Sakura and Snow

Chapter 11


By Natalie Baan



Falling down, floating down, or maybe rising instead--there really was no difference--she was getting closer. She was passing through layers of density, moving toward the heavier world. Suspended like a dust mote outside her proper state of being, she struck light, skirling into ephemeral presence as she reached out toward the sleeping spirit that had drawn her all this way, one that answered to her touch, not even needing to wake in order to sense her.


And the two of them folded all about each other, a contact that might be called an embrace but was actually something more: a shading of the edges between them so that the other wasn't merely felt but known, like a second self. For an instant they fitted together as they hadn't since before they were born. Not since they'd started to enter physical being, coalescing day by day into two separate and different people--and now, touching this closely, she could taste new things, changes that had come about since the last time she'd been with her brother like this. Such enfolding darkness, so many scars, layer upon layer of experience, of ordinary and extraordinary pain--and through them the light of her brother's soul shining, richer and more luminous for the shadows that enclosed it, a candle's flame seen mysteriously through a glass of deep wine. The walls that she remembered dimly had vanished like a vague, disturbing notion. The two of them spilled through each other freely, touching, recognizing, sharing the savor and grief of all that had happened during their separation. Then, as with one impulse, they pulled away. She gathered herself up into a swirl of glittering brightness.

How have you been, Subaru?

I struggle every day, her brother answered silently. With him, with never stops. But there was a smile giving those words shadow and substance, an understanding that he might be on the verge of getting, if he didn't have it already.

That's what life is. It's a struggle. A dance. She shrugged, a minuscule sparkle. But are you happy? she pressed him.


Yes...and that one thought was so simple and so pure. So steady, and in her brother's complicated and divided heart, so whole. That was the greatest change in the man her brother had become, she realized with a flare of purest happiness: that in his deepest self he could be so complete. And then her fluidly changeable brother was struck with shame, as though her joy had been a stone shattering its reflection into broken flashes.

Hokuto...I'm so sorry.

For what! Being a slow learner? As a discorporate spirit she couldn't quite plant her hands on her hips and glare, but she managed something similar. Subaru! How many times have I told you not to apologize for things that aren't your fault? Softening, she added, You truly didn't know. Her words fell like stars across the black sky of her brother's guilt. She wondered if that darkness would ever be appeased.

Anyway, she added, pain is different for the dead, and time doesn't pass in quite the same way as you'd think. Rippling nearer, she touched him, a caress like a hand coming to rest against his cheek. I hardly even remember that time at all now, and the only thing that still hurts is that, even being inside of you, I couldn't give you any real comfort. But still, some things one person just can't do for another. She glittered with sadness, wishing that the reality could somehow be easier, but she wasn't one of those people who believed they could live on inside illusions, and he wasn't an innocent boy to be protected anymore either. It's over, she told him instead, because it was the next best answer and it would just have to do for them both. So...let it go. Let it go for yourself. Anyway, you never had to ask me to forgive you, Subaru. I've never blamed you for anything.

In the currents of her brother's sleep, they embraced once more: light and dark twins, sundered and now briefly joined. She could feel old self-accusation melt in him like sour candy, or maybe like clouds parting before a pale haze of moon.

I'm glad, he whispered against her, the thought like a sigh, I'm glad that I could see you again. But...why? If it's not me, then what's still holding you here? Hokuto, after all this time you should be free already. I thought...I thought I'd released the bindings on you. Why haven't you gone on to the other world?

Idiot...because I worry about you! How could I go anywhere until I knew you'd be all right? Fiercely she held onto him, that sister-love an ache where her human heart should be. Not everything that happens is your responsibility, you know! I decided to come back and check up on you for myself. Regathering, she drew away and studied her brother. Now I know, she murmured, I know that none of it was wasted. You're strong enough for whatever is to come. And you're happy.


There's just one more thing. She had looked deeply into him, she'd seen his hope and his one wish, and even though it wasn't any of her business now, still...translucent and shining and smiling as ghosts smile, a little bit sad even through her best happiness, she hovered before him.

There's one more thing I need before I can rest, she told him quietly. Will you help me?

And her brother smiled back, opening himself to her absolutely as though spreading his arms for her embrace.

Anything, he answered with perfect trust.

Anything, Hokuto....


