the unruffled quiet of Subaru's gaze, Seishirou felt an odd, puzzling jolt. It was as though he'd stepped in the dark onto a surface that wasn't quite where he'd expected it to be. Disturbed, Seishirou wondered whether the two of them were even playing the same game, let alone had agreed upon the same set of rules.

Nevertheless, one thing had become very plain.

To finish Subaru now, like this, would be as pointless as striking at water--it would be like trying to wound a glimmer of light or a reflection on its changing surface. His blow would pass through Subaru without opposition, killing the onmyouji easily, but what lay deeper, hidden from sight, would elude him.

Seishirou lowered his hand. He rested it on Subaru's chest, fingers spread, and the gathered power crackled against Subaru's skin. Subaru flinched a little, but his pain-soaked gaze remained unwavering. Unthreading his spell, Seishirou let the power flow away, thin streams of energy trickling from his hand and spreading over Subaru's body in a faint spiderweb pattern before fading out into the ambient. As the ordinary lamplight reasserted itself, he gazed into Subaru's face. He thought he saw patient acceptance there, perhaps relief, and a lingering touch of sorrow, but the reasons behind those things he could not yet determine.

Staring into those green, darkly luminous eyes, Seishirou smiled slowly and deliberately, and he thought he saw uncertainty flicker there as well.

He was missing vital nuances somewhere. There were too many things about this encounter, and about Subaru himself, that he didn't understand. But to kill Subaru like this, without even knowing why he had started this whole affair, would be an awful lot like losing.

And Seishirou was determined not to lose.

He eased his grip, letting Subaru shift to a less uncomfortable position. Subaru rolled over gingerly, a hiss of breath escaping as his arm was jarred. With a word or two of soft reassurance, Seishirou helped him to lay back, then took hold of Subaru's injured arm, applying a gentle traction to it until he could guide the dislocated joint over the lip of its socket and back into its place. Subaru's entire body shuddered; glancing at his face, Seishirou noted that it was even paler than usual.

"It's all right now," Seishirou murmured. "Everything's all right, Subaru-kun." He gazed down at Subaru in his best mimicry of compassion, an expression of concern sliding easily over his face. He stroked Subaru's hair with tender fingers, touching the sweat-streaked forehead and the lids of those now-closed eyes. Let Subaru wonder where he stood as well: let him have his own doubts about which was real, the brutality or the affectionate caress. Seishirou realized now that he'd been fooled into letting slip far more than should have been revealed. He'd have to guard himself even more carefully than before. But he'd been playing this kind of game for a long time, and if he could keep Subaru off balance and guessing also, he was certain that he could win out in the end.

To face that challenge--to uncover what Subaru was hiding deep in that mysterious, feeling heart, while keeping his own secrets safe--

It could be very interesting.

Seishirou leaned closer to the onmyouji. There was a trace of blood on Subaru's lower lip, and with infinite care he wiped the stain away with his thumb. "Don't worry," he breathed, putting his mouth against Subaru's ear, his lips forming irrepressibly into a smile again, now that Subaru couldn't see them. "Subaru-kun, I would never take you for granted." He pressed nearer, his tongue slowly beginning to follow the delicate arcs and spirals of Subaru's ear. He let his weight settle back onto Subaru gradually, his lips traveling down onto Subaru's neck, onto the line of the collarbone. Subaru made a tiny, choking sound that Seishirou pretended he hadn't heard. Instead, he continued his gentle and inexorable attentions.

It seemed he was in the mood tonight after all.


* * * * *


Seishirou yawned deeply, then gazed at the coffeemaker, watching the steady, dark stream of drops trickling into its carafe.

It had been, he thought with distaste, an untidy night.

Oh, he supposed that it had turned out all right in the end. Nothing else really objectionable had occurred. He'd gone on to take his pleasure of Subaru; and then afterward, when Subaru had collapsed from exhaustion and the effects of injury, falling as if stricken into the oblivion of sleep, he had run the risk of calling upon the sakura's power to repair the damage to Subaru's arm. It would give Subaru something to think about, and maybe he'd even get lucky with that: finding no evidence of last night's play, Subaru might wonder if it had only been a dream.

Still, he certainly wouldn't count on it.

Taking a final pull on his cigarette, Seishirou crushed it out in the ashtray. He observed its last smoke rise, twine about his fingers, and then disperse. Physically he felt fine, if perhaps a trifle tired--he hadn't been sleeping as well as usual, with Subaru by his side. He'd reworked his protections meticulously, though, so he shouldn't have to worry about backlash from the healing spell. He couldn't afford to be careless, and especially not now, when Subaru was so provokingly inclined to make things difficult.

And there it was again, that disturbing irritation, that annoyance lingering stubbornly at the corners of his mind. Seishirou paused and stared at the end of his cigarette, his eyes narrowing. Although he considered himself to have won their last round, the victory had been inconclusive. The frustrating fact remained that he could not see his way clearly: he hadn't the slightest idea of what Subaru was after, what Subaru might be hoping to achieve. Last night Subaru's actions had seemed purely contradictory; they hadn't unfolded in any way that he'd understood. Thinking about them now, when the heat of the moment had passed...Seishirou was beginning to wonder.

The bathroom door opened, and he heard the quiet scuff of footsteps in the other room. Instinctively, he glanced up. He caught a brief glimpse of Subaru passing across the bedroom doorway, and he eased to one side, out of the direct line of view.

