Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
Hey ya ha, oh wa ya ya....
Deep in the bedroom closet, where he prowling on hands and knees, hunting for the loose change that had spilled from the pocket of one of his slacks, Seishirou raised his head in disbelief.
Not that ridiculous song on the radio again.
"Subaru-kun," he started, then realized that Subaru probably couldn't hear him from the other room. Groping for the support of the wall, he started to get to his feet, and as he bumped into Subaru's shikifuku the white robes slithered from their hanger, pouring over his head in a flood.
With a hiss of surprise, he recoiled onto his heels, ducking out from under those silken billows as they settled to the floor around him. He gathered the voluminous fabric up into his arms, then sat back to listen again. The music gushing from the living room stereo had grown incrementally louder.
Rising, he restored Subaru's fuku to its place, adjusting it meticulously on the hanger until he found the balance point. He picked up the laundry bag that he'd been filling and tugged it closed, swinging it onto the mattress as he walked past the bed. Brilliant sunlight streamed in through the window's panes, striking out of a flawless sky and reflecting from snow-covered buildings; pure and translucently golden, it lay along the hardwood floor. He walked up to the doorway, where, inspecting the scene before him, he found his mild annoyance melting toward surprise.
Subaru was dancing.
Oh, nothing fancy, nothing formal: just a shuffle from one light foot to the other, Subaru swaying slightly with the motion, his arms lifting and crossing with aimless, artless grace. Seishirou watched as Subaru two-stepped, eyes closed, apparently unaware of his presence. Then Subaru spread his arms as the music swept into a soaring bridge, and Seishirou padded forward, inserting himself swiftly and stealthily into their inviting half-circle. Hooking his own arm around Subaru's waist, he captured the other's hand in his. He grinned into Subaru's face as the green eyes popped open in shock, and without missing a beat he stepped out.
They were in trouble at once. It was patently obvious that Subaru had never danced with anyone before, and of the dances that Seishirou knew, none really fit the rhythm of the song. At the first hint of a stumble, he improvised, letting momentum wheel them around. He whipped them through one dizzying whirl after another, not giving Subaru time to hesitate and so put a foot wrong, until they came to rest in the middle of the living room floor. Slowing, he drew Subaru against himself, sliding his other arm around Subaru's body as well, and then they simply rocked in place, pressed close together. As Subaru twined both arms around his neck, settling against him with a small sigh, Seishirou smiled and nuzzled the onmyouji's hair, congratulating himself on his save.
Then Subaru's beeper went off.
"I am going to take that thing, put it on the floor, and step on it," Seishirou vowed as the pager's thin pi-pi-pi! shrilled beneath the music, "and the world will be a happier place." Subaru arched backward to look up at him, amusement crinkling the corners of the younger man's eyes. Seishirou dipped him further to steal a fleeting kiss, hardly more than a brush of willing mouths against each other, Subaru's lips parting to that teasing almost-touch even as he untangled an arm to fumble in his pocket. Sliding his own hand down to a more secure grip, Seishirou cradled the back of one lean thigh. He nibbled at the juncture of throat and jaw that was exposed as Subaru turned to scan the beeper's screen, and he could feel the immediate change as that message registered, the slender form in his arms becoming still.
"I need to get this." Distracted and grave, Subaru glanced up into his face again. "Is it all right if I...?"
"Certainly." Straightening, Seishirou loosed his hold the merest fraction, just enough to let Subaru pull away. He studied Subaru closely as the other headed for the phone. Then, satisfied by what he'd seen of Subaru's demeanor, although vaguely disappointed not to have finished their dance, he located the remote, which was unhelpfully on top of the stereo, and wandered over to it. Subaru seemed serious but not especially uneasy. Probably this was some kind of "work." Wryly Seishirou wondered how long Subaru had had to deal with that double burden: the demands made on a professional exorcist balanced against the starker duties of being a Seal.
Trust him to have spread himself much too thin, as usual.
Seishirou muted the radio as Subaru picked up and dialed the phone. Subaru turned away from him to face the wall, while Seishirou busied himself with running a finger along the stereo as if to check for dust, both of them participating in the polite fiction of creating a "phone space" where one could pretend to have a private conversation and the other could pretend not to hear it. Telephones, Seishirou mused, were at the root of all sorts of bizarre behavior, in addition to breaking down space and other barriers to magic and, of course, simply being nuisances in their own right. Meandering along the room's back wall, he fiddled with things on the shelves, watching Subaru from the corner of his eye. Subaru stood hunched in upon himself, one arm hugging his middle while the other held the phone to his ear. Abruptly he raised his head, slouched shoulders lifting.
"This is Subaru."
