Sakura and Snow

Chapter 10


By Natalie Baan



Subaru turned another page in his book, and then sighed a little forlornly. He wondered why his grandmother couldn't have added some footnotes to go along with the ancient text. There were the original esoteric diagrams, of course; there were star charts and the brushstroked lines of magical talismans, all intended to amplify the text, to draw the reader into its mysteries. The text itself, though, was inscrutably oblique, filled with riddling plays of hidden meaning. Just when it seemed on the verge of resolution, the book might divert into a Taoist story, or else into detailed, almost chatty descriptions of everyday places and things. One could feel quite distinctly the mind of the man who'd written it: a person who far preferred stirring up questions to giving away easy answers. The book was fascinating, really, and he could lose himself for hours in its many shifts and shadings of complexity--only sometimes "losing himself" meant "becoming lost" instead, when the interpretation an obscure set of kanji escaped him and the sentence that he'd thought he'd been reading correctly dissolved at its end into nonsense. For some reason he'd always found this archaic Chinese confusing--perhaps because the characters held so many double meanings, some radically different from the ones he was used to--and so although he'd read this book before and could remember parts of it, he nonetheless found himself struggling with it again, laboring over the details of each line just as much as with the author's whole thought.

Still, he kept working his way through it patiently, and besides, he was reading the book more for comfort than anything else: for the reassurance of moving step by step through its puzzles, and in the hope that the words and images weaving its world might touch some pattern of sense in his own. He was after the shape and the feel of it, but those things kept eluding him behind a wall of tiny, printed characters. He was always running into that barrier.

This one, for instance...what was it again? It was something that he absolutely should have known. Subaru shifted position, curling his legs up underneath himself, then frowned at the text one more time. "Ground-breaking," as in the preparations for building a shrine? No, that wasn't it at all. Perhaps something closer to "earthquake"? There was a subtle breath of disturbance in the air, as of a person moving nearby, and a shadow fell over the page.

Putting both hands on the back of the couch, one to either side of Subaru's shoulders, Seishirou leaned over him.

Earth dragon.

"What are you reading?" Seishirou inquired, his manner jovial and curious.

"Kanroku, on geomancy." Subaru found himself glad for the break from reading, and for the presence of this one most particular person, and...just glad. He leaned his head back on the top of the couch, resting it against Seishirou's arm.

"The Kanroku?" Seishirou seemed impressed. "The monk who brought onmyoudo texts to the Empress Suiko in the year 602? You don't find that in just any bookstore." Bending further forward, he examined the page, one hand lifting absently to stroke Subaru's hair. "I didn't know there were any printed editions."

"During the war, my grandmother refused to believe that the Americans would keep their word and not bomb Kyoto," Subaru explained. It was hard to keep his mind on what he was saying though, when what he wanted instead was to concentrate on that touch. This was all so very new, and he wanted to impress upon himself every moment: to hold each instant as close as he could so it would become a part of himself and then he would never forget. "Even if it was to preserve the city on cultural grounds, she still didn't believe it. She already was the head of the family then, so she was able to authorize the first printed copies of the oldest texts, and she spread them out around the countryside, anywhere that she thought might be safe. She wanted to be sure that, in the end, something would last." There had been other things too that she had carefully concealed, certain ancient treasures of their clan, and she'd tried to safeguard the family as well, scattering them far and wide across the country. Everything that had mattered to the preservation of the Sumeragis she had taken care to protect, everything but herself--and in truth, only she had ever faced real danger. Subaru knew that she'd spent at least part of the war in Tokyo and had experienced the devastation at first hand. Behind her reserve and the cold, fierce strength of her will, he'd sometimes glimpsed the echoes of that time. Years ago, when she'd first begun to instruct him about the future, he had seen on the other side of her clear gaze the darkness of that shadow. Those memories of a ruinous, heartrending loss....

Of a city in flames....

Sighing, Subaru went on, "Afterwards, some of the copies were lost. People didn't always know what they were holding, so some were destroyed after all, or ended up sold to old bookstores or put in other people's libraries. Grandmother managed to keep track of most of them, though. This is one of the house copies, the ones that she kept or rediscovered later."