And was it really even worth it to continue this game, he mused--were the fleeting thrills that Subaru posed quite enough to warrant the risk? There was only so far that he could stretch the boundaries of tolerance, and this gamble was right at the knife edge of foolishness anyway. But there was still some chance that they could return to the pretense of being a loving couple, having tested the fragile borders of their detente--and after all, it would be a shame to waste all the time and effort that he'd already put into this. So even though patience had never been his greatest virtue, he thought he might persist just a little longer.

So he'd danced a gentle kiss on Subaru's cheek this morning, as Subaru had begun to stir, had murmured sweet greetings into Subaru's ear before coming out to put on the coffee and to allow the privacy that Subaru preferred for getting dressed. He was ready to show Subaru his nicest, most affectionate personality, to be faultless in all things, so that there could be no more cause for disagreeableness between them. Although a shattered illusion usually couldn't be repaired to its full perfection, with the proper cooperation, Seishirou thought, it could be done. Whether Subaru was pursuing some hidden agenda or not, surely some part of him still craved the fantasy of love and kindness.

In that case, absolutely it was possible.

The coffee was ready, and Seishirou fished in the cupboard above his head for cups. And if it turned out that Subaru wanted to insist on being stupid and contrary, then Seishirou would know it, and he'd end the game as soon as possible and have done. But until he was certain of that, he'd continue playing--and since Subaru was probably almost finished in the bedroom, he'd better put on his happy face and be prepared. Seishirou whistled a note or two as he delved into the cupboard once more, and then into the refrigerator, hunting down sugar and cream for their coffees. He put the kettle on for hot water.

"Good morning again!" he said cheerfully when Subaru appeared in the doorway. "The coffee's ready, and breakfast will be too in a couple of minutes." He set Subaru's cup at the edge of the counter, where it could be reached from any of the stools. Then, leaning forward onto the counter himself, he smiled at Subaru. "Want anything special?" he asked.

Subaru stopped in the doorway and stared for long moments. Returning that stare, Seishirou wondered what was going on in the other's mind. Finally Subaru shook his head and began walking toward the kitchenette, his expression unwontedly serious, even for him. It wasn't the most auspicious start to the day.

You're definitely not as yielding as you used to be, Seishirou thought. I'll need to make a better effort to reassure you. Something ordinary, something mundane...perhaps some small talk.

What should he talk about, though? After a couple of days, he was beginning to run out of neutral topics.

"It's clouded up again this morning," Seishirou murmured as he watched Subaru gradually drawing nearer. "I wonder if we're going to have more snow." Subaru made no reply. As Seishirou cast around for something else to say, trying to keep their one-sided conversation going, it occurred to him that Subaru wasn't aiming for his usual seat. Ignoring the silently steaming cup of coffee, Subaru walked to the corner of the counter and moved deliberately around it to join Seishirou in the tiny kitchenette. He came right up against Seishirou, so close that Seishirou took an instinctive half-step backward. "What?" Seishirou asked, looking down at Subaru in bewilderment. Subaru flicked a glance toward him and then turned away, reaching for the cupboard that held the breakfast bowls. "Subaru-kun, I can get that for you."

"Thank you, but--I've got it." The subdued voice held no inflection. Rising onto his toes, Subaru stretched after a bowl and just managed to hook one finger over its rim. Inwardly Seishirou winced, picturing more broken china, but Subaru dragged the bowl to the edge of the shelf and got it down without incident. "Excuse me," he said, his eyes downcast, as he turned and tried to step around Seishirou.

"Um...sure." Seishirou leaned forward, leaving space for Subaru to pass. There wasn't much room behind the counter for two people. They brushed against each other as Subaru went to the rear of the kitchenette and began to scoop rice out of the warmer. Seishirou gazed after him, by now quite thoroughly perplexed.

What on earth was this supposed to mean?

As Seishirou puzzled, the kettle began to whistle. He took it off the burner and set it down. Subaru's behavior was uncharacteristic, and all his instincts demanded that he should take this as a warning, but as he looked at the blurred reflection in the kettle's polished curve, he could see only the small, ordinary movements of bowl and ladle.

Perhaps it was nothing at all and he was simply overreacting. Or perhaps Subaru was in fact trying to goad him toward some response. In either case, however, he should probably behave as though nothing were wrong--and if that were so, then there was something that he ought be doing with this kettle of hot water. He stared at it until his mind tracked back to the matter at hand, which was breakfast. Ah yes--he'd been going to make some soup. He turned to get the miso and the other ingredients, and he almost bumped into Subaru, who was trying to squeeze back past him in the narrow space. Seishirou halted at once.

"Subaru-kun," he said with great patience, smiling as always, "you're in my way. Why don't you--" He broke off as Subaru stared right back at him. There was a bright, hot flicker of emotion in Subaru's gaze, a taut crinkling at the corners of his eyes, and then--

"Maybe you're in my way," Subaru said sharply. He set the bowl of rice down hard. Head lowered, he pushed past Seishirou and stalked away, vanishing once more into the bedroom. After a moment of staring at the empty doorway, Seishirou's gaze slid back to the abandoned bowl of rice and the few grains that lay on the counter next to it, jounced out by Subaru's vehemence.

Apparently, that was the end of their peaceful breakfast.