Somebody that he knew and had worked for in the past, probably frequently, Seishirou speculated, flicking another oblique glance at Subaru. The voice on the other end appeared to go on at some length, Subaru responding with soft monosyllables and apparently unconscious nods. At least he didn't bow on the phone anymore. Seishirou's attention migrated down the trim lines of Subaru's body, which were far more absorbing and informative than the one-sided conversation. He noted the alert poise as Subaru focused on the situation being presented, heedless of everything else. The charcoal turtleneck Subaru was wearing clung subtly as smoke to the angled planes of his shoulders and back, vanishing at last into slim-cut, cream-colored pants. Seishirou's eye retraced its journey, lingering on the scantly curved contours of Subaru's seat, his hands remembering the feel of sliding down over them to pull Subaru against himself.
"Mita Station, on the Asakusa Line." Reaching for the pen, Subaru bent to scribble something down on the phone pad, which only improved the view. "Yes. All right. Goodbye." Straightening once more, he hung up the phone and then stared at it, a long, uninterpretable look.
"Work?" Seishirou asked, shifting his thoughts away from lecherous things with an inward sigh, and Subaru glanced at him, the other's gaze remote and troubled as an overcast sea as he nodded.
"That was Detective Kono-san. I wonder, do you remember him? There's a supernatural killer on the run in Minato-ku. I have to get over there as soon as possible." Subaru exhaled, wrapping both arms around himself as though to help squeeze the air out of his lungs. "I'm supposed to call him from the station, and he'll send somebody out to pick me up." Minato-ku was all the way on the other side of Tokyo, a trip that meant no less than three different trains. Despite Subaru's seeming reluctance, he was too conscientious to delay leaving for more than another moment or two at most. As Subaru began heading for the door, Seishirou watched the day's unrealized promise glimmering away into nothing. The vacancy it left behind stirred with restive, half-sensed echoes, things coming and going just out of reach before clarifying into one lucid impulse.
"I'll go with you."
"Eh?" Jolted back to the present, Subaru blinked several times, finally seeming to register him fully. Seishirou grinned.
"Well, I'd been going to take some laundry to the cleaner's, but that's on the way to the station, and I don't have any other plans for today. It'd be my pleasure to accompany you." Walking forward, he appropriated Subaru's hand, which had frozen in reaching for a coat. He gazed into Subaru's still-dumbfounded face, noting the shadow of equivocation there. "Unless you don't want me to, Subaru-kun."
"That's good." Smiling, he pressed the back of that hand against his cheek. "It'll be just like old times."
For some reason, Subaru's eyes remained ambivalent.
* * * * *
Seishirou ground his cigarette end under the toe of his shoe and tilted his head back to gaze at the sky. It soared winter blue and flawless above him; astonishingly enough for Tokyo, the air was actually approaching crystalline. He drew in a deep and luxuriating breath of it, relishing its cold bite and the thin but determined warmth of the sun on his face. It was a perfect day. He lowered his gaze again, his eye drifting down over snow-roofed buildings, the white-edged filigree of leafless branches, and the seemingly aimless passersby before settling at last onto Subaru, who had paused on the way back from making his phone call to get coffee at a little stand outside the station.
Seishirou smiled as he watched Subaru waiting in line, the only sign of restlessness an occasional small shift from one foot to the other. His sunglasses had a way of intensifying colors, and the profusion of bright winter wear and cheerful store awnings created a setting in which Subaru stood simply, almost starkly unadorned. The black hair and graphite shirt seemed as significant as calligraphy; the long off-white coat that Seishirou had finally talked him into buying was a warmer-toned complement to the snow. Seishirou loitered on the sidewalk, hands clasped behind his back, enjoying himself rather remarkably considering that nothing very exciting was going on. Reaching the counter at last, Subaru ordered and paid, then picked his way back through the crowd, two take-out cups in hand. He arrived at Seishirou's side and held one out. "Here," he said. "You like yours dark and sweet, right?"
Deftly Seishirou plucked the cup from Subaru's fingers before lifting them to his lips to taste the skin. "That's right."
"Seishirou-san." Subaru's fingers knotted, and he pulled his hand away. Bemused, Seishirou studied him as he turned aside. It was true that Subaru had always been shy about public displays of affection, and Seishirou had found great sport in teasing him on many occasions, both past and present: bestowing caresses or endearments and then watching with barely concealed laughter as Subaru jumped, blushed, or protested urgently. This time, though, there seemed to be something more. Even during the interminable train ride, there had been that tension; Subaru had hardly responded to his attempts at conversation, instead sitting almost rigidly immobile and silent, attention turned inward like a creature retreating into its shell. Something about the day's work must be troubling him, Seishirou thought, something he was unwilling or unable to speak about. Seishirou gazed at the other's profile, an inkling of what that might be stirring at the back of his mind, frustratingly just out of reach.