Seishirou chuckled. "That was your grandmother through and through, wasn't it? Always with an eye for how to use the works of the present to preserve what remained of the past. She was never one to miss any detail either, no matter how small."

"The past was important to her, at least then," Subaru replied. "Later she seemed to turn to the future for hope instead, but still I think she meant to save these things, if she could find a way." He could sense Seishirou's interest in the book and in the threads of history bound to it; twisting around in his seat, he held it up, offering it to the Dragon of Earth. "Do you want to read this?" For a moment Seishirou looked startled and Subaru wondered why. Had he imagined that Subaru would withhold the book, just because it was something belonging to the Sumeragi clan? But it was only a book, after all. It was only one single copy from an edition of books, and even if it held a knowledge which had been in the keeping of his clan for many centuries, well, what did that matter now? Although his grandmother would never have approved, it was his choice to do this or not. And all things being considered, Subaru just couldn't see the harm.

"Thank you, Subaru-kun," Seishirou said finally, a hint of something ironic and almost self-mocking in his voice, "but maybe later. Why don't you finish it first? Besides," he added, straightening up and taking his hands from the couch, "I need to do a little grocery shopping this afternoon."

"Um, I can go with you." Immediately Subaru bit the inside of his lip, wondering if he'd made a mistake. Maybe Seishirou had wanted to go off on his own for a while, maybe he needed a little bit of time to himself; but as Subaru gazed up at Seishirou anxiously, he saw the man's eyes lower for a instant--a hesitating, almost thoughtful look--and then the slight, wry smile of acknowledgment that followed, a smile that seemed unfeigned, as if it actually might be real.

So that was all right.


* * * * *



Subaru jumped, turning toward the sound of the call. "Mm--coming!" He'd been lost in the movement of life all around him: the swirl of people coming and going in this back street market. Picking his way through the tangles of shoppers and their children, avoiding bins and tables that jutted into his path, Subaru hastened through the profusion of sights, sounds, and smells, drinking them all in delightedly as he hurried after Seishirou: the colorful riot of flowers, fruits, and vegetables; the glimmer and gleam of fish; the dry sound of rice being poured and measured out in a swift stream; voices raised, arguing, shouting, laughing; the sight of faces wearing so many different expressions, the tide of the crowd as it gestured and gave and took. He finally broke out from beneath the canvas covers that shaded the market, reaching the street beyond, and as he came into sunlight he smiled with overwhelming happiness at being there in that place and on that day, and at the sight of the tall figure waiting for him down the end of the sidewalk, a bag of groceries crooked in one arm. Shifting his own bag to the other side, Subaru strode forward to catch up--


Subaru jerked to a halt. Whirling to face that cry, he stared at the fairylike figure who danced toward him in a twinkling of delicate, tight-clad legs, short flip skirt, and widely outflung arms. A large dog padded silently behind her, casting no shadow. Nekoi Yuzuriha skipped up to Subaru, trailing at least a yard of brightly colored scarf in her wake, then paused, clasping both hands together as if by that gesture alone she was keeping herself from flinging both arms around his neck in pure happiness. Her eyes sparkled joyfully in a face framed by cute, fuzzy earmuffs.

"Subaru-san, I knew it was you!" she exclaimed. "Inuki and I have been trying to find you all this time! Everyone's been so worried, even though Sora-chan and Arashi-san said it was okay...." She trailed off, her gaze drifting past Subaru's shoulder as her attention was distracted. "Who...?"

Subaru saw the awareness begin to vanish from her eyes, a firefly light fading out as her consciousness was lifted from her. She started tilting to one side. Subaru lunged after her and barely got his arm behind her back as she began to fall. It wasn't enough; he couldn't keep his balance and still hold onto her. He staggered, dropped his bag of groceries, and fell to his knees, throwing his other arm around her as well and clasping her against himself. He stared into her startled face as sleep stole over it, closing those wide eyes and replacing her surprise with the perfect blankness of a magical unconsciousness.