Seishirou switched off the range with a decisive snap of its knob. Although his hands weren't actually wet, he wiped them on the dishtowel. Then he walked to the bedroom door himself and paused, folding his arms across his chest, to consider what lay before him: Subaru standing framed against the window's glass, his back turned as he gazed down at the street. The overcast sky made the room unusually dim, and in that dimness Subaru seemed a melancholy, almost severe figure, the stark blacks and grays of his jeans and flannel shirt a shadow against the clouds. The partly bowed shoulders, the hands thrust into pockets, the dark head tipped a little to one side: every gesture declared his anger and disaffection.

He was still very attractive to look at, though, in an austere sort of way.

And gazing at the slender, brooding form of his adversary, of his would-be lover, Seishirou experienced the keen sense of nostalgia that was one of the very few emotions he was quite capable of feeling: the sensation of looking at any lovely thing that would swiftly fade. All that was beautiful died and its beauty was lost to the world; he knew that Subaru would not in the end be any different. That truth cast the situation into sudden relief. It would be graceful and quick to strike from here, and besides, it was the perfect opportunity: to finish off Subaru's life in a single, immaculate instant and forever put to rest the troubles of dealing with him, the suspicions and the ugly, restless, and disturbing doubts...and then those last few lingering days would trail themselves out, with only a few petty pleasures and the final cataclysmic end to look forward to. Seishirou hesitated.

Maybe he could still work the matter out. Maybe the only real problem was that Subaru was depressed. Seishirou had certainly had enough experience dealing with Subaru's despondency in the past, and generally all it took to restore happiness was sufficient attention and the enticements of being listened to and comforted. Seishirou wasn't sure that he wanted to make the effort this time, and yet....

There was something about that figure standing motionless against the clouds.

Seishirou flicked the light on, dispelling the shadows and casting partial reflections of the room onto the window's glass. Subaru straightened up and the vague outline of his form that was mirrored in the window straightened too, parts of it appearing and disappearing as Seishirou walked closer. Subaru didn't turn, though, as he approached.

Seishirou came to a stop behind Subaru and gazed at him for a time. At last, he took a breath to speak. "I'm not an object," Subaru said, before he could get the words out. "You can treat me like one if you want. But I'm not."

Seishirou shut his mouth again. Subaru lifted his head. He didn't face Seishirou but instead continued gazing outward, looking into the distance across the rooftops.

So he wanted to have it out about last night. What a nuisance.

"Subaru-kun," Seishirou said, with extraordinary softness, "are you saying that I mistreat you?" He took another step toward the Sumeragi.

"No." The quietness of Subaru's own voice matched Seishirou's perfectly. "You can't do anything to me unless I let you."

That...what Subaru said made not the slightest sense at all. Seishirou peered at him, trying to understand the mind that thought such things. "I see," he replied guardedly, at last.

"Do you?" Subaru looked back over his shoulder for one brief instant, the shadows in his eyes as alive as the slowly shifting snow clouds before he turned away once more. "I wonder...why is it that you never see me unless we fight?"

Seishirou drew a practiced smile across his features, skillfully covering a flash of irritation before it could betray him. He stepped even nearer. "What do you mean?" he asked, reaching to run gentle fingers up the length of Subaru's spine and onto the back of his neck, then down once more to a spot just between the shoulder blades. He could feel Subaru shiver at the touch. "We're not fighting now," he said, "and I see you just fine." Moving without haste, he closed the final distance between them and slid his hands around Subaru's shoulders, gradually pulling him near. Subaru didn't really resist. "Just fine," Seishirou murmured, laying his cheek against Subaru's head, breathing in the onmyouji's subtle, pleasant scent, "like this--and I don't want you to slip away from me again, Subaru-kun. Don't let shadows and ghosts come between us." His lips touched the strands of Subaru's hair.

"Please, don't...." Subaru didn't move, but Seishirou could feel the drumming of his rapid heartbeat. Seishirou bent forward, letting his breath, then his kiss, stir the fine hairs on Subaru's neck. Subaru arched a little, going up onto his toes as Seishirou's fingers followed the line of his throat, as they tilted his head back and to the side, an appealingly vulnerable extension. Seishirou kissed him there, a feather-soft touch where life passed so very near the surface.

Kissed him again, at the corner of his jaw....


He shifted his fingers, running a teasing outline along the curve of Subaru's mouth. Hush. He felt the intake of breath against his hand, an inhalation that was almost like a sob. His free hand had been gliding slowly, sensually over the flat planes of Subaru's chest; now it slipped downward to press against the hollow of the Subaru's stomach. He felt those muscles tighten as Subaru drew in another, deeper breath. "Subaru-kun," Seishirou whispered, layering all the honeyed weight of passion onto the word, his lips shifting to brush Subaru's ear, "Subaru-kun, I...."

"No! Stop it!" Subaru twisted, and with a sudden wrench he broke free of Seishirou's grip. Spinning to face Seishirou, his arms raised defensively to shield his face and body, he stood silhouetted in front of the window. "Don't," he breathed hoarsely. After a moment, he dropped his arms and lifted a bleak, wild, angry stare to meet Seishirou's.

Seishirou returned that regard with one that was level and cool.

"So," Seishirou remarked, "I guess you're right. I didn't see you properly after all." He let his voice take on the barest hint of wintriness; he supposed that, given the circumstances, one could expect him to be aggrieved. "I thought that's what you wanted all this time. But I see now that I was wrong." He quirked a little grin at Subaru. "That's kind of a double standard, though, isn't it?" he mused out loud. "So it's fine for you to demand my attention--to push yourself on me, like last night--but when I decide that I want to make love to you, it's suddenly not welcome. I certainly didn't expect something like that from you."