A blue flash distracted him--a nondescript car pulled up to the curb, the police light on its roof whirling slowly. Subaru was already hurrying down the stairs to the street, and Seishirou followed, shaking his head, the steps beneath his feet wet and glistening with snowmelt. The stocky, trenchcoated detective had hauled himself out of the car and yanked the rear door open. As Subaru reached the sidewalk, the man nodded, a quiet acknowledgement at odds with his otherwise curt behavior. Then his eyes locked onto Seishirou, and the dark brows furrowed. "Hey, don't I know you from somewhere?"
"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" Seishirou grinned at the man from behind the black mask of his glasses. The detective had changed very little in nine years--the broad, bulldog face had sagged somewhat, the short hair was speckled with gray and had receded from his widow's peak, but he still carried himself with the dyspeptic air of a man who lived on stale coffee and antacids, one who had little patience for anything that got in the way of his work. Seishirou wondered whether his transfer from Nakano to this precinct was a tribute to his terse efficiency or a mark of the inability to cozen bureaucrats.
Subaru climbed into the back seat, sliding across the scarred vinyl to the other side, and Seishirou folded himself in after the onmyouji. The detective thunked the door shut, and as soon as he'd gotten into the front seat the car drew away from the curb, swiftly picking up speed. The driver and Kono exchanged a few words on how best to get where they were going as the car sped down the largely empty side street, paralleling the tracks of the JR line to the right. On the opposite side of the road, Seishirou glimpsed the electric company looming behind a row of lower buildings, its angular shape enmeshed in high-tension wires and power pylons. In the distance, Tokyo Tower rose up like a larger version of one of those pylons: an open-work spire of steel stretching toward the sky. Seishirou reached out with his magical senses and felt the knot of energies wound around that lynchpin, one of the few major kekkai that still held secure. He smiled, his awareness caressed by its near presence. Soon, he whispered to it. Vague memories flickered in him, impressions of shadow and growing light, the particular angles of girders, the echo of a strange, luminous peace. Frowning, he shook his head again, brushing aside the small disquiet.
"Thanks for coming out here, Subaru-kun," Kono was saying. "I really appreciate it."
"Tell me about the case," Subaru responded, his voice as flat and quiet as a reflecting pool. The detective gave a grumbling sigh, slouching in his seat.
"Well, it started in one of the 'earthquake cities' not far from here." The man looked into the rearview mirror, and Subaru nodded. The not-so-temporary shelters for people left homeless by Tokyo's recent disasters were downplayed by the government, but everyone knew about them. Settling back, Seishirou opened his coffee, inhaling its rich aroma as he continued to listen. "At first, it looked like your basic serial killer. Real gruesome, though. Bodies torn open, some of the organs and flesh were missing...." The detective glanced up into the mirror again. Subaru was staring blankly at the seat back in front of him, peeling open the tab on his coffee cup, one perforation at a time. After a moment, Kono made a thick, self-disgusted sound and slumped down further.
"Anyway, with the fourth victim we finally got a lead. Some kid saw a guy hanging around near where the body was found. We got a good description of him, and then as we were going around the shelters with it we had another break. A woman recognized him." The driver pulled out onto a busier street and flicked on the siren to clear a lane. Kono grimaced, then continued, raising his voice above the din. "She'd been his neighbor--told us where his family used to live. It was one of those damaged apartment blocks. Nobody's supposed to go in there, but I went over with a profiler and a couple of men anyway, just to see if there'd be any clues.
"He was there. Must've been living there all this time. It was cold as hell that day, but when we walked into the apartment I swear the temperature dropped another twenty degrees. Everything was frost. I didn't see him at first--he was sitting on the floor in the corner, hunched up against the wall. But Sugihara-kun did and went around the couch at him. All of a sudden the place was full of snow."
The car crossed a bridge and climbed a ramp to one of the expressways where it accelerated, cutting in and out of traffic. Seishirou stared out the window as the bay came into view, its calm surface glinting in the sun. He waited as the detective struggled once more with the shock of that moment, its uncanniness for an ordinary person.
"The stuff was blowing everywhere, like a blizzard," the man muttered at last, the words almost lost beneath the siren's wailing. "I couldn't see a goddamned thing." He cleared his throat abruptly, then went on. "I heard a gun go off, and there were a couple of screams. Something crashed out the apartment's front window. I got onto the balcony and shot at the guy as he was running away, but I missed him. Moved too damn fast, the bastard. When I went back inside, Sugihara-kun and Akai-san, the profiler--they were dead. Something sharp had punched right through them. Their bodies were already frozen. Satoshi-kun, the other man, he was blinded for a while, but otherwise he was okay." Kono snorted ruefully. "I might've been blinded too if I hadn't been just inside the door when it happened.