Something large hurtled past them, growling with fury and power.

Subaru twisted around, still clinging to the sleeping Seal. He saw a shapeless blur hurl itself at Seishirou--saw it reflect from the curve of a magical ward. The inugami rebounded into the air and then arced onto the pavement, reforming itself instantly into a canine shape. It growled again, a deep metallic buzzing that made no real sound but that Subaru could feel instead, thrumming like a second pulse throughout his body. The inugami crouched, its pale eyes blazing, ready to throw itself upon Seishirou once more as the man lifted up his hand in a deadly spell--

Subaru unwrapped one arm from Yuzuriha and reached into his opposite sleeve. Feeling the thin, crisp edges of ofuda between his fingers, he drew them out and made one swift cast. Deftly he wove his power through the cards as they flew, a quick, practiced pattern of energy. The four cards that he'd thrown struck their marks in midair: the anchor points of a ward. He closed off the pattern, and the spell shuddered at once into manifestation: a neat box enclosing the inugami in walls of swirling, shimmeringly translucent magic. The dog spirit raged inside them, melting into a snarl of pure energy that lashed against that barrier, searching for some weakness.

But the barrier held.

Subaru turned from the caged inugami. Its frustration and singleminded purpose howled in his mind. He drew Yuzuriha closer, cradling her head against his shoulder; closing his eyes, he rested his cheek against her soft hair. There was a moment when everything was still but for the inugami worrying furiously at the corners of the ward. Then:

"Why?" Seishirou murmured remotely, almost as if speaking to himself. After another long pause, Subaru heard him turn and begin to walk closer. The faint creak and tap of Seishirou's shoes was strangely audible over the crowd noise, that background hum of voices and movements seeming vaguely muffled, like something unreal.

But didn't any of those people see? Didn't they wonder about the girl who had collapsed into a young man's arms--didn't they notice that something was out of the ordinary and wrong?

No, Subaru realized as Seishirou's steps came right up next to him and then stopped short: the people that hurried past saw nothing at all.


The three of them had been drawn out of the flow of people into a world that had nothing to do with everyday life. In the midst of the crowd, they made a place that was perfectly still.

They were alone.

Turning his face even further aside, Subaru hugged the girl's limp form nearer. "Please," he whispered. "Let her go. Please."

"And why would I do something like that, Subaru-kun?"

Subaru's eyes snapped open. The tone of Seishirou's voice, the familiar amused sound of it...the sound of a person who owned a particular situation and had no intention of doing anything other than what he chose. Who was testing Subaru, who was toying with him, like a child poking at a cricket to see it jump, or a scientist watching a specimen animal struggling to find its way through a maze.

What answer could he give to Seishirou that might open some escape for them all?

"Because I'm asking," he breathed. "Because I'm asking you to." Appeal to any sort of pity or human feeling was meaningless where Seishirou was concerned, but Subaru had no more logical answer. How could he argue against the death of a Dragon of Heaven, when for a Dragon of Earth the appropriate action was so reasonable and so plain? There was only the complicated fact of himself between Seishirou and a tidy strategic move for the Dragons of Earth, and the truth that Yuzuriha's life rested on Seishirou's regard for him was the only answer that was truly his to give.

Please...I know that I'm selfish to remind you of this, to use your own wish against you like this, but no matter what happens I can't let her die and still remain myself.

Still remain the person who loves you.


"Subaru-kun," Seishirou remarked, and there was a rising intensity of interest in his voice, a curiosity that made Subaru's heart freeze with terror into sudden, brittle ice, "what if I asked you to make a choice right now? What if you had to choose between the two of us? Who would you choose--your little inugami master?" Subaru could almost hear the predatory smile curving about those words. "Or would you choose me?"


Seishirou had turned his answer back on him again, driving him up against his own reasoning. If he dared to presume so much on Seishirou's "interest" in him, then how could he choose Yuzuriha? But if he didn't care about her enough to choose her, if she wasn't that important to him after all, then why should he even ask Seishirou to spare her life? It made perfect sense to a person who saw all things as definite--as being one thing or another, with no equivocation or compromise possible.