Eyes slowly opening, Hokuto gazed straight up. Strange to see sunlight splashing across this unfamiliar ceiling.... She blinked, the sensation unaccustomed after all this time, and the darkness behind those closed lids odd and a little scary. Drawing a shaky breath, she held up one hand where she could see it; she turned it, studying the flex of joints, the lines that patterned its palm and the faint color of veins along the wrist where the fair skin became translucent--she sat up with a gasp, clutching a flutter of sheets and blankets against herself, all at once unreasonably frightened. She stared at the knuckles clenched around those covers, pressing them to a rapidly beating heart as foreign to her now as some exotic jungle bird.

Silly, she chided herself. It hasn't been that long! Closing both eyes again, she waited for the fear to subside as she settled back into the idea of having a body. After a moment, she released her death grip on the covers, letting them fall away.

Turning, she looked down at the bed beside her, at the empty place where there was room for another person. Of course, he wasn't here. She wouldn't have come back to talk to Subaru if he had been. She gazed at the dent in the pillow where that man lay his head and thought dark thoughts.

Him...and her brother....'s not my choice. Not my decision.

Shrugging, she glanced around the room. So where was he, anyway? On the other side of her there was a nightstand, and on it, next to a clock and a small lamp, there was a single sheet of paper. She picked the paper up and looked at it.


Had errands to run. You're too cute when you're sleeping for me to wake you. If you'd meet me at 11:30 at the front of the Matsuya department store, though, we can have lunch.


The note was signed with an "S" and a little heartmark.

Almost involuntarily, the fingers holding that paper tightened. After a brief hesitation, Hokuto opened them again. Deliberately smoothing out the crumpled sheet, she stared at the premeditated casualness of Seishirou's script, and then smiled like a woman with a dangerous secret that wouldn't be told to anyone. really never change!

So the Sakurazukamori wanted to meet at 11:30. Hokuto glanced at the clock. Ah! plenty of time to dress and then get over there. Swinging around to plant both feet on the floor, she flung back the sheet and blanket--and stopped, caught by a flash of motion in the corner as the covers' fall was reflected in a standing mirror. A figure all in white looked back at her, startlement widening the familiar and yet strangely changed green eyes.


The sound of the voice surprised her--a little rougher, a little it deeper that what she had expected. She lifted one hand and watched the figure in the mirror press fingers against its lips. Haltingly she stood and then began walking closer, as aware of the body she was inhabiting now as she'd been of her own when trying out a new dance step or pose: having constantly in mind the way that arms and legs were shifting, the altering of balance, the slide and drape of fabric over skin. She stopped in front of the glass and stood looking at her brother's reflection.

So different...if I'd lived, would I have looked like this?

Well, she probably wouldn't have cut her hair quite so short, although it did look rather nice on Subaru, if maybe a bit too severe. Her brother was always so serious: it was why she'd liked best to see him in whimsical, romantic outfits, as though happiness could somehow reach him from the outside in. On top of which, there weren't so many men in this world who could carry off that kind of look. It was a shame to waste one. As a man, Subaru would be awfully pretty with long hair, Hokuto thought wistfully, maybe tied back with a bit of colorful silk and having a fall of bangs to cover one eye. Reaching up, she touched the face, the curve of cheekbone and jaw almost delicate enough to be that of a woman. So she would have looked like this if she hadn't...well, not bad at all. Certainly it was nothing to be ashamed of. She touched lower, along the slender neck, then rested the fingertips of both hands against collarbones just visible where the overlarge pajamas fell open at the throat. So thin...too thin. She slid those hands down, over the flat chest and onto the gentle hollow of the stomach--and stopped, staring into the mirror, trying to imagine this body's female echo, trying to imagine what it would be like to be alive and in that body.

To be alive....

To be alive and in this body, and with her brother's sleeping spirit--which she could feel even now and had felt since she'd awakened, drowsing, dreaming, a candle flame in shadow--with that other self curled up inside, carried like the children that she'd never have, inside her forever.


To be able to move among the living again, like that....

Hokuto took two steps backward and then looked at the reflection: smaller, farther away, a serious young man in a frame of wood and glass. After a moment, the reflection ducked its head and smiled slightly. Then Hokuto straightened, gazing back at her brother's image, at her brother's face and body, with a quiet pride. As she scrutinized the reflection a little more closely, that smile turned unexpectedly mischievous. Holding up both arms, she spun, watching the billow and fall of expansive white silk swirling with that motion.