"Anyhow, that was this morning. We've been chasing him ever since then. Finally got him cornered in a warehouse complex. It's a standoff right now--he's not coming out and we sure as hell don't want to go in after him. There's a cordon around the property in case he makes some kind of move, but so far he's stayed put. I figure he's waiting for dark." The detective rubbed at his temples. "We can't let this guy get away, but we're totally unprepared to handle something like this!" he burst out, frustration and fear jerking the words from him. "We've already lost two men! Headquarters is talking about bringing in a strike force. I've got a feeling it's going to be a disaster. I hate to get you involved, Subaru-kun, but I just can't see any other way to deal with this...this...."
"I understand," Subaru murmured, his uninflected reply just audible beneath the siren. Seishirou shifted position, trying to arrange his legs more comfortably in the cramped back seat, and his knee brushed Subaru's. Subaru sat up straighter. "Is there a report?"
"Here." The detective passed a folder back, gratitude plain in his voice. "Not much more in it than what I've told you. There's a picture of him, though." Subaru nodded acknowledgment, and Seishirou glanced at the photograph of a good-looking, fair-haired young man. "We found it with the other things in the apartment." The traffic thinned, and the driver cut the siren's howl, though he left the blue light strobing a path for them. Kono grabbed the car's radio and called ahead for an update while Subaru paged through the report, Seishirou stealing an occasional peek over his shoulder. It was amazing, the amount of minutiae that went into a police investigation.
"What? Those idiots! What the hell were they thinking? Bringing a helicopter in that close...." Subaru's eyes flickered up, and then, as Kono listened impatiently to the voice crackling over the radio, dropped back to the papers in front of him. Seishirou could still feel tension, though, through the slight contact of their legs. "No! Tell them I'm bringing in a specialist. They have to give us a few hours to work. It's not a hostage situation, for crying out loud! We've got time...yes. All right, then." Banging the radio into its cradle, Kono sat back in his seat. "Lucky," he muttered, "damn lucky they had a good pilot." In the angle of the rearview mirror, his face looked older, tired by the strain. They rode for a minute in silence, flashing past other cars on the highway as though they moved through a separate world of their own.
"His close family all died in one of the earthquakes," Subaru murmured finally. "Is there any other family on record?" At the detective's brusque head shake, Subaru let the folder fall shut in his lap, his green eyes clouding. "And those bodies," he went on, "with pieces missing...."
"Eaten." Seishirou responded softly, putting into words what Subaru had surely already thought of.
Winter, loss, and loneliness were all prime conditions for a hungry spirit.
The car left the expressway, descending a long, looping ramp that carried them into a seemingly deserted industrial park. They drove along an access lane, turned the corner of a maintenance facility, and a cluster of police cars came into view. Two were drawn across the road as a barricade. Kono waved an arm out the window, and one of the cars pulled back, leaving just enough space for them to pass. Kono's driver eased through that reluctant gap; they rumbled across a short metal bridge, its gridded surface humming beneath their tires, and then halted in a parking area before the inscrutable walls of what presumably were the warehouses in question. As the car's engine idled, Kono got out slowly and opened the door for Seishirou and Subaru. The driver, Seishirou noticed, was making no move to leave the vehicle.
Emerging from the car and stretching, Seishirou further examined his surroundings. He assumed from the bridge they'd crossed that this complex was built on an island, probably on land reclaimed from the bay to enlarge the city. It certainly made things easier for the police, who only had to guard the shoreward side. Seishirou noted helicopters prowling the vicinity, their rotors making a dull racket as they swept high above the harbor. They were keeping a respectful distance from the complex itself, however. Obviously they'd learned their lesson.
Subaru took a distracted step forward, head cocked as though attending to a distant music. Tilting his own head back, Seishirou stared at the crisp edge where sky met snow along the rooftop of the nearest building. He held his senses open, searching for intention, for the distinctive crackle of power being raised. All seemed peaceful enough, at least for the present. Lowering his gaze, he found the detective peering at him thoughtfully. "So it is you," Kono said. "You're that guy who used to hang around with Subaru-kun. I haven't seen you for a while."
"I had to leave Tokyo." Seishirou sighed and smiled at the man, wearing an expression of genial regret. "That's the way life goes...." He'd always thought it amusing that Subaru's grandmother had never singled him out as a suspect to the police, even though she'd asked for their help during Hokuto's disappearance. Probably she'd been concerned--and quite rightly, Seishirou thought--that she'd accomplish nothing but the deaths of unfortunate policemen. Kono looked away again, shoving both hands into the pockets of his drab trenchcoat. He stared at where Subaru stood motionless, withdrawn into contemplation of the area's psychic landscape.