Seal or Angel.

Love or not love.

But Subaru wasn't that person.

And what hurt the most, as he writhed on the points of the paradox that he had to live by--even though it shouldn't, even though he knew better--was that Seishirou was being so cavalier about this. That Seishirou was risking their incredibly delicate situation by driving him toward the very decision that he'd struggled until now not to make, and maybe for no other reason than that Seishirou wondered what he might do.

Maybe Seishirou wanted to know if he was still the same person--still the same softhearted person that the Sakurazukamori had marked as his own all those years ago.

Maybe he wanted to see if Subaru would betray him.

Stupid, stupid games....

"I can't make that kind of decision," Subaru mumbled. He brought one arm up protectively around Yuzuriha's head and closed his eyes once more, clenching himself into a knot around the Dragon of Heaven. That was all he could do: just put himself like a barrier in between them, neither fighting nor stepping away. Just as he'd always done, but not in self-surrender this time--instead, because to do anything else would start the whole slow slide toward an end that he wanted to put off for as long as possible.

There was a terribly drawn-out pause, an eternity of silence and the swift reverberations of his own heart beating, a caged, frightened creature inside his chest. In the distance, the inugami rolled against the ward like thunder. Then Seishirou said, very softly, "Is that so, Subaru-kun?" and the racing of Subaru's heart broke into stabbing shards of pain, the ache of having somehow broken faith.

There was another lengthy silence.

"Well, then!" The man sounded startlingly, unexpectedly cheerful, and the breath that Subaru'd been holding escaped him in a little gasp. Glancing up, he saw Seishirou step closer and then crouch down beside them, balancing the grocery bag on his hip. Subaru's lay on its side where it had fallen; Seishirou uprighted it with his free hand and began gathering up the items that had spilled onto the sidewalk. A box of little oranges had tumbled open; methodically Seishirou picked up each of the small, luminously colorful globes and popped them one by one into the sack. Bewildered, Subaru watched the brisk, deft motions of his hand.

Then Seishirou reached out toward Yuzuriha's face, his fingers spread, and Subaru tensed once again. "Wh- what--?" he began.

"Subaru-kun, she doesn't have to remember."

And Subaru froze then, staring at Seishirou, at those black lenses glinting the bright, thin winter light from their surfaces, hiding the man's eyes. He stared at the faint smile, the outstretched hand still hovering in the air between them, a gesture that was waiting...


And a space opened up against the pain inside of him, a space where he could suddenly breathe free. He understood what this was, if not the why of it or of what had come before. More than merely sparing Yuzuriha's life, Seishirou was offering him a surprising gift: that nobody would ever have to know. Nobody would know where he was, or with whom, and it would be as if this meeting had never even taken place. Unbelievably, Seishirou was giving him back the still point that he'd found, the place between Heaven and Earth.

The one place where the two of them could be together.

A gift....

Subaru loosened his grip on Yuzuriha, letting her lean a little away from his shoulder. He looked into the sleeping stillness of her face. Almost the face of a child, in its unconsciousness showing nothing of the vibrancy that was the inugami master's strength. Subaru brushed her hair to one side, out of her closed eyes.

"No," he answered softly. "It's all right."


"It's all right," he repeated more strongly. Turning away from her again, he looked soberly at Seishirou and added, "I don't have anything to be ashamed of."

The words stopped Seishirou as though he'd struck a ward; Subaru noticed the start, the slight smile vanishing into an uncharacteristic expression of surprise. Seishirou regarded Subaru, and Subaru stared back steadily into the sunglasses' unrevealing mirrors. He could see two little reflections of himself and Yuzuriha, but what he was really looking at was something deep inside himself: the astonishing fact that what he'd said to Seishirou was perfectly true.