Well, one thing's for certain. Even after all this time, my brother still makes a good picture!

Her temporary bout of sobriety finished, Hokuto tripped toward the closet. It was time to get dressed! She flung the doors wide open with a flourish, and then, faced with a row of clothing in black, white, and various shades of gray, she stopped and stared. Immediately both shoulders slumped as her exuberance was deflated.

What on earth was she going to wear?


* * * * *


Standing in the atrium of the department store, Hokuto was still sulking. Despite her best intentions, there was only so much one could do with a monochrome wardrobe. Her heart had leaped up when she'd discovered a richly green jacket tucked away inside the closet, but upon pulling it out it had become obvious at once from the breadth of shoulders that this jacket belonged to Seishirou. And as cute as her brother looked with his lover's pajamas dripping gorgeously off him, he'd be drowned beneath the heavier jacket. It simply wouldn't do. In the end, she'd had to settle for Subaru's best black pants and a pale sweater with a discreet little pattern on it. Her brother's clothes offended every last one of her fashionable instincts.

Classical elegance at best and casual carelessness at worst. The first is for people in museums, and the second doesn't even bear mentioning! Subaru, something's got to be done about this!

Her brother, deeply asleep inside of her, didn't answer. Hokuto fumed.

She, of course, had always kept up a distinctive appearance for them both. The inside and the outside of a person went around together, so if you discounted one pretty soon you'd start to discount the other, while if you made yourself stand out from the crowd it lifted the heart just like a ride in a giant balloon. There were too many things in the world expressly designed to make people invisible to each other and to themselves, and her brother was far too pure to be allowed to forget that he was a really special person.

Pensively, Hokuto browsed along the counters. She wondered what she could do about the situation. Turning, she caught a glimpse of bright fabric.


Revived, she descended onto the headwear. Discarding this one and that one at once--too trendy, too boring--she paused. Maybe the one with the flowers? No, wait--she was looking on Subaru's behalf, and when she wasn't around anymore he wouldn't keep wearing something so excessive. Pity...she rather liked the shape of it. Oh, well. She'd find something brightly colored, at least. Picking up another hat, she tried it on. A conservative style but it had a good, bold red color, with a woven band of black around its crown. It looked nice against this dark winter coat and creamy scarf. Subaru might actually wear this, she thought, but it would be nicer if the coat were red too, to go along with it. She took the hat off and laid it down. Maybe that cute little emerald green hat with the gold trim instead? Or perhaps a beret? Indecisively she looked behind the counter, and in the mirror there she saw a tall, black-coated figure standing just behind her.

She didn't even have time to react. The man's hand settled onto one shoulder, his other arm came around her in a sly embrace--in public, just as shameless as always!--and as he leaned forward he pulled her lightly back against his chest.

"A little bit of shopping, Subaru-kun?"

"Sei- Sei-chan!" she gasped. "You surprised me!" The man's arm tightened, and she paused in what she'd been about to say. "What?" she asked instead, but already knowing and kicking herself mentally for having made that slip.

The man bent his head closer, his breath a little tickle beneath one ear.

"Subaru-kun," he whispered, "never calls me 'Sei-chan.'"

He turned her firmly around. As he held her by both arms, she looked up into those dark glasses that reflected her back to herself just like two mirrors.


He sounded the least bit surprised. Hokuto took advantage of that, sparking herself out of her paralysis. "What, Sei-chan," she exclaimed, " no happy welcome? And you're practically a member of the family now, too!" She gave him a bravura grin, forcing down the instincts that said to run, run away from this man, as fast as she could. "I've always known that you were the sort to take advantage of an opportunity!" she added cheerfully. "So when are you going to marry my brother and make an honest bride out of him at last?"

"What are you doing here?"

The man's voice was soft, and his hands had slipped away from her, returning to his sides. He was wary but taking no action. He hadn't yet decided what he should do about this, apparently, hence the question to buy him some more time. Hands on hips, insouciantly casual, Hokuto sniffed up at him, "Well, why shouldn't I stop by to look after my brother? If you're worrying that I'll spoil your sweet honeymoon, though, don't bother. I won't be around for long. I just want to have a chat, that's all: sister-in-law to brother-in-law." Stepping up close to him, she tucked one arm into the crook of his. "So why don't we have that lunch now? Hmm?"

