Sakura and Snow

Chapter 14


By Natalie Baan



Passing the bedroom doorway, Seishirou glanced through it restlessly, just as he'd already done several times that morning. As before, there was no sign of motion. He paused beyond the door jamb and leaned against the wall, considering what he should do. He was on the verge of continuing on into the kitchenette and finding some other meaningless task with which to occupy himself--perhaps sorting the spice cabinet again--when abruptly he changed his mind, deciding that the situation had gone on long enough. Easing back around the doorframe, he slipped noiselessly into the bedroom.

Subaru was sitting on the floor between the bed and the wall, gazing out the wide picture window. The sill was just low enough that he could look out over it, though he probably couldn't see down to the street below. Instead, he seemed to be staring at the leaden sky, or perhaps the raindrops smearing the glass. Still but for his scarcely perceptible breathing, his arms looped around his knees, he gave no sign of having registered Seishirou's presence.

Studying Subaru, who in jeans and long-sleeved drab T-shirt seemed to have dressed to match the weather outside, Seishirou frowned. It had been almost two days since the job at the warehouse district, and for most of that time Subaru had been ill: a low-grade headache and fever that Seishirou suspected were the results of a poorly channeled magical backlash. It certainly wasn't the first time Subaru had suffered such consequences, and in this case it seemed rather likely that he'd felt some unconscious need to punish himself, considering what he'd been driven to do. Last night the fever had broken, and since then Subaru's physical health had improved, but guilt and depression were obviously still weighing him down. It was beginning to get somewhat oppressive.

"Subaru-kun, it looks like the rain's letting up." As a crowning touch, the last day and a half had been a perfect match for Subaru's low spirits, bringing a downpour that had washed away the snow, leaving the city gray and dripping. Seishirou had gone out to get the paper at one point, and by the time he'd been halfway to the newsstand he'd almost wished that he hadn't bothered. But if he and Subaru were to spend another afternoon in the apartment together without any distraction, he was sure something unpleasant would happen.

"Why don't we step out and get some air?" he went on. "We can look at the stores in Ikebukuro. And we can have lunch at that little restaurant--you know, the one with the waterfall garden that you like so much." Subaru turned his head minutely, favoring Seishirou with a bleak stare. Seishirou met that look with his most relentlessly sunny grin. One way or another, he was determined to perk Subaru up.

Getting Subaru to his feet and into coat, scarf, and gloves posed little trouble--Subaru moved as directed, only sighing faintly. On the way down in the elevator, Seishirou eyed him sidelong. Of course, karaoke was out of the question, but there had to be some form of entertainment that would distract Subaru long enough to let that dark cloud disperse. As they crossed the building's lobby and went out through the glass front door, Seishirou noted that though the rain had thinned into a mere sprinkle, the wind had picked up significantly. It drove the fine, chill drizzle sideways and into the supposed shelter of the doorway where they stood. Well, it would be better once they got down the hill. Slipping on his sunglasses--they were ridiculous in this weather, but alarming the general public would be counterproductive--he stepped out onto the sidewalk, swung up the umbrella, and opened it. The wind promptly hit him with a deviously swirling gust, nearly flipping the umbrella inside out. Seishirou spun, turning the back of the umbrella to the draft, and the wind snagged his scarf and tried to whip it away from him. Pivoting yet again, he brought the umbrella down and then up as he found the wind's true direction at last, the turn rewinding the scarf neatly around his neck. Settling the umbrella against his shoulder, he ran a hand through his hair and glanced quizzically at Subaru. "Coming, Subaru-kun?"

Subaru gave him a long, cryptic look from the doorway's refuge. Then, with a shake of his head, he moved to Seishirou's side. Seishirou switched the umbrella to the other shoulder, where it could cover them both. As they started for the station, he put his arm around Subaru, noticing some resistance, but he reasoned that the need to shelter the two of them from the rain gave him more than enough excuse for the gesture. Measuring that small tension, he decided that he could leave his arm where it was for the present. After that--well, they'd see. The day stretched out before them; surely it would be possible to seduce Subaru into forgetting those troubling memories, perhaps even into forgetting himself.

And then, who knew? Maybe they'd actually have something like a real date.