Seishirou overrode that faltering whisper easily. Subaru never had been very good at expressing himself under stress. "Still, I suppose that's how the world goes," he said with a shrug. "Everyone's just out for himself in the end--but for people like us to be squabbling about sex, of all things--"

"It's not about sex!" No sooner were the words out of Subaru's mouth than he blushed furiously. Shoving his hands into his pockets again, he turned and glared at the floor. His modesty was incongruous with that awkward, aching sullenness, the bitter disillusionment that had so transformed him from the boy he'd been before. Seishirou observed the disparity with a clinical detachment. It afforded him a certain cold amusement.

You're really not the person that you once were, Subaru-kun. Well, how could you be? Considering that on that day I broke you, when I found that I couldn't love even the kindest and most beautiful of people--and if I couldn't love you then, when you were innocent and pure, then how could I now, when you have changed so much? No, if there was any real hope of feeling for me, that chance is long gone.

Now that you can look at me like this, with anger and rebuke in those transparent could I ever feel love for a person such as you?

"Seishirou-san," Subaru murmured, his voice even more fragile than usual. "Last night, when I wouldn't leave you alone, I just wanted you to acknowledge that I was there. That's all." He sighed, a scarcely audible breath. "Is that wrong?"

"You tell me," Seishirou said neutrally. Subaru raised his eyes at that, and they were dark and wide, but deep within them a light was kindling. Seishirou watched it closely as it grew. He wondered what it was.

"I have a right," Subaru said, with a slow flowering of unfolding strength, "I have a right to want and need things for myself, and even though I wouldn't ask you to change for me, Seishirou-san, I still have the right to talk about these things: to have those wants heard, if not answered." Looking straight into Seishirou's eyes, he added, "If I didn't want things for myself, I wouldn't be here with you."

Seishirou could feel a frown building, and he made certain that it stayed concealed. Subaru's words had their logic, true, but....

Subaru-kun, what you want, what you's surely no concern of mine.

Where had that anger gone, which only a little while ago had been so all-consuming? There was still a trace of it left, like a smoke against which other thoughts and feelings threw their shadows, but the flame itself had disappeared from view. It must still be smoldering somewhere in Subaru's heart and mind, though, and it would certainly burst forth again, given the least opportunity. That was what Seishirou considered important.

So when Subaru murmured half-aloud, "But that's not all that that I want," a vibrancy in those green eyes that gazed inward almost as much as they looked out at him, Seishirou didn't take the bait. Instead, after a moment for contemplation, he began to smile more kindly, letting his expression mellow from a cold hurtfulness into chastened, apologetic regret. He could mimic rather a remarkable number of emotions, considering that he knew them only by observation and by secondhand report. He wondered whether the glimmer of incipient tears would help convey remorse.

Just a hint of brightness, maybe. He didn't want to overdo it.

"I've made a mess of things, haven't I?" he said humbly. "Subaru-kun, I haven't treated you well at all. But even though I can't make it up to you for my mistakes, still...." Lifting his head, Seishirou gazed at Subaru yearningly. "Subaru-kun--"

"Don't." Subaru's voice was insubstantial as his sigh, yet Seishirou found himself halted at once. "Don't say anything else. It's enough for me that you know." Thrown off rhythm, Seishirou simply stared at Subaru, and what he saw left him amazingly perturbed. What was it, anyway, that Subaru intended by that--what made him so serious now, when Seishirou had been about to give him what he surely wanted? Serious and grave and a little angry again, yet so full of that strange light.... If Subaru didn't want to fight him and didn't want to let him make things right, then what did Subaru think this was all about?

Why didn't he just give in--why didn't he roll over as he always had in the past, the same way he'd surrendered time after time, even to his own imminent death?

It would be a damned sight easier to deal with than trying to figure him out.

Subaru took a half step nearer, and despite himself Seishirou twitched in readiness at the move. He gazed down at the Sumeragi, realizing that his rueful smile had faded, and not really giving a damn anymore. From that dangerous proximity, Subaru looked up into his face, and this time Seishirou kept his attention focused on where the other's hands were, on whether Subaru might be thinking to surprise him again.

"I don't want the lie," Subaru said with unexpected fierceness, "and I don't want the illusion. Don't tell me that you're sorry or that you love me unless you really mean those things. Because I won't lie to you either. I won't pretend in anything anymore. If I'm angry, if I'm sad, or if I'm happy--still, I won't lie to you." His eyes fixed on Seishirou, Subaru sucked in another sharp breath. "I want to know who you are," he burst out, "I want to know the person you are, honestly--"

Seishirou took a swift stride forward into the space between them. The advance drove Subaru back until he bumped the glass. Putting a hand under Subaru's jaw, Seishirou forced his head up, pinning him against the window.

"Are you so sure?" Seishirou murmured, his eyes laughing coldly into those startled green ones.

Subaru swallowed tautly against his grip. Far away and ghostly on the other side of the glass, gray buildings jutted up toward the sky.