"He's changed," the detective muttered finally. "Between one time I saw him and the next, it was like he'd become a completely different person." Kono scowled. "I'd heard about what happened to his sister. Yet still, after all this time.... He was a good kid, a really special kid. You don't find many like that in this world." The detective looked sidelong at Seishirou. "But then, you knew that, didn't you?"
"Yes," Seishirou replied, glancing at Subaru. "I knew that."
Subaru moved then, reaching into his coat to draw out a sheaf of ofuda. Holding his hands in front of himself, he spread them slowly, and a flock of birds, as pure and whitely glittering as salt, trickled from them and into the sky. The detective started, drawing in a breath, and in the distance Seishirou could hear exclamations from the policemen at the other end of the bridge. The shikigami scattered, angling out of sight in various directions as Subaru started toward an alley between two warehouses. Seishirou bowed to Kono, who was still staring in bemusement, before turning to follow. He wondered if the detective had ever actually seen Subaru use magic before.
A few long strides brought him up with Subaru, whose head turned minutely, acknowledging him. Seishirou could hear the detective yelling orders to the other policemen, a door slamming and the crunch of tires on icy pavement as the car retreated, before they were in the alley's narrow throat and all sounds but their own footsteps began to blur from the echoing acoustics. Absently he noted in himself vague scorn for the detective, who despite that show of concern seemed quite content to let Subaru go into danger alone. Then he shook his head. No, Kono had been right--the police had no protection against magical attacks, and in what was to come they would only be a distraction.
Besides which, Subaru already had somebody to look out for him.
As they walked in the shadows of the high, corrugated metal walls, he studied what he could see of the other's expression. It was true, as Kono had said, that Subaru had changed from the boy he'd once been, but he'd changed again in the past couple of weeks, shifting away from the cold, bitter young man that he'd become, and the detective hadn't been granted even a glimpse of that. To Kono, Subaru had shown only the remote face of a professional, a mask he continued to wear as they moved deeper into the complex. Was it simply a defense against the pain of the coming conflict, a habit he'd adopted to get him through his work? Or had it begun as theater for the police, like the cloud of white birds winging into the sky--a flashy spectacle for someone who'd been brought up in the belief that magic wasn't for public display, and surely meant to reassure them that this fragile-appearing sorcerer did indeed have remarkable powers. But if Subaru's facade had been for the policemen's benefit, Seishirou mused, then why hadn't Subaru set it aside already?
Unless, instead, could it have been for....
Ahead, the alley opened onto a wider avenue that seemed to run the length of the complex. Its center was clear of all but a few lingering puddles; the southward-tending winter sun fell full upon it, and icicles sparkled and dripped from the overhangs of the buildings' roofs. There were gaps where the sun's warmth had loosened that crust of snow and ice and it had fallen to add to the already substantial drifts that lined the road. Subaru walked out into the middle of the avenue, and Seishirou, putting questions aside, paced after him, treading beside the long slant of his shadow. Awareness prickled at Seishirou's mind, the sense of being in a dangerous place.
"They're coming!" Subaru lifted his head, but Seishirou was already turning, scanning the open sky behind them. He could feel the approaching entity--could see it then, a small, wedge-shaped ripple of raw force, translucent against the air, almost invisible even to magical perceptions. It poured itself toward them like quicksilver, plummeting faster than a diving raptor. From the corner of Seishirou's eye, he saw Subaru leap forward and assume a warding stance, both hands raised. Measuring the attack's approach more by feel than by his unreliable sight, he thought that Subaru would probably get the defensive spell off just in time. Still, no point in taking chances. He sprang at Subaru, sweeping the other out of the way and into a snowdrift as the shikigami flashed by them and down the avenue. A second, hidden until that moment by the wavefront of the first, streaked barely above his back as he fell into the snow on top of Subaru. He felt the icy tingle of its near miss, and then it was gone, both attacks whipping out of range with incredible speed. For an instant, there was only the quiet thunder of his pulse, sped by adrenaline, the far off chatter of the helicopters--the clear, bright winter afternoon, and Subaru pinned beneath him, both of them still alive....
"Sei- Seishirou-san!" Subaru spluttered, squirming indignantly and spitting out a mouthful of snow. Recollecting himself, Seishirou shifted his weight back as Subaru struggled to get up.