There was a further hesitation, and she hoped into the silence that he wouldn't sense the racing heartbeat that she couldn't control, but as that pause stretched out beyond a certain length, she knew that she had him. His body's slight stiffness slackened as he gave in, whether from curiosity or simple resignation. "Okay," he answered, smiling down at her, his genial mask in place as though it had never been gone, "but I hope you don't mind if I stop at a bank machine first. I was only expecting to feed Subaru-kun's appetite."



* * * * *


"You realize," Seishirou commented, gazing at her rapidly disappearing giant double burger and french fries with a mournful expression, "that Subaru-kun will be purifying himself for weeks after this."

"Good," Hokuto answered serenely. "He'll enjoy it!" She took another enormous bite of her burger and licked a drizzle of ketchup from one finger. Living people didn't properly appreciate having a body! After being dead for a few years, it was obvious just how much pleasures like eating were taken for granted every day. Taking a sip of her soda, she eyed Seishirou, who actually wasn't doing that badly himself at polishing off his yakitori. As they ate, they'd been playing their teasing game, in which she alternated between pressing him for romantic details of his relationship with Subaru and bossing him unmercifully on the subject of how to take care of her brother. All the while he'd maintained a flawlessly pleasant good nature, occasionally gibing at her gently in return. They'd fallen back into their old roles as if no time had passed, as if the things that had happened had not happened and nothing had changed.

Hokuto gazed at the sunglasses that the man hadn't taken off. They hid all but the shadow of his eyes.

Pensively she looked away from him once more, picking up a french fry and nibbling at it. So the question was, what was she going to do next? They were stalemated--after all, he couldn't do much to her in Subaru's body, which was the main reason she'd taken the liberty of borrowing it. As a ghost she was particularly vulnerable to onmyoujitsu, but the Sakurazukamori's specialty was the binding or destroying of spirits, not their release. She didn't think he could pry her out of Subaru's body against her will--and if he did try, well, Subaru's consciousness was very near by, close enough to wake. Surely Seishirou would play nicely, if only to keep her brother oblivious.

On the other hand, she wasn't getting any closer to what she needed to know.

Deep in thought, Hokuto finished off her burger. She picked up her drink, poking her straw into the bottom of the glass where the soda was least diluted by the ice-melt. The Sakurazukamori leaned forward over his own empty plate with a smile.

"So," he remarked, resting his chin on clasped hands, "what's the significance of fish?"

"Eh?" Hokuto stared. For a moment she wondered if she'd fallen asleep somehow and woken up in the wrong conversation. Then the man chuckled and she returned to her soda, deciding that this was just Sei-chan's way of trying to string her along. He'd get to his point eventually, and much sooner if she didn't seem responsive.

"Ah, well--when Subaru-kun was unpacking, I saw a pair of your old earrings among his things," Seishirou explained at last. He held up his thumb and forefinger, a few centimeters apart. "They were little fish. At least, I assumed that they were yours. I'd been wondering if they held any special meaning for him, aside from belonging to his only sister." Playing with her straw, Hokuto eyed the man and speculated about what he might be after. Either this was some oblique and twisted way of reminding her that she was dead and he'd killed her, or the man was a maniac for trivia.

Then she thought back over what he'd said and smiled. "So Subaru kept the fish earrings," she mused out loud. "Well, well...."

"Were they a gift?"

"No." She set down her soda. "But Subaru liked them from the beginning. They were one of my first pairs, so we were young at the time. He thought they were really cute. And I always used to say that when I wore them I'd be especially close to him, since he was born under the sign of the Fish." She leaned onto the table and gazed through steepled fingers, recalling fondly and somewhat sadly the way they'd been back then. The picture of the two of them, scarcely more than children, the earring a bright glint between them as she'd held it up for Subaru to see, wide-eyed and wondering....

"Ah--but wait a minute, Hokuto-chan, I thought you were born under the Water Jar. I don't understand much about this kind of thing, of course, but since you're twins...." Hokuto laughed, and was pleased to see the man flinch slightly. So she laughed again.

"Sei-chan, if it's about Subaru then you can remember anything!" She grinned. "Well, you're right. But we were actually born right on the cusp between two signs, and since I came first the Water Jar was the influence for me. Subaru, being the hesitant type, followed along much later, so he's really more of a Fish...although since we're cusp children, we each have a little of both signs in us. Sei-chan, you should really look into studying astrology! You can learn a lot from it, you know." Hokuto picked up her soda. "Speaking of which, didn't you have a birthday just recently? How old are you now?"