As Seishirou observed Subaru closely, he saw that spark of anger dance to life again inside the other's gaze. The dark, slim brows were furrowed with emotion. Subaru raised a hand to push Seishirou's arm aside, and Seishirou let him--then caught Subaru's wrist as he began to draw away. The barest of pressures on that spot where nerves ran close beneath the skin, a sharp pulse of energy, and raw pain crackled through Subaru's hand, knotting his fingers and making the blood drain from his already fair skin, leaving him deathly pale. Subaru tried to jerk his hand free, but Seishirou held it firmly, and when he lifted the other in self-defense Seishirou seized that one as well, redoubling the assault. Subaru gasped and shuddered, then caught himself. Straightening, he stepped forward into the attack, his hands thrusting back against Seishirou's: not a counterspell but mere resistance, a refusal to give in. Seishirou raised the pain a little, and then he raised it more. He increased that agony degree by slow degree, while Subaru stood and faced him, neither fighting nor surrendering.

With the bright, remote intensity of a hunting creature, Seishirou regarded the person shivering in his grip. Subaru stared back defiantly, his arms trembling with the effort, his gaze indignant and wretched but still filled with that steadfast light....

This really wasn't getting them anywhere, Seishirou decided abruptly.


Releasing Subaru with a shove, Seishirou stepped away again. Subaru sobbed a quick breath, drawing his hands into his body and curling them against his chest. For an instant he seemed about to collapse in on himself, his shoulders crumpling forward and his dark head bowed--but then, incredibly, he stood up straight. He looked into Seishirou's face once more, and somehow nothing had been broken or profaned within that gaze. Anger, sadness, suffering were there, and disappointment, but behind those feelings there was something more. That curious composure, that stillness and that depth...there always was that mysterious and far off something, that secret that escaped Seishirou, no matter what he did.

Well, he reflected to himself, what did it really matter? In the end--

--who cared?

Calmly Seishirou turned away from Subaru. He gazed out the window, looking toward the rooftops and the soft snow that layered them still. As he stood there, close to the glass, his reflection was quite visible: a faint outline, almost like a shadow. Against the gray buildings and the shifting clouds, he could catch little glimpses of himself.

Beyond that mirror, a single flake of snow wafted down through the air.

"I'm going out for a while," Subaru said abruptly. He stepped around Seishirou and began to walk away. In the glass, Seishirou observed the echo of that action, and his reflection's mouth curved up into a smile.

"Do what you like."


* * * * *


Seishirou had gone out himself, a little later. He'd walked the empty side streets of the neighborhood, had watched the flurrying snowflakes begin to fall in earnest, if not with much objective, the white flecks swirling down and up and sideways without force. He'd kept on walking through the flying snow, feeling its cheerful, careless touch upon his skin. Watching its aimless dance for patterns, he'd let it lead him onward through the streets, turning left or right according to the whims of the wind that spun those flakes into his face and then away once more, until the snowfall petered out at last without accumulation. After that, he walked on further still, until the gray day deepened into twilight. Now he stood on the rooftop that faced his apartment, the last of the evening's gloaming just barely lightening the horizon where the low clouds broke. A dim light gleamed in his window, where Subaru was waiting.


Seishirou sprang into the air.

So Subaru had come back again, and he'd come back alone. Seishirou had observed the surroundings most conscientiously before breaking cover. No other Seal or Angel was anywhere in the vicinity--probably none were closer than Shinjuku. In the end, it was just himself and the Sumeragi.

That was as it should be, after all.

Like a dark bird coming to rest, Seishirou lighted on the cornice of his building. He jumped down about a meter into the untouched snow that blanketed the building's roof. Strolling through the little drifts toward the stairwell, he listened for any sign of magic far below him. He watched for any feeling of disturbance.

There was nothing.

Opening the door to the fire stairs, Seishirou began walking down the several flights to his apartment. He took his time. There was no hurry, not when his quarry came and waited so tamely, as if expecting that there could be some resolution other than this. The long years of the hunt were over: there was no more stalk and feint, no more pursuit, no more harrying of his opponent into confusion. The only thing that remained was that final crossroads.

That final action.

Seishirou came down the last flight of steps. Opening the door to his hallway, he went inside. As he entered the corridor, he stamped his feet lightly, dislodging the snow from his shoes and pants, but despite that his soles left small, damp patches on the hallway's carpet as he moved toward his apartment.

There was always a point in the chase when the prey stopped, turning to face the hunter. At that instant, as one met the other's frightened or defiant gaze, time crested into perfect stillness, a moment poised like a hanging wave. In that suspended instant, a person became keenly aware of the weight and significance of every gesture and that the choice of what to do next belonged entirely to oneself.

To kill, or not to kill.

And then, of course, one did.

The instant before the action, followed by the sure and inevitable strike....

That was one of the little pleasures of being Sakurazukamori.

He would go and look at Subaru again, and see what waited for him. Then, he'd choose. He'd let the moment reach its culmination, the peak toward which their fates had been ascending all along, and though it might be that he'd see something appealing, something to convince him that Subaru should live for a little while longer, he didn't think it likely. Better to take the occasion that presented itself than to wait for Subaru to become a real trial.

One way or another, though, he would decide it tonight.

Seishirou paused outside his door. Everything continued to be very quiet. He wondered what Subaru was doing while waiting for his return. Surely Subaru must guess that a denouement was at hand; perhaps he was waiting silently, watching out the window as night settled down over Tokyo. Maybe he was thinking of the lost years: of the way that the cards that he'd been dealt had been scattered, spilling around him in a gentle fluttering, and the last ones slipping away from his grasp tonight to fall toward a destined, tragic ending.