* * * * *


Seishirou let the tip of the umbrella tap the ground as he walked; he studied the profile of the other onmyouji, who had drifted a step or two ahead. At least the wind and the rain had finally stopped. On all sides, trees rose above the brown, winter-flattened grass, leafless branches almost sculptural against the sky. A few other people were moving along the park's paved walks, most apparently in a hurry to get to someplace else. That sounded like a sensible idea to Seishirou, but, glancing at Subaru again, he hesitated to say as much.

The lunch had gone well enough, but afterward Subaru had shrunk from the crowds, the noise, and the frenetic action in the stores and on the streets--almost imperceptibly, but Seishirou had noticed it. He had meant to draw Subaru out of that morass of gloom, by dint of sheer persistence if necessary. And yet....

Behind the sunglasses, his brows drew together. Nine years ago, he would have coaxed and teased and done everything in his power to divert Subaru, confident that he'd succeed and that Subaru would be happier for it. But he was growing increasingly conscious of the gap between expectation and reality, of all those places where his presumed understanding of Subaru was proving unreliable ground. Vaguely confounded and wary, he'd held back from pressing the issue, and instead he'd waited, trying to figure out what Subaru really wanted, what Subaru would be inclined to do if left to himself. After much patience, it had become apparent that what Subaru wanted was simply to walk. So they'd walked, and ridden the trains, and then walked some more, and when they'd come out into the park at last, the sky spacious and rain-fresh above them, he'd felt the subtle strain in Subaru start to release. The original melancholy still lingered, but the peace of the flowerless gardens and the koi ponds' flat, slate-slick sheen seemed to have dissolved some of Subaru's stress--and if that were so, then Seishirou supposed that he could put up with the chill, just shy of inclement dampness for a little longer. Perhaps the park's quiet would continue to have its effect, setting Subaru's heart even further at ease.

Although he was beginning to be concerned about the direction of Subaru's meanderings, despite their seeming lack of conscious intent.

A rattling, rushing noise drew him from his thoughts, and he glanced ahead and to the left, past Subaru. A half-grown brindle Akita, all enormous paws, curled tail, and lolling tongue, came galloping down a side path, a teenaged girl on rollerblades at the end of its leash, skating for all she was worth to keep up. Spotting Subaru, the dog made a right-angle turn and hurtled toward him, whipping the girl almost off her feet. She changed stride to save herself, slewed in an arc around the dog's trajectory, then saw Subaru and braked hard, which was all that saved them both from crashing to the ground in a heap. She still ran into him, but he was able to step backward and catch her by the arms, softening their collision.

"Oh!" the girl gasped. "Sorry--I'm really sorry about this!" She pulled back on the leash, trying to keep the puppy from wrapping it around Subaru's legs. Panting up at Subaru, the dog danced from one front foot to the other, clearly still excited and unrepentant. "Bad dog!"

"It's all right." Subaru let go of the girl as Seishirou came up to them. "I don't mind it." With a slight smile, he crouched, and the dog promptly planted both paws on his knees and began licking his face. It obviously hadn't yet acquired the dignity of an adult Akita. Surprised, Subaru fended it off, a small, breathless sound escaping him: an almost-laugh that took Seishirou unexpectedly back to the veterinary clinic, and to the memories of Subaru, sixteen and heedless, caught out of himself by the one thing that had always distracted him from the realities of who and what he was.

"Subaru-kun likes dogs," Seishirou remarked to the girl as she hauled the Akita back, clearly mortified. Slipping a hand under Subaru's elbow, he helped the other to rise, absently noting the wet, gritty pawprints decorating the white coat's front. Still smiling a little, Subaru raised one arm, wiping his cheek on his sleeve.

"That's lucky, I guess." The girl continued reeling in the dog, not an easy task while balanced on skates. She was wearing some atrocity of teenaged fashion that didn't look anywhere near warm enough for the weather. Her dark hair was pulled into childlike pigtails and intensely silvered sunglasses covered her eyes. She barely reached Seishirou's chest, even on wheels. "Usually he jumps on the people who don't. Anyway, thanks for being cool about it."

"Not a problem. Right, Subaru-kun?" Grinning, Seishirou took blatant advantage of the moment and wrapped his arm around Subaru. The girl gave them a second look, then smirked, one slim eyebrow arching above her glasses.