Seishirou was pure geniality as he answered, "Hokuto-chan, you know my birthday is in April." Naturally she wasn't fooled at all. Scorpion for sure, she thought privately, and smiled at the man angelically around her straw. Nobody had scored a solid win yet in this match, but so far she felt that she was holding her own.

And she hadn't even told him the whole story about those fish.


"Subaru, even if we're separated someday, we'll still always be close. Think back as far as you can, and even further back than that you and I were together in the same place. No matter what happens, nobody else can ever know or take away from us what that was like. Two different people but only one beginning, like two fish swimming in the same sea.

"Being twins, we'll always carry that inside."


Their own personal mythology, the story she'd used to whisper to Subaru in the night, trying to cushion his loneliness and fear as he grew away from her and toward being the head of the Sumeragi. Although of course they'd had to live as separate people, she'd hoped that thinking of the ways in which they still were close might give him some comfort. Sitting back against her seat, she studied the Sakurazukamori with a smile.

Sei-chan, I'm certainly not going to tell you all of our secrets.

"Well, anyway," Seishirou said, "it's nice to know about those earrings. I'd figured that they were yours, but just in case they weren't...who knows, maybe Subaru-kun was thinking about accessorizing." The man chuckled at his thought, but it reminded her of....

"Argh! I forgot to get that hat for him! Sei-chan!" She reared up and planted both hands on the table, stretching across it to glare into his face. "What are you going to do about my brother's wardrobe?"

"Me?" The man seemed startled, which might or might not be genuine. Hokuto jabbed one finger at him threateningly.

"Yes, you, Sakurazuka Seishirou-san! You're in charge of my brother's well-being now. Look!" She snatched open the coat that she was wearing. "It's a disgrace! An onmyouji shouldn't look like something out of a catalog! It's up to you to be a good influence when I'm not around. And besides," Hokuto smiled at the man sweetly, "isn't the villain of the piece supposed to have a great sense of style?"

For a heartbeat they stared at each other across that very slight distance. Then Seishirou's lips curved up into an answering expression that was a smile only by association. "For one thing," he said, "I'm sure that Subaru-kun's more than old enough to dress himself. And for another--if the villain's distinguished by a sense of style, what does that make you?"

Hokuto stood open-mouthed for a moment but was spared from having to reply by Seishirou himself, who turned, beckoning toward their apprehensively hovering waitress. Dispirited, Hokuto flumped back into her seat. As Seishirou traded pleasantries with the woman, detaining her to snitch one last fry from Hokuto's plate before it was cleared, she glared at him and wondered if he could have been even remotely serious. Could he be operating under some sort of bizarre delusion, or had he just said that to confuse her? Well, in any case she was sure where they stood on the scales of light and darkness, and if somebody was evil around here, it certainly wasn't her.

She was really annoyed that he'd been able to get to her like that, though. She'd have to do a whole lot better if she wanted to rattle him.

Recovering swiftly, she smiled at the waitress as the woman handed out dessert menus. The waitress blushed a little, lowering her eyes. It reminded Hokuto that she was in fact in Subaru's extremely attractive male body, and for an instant she was tempted to play the flirt, just to needle Seishirou. She decided against it, however. Just in case the Sakurazukamori turned out to be possessive, it was probably better not to involve innocent people. She studied her menu instead.

"What would you like?" Seishirou asked, his hidden eyes appearing to scan his menu intently. How he could read with those things on, and especially indoors, was beyond her. And with only one good eye.... She hesitated over the list of desserts. They all sounded tempting, but she'd had a big lunch, and if she knew her brother that was already more food than he was used to. Getting a little extra protein into him was one thing. Making him sick was something else.

"I don't know," she answered at last. "It's so hard to decide. Maybe I'll try just a bite or two of yours. What are you having?"

"This hot fudge brownie sundae looks good." The man laid his menu down and pointed. Hokuto craned to see.

"Decadent, decadent!" she declared. "I approve wholeheartedly!" Seishirou smiled and gestured to the waitress.

As the poor woman fluttered away once more, having taken their order and poured coffee and been utterly disconcerted by Seishirou's usual joke that the two of them were there on a date, Hokuto stirred sweetener into her cup reflectively. The other patrons of the coffee shop had turned back to their own tables, deciding that the spectacle was over. She hoped they were enjoying the show. Glancing up, she saw Seishirou gazing out the window, his interest caught by something in the street, and she watched him over the rim of her cup as she took a small sip. Inscrutable behind those dark glasses, behind that camouflage of a smile....