Seishirou opened the door to his apartment and went inside.

He stopped.

"Hello, Seishirou-san."

The lights shone cheerfully in the living room and the kitchenette, where Subaru was standing behind the counter. He was wearing Seishirou's apron--the one with a lobster on it--the strings taken an extra half-turn around his waist. He had a wooden spoon in one hand and a simmering pot in front of him, and in his other hand he was holding a package of instant noodles. He was reading something printed on the back.

"What's this?" Seishirou asked.

"It's dinner." Subaru glanced up, those green eyes inquiring. "Do you want some?" For an instant Seishirou just looked at him, making no reply.

"No." Seishirou smiled then. "Thank you."

He took off his coat and scarf and hung them up.

Removing his shoes, Seishirou stepped up onto the floor and walked toward the kitchenette. Subaru regarded him curiously as he approached. Ignoring the Sumeragi, Seishirou went instead to the refrigerator, and--ah, yes. There indeed was one bottle of beer in there, as he had thought. A taste that was bitter and unpleasant, to suit a dramatic moment gone decidedly sour.

Taking his beer and his dignity, Seishirou retreated into the bedroom to brood.


* * * * *


"Is it all right if I turn the light on?"

Seishirou said nothing in reply. Instead he continued to gaze out the window as he reclined on his bed in the dark. Leaning back apparently at ease against the headboard, his feet put up casually on the spread, he looked through the bright reflection of the doorway as if it weren't even there, let alone the black silhouette of a person framed within it.

There was a brief silence as that person waited for his answer. Then the light in the doorway went out. In the dark, Subaru picked his way discreetly across the room; in the dark, he went into the bathroom, and only a very thin stab of glare slipped out as the door was closing behind him. After a moment, Seishirou's eyes adjusted again. A scant outline of illumination glowed around the bathroom door, but he chose not to look at that either. Now that the lights for the most part were off, the window had become a gray portal, pale against the surrounding darkness of the wall. The clouds had begun to break earlier, and their fragments drifted mutely in the sky. A bit of moonlight was showing through.

Seishirou sat without stirring, as he'd sat for hours. Even his gaze held firm. It never shifted even when Subaru came from the bathroom, or when he began to undress in the shadows...only once, when Subaru turned from the closet and walked toward the bed, there was a flowing flicker of whiteness, a lick of pale cloth like a wave swell or a lovely flame, and Seishirou registered that movement: the graceful billow of silk passing by, caught for an instant by the dull, soft light of the moon reflecting from cloud and snow.

Then Subaru passed out of view to his right.

He felt the covers drawn back on that side. Subaru said a few quiet words. He made a sound that the other might take as a response, and Subaru slipped into the bed beside him, pulling the sheet and blanket up. He sensed motion as Subaru turned over slightly, and then the other onmyouji grew still.

The clouds parted further; the moon became more bright.

Slowly Seishirou turned his head. He studied the landscape of Subaru's body beneath the covers, the peak of the shoulders falling away, as Subaru lay on his side, facing away from Seishirou, to the narrowing of his body, the slim hips and the long sweep of legs. "Subaru-kun?"

"Yes?" Subaru rolled over onto his back. Seishirou reached out and laid one hand across his face.

"Go to sleep."

Subaru fell beneath the spell without resistance, his eyes closing and his arm tumbling out to one side as his body relaxed. He made no struggle whatsoever. Seishirou observed that yielding with dispassion, wondering distantly how it could be possible that Subaru could fall to him like that without a struggle. After everything that had happened, today and earlier....

Still, it wasn't really important.

Taking hold of magic, Seishirou wove a spell around them, a tapestry of illusion mixed with dream. He sat up within that dream, placing his fingers on Subaru's chest; he stood, and as he stood he raised the sleeping onmyouji with nothing more than the lightest, most effortless touch of his hand. The bed and the four walls of his room disappeared, and the moonlight vanished as well, leaving just the endless, unlit blackness of that "other" place. Subaru floated weightlessly against his touch, and as he stepped backward, leaving Subaru adrift in midair, dark ruby skeins snaked in from every direction. Twining about Subaru's limbs, those strands ensnared him gently, lifting him higher still above the ground. A familiar motif and one that was well-used, but this time it was different: rather than branches against Subaru's skin and the fluttering white silk of his pajamas, it was velvet. Long ribbons of claret velvet, the deep wine red of the body's blood, velvet as soft as a breath, as a sighing wind--Seishirou called that wind to him once more as those bonds enwrapped his victim. The ribbons curled about Subaru's arms and body, more and more of them; they bound his legs together, and a single band lapped around his slender throat. They held Subaru aloft at the center of a web of sorcery as a pale, silvery shadow melted out of the darkness behind him.

Sumeragi Subaru hung cruciform in the air before the leafless sakura tree.

The faint wind breathed in the delicate net of branches. It lifted the dark hair away from Subaru's dreaming face and made him sway slightly in those cradling bonds, the white pajamas rippling about his graceful form. Seishirou looked at that picture and found it very pleasant.

This was the way it should have been, since the beginning. This loveliness was far better than any challenge to his skills--it was something that could sustain him through the final days, even until the end. Although everything faded away, although what was most pure and innocent could still be stained, the beautiful memory would be with him until the day he died. No one could take it from him.

No one.

It belonged only to him.