"Whatever." Subaru had stiffened, quicker on the uptake than he'd once been, but if he felt the urge to bolt, he resisted it. "Well, you guys have fun--come on, Satoru!" The dog barked as she tugged it after her, but almost immediately it was diverted and seemed to forget all about them. Girl and dog went on down the path, rapidly regaining speed, until they vanished around a stand of rhododendrons. Subaru gazed after them briefly, and then turned, escaping from Seishirou's arm as he started walking again.

"Cute dog," Seishirou commented as he matched stride with Subaru. "Cute girl, too." He slid his arm around Subaru once more. Subaru's reply was monosyllabic, the younger man barely tolerating the contact, but Seishirou had already decided that he'd been well-behaved for long enough. "Say, did you notice her earring?"


"It was a yin-yang earring." Seishirou smiled privately. "Subaru-kun, what if I got you one like that? I think you'd look really stylish with your ear pierced." Walking his fingers up Subaru's neck, he teased at one earlobe; Subaru twitched his shoulders, jerking his head aside. Irrepressible, Seishirou let that hand creep down again, sneaking under Subaru's arm to tweak at his chest. "Or maybe your--"

"Seishirou-san!" Outraged or simply embarrassed, Subaru squirmed away. Seishirou put on his most innocently surprised expression, inwardly chuckling at the response to his perfectly ridiculous suggestion--but Subaru had frozen, staring past him as if light were being stolen from those green eyes, leaving them gazing into growing shadow.

"This place...."

Ah, Seishirou breathed to himself, but said nothing out loud, let no sign of his sudden alertness show, even though Subaru seemed almost to have forgotten his presence. He'd been wondering whether Subaru's drifting had been intentional after all, or whether Subaru had really been so lost in reflection that they might have walked right past this spot without him even noticing. Apparently, neither was exactly the case. Certainly Subaru sensed the magic that pooled not far from where they stood, but the flat, fractured shock in his eyes suggested that though he recognized its aura he hadn't been prepared to meet it on their little walk--yet that meeting it was also an inevitability in some respect: a haunting that was unlooked for but exquisitely appropriate to his currently macabre state of mind.

After all, what better symbol of death and his own failure to prevent it could he possibly imagine?

Subaru started forward, leaving the path, seemingly oblivious to the sodden ground squelching under his sneakers. Hooking the umbrella over one arm, Seishirou followed, a couple of steps behind and to the side. He removed his sunglasses, reaching beneath scarf and overcoat to slip them into his breast pocket, the better to watch Subaru as they passed among the tree trunks' irregular columns, shadowless beneath the clouded sky. They came to where the trees began to thin once more, allowing glimpses of the rolling lawn beyond. Another loop of path bracketed the grove on that side, and Seishirou spotted the bench next to an unlit streetlight where Subaru had waited on that snowy night, not so long ago. In a clear space, one tree, far larger than the rest, stretched out knurled, heavy branches without competition. Its roots clenched the small rise beneath it like fingers knotted into the soil.

Subaru stopped short, staring at the sakura tree.

Pausing, Seishirou studied the reaction: the frozen yet graceful stance, as though Subaru might leap from that paralysis at any provocation; the lost look of a person trapped between past pain and awareness of an all-too-present danger. Silently he circled Subaru, prowling in a widening arc that curved gradually closer to the tree. As he came around the back of the trunk, a metallic glint caught his eye--he spied a beer can perched in the crotch of one of the lower branches, and the corner of his mouth quirked.

Hey, maybe it's petty, but you could rouse yourself to prevent this kind of thing, he suggested wryly, feeling the tree's drowsy acknowledgment of his presence brushing about him like unseen wings. People these days--no thought at all for the spirit of a place.

Oh, well.

That's the way the world is, isn't it.

Reaching up, he seized the can in one gloved hand. Almost idly he crushed it in his fist--


--across the city, a bicyclist clutched at a twinge in his chest--he wavered, felt tires losing their grip on wet pavement, a skid--


Turning and taking a long stride from the tree, Seishirou lobbed the can at a trash basket next to the bench. It struck the rim and glanced high, spinning, throwing off a mirror-bright flash before it fell--


--and at the park's southernmost end, a scatter of pigeons tumbled from the sky, plummeting in blood and feathers onto a shrine's steps as members of a school trip, late going home, looked up and pointed, crying out--