This was the man who had killed her, sitting in front of her now without the smallest sign of concern. Suppressing a shudder, Hokuto set her cup down again.

What did she think she could do to a person like that?

"Ah, here we go!" Seishirou said cheerfully, as the waitress returned with his dessert. "Thank you very much. You know," he added in an aside to Hokuto after the woman had gone, "the service is really very good here."

"Then you'd better leave that waitress an extra big tip!" she retorted sharply. Especially with all the teasing you've been putting her through. The waitress had left them two spoons, and Hokuto picked hers up, digging into the sundae from one side as Seishirou mounted his assault upon the other. Mmm, chocolate brownie and fudge swirl ice cream, topped by hot fudge sauce and whipped cream...Hokuto licked her spoon in bliss.

This was the pinnacle of living existence, right here.

Seishirou was savoring his own mouthful with enthusiasm, and Hokuto watched him, her mood flickering between amusement and irritation at his perversely impenetrable good humor. "I don't know how you do it," she remarked, and at his questioning look she went on, "How do you keep that sweet tooth of yours happy without gaining a thousand pounds?"

"Why, it's no problem at all." Seishirou smiled. "I just use a bit of correspondence magic."

"Eh?" Hokuto filched a dangling precipice of whipped cream that was leaning from the back side of the sundae.

"Of course. You know the way a magician's spells come back to him and he has to turn those consequences aside? This is the same kind of thing. In this case, I just divert those calories to someplace more convenient--generally to the hips of unsuspecting teenaged girls." Seishirou popped another bite of brownie into his mouth and looked beatific.

Hokuto stared in horror. "That's...that's...."

"Clever?" the man asked innocently.

"MONSTROUS!" Throwing down her spoon, Hokuto sprang out of her seat and stormed toward the coffee shop's door. Behind her she could hear the Sakurazukamori calling her name, but she didn't turn around. Of course, he was almost surely joking with her and he didn't really do any such thing, but she'd had just about enough of him and his self-satisfaction. She was mad suddenly--and behind the mad there was a flutter of fear, the realization that she didn't know how to get around him and get to what she needed to know. Shoving the glass door open in a jangle of bells, she stalked out onto the sidewalk.

"Hokuto-chan." Caught by one wrist, she was whipped around to face him, his fingers grinding cruelly into the bone. His face was like a statue's, not smiling at all now, his mouth set and cold beneath the black reflections hiding his eyes. Hokuto drove one knee up, right where nice girls oughtn't to know about, and as the man doubled up, those fingers loosened. Twisting, Hokuto broke away from him.

She ran.

A few strides down the sidewalk, she threw a glance behind her. The man was straightening, turning to follow, his coat a splash of midnight amidst the passersby. He'd lost the sunglasses, and as he raised his head his eyes seared after her, narrowed and aflame.

Hokuto ran even faster.

Catching sight of a "walk" sign, she bolted across the street, then hurdled a low wall guarding a park. She hit the gravel path on the other side and sprinted down it, running almost parallel to the road. Risking another look back, she didn't see a pursuer, and there was definitely something wrong about that. Hokuto darted through the shadows of a leafless stand of trees, and then, just as she spotted the torii of the park's main entrance, she felt a warning tingle of alarm. She looked up and to one side, and through the flickering cage of branches she saw a dark figure looming on top of a building across the street. That figure gestured, and every sense screamed out magic! as the park began to vanish into blackness.

Closing both eyes tightly, Hokuto simply kept on running.

Luckily it was winter, so there weren't too many loitering people to get in her way. As she ran, Hokuto hoped and prayed that she was right and that a maboroshi worked the way she thought it did. Whatever the Sakurazukamori created had the effect of something real, but she didn't think that he could make unreal the rest of the world around her. She'd only had a few more meters to cross, and if she could make it before he wove together something else to ensnare her, if she'd aimed herself right so that she didn't run headlong into the torii, then--

She heard the blast of an air horn, at first very faintly, then rapidly growing in volume. The darkness frayed, as though torn by the sound. As it cleared, she saw through the cracks in it an extremely large truck rumbling down on her. Through the cab's window she could see the driver frantically turning the steering wheel, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular. The truck's wheels locked; it began to skid, jackknifing toward her.