Subaru's eyes were open, Seishirou noticed. Subaru gazed back at him now, the evergreen color of those eyes like a rain-washed stand of pine, so clear and clean. Their expression was faintly bewildered and wondering, so guilelessly uncertain of where Subaru was and what was happening to him. It was a very familiar sight, to see that look.


Seishirou held out his hand. "Hush, Subaru-kun," he murmured. He bound Subaru's voice to silence with a single gesture, not wanting to hear things said that might distract him from this long-awaited pleasure. He was enjoying this moment before the end of Subaru's life immensely, and he wanted a little longer to appreciate it. His eyes ran over Subaru hungrily, consuming this perfect scene. It made him feel a sudden rightness and fulfillment, as though he'd come back to some place that he'd started from, a place where he should have been all along.

Are you going to kill me now? Subaru asked.

Seishirou stared. He'd felt that soft voice, not heard it: felt it in the same way that one felt an amplified music or the reverberation of a distant explosion, as a vibration within the cavity of one's chest. Subaru hung unresisting in the air, his only motion imparted by the movement of the wind. His eyes were fixed steadily but calmly on Seishirou's. He made no attempt to try to break the spell, he gave no sense that he might wish to fight--the only thing he faced Seishirou with was that one soft question.

Seishirou smiled back at him at last. "Yes, Subaru-kun," he said. "I think I am."

Subaru bowed his head against the velvet bond that wrapped his throat: not in despondency after all but with a gentle yielding. It made the ease and grace of the moment complete. Moving in close to Subaru, Seishirou reached up to caress that acquiescent face. He was grateful to Subaru in some small way, he realized, for surrendering so exquisitely. He cupped his fingers against Subaru's cheek, and Subaru responded, turning toward that touch. He leaned his head against Seishirou's hand, brushed his lips to Seishirou's palm, and Seishirou took in a quiet breath of surprise and satisfaction. Seishirou let the caress continue for a long while, and then, gradually, allowed his hand to slip away. He stepped back again, wanting to look at Subaru once more, and Subaru lifted his head to follow that motion, a flower turning its face toward the sun.

"Such sad eyes, just like before," Seishirou mused out loud. "Only this time, why are you smiling?"

Because this time, I came in with my eyes open. Knowing the truth of the matter, and knowing what the consequences might be...I have no regrets.

"None at all, Subaru-kun?"

No. For some reason, that minute, enigmatic smile deepened ever so slightly. I haven't failed.

I love you.

"That's sort of a different tune, isn't it." Seishirou put his hands idly into his pockets. "I think you're a bit late with it, though." Indeed, if Subaru had shown him this face before, he might have let the game go on far longer. Now, however, there was no more possibility of retreat.

Subaru couldn't quite move his shoulders, but he inclined his head in such a way that it gave the impression of a shrug. I'm not perfect, he said, and the tone of that inward voice was self-effacing. I never have been. I get angry and afraid, just like everyone else. I wanted to be completely honest with you, so I didn't hide whatever I was feeling. But I think I could have done better. Somehow it's always seemed as though you could read my heart, so I waited too long to speak about certain things. I said that you were taking me for granted, but in that, I took you for granted too. I'm sorry.

Seishirou looked at Subaru uncomprehendingly, and that evanescent smile returned to Subaru's face. Didn't you know? Even when I'm angry, I still love you.

Love...there was that word again, Seishirou noted. It was the second time tonight that Subaru had used it. But what did it have to do with their situation? Love had been a game he'd entertained a long time ago, a fancy that he had played at with a sweet, oblivious boy. Then, as now, it had been nothing that really moved him. It had only been a pretense, although one with interesting and amusing ramifications.

Perhaps, incredibly, Subaru still failed to understand that.

"Subaru-kun," Seishirou said, smiling up at the Sumeragi, confident now that he perceived Subaru's one hope, and also the nature of its flaw, "I don't love you."

That doesn't matter.

Seishirou's smile expired despite himself. It guttered and went out just like a flame.

How could that possibly not matter?


I've loved you for a long time. Subaru's voice was abrupt and yet gentle. I loved you without realizing it, and then afterwards, I...yes. Even then. Although I tried to deny the feeling, denying it changed nothing in the end. Knowing who you are and what you do, I love you.

Even if you kill me now, that won't change.

Seishirou was still struggling with the concept. How could something exist that would touch on him so closely and yet was utterly beyond his own control? That existed someplace definitively out of reach.... He gazed at Subaru, floating in that vivid web of bonds scarcely more than an arm's length away, and he felt again the void that spread between them, a gulf yawning open right at his feet. It was a space that stretched out infinitely outside himself, the silence of an empty, vacant world, and far away on the other side, there was something...


Seishirou stepped back sharply. "What do you want?"

Only what I've always wanted. The words were soft and simple. To be with you.

To be with you. It was a small thing, only four words, and easily graspable, even if the ultimate reasons behind it were not. In the darkness of his dream-spun illusion, Seishirou held onto those words. He studied them and realized that they were absolutely true.

That Subaru wanted this.


Seishirou shook his head. He didn't understand that part at all, but the wanting itself...he knew that it wasn't a lie. More to the point, why had he even imagined that it was? In all the years he'd watched and hunted Subaru, he had never known Subaru to be deceptive. Why had he been so convinced that Subaru was hiding something from him, that Subaru intended to do him harm?

Subaru-kun, he realized, after all, you were right again. I really didn't see you.

The only thing I saw, looking at you, was myself.

Nothing, in the end, but myself....