Recollecting himself, Seishirou darted a glance at Subaru. Subaru could certainly have detected that working, brief and camouflaged though it had been, but he still gazed blankly at the sakura, his mind clearly far adrift. Slowly Seishirou moved back to the tree's side. He looked Subaru over with intense thoroughness, somehow seeing the other whole and in all different facets at the same time, a curious conjunction of views: a pale figure that almost seemed to shed light against thickening shadows; a young man standing spellbound before forces of memory and recognition, the understanding of what this barrow meant to human beings in general and to himself in particular; an outsider there despite that knowing, unique in having disturbed the centuries-long pattern of death, foreign and yet desirable; a magician of impressive ability, a wounded heart constantly in surrender, a now-familiar warmth lying against Seishirou in the darkness, a slim hand folded into his, a rare smile....

Standing on the cherry tree barrow, the locus of the Sakurazukamori's power, with the tree's awakening stirring through his mind like a midnight wind, Seishirou looked at Subaru. It was as though everything was stopping down into perfect, motionless clarity, like a drop of water freezing on an icicle. He could see Subaru with total lucidity, a perspective that was intimate and yet far removed, Subaru as both lover and stranger, alive at the very center of his world.

He saw the white coat flushed with blood....

He could smell it, could feel the fluid, sticky warmth, the clutch of dying fingers, could see the emotions of those green eyes tinged with shock, just like every other victim's. He knew exactly what it would be like to close the circle of the moment and make that extraordinary sensation of encounter absolute. Forming his hand into a loose fist, he slid his fingers against each other. He looked again into Subaru's distracted face.

"Are you frightened, Subaru-kun?"

Subaru's eyes didn't turn, but something shifted inside them, like paper screens sliding across one another. "Yes."

"There's nothing to be afraid of." Smiling, he held out his hand, his words a low, caressing murmur of command. "Come here."

Like somebody in a dream, Subaru started forward, walking over that mounded earth troubled with bones. He halted in front of Seishirou, an arm's length from the tree. Its brooding sentience swirled about them, lapping at their auras. Subaru hesitated, then reached out, resting his palm against the silvery bark.

"It's tired," he whispered.


"The tree. It's tired, isn't it?" Surprised, Seishirou touched the tree's presence and felt its weight: the heaviness of centuries of existence, the force of all those bound and ravaged souls. Layers of magic and death draped its limbs, enfolding it like an accretion of ceremonial kimono.

"Yes," he answered slowly. "I suppose it is."

"Mm." Subaru remained as he was for another moment, and then eased forward. Running his hand along the flank of the tree, he slid his other arm around the trunk. Seishirou stared as Subaru stepped onto a knot in one of the roots and settled against the sakura. Closing his eyes, Subaru turned his face to the side, pressing his cheek to the bark.

Mine? the tree asked hopefully.

No, Seishirou collected himself enough to say, with slightly more force than necessary, mine. For now, anyway.

The tree seemed to think about that.

Yours, it agreed at last, and Seishirou let out a breath, releasing surprise along with a tension he'd scarcely registered until that instant. Almost numbly, he watched Subaru lean into the tree. He felt a dim precariousness, as though even the breeze that had begun to stir his hair and the tree's thinnest branches might be dangerous, as though a thought could disturb the situation, tipping it toward something he couldn't yet see. But the feeling was obscure, and as he stood gazing at Subaru and the sakura it remained so: an unfocused wariness, a sense of something just out of view. It gave every detail of the scene an odd acuity. His eye traced Subaru's profile, the long lines of the white coat, the arm that curved gently around the sakura's trunk.

Finally Subaru swayed back from the tree again, releasing it with a small caress. He stepped down off the root. Seishirou beckoned mutely, and Subaru turned, his expression still inward and thoughtful. As they began to walk away together, matching pace in silence, without touching, the tree's voice unfurled once more. When? it demanded of Seishirou, a whisper that fragmented into restless echoes, rippling and snapping like a sea of banners. When?

Soon, Seishirou answered, and felt a flicker of the same prescience of the end that had touched him just a couple of days before, on the drive to the warehouse district. As then, disquiet shadowed it, a hairsbreadth sharper this time, a cold edge licking at the back of his mind. The tree's spirit flared, either impatient with hunger or reacting to that uneasy twinge, and he exerted his will upon it, lulling it back toward sleep.

Before much longer, it will all be over.