He had been afraid before--he had wanted to conceal as much as he could from the Dragons of Heaven. He'd wanted to keep those two sides separated as far as possible, each in a neat little box all by itself. But it couldn't be that way, not when both sides, both of the necessities that drove him, had their meeting place inside himself. And in the face of Seishirou's inexplicable generosity, the Dragon of Earth's acknowledgment of the forces holding Subaru suspended in between them, and his incredible acceptance--how could Subaru himself do any less than that?

After the briefest of moments, Seishirou recollected himself. He chuckled, that familiar low sound, and then stood, hefting Subaru's bag along with his own. "I'll see you back at the apartment then," he said. "Take your time, Subaru-kun." Turning, he made his way through the ceaseless crowd. His tall form picked a path between the knots of people, pausing to let others pass and then moving on, until finally he disappeared from view. Subaru watched the place where Seishirou had vanished, the clusters of passersby a wash of colors and motions in his sight, as sounds of street noise and conversation rose up around him slowly, reality flooding back into the area now that the Sakurazukamori had left it.

Subaru sighed. Feeling the last of the protective illusion fading away, he glanced down at Yuzuriha. He passed one hand across her eyes, sensing that this spell was loosening also. He found the place where the unnatural sleep was ravelling and unwove it further, opening a way for Yuzuriha to return to consciousness. The spell frayed and blew away in pieces, a spider's scarcely visible threads carried off by the wind. Subaru watched Yuzuriha's face, seeing the shadows of expression passing over it as her spirit slowly moved toward waking.

There was a short, sharp bark. Abashed, Subaru cut the power of his ward with a gesture; the ofuda fluttered and slid to the ground, mere paper once more. Freed, the inugami stalked through the crowd, flowing right through any unsuspecting person who got in its way. Stopping just out of arm's reach, it sat down abruptly, staring into Subaru's face with accusing eyes.

"I'm sorry," Subaru apologized. He shifted Yuzuriha in his arms so the dog spirit could see her more clearly. "It's all right. See, she's only sleeping now." The inugami wasn't appeased. That wolfish yellow gaze still glowered at him, and the inugami's thick fur bristled on its back and across its lean shoulders. A passing young man glanced down quizzically at Subaru and Yuzuriha, then shivered as he walked through the invisible dog spirit, rubbed at his arms, and hurried away. Subaru stretched one hand toward the inugami, smiling, trying to show that he didn't intend any harm. It really was a beautiful creature, even if it wasn't a dog at all. "Okay?" he asked coaxingly.

The inugami glared.

Disappointed, Subaru heaved another sigh. Then Yuzuriha murmured and stirred against him, reclaiming his attention. Her enormous brown eyes blinked open cloudily; she knotted her hand in the front of his coat, peering up with confusion.

Her gaze went wide.


Yuzuriha bolted upright and scooted off his lap, falling onto the sidewalk with a thump. "I- I'm sorry! Um--!" For a moment Subaru wondered bewilderedly what he'd done to frighten her. Had he really been so unfriendly that all the Seals believed he was a forbidding kind of person? "I must have fainted or something," Yuzuriha was continuing, blushing furiously. "Ah, Inuki!" The inugami had padded up beside her and was curving itself around her like a cat. She hugged it energetically, burying her embarrassment in its thick ruff.

"Are you all right now?"

"Y-yeah." Yuzuriha sat up again, running her fingers through her fine, short hair. As she recollected herself, she smiled at him sunnily. "I'm fine!" She scratched the inugami behind its insubstantial ears, and the dog spirit preened. Yuzuriha's thoughts already seemed to be moving on, though, her expression changing to a questioning gaze as her thoughts skipped nimbly back over what had just happened to her.

"That person," she murmured, "that person who--" Memory and realization kindled behind her eyes; startled, she glanced into Subaru's. He felt that fear clench inside him again, even despite his resolution. She must have seen something of that because a shocked understanding started to unfold behind her gaze, spreading its shadow wings across her face.

"Dragon," she whispered starkly, "Dragon...of Earth?"