Hokuto sprang into the air. Somehow, miraculously, she found herself on top of the truck. As it tilted underneath her, still sliding forward, she launched herself from it again. An astonishing leap, more body instinct than anything else--and while she was still in midair she heard a sickening crunch behind her as the truck heeled over onto its side and then crashed hard. There was a deafening blare of horns; she heard further collisions, a background chorus of screams--

"Sorry!" she gasped. Lighting on the roof of a sport utility vehicle, she leaped again. "Please excuse me!" She'd meant for reality to come to her rescue, but not quite like this! She hoped nobody was hurt. Glancing around herself as she bounded from car to car, she got herself oriented at last: she was right by the foot of the Azuma Bridge, where a tangle of roads came together. The lane just beside her was empty of traffic; she jumped over the concrete barrier and onto the street. An illusion intended to stop that truck before it could reach her, another to keep the cars in this lane from coming ahead--and surely he was cloaking himself and possibly her as well. There were only so many things that one could do simultaneously. Of course he'd had to let the maboroshi around her go.

She ran up onto the incline of the bridge. Wind whipped at her, and her improvised flight crystallized into sudden inspiration. From the corner of one eye she saw movement, a black flicker high in the air, coming over the arc of suspension cable, a coat that was outspread like wings--she leaped for the waist-high rail. Subaru's boots skittered and then got traction on it as she grabbed at a slender cable. She whirled, precariously balanced, dangling by that one-handed grip above the river, the metal searingly cold against bare skin.

"Stop right there!" she screamed at the Sakurazukamori. "Don't you come any closer!"

The man froze motionless in the roadway, watching her, still except for the wind that caught at his hair and his coat. She could hear car horns and the sounds of raised voices, but they seemed strangely muffled and far away. Maybe that was his spell. Far below the Sumida River rolled toward the sea, frigid and turbulent with snow melt.

"One step," she challenged him, "just one. I can have my brother back." She leaned backward, hanging out over the drop. Gazing at the man, she searched his face like a street sign. "What do you feel?"

The Sakurazukamori stared into the space between them. His eyes were blank, as though he was feeling his way through an unexpectedly darkened room. The wind sang in the cables high above them, and shards of ice splintered loose to fall and smash on pavement.

"Anger," the man whispered. "Anger...


And as Hokuto looked at him, she felt weakness creeping over her, a tide that submerged her, sucking her down and away. She wavered, then swayed forward, dragging herself back from the edge. Tottering, she half-stepped, half-fell off the railing and into the Sakurazukamori's outstretched arms.

They closed around her, and she knotted both hands into the man's coat. Head pressed against his chest, she could feel his stiffness, a shell around the beating of his heart. He held her without moving, supporting her as strength drained away and the world slowly started to fade.

At last....

She knew it for certain.

"It'll be all right," she whispered. "It'll be all right. Tell my brother...tell Subaru that." It was important that she say this one thing. Then as the light began to return to her, glimmering through the shadows of this world, release and relief sparkled into joy. A last mischievous impulse took her, and she mumbled into Seishirou's broad chest, "Y'know, maybe you decided to pick on the wrong Sumeragi sibling. I would've shown you a thing or two...Sakura...zu...ka...." Before she could finish the word, though, that light had become all-consuming.

The very last tie had been broken.

And now she could rest.


* * * * *


Seishirou could feel the gust--not of wind, but of spirit--as the ghost of Subaru's sister released its grip on this mortal world and then disappeared. Perhaps this time it would actually be for good. Subaru sagged against him, and he tightened his hold, supporting the other's slight weight. Settling his cheek against the wind-stirred silk of Subaru's hair, he glanced between the railings of the bridge. The restless, wintry river churned by far beneath them.

He'd glimpsed before the emptiness of what this world would be like if Subaru no longer existed for him. It was something of which he already was quite aware. But to experience such a keen understanding of it....

Had that really been "fear"?

Then Subaru stirred, drifting toward wakefulness, and as Seishirou turned his attention from the river, he set that moment aside. Subaru straightened up hesitantly, and Seishirou eased his grip. Opening his eyes, Subaru glanced upward in bewilderment, and Seishirou smiled down into that lovely and disoriented green gaze.

"Welcome back, Subaru-kun. Did you sleep well?"




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