As the sakura's presence faded into slumber behind them, he glanced at Subaru. What was it that kept on niggling at him? The recognition of yet another lost opportunity, the unparalleled end to their love affair that he'd just let slip by? It would have been easy, and so very fitting, he mused, to have stopped Subaru's heart in the place of their first meeting, that pure sympathy having come full circle, creating perfect closure with the past. On the other hand, he'd already made his decision to wait until the final day; there was no point in second-guessing. He shrugged. Perhaps that out-of-joint feeling was simply the thwarted habit of killing, like the edginess of missing a smoke.

Or perhaps it was the fact that there weren't going to be so many more opportunities, that the time until the end had indeed grown short.

He stared at the ground before him, wet, brown grass lying thinly over the dirt.

"So am I," Subaru murmured, after they'd walked for a while, long enough to come out from under the trees and start down the curving side path. Seishirou looked at him once more, this time in question. "Tired, sometimes. As though I've seen too much."

Putting aside his own thoughts, Seishirou focused on Subaru, seeing them finally about to approach what had to lie at the heart of Subaru's somber mood. "Subaru-kun," he said quietly, hiding his intentness behind a facade of calm, "had you ever killed someone before?"

"People have died." Subaru stared into the distance, his gaze dark and haunted. "'s not the same."

"You did what was necessary." Seishirou shifted his shoulders, pushed the umbrella back into the crook of one elbow. He kept his voice attentive but neutral. "You were protecting other people from something that seemed human but no longer was. Who could blame you because there wasn't any better way to do that?"

"Seishirou-san--" The word and the breath that had carried it both choked off into silence. Subaru's face closed in misery, the green eyes squeezing shut--and somehow, watching that convulsive expression, Seishirou could almost hear the questions that hadn't been spoken.

What is it like for you?

What is it like to be someone who does this again and again?

How do you live?

Questions that Subaru knew better than to ask him--questions he didn't know how to answer in any way that could offer comfort, or even understanding. He felt once more that gulf between them--he felt it as he felt magic, an intuition striking someplace deep inside. It was a gap between vastly differing perceptions and experiences, an alienness to each other that mocked all his easy words and casual encroachments as nothing but the most superficial of encounters.

And how could anything he might say, truth or lie, help him to reach across that?

Their steps fell in slow cadence on the concrete path, and for some reason he felt each stride with peculiar distinctness, the jar of his foot against the pavement seeming to resonate with that hollow, oddly empty feeling. Subaru thrust both hands into the pockets of his coat, huddling it around himself. Seishirou hesitated, then almost tentatively reached out, easing his arm about the other's shoulders. He drew Subaru nearer, and after a beat of unresponsiveness, Subaru exhaled and swayed unexpectedly against him, yielding this time to the embrace. As Subaru turned toward him just a fraction, Seishirou lowered his head, bringing his cheek closer to that fragrant dark hair. It occurred to him, in a flash of inexplicable realization, that it was always this side that Subaru walked on--that no matter what Subaru was careful to place himself to the left, where he could be seen. The discovery of that minute but unfailing gesture gave Seishirou a twinge of surprise and strange pleasure, so acute as to be like a little pain. They continued on like that, mindful of every step, so that their light contact remained unbroken. Side brushed side, and Subaru's hand crept up to close around Seishirou's fingers, as if to affirm Subaru's presence there, tucked into the circle of his arm. The street lamps along the path came on as they moved in the general direction of one of the park's exits, circular pools of light that seemed pale at first but grew stronger as the grey day sank toward night. The pointed crown of a torii floated over the trees ahead of them, black against the steadily darkening sky.

As they went through that gate and started down the steps to the sidewalk, a distant jingle of music plucked at Seishirou's attention. The sound came and went above the street noise, just at the edge of hearing. In the stop-and-go of picking their way through the growing crowd, he caught a glimpse of its source: an open-fronted store ablaze with strands of colored brilliance, a confusion of gilt and glitter on the other side of the road. The lights and the cheerful tune teased a recollection to the surface of his mind; curious, he counted the passing of days and was mildly surprised by the result. As they passed other frenetic gift shops and sidewalk vendors, an appealing idea began to take shape. He held off from taking action, though, until they had crossed the street and were almost at the entrance to the train station.