"Sorry, Subaru-kun! Old habits die hard...they're coming around again." Uncoiling to his feet, he swung to track one of the shikigami, aware of Subaru rising to follow the other, the Sumeragi an incongruous presence at his back. The two spirit-attacks looped about and then dove toward them, closing in fast from opposite sides. There was no way he could stop both, and instinct urged him to melt aside and hunt out a better position. With an effort of will, he resisted, knowing that it would leave Subaru's back uncovered. He raised his gloved hand instead, holding an icicle that he'd picked from the snowdrift, and he poured magic into it, clenching his fingers until the cracking of the ice and the power's crackling became one and the same. Opening his hand again, he released the spell: a needle-storm of ice shards, each one charged with sorcery, that flashed toward the attacking construct. Only a few meters in front of him, they struck the shikigami, and as they pierced it he triggered the binding magics they contained. The spell halted not only the shikigami's forward motion, but also the currents of energy that comprised it. Its supercold spirit substance congealed, losing fluidity, and the tensions of arrested motion both within and without shattered it into pieces. Tiny fragments pattered against the small shield that Seishirou spun in front of himself, flashing rainbows and a vague, almost transparent shimmer all that was visible.
Fire with fire, Seishirou thought smugly. Ice with ice.
He felt the quick, hot flash of Subaru's spell, and as it diminished he glanced behind himself. Subaru was standing a pace or two away, back turned, charred scraps of paper an ashen flurry around him. Of the other shikigami, there was no sign. In the distance, Seishirou sensed a psychic shriek of fury and loss, one that echoed in the back of his brain. It reverberated away into a thin howl and then into silence. He grinned.
"Well, that's that." he murmured. "Let's go, Subaru-kun!" He strode forward, already focused on tracing that cry to its source. Really, the being controlling the shikigami must be a rather stupid creature, to have let them be defeated so easily. And now, having given away its presence--
"Seishirou-san!" Subaru's raised voice snapped him up short. Bewildered, he turned to face the onmyouji. Subaru stood with both arms locked over his chest, as though struggling to crush something inside himself. His tension was so plain that he was practically vibrating with it, and for a split second Seishirou wondered if he might have been injured. Then Subaru raised his eyes, and they were vivid with determination and anguish, as though the inner conflict that they'd only hinted at before had sharpened into clear resolution.
"Seishirou-san," he said again, more calmly this time, but still with that thread of intensity behind the words, "thank you, but...from here I need to go on by myself."
His momentum lost, Seishirou rocked back onto his heels and stared, trying to puzzle out what Subaru was saying. The words were perfectly plain, but somehow they made no sense. Some of that incomprehension must have slipped out onto Seishirou's face because Subaru drew in a breath and then released it, as if he'd been going to sigh but had changed his mind. Glancing away, Subaru scowled faintly.
"I should have said so from the beginning," he muttered. "I knew it, but--" He screwed up his face for a moment, then raised his head and looked at Seishirou again. "It's my work," he said tautly, his expression torn by frustration and self-directed anger, by yearning and grief, and Seishirou suddenly grasped the divisions between what Subaru both wanted and didn't want on the one hand and what he believed was the proper way to fulfill his duties on the other.
And the truth--that Seishirou was an unwelcome intrusion on those duties.
"Oh," Seishirou said after a pause. "I...didn't know you felt that way."
Rather than seeming relieved or vindicated, Subaru set his jaw. He ducked his head and marched past Seishirou, hands clenched at his sides. "I'll just wait here, then," Seishirou called softly as Subaru strode away, showing no sign of having heard him. Pausing further down the avenue, Subaru cast about briefly before leaping in one bound onto the roof of a warehouse and disappearing from view.
Seishirou stared at the blank field of sky where Subaru had vanished. Then his gaze dropped back to the empty avenue, to the puddle reflecting that sky close by his feet. He could sense Subaru's psychic presence as it receded across the warehouse complex. Feeling peculiarly at a loss, he groped in his coat pockets before locating his cigarettes in the breast pocket of his shirt. He touched the rectangular package through the cloth, then hesitated, shaking his head.
"What am I thinking?"
Seishirou took a step forward and then sprang toward the warehouse roof, wrapping an illusion of air and snow-reflected light around himself as he went after Subaru.
* * * * *
Poised near the top of a crane that reared high above the island's dockside--easily the best vantage in the complex--Seishirou glanced down at his shadow. It fell across the metal crossbars beneath his feet, dulling their faint gleam. That smudge of darkness rippled as he set his will upon it, and then something condensed from it: a thickening smokiness that rose into the air, unfurling cloudy wings. As the spirit-creature gained substance, he extended his arm, and it settled down onto his wrist. He brought his arm in to his body, and the eagle shikigami hopped lightly from wrist to shoulder, just as a real bird might. Its presence was a familiar mental pressure, a subtle grip of talons, and a whisper of incorporeal feathers close by his face as he turned to observe the slight young man hastening across a rooftop as if scudded along the snow's crust by some strong breeze. He kept his concealing illusion folded about him, although he doubted Subaru would notice him even if he didn't. At the moment, Subaru was concentrating rather intensely on finding something else.