If he could have closed his eyes to her stunned look, he would have--if to do so wouldn't have been to deny the one most important person in his life. Instead he met her gaze evenly, hiding nothing of his heart. She stared into his eyes, stricken, and then, incredibly, an answering grief unfurled in her own, a surge of tears rising and overflowing. She wavered for an instant, her face twisted up unhappily as she tried to hold them back--and then those tears burst free as she flung herself onto Subaru, wrapping both arms around his neck and hiding her face in his chest. She sobbed against him desperately, her thin shoulders heaving, as the inugami touched its nose to her cheek and then glanced reproachfully at Subaru.

People nearby were watching the two of them with concern. Subaru ignored the passersby, instead putting his arms around Yuzuriha and stroking her hair, and as the sobs gradually slowed, her story began coming out through them, gasped incoherently but piece by piece forming a pattern that he understood.

A friend, a dear friend, the person who could finally see Inuki, who could become a part of her world--and in the end, one of the people she was supposed to stand against: a person she was supposed to fight with mind, body, and soul, with all the power that made her an inugami master.

A Dragon of Earth.

Subaru held her more tightly, until the last of her crying had faded into sniffles and silence. Then, as she straightened, he touched fingers to her damp cheek. "It's going to be all right," he told her, smiling as he brushed away a trace of those tears.


"Yeah. At least, that's what I believe." Subaru leaned toward her. "Does he care about you?"

"I...I think so." Yuzuriha blotted at her face with the end of her scarf, then smiled back shakily. "He sent me a flower this one time...and we're going to meet again soon to go ice skating! He looks like a really tough guy, but I think it's just because he has such a gentle heart that otherwise he couldn't live."

Do you love him? Subaru wondered but didn't ask out loud. After all, he didn't need to.

I can't protect you from this, and even if I could, I wouldn't have the right to. But if you love enough to love where destiny says you shouldn''ll be all right.

"Don't be afraid," he told her. "Whatever happens, just don't be afraid. There's a path, a way between the two sides. There's a balance--"

"I understand." Surprised, Subaru looked at her. Yuzuriha was sitting up straight as though she'd gathered herself together, unusually poised, like a dancer ready to rise and begin the dance. She gazed levelly across the little space between them, tears and a smile still sharing space in her eyes, but there was a focus there as well, one that he hadn't seen before.

"And you, too," she instructed him. "Don't be so sad anymore!" Without warning, she smiled more widely. "You've been so lonely, haven't you? I know, because so have I." Bemused, Subaru watched vague melancholy flicker briefly across her face before vanishing once more. "Thinking there was no one else who could possibly understand--but now, no matter what, I can think of you and smile!" Raising one finger, she winked at him. "Having somebody special is the most wonderful thing in the world," she went on, "but what everybody really wants is not to be alone in their life.

"If I can think of the two of you being together, then I won't be sad at all."


* * * * *


The elevator bell chimed dully, and the door slid open. Subaru stepped out into the hall. He'd unbuttoned his coat on the ride up, and now unwound the scarf--Seishirou's scarf--from around his neck. He looped it idly about his hand as he walked down the corridor toward the apartment door.


As far as any place had ever been home to him, this was.


"I won't tell anyone," Yuzuriha informed him as they both stood up. She patted down her skirt and readjusted her earmuffs, which had been knocked askew.

"You can, if you want to--"

"Mm-nn!" She inclined forward, her hands clasped behind her back. Her eyes gleamed impishly up at him, and for a moment Subaru thought he glimpsed feline ears and a playfully quirked tail. "It's your secret. Being with your friend is something that's 'only for you'--isn't that right?" Subaru could only gaze back at her in wonder, unable to reply. He was struck suddenly by something in her smile: a butterfly shift of attitude, a mischievously girlish understanding but also something else, something older and deeper. Yuzuriha rested one hand on the ruff of her inugami.

"Something that's 'only for you' has a special power," she said. "If I tried to tell--even if anyone could understand what I was saying--it would be like giving that power away when it's not even mine to give. Trying to tell a secret in the wrong only causes pain. I know."