That had been his mistake. He'd thrown across his perceptions of Subaru all his own intentions, his own inclinations. He had seen, not what was there, but an elaborate construction, designed to fit the piece that was Subaru into his understanding of the world. But the construction itself had been the lie, and it was only the sharp-edged clarity of this maboroshi world, where everything was stripped down to its essence, that let him see how badly he'd misjudged the situation. Looking at Subaru's nature and actions with clear sight, he had been entirely wrong about everything.

What should he do?

You know, Seishirou-san, Subaru murmured, breaking into Seishirou's thoughts, his soundless voice an echo of the silence, all this time, I've been rude.

"You, Subaru-kun?" Seishirou answered somewhat breathlessly, trying to keep his tenuous grip on understanding in the face of this non-sequitur. "I find that a bit hard to believe."

Still, it's true. Subaru smiled faintly, lowering his eyes as if in embarrassment. Maybe, Seishirou thought, that was actually what it was. When I said that I wanted to stay with you, you didn't tell me "no," but you didn't tell me "yes," either. You just let it happen without saying anything at all. I thought it meant that this was what you wanted--but thinking that, maybe I've been imposing on you since the beginning. I was afraid to find out otherwise, afraid to ask you, in case you wanted me to go. But now.... Subaru lifted his head once more, his dark hair caught by the wind, the silken flow of his pajamas a liquid river about his thin, suspended frame.

Seishirou-san, will you let me stay? Until the final day, when our last choices have to be made?

Will you let me stay?

Until the final was another small thing that Subaru was asking for, a miniscule snatch of time before the end of the world. It was something almost small enough to be held in one's hand. Something of a manageable size, which could easily be given away without giving too much....

Couldn't it?

For a long time Seishirou hovered at that brink, staring at the shapes that such a decision cast. At last, almost despite himself, he shifted his shoulders, a twitch like an aimless shrug. "Stay, then," he murmured, "stay--" and he felt a tiny, unmistakable change inside himself, a flicker of sound or sensation, like the taut clink of glass touching glass or a crystalline sheet of water fractured by a single, falling drop, as if the tension of an unnatural separation had been resolved in some small way.

As if he were free to relax into something that he'd been relentlessly holding himself back from.

He glanced up at Subaru's expression and saw something very much like that release mirrored there: an odd little look of wondering and surprise, as though Subaru had been so determined not to press his own yearnings onto Seishirou that he hadn't even let himself believe this answer could be true until he heard the words. That look unfurled itself gradually, gloriously, like the petals of a flower of light, until it burst into a smile of pure radiance that seemed to shine from Subaru's ecstatic face and eyes. Subaru's whole body shivered like a lute string, and he raised his hands unexpectedly above his head. The velvet bonds loosened and began to spin themselves out from around his wrists and arms in slow, ever-widening spirals. Unwinding from his body, they opened in growing circles like incarnadine ripples spreading across dark water. Seishirou retreated a step or two, his eyes fixed warily upon Subaru. Gradually Subaru drifted down through the center of those vanishing loops of ribbon, and as his foot lighted at the level of Seishirou's, touching invisible ground, the last of his bonds disappeared. The sakura's image winked out of sight behind him, leaving just the two of them and their long, white shadows stretching out to one side.

Just that, and the soft, caressing wind....

Seishirou stared at Subaru across the space that divided them. For an instant, looking back at him, Subaru seemed grave. Then a tiny smile returned to tug at the corners of the onmyouji's mouth. He took a single, weightless step into the gap between them, a step that by itself somehow bridged all that distance, bringing him right up close before Seishirou could move. Settling against Seishirou, he raised his arms with extraordinarily slow tenderness to encircle Seishirou's neck. And Seishirou found his own arms coming around Subaru then; he crushed Subaru against himself, a forceful and extravagant embrace.

Real--something that was real in the darkness, something that would stay, at least for a while--

"Fool," he whispered harshly into Subaru's hair, "fool," and Subaru murmured back:

"I'd rather be a fool than a wise person. Only fools know what it is to feel joy."

The maboroshi began to disintegrate around them, vanishing piece by piece. The wind wore at its darkness, carrying its substance away like blowing sand until the last fragments finally were gone.

In the unlit bedroom, Seishirou opened his eyes. He was lying on his back on the bed. For a moment, he stared at the invisible ceiling, then rolled over swiftly, half sitting up to reach across Subaru and turn on the bedside lamp. In the narrow circle of light he remained leaning over Subaru, watching the scarcely visible flickering of Subaru's eyelids, the shadows that moved along those dark lashes. Subaru took one soft breath, and his eyes fluttered open. They gazed at Seishirou's face without surprise or fear, twin pools of perfect calm. Reaching up, he put his hand against Seishirou's cheek.

"There's dinner left over," he said quietly, his words touching on everything that had fallen between them only at that single point, like a teasing, tangential kiss. "Are you hungry?" Seishirou gazed back at him and saw a gleam of subtly amused affection, a shy playfulness, and behind those still that inexplicable light.

There was so much yet to be learned here, Seishirou thought, so much to be explored and played with, now that he was quite, quite certain that Subaru meant no threat, and until the final day, at least, there might be freedom from that bitter, so familiar feeling.

From that ache of loneliness....

Shrugging away the memory of that sensation, Seishirou looked again at those strange, alien things in Subaru's gaze--and then, he smiled.

"I'm starving," he replied.




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