Watching Subaru hesitate at the corner of the building and then drop with wary ease into the paved yard below, Seishirou continued to brood over that little outburst. Of course, he should have seen the real reason for Subaru's moodiness from the very beginning and arranged to watch over him from afar, like this. But it had seemed the most natural thing in the world to accompany his lover--in the past he had often been entertained by the exercise of rescuing Subaru, and the habit of involving himself in the onmyouji's affairs had apparently remained while the habit of being discreet about it, he admitted wryly, had not. Yet hadn't Subaru himself seemed to waver between acceptance and denial before some pressure--his over-scrupulous work ethic? his clan's long tradition of not involving outsiders?--had driven him over the edge?
Or maybe it had been wounded pride, Seishirou mused uneasily, a need to prove something by facing danger alone, without protection. It had never occurred to him before that Subaru, no longer a child, might resent his casual interference, finding it an infringement, perhaps even an insult. The idea that Subaru, in his own mind at least, might have outgrown the old terms of their relationship stirred an unaccustomed restlessness in the pit of Seishirou's stomach, a vague tang almost like disappointment, as though something only tenuously possessed was being lost. Firmly he pushed the dim awareness aside, refocusing his attention onto Subaru. He'd have time to consider the implications of this shift later, if indeed there were any.
Subaru moved out into the open yard like a wild animal picking its way across a clearing, not frightened, but ready at any moment to react on instinct. One of his birds flew down to him, and he dismissed it almost absently, letting it flatten back into a paper talisman that fluttered toward the ground. Certainly the area's aura was tinged with enough menace that he didn't need a shikigami's help to know he was in the right vicinity. Subaru's head swiveled, scanning the yard: the blank walls with blue-shadowed snow mounded at their feet, sheltered from the sun; the neatly stacked cargo containers; the chained and padlocked sliding doors sealing the warehouses. He looked again at where the snow lay especially deep in one corner, its surface cleaner and less clumped than anywhere else. Extending his own senses, Seishirou felt a flicker of presence that Subaru must have detected as well, a muffled pulse that rose into a high, moaning howl--
The snow erupted, white lashes swelling outward in deceptively soft-looking billows. As Subaru whirled to face the source of that attack, he vanished behind a wall of blowing flakes.
With a cry, the eagle launched itself from Seishirou's shoulder and hurtled toward the yard. It carried his perceptions with it, the tumult of speed and battering crosswinds blending with the keening of psychic energy, the fierce dazzle of snow and sun. Power burst in a great flare within that contained storm's heart--warding magic, with the unique flavor of Subaru's onmyoujitsu. Banking, the eagle veered around the blizzard's periphery as Seishirou gazed through its eyes, reevaluating the threat. Densely flying snow hid Subaru from view; the forces that sustained those winds also blurred Seishirou's magical senses. Even so, he could feel the other's protective spell, a shield that burned as potently as a small star. Measuring Subaru's strength against his opponent's, Seishirou checked the eagle's flight, directing it to rise and circle once more, watching and waiting. Subaru was quite clearly the more powerful of the two. The only danger would be if he were careless--or too gentle.
A shriek of wrathful frustration rose from the storm, and its tenor shifted: an ingathering of forces for a second strike. In that lull, Seishirou sensed a complex onmyoujitsu pattern being woven; it reached its peak abruptly and then released. The spell unfolded rapidly through the space between Subaru and the snow winds' controller, a bloom of alternating ward and attack that pierced the icy gusts with ease. It struck home, and the storm surged before collapsing outward, losing cohesion as the will that held those energies was bound by the spell. The winds diminished, shedding their burdens of snow, and Subaru began to reappear, standing straight and still among the now-aimless flakes, one hand lifted in an arcane gesture. A circle of pavement around him remained perfectly clear, although the rest of the yard was rippled with drifts. In the middle of those drifts knelt his attacker, mute and trembling with fury, one of Subaru's ofuda a white, palely glowing splash upon its chest.
Seishirou faded the eagle to near-translucence and brought it to land on the long metal arm of a light fixture that jutted out above a warehouse door. He was careful not to let its shadow pass over Subaru, although he thought that Subaru was unlikely to detect it, being wrapped up in the magical working. Subaru raised his other hand, clasping it with the first before his face, and Seishirou listened through the shikigami as he began his chant.
"On sowa hamba shuda saraba taraman wa hamba shudokan."