"I'll see you," she said, and that smile flashed out at him again, luminous and filled with joy. "I'll see you before the End of the World. We'll have so much to talk about! And remember, Subaru-san--you're not supposed to feel bad anymore! That's a promise to me!

"Come on, Inuki!"


Subaru stopped and looked at the apartment door. Lifting one hand, he touched the unresponsive wood.

A promise to I'll try not to feel that sadness anymore.

It's hard, though. I don't think that it's really that simple at all.

That longing for someone special, something that's 'only for me' you feel that too?

If only I were able to be 'only for you'....

Squaring his shoulders, Subaru pushed the door open and stepped inside.

"Ah, Subaru-kun!" Seishirou beamed at him from behind the kitchen counter as he entered. Surprised, Subaru blinked, trying to make sense of that cheerfulness striking against his own mood, a contrast like sunlight suffusing through dark water. "Perfect timing. I'd just felt like some tea, so I went ahead and put the kettle on. You want some too, am I right?"

Awkwardly, Subaru nodded. He turned away, draping the scarf across one of the coat rack's pegs before hanging his coat up over it. He could hear the faint clatter of china from behind him as Seishirou got the tea things out. Subaru took off his shoes, then wandered hesitantly toward the counter. He slid onto one of the stools, his eyes focused on the movements of Seishirou's hands. Seishirou was peeling and sectioning the oranges, laying out their crescent-shaped pieces in neat, attractive patterns on a white plate. His fingers turned tenderly about the fruit he held, cradling it as he parted slice from slice.

"This afternoon's snack is dark chocolate biscuits and Chinese oranges," Seishirou informed him. "And you know, the oranges are especially nice today. Here, try one." Bending across the counter, Seishirou touched the smooth, curved end of one piece to Subaru's lips. They parted involuntarily, and Seishirou slid the fruit in between them, then leaned on his elbows, chin resting on both fists as he watched Subaru's reaction. Startled, Subaru bit down, tasting the astonishing sweetness as it burst across his tongue.


Subaru nodded distractedly. As Seishirou pushed up off the counter once more, smiling with pleased satisfaction, Subaru looked down at its polished, immaculate surface. He chewed the orange slice, swallowed it against the sudden knot tightening in his throat.

This person who's always smiling.

Even after I...after I....

Closing his eyes against the small, stinging dampness that prickled at them, Subaru lowered his head. Then Seishirou's fingers, a little sticky from orange peels, brushed against his cheek. They slid along it, moving until the heat of the man's palm was pressed to the side of his face, and Subaru jerked his head up, his eyelids flickering wildly as he tried to blink away any sign of his foolish, foolish tears.

"Always someone who's caught between two worlds," the man murmured. Each word was a deep, soft touch, a velvet breath. The man leaned one arm on the counter again as he tilted Subaru's face up toward his. The two of them so close now, and that golden light of knowing a sun half-hidden in Seishirou's seeing eye....

"As a medium, caught between the human world and that of the spirits, subject to the demands of both--and then as a person, too. Isn't that right?"

Was it gravity that had drawn him right to the edge of his stool at Seishirou's touch--the tug of a small planet passing, stealing away his fragile atmosphere, drawing upon and changing the tides of his seas? For a moment, Subaru found that he couldn't even draw a breath. Poised in such proximity, staring wide-eyed into Seishirou's gently amused and smiling face, he remembered other moments in the past, other perceptions.

Seishirou-san, how is it that you've always known these things? How is it that you've always understood?

The man's thumb traced the curve of his parted lips--and Subaru, jolted back to the present, gave a tiny gasp. He caught the man's hand as it started to pull away and pressed it to his mouth. He kissed Seishirou's startled fingers with a searchingly focused, urgent attention, rolling the ends one by one against his lips and then between--closing on them, tasting them, his eyes shut tight, the bitter tang of orange peel mixing with the so-recent taste of sweetness and the savor of Seishirou's skin as well.

In this time and in this place...I wouldn't be anywhere else.

Wouldn't be with anyone else.

Anyone but you.

The kettle had started to whistle, but neither of them moved.




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