Over and over he repeated the syllables, varying their stress and speed as he pressed at the spirit inhabiting the young man's body. He tried to coax it into evocation, tried to rouse the mind of its host against it, but for all his efforts it remained quite stubbornly ensconced. Only when he applied a gentle but intense psychic force to it was there a reaction, a drawn-out, croaking wail that stuttered from the young man's mouth. There was anguish in that cry, but also a manic glee that was almost like laughter. Subaru stopped and looked at his subject more closely.
The person who knelt there was still recognizable as the man from the photograph, but his appearance had changed dramatically. Blond hair hung lank about the once-handsome face, now gaunt, with unhealthily sallow skin drawn tight across its bones. His lips were deeply cracked and stained with what looked like old blood, and his eyes stared dully, dead but for a feverish light in their depths. He wore ragged, grimy pants and a shirt that hung open, exposing his chest and stomach, yet the cold seemed not to bother him at all. His hands were gnarled into claws, their joints swollen and stiffened. Everywhere his bones stood out as if the flesh had been scraped thin to cover them, except for his belly, which was distended like a famine victim's. Beneath the ofuda, a greenish aura pulsed, making shadows of his protruding ribs.
"Try." The sound that rose from the young man's throat was a guttural creak, but behind it there was a high-pitched, almost subliminal chittering echo, as if two voices were speaking on top of each other. "Go ahead and try! There's nothing you can do."
"It's forbidden," Subaru said quietly, "for your kind to cause suffering in this world. I have a duty to send you back to your proper place." The spirit spat a curse, and its power flared as it tried without success to break the ward. Subaru concentrated his own power through the paper talisman, pouring it into the young man's body in an effort to drive out the possessing ghost--and the man shrieked, a suddenly human sound, his body convulsing and a gout of blood spurting from his mouth. Shaken, Subaru eased the pressure of his will, although his hold upon the ward remained secure. The young man slumped, head falling onto his chest and shoulders hunching, but after a moment he straightened again. Those flat eyes glared at Subaru in feral triumph.
"You see?" he grated, voice harsh, with that undertone that sounded like screaming. "You see? You thought that you could fix it. But this is what we wanted!" And Seishirou, looking through the eagle's eyes, saw what Subaru had to see as well: an almost perfect fusion of human soul and devouring spirit, the way the gnawing emptiness of the man's loneliness and grief had welcomed in the ghost and how its never-ending hunger had consumed him, until the two existed only as part of each other. The young man bared his teeth in a skull's humorless rictus, his lips and chin freshly crimsoned with blood.
"Whether you do your job now or not--either way, you know what'll happen," he told Subaru mockingly. "So stop us if you can!" Again that staccato laughter tore itself from a once-human throat.
Subaru lowered his hand, and for a long while he just stood there, looking at the other man. The eagle sidled along the lamp's arm and bobbed up and down, but the angle prevented it from getting a good view of Subaru's face. Sunlight glittered on the snow and on the rippling waters of the bay as in the distance a passing boat signaled, two long blasts of its air horn ringing faintly off the buildings. Then Subaru raised his hand, making a definite, two-fingered gesture. As the slip of paper detached itself from the young man's chest and fluttered toward the ground, Subaru spoke, so softly that even through the eagle's preternatural senses Seishirou could barely hear him.
The man screamed, lashing both arms around himself. As the snow winds rose, white and stinging, Seishirou watched Subaru vanish behind them again. His hands closed loosely into fists. Through the eagle's eyes, he saw a flash of yin-yang magic within the storm, the intense, hot breath of fire--
Snow puffed into steam, a quick and chaotic swirl that soon slowed, those clouds wisping into tendrils and fading on the remaining breeze. Gradually Subaru's black hair appeared, then his coat. He stood motionless, staring at something that little by little came into view: a blackened object lying crumpled on the ground, a slight smoke still rising from it.
Subaru sank to his knees. Bending forward, he pressed one hand against the pavement; then, after a short interval, he lowered his head still further and began to chant. "On shira battaniri un sowaka," he whispered, the words a breathless, broken murmur, his will opening a channel into the heart of the earth that would carry the consequences of his spell, the mystical backlash, far away from him.
"On shira battaniri un sowaka."
Seishirou let the shikigami return to nothingness, careful that it depart without a cry. As he'd expected, the ghost hadn't been anything like a match for Subaru--and he'd better hurry back to where he was supposed to be waiting before Subaru finished and went to find him. He turned as if to go, but hesitated, lingering at the top of the crane to look down at that huddled figure. Subaru's pose was awkward, both arms extended stiffly, one hand locked around the other's wrist as if to drive that palm against the ground. The winter sun was slipping toward afternoon's end; the shadows of the warehouses were growing longer.
Even from this distance, he thought that he could see Subaru shaking.
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