"Ah!" he exclaimed then, softly, dismay coloring his tone. "Subaru-kun, I forgot!" Stopping, he turned Subaru toward himself. "There's something I have to take care of. I wonder, will you be okay going home by yourself?" He gazed into Subaru's somewhat bewildered face with an anxious expression--he'd never remembered to put his sunglasses back on, he realized--aware that it wasn't the best moment for one of these escapes and hoping that Subaru wouldn't be put off by it. Subaru stared, but then a glint of recognition and understanding caught light in those green eyes: a familiar look, forbearing and ever so slightly amused.


Smiling, Subaru glanced aside as Seishirou leaned even nearer, close enough that his breath touched Subaru's forehead as he murmured, "I won't be long at all--and I'll bring something for dinner." Subaru nodded, hesitant but still not flinching from the intimacy. On all sides, people flooded in and out of the station, a torrent parting about the quiet place that the two of them made. After a moment, Subaru swayed back and turned, slanting a last look over his shoulder before making for the station stairs. Absently Seishirou watched Subaru's slender form, the dark head drifting through the oblivious crowd, until the other had vanished from view. Then he bestirred himself with a shake of his own head and a grin.

He'd better hurry about his errands if he was going to keep his word to Subaru.


* * * * *


Seishirou burst into the apartment. "I'm home!" he called. Parking his now-dry umbrella in its stand, he dumped the bag of take-out food on the raised section of floor and started getting out of his coat and scarf.

"Welcome ba--" Subaru halted in the bedroom doorway, eyes wide as he stared at Seishirou, who was juggling a large, gold-wrapped, and beribboned package in one arm while trying to shrug the other out of its heavy sleeve. Seishirou grinned at Subaru's open-mouthed astonishment. Getting himself untangled from his winter wear at last, he hung it up, kicked off his shoes, and stepped up onto the floor. He strode over to Subaru and wound his free arm about the other's shoulders, pulling him in close for a quick but enthusiastic kiss. Then he shifted back, slipping the gift box into Subaru's hands.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured tenderly.

"Ch- Christmas--"

"Well, actually it's Christmas Eve--but why wait? I thought we could celebrate just as well tonight." Catching the still-stunned Subaru by both present-carrying arms, Seishirou drew him over to the couch and pushed him down onto it. "Go ahead," he urged. "Open it!" Coiling next to Subaru, he watched with barely controlled impatience as Subaru fumbled off the red and gold silk ribbon, then fingered the gilt paper, looking for the taped-up seam. Carefully Subaru unwrapped the present, folding the paper before laying it down on the coffee table; he lifted off the box lid, and Seishirou had to restrain the impulse to take it away so that they could get to the good part more quickly. Finally Subaru was rustling aside the white sheets of tissue paper, he was reaching between them to pull out his gift....

"It's...a sweater?"

"Try it on!" Seishirou watched avidly as Subaru's arms found their way into the sweater's sleeves and he drew it on over his head. The sweater was that rich burgundy that looked so striking against Subaru's coloring; it was made of finest cashmere, soft as eiderdown. Subaru's hands slid across it, smoothing it over his chest and stomach, and Seishirou reached to tug at one shoulder that didn't lay quite right. "Too big?" he wondered.

"No, it's perfect, it's--" Subaru's fingers closed on the silky wool. His eyes rose to meet Seishirou's, luminous with distress. "Seishirou-san, I didn't get you anything!"

"Hush." Leaning forward, Seishirou laid one finger against Subaru's lips. "Not another word. I won't have you unhappy on what should be a festive occasion. And besides," he added, bending nearer, smiling as he pressed Subaru back against the cushions, his weight settling onto Subaru little by little, "I'm sure you'll find some way to make it up to me." He stroked Subaru's stomach through the thin, luxurious cloud of cashmere as he lowered his head to nuzzle at the other's throat. "Eventually."

" mean the obvious?" Subaru's murmur was tinged with amusement. He touched one cool hand to Seishirou's face, redirecting it toward his own. Gladly Seishirou let himself be diverted, and there followed a long, pleasurable interval of kissing, Subaru stretching and shifting beneath him in ardent response. At last Seishirou sat back with a small sigh, gazing into his lover's radiant, slightly flushed face.

He supposed it was really too soon to be taking the sweater off Subaru.

"I guess we'd better eat before the food gets cold," he said. "Do you want some tea?" At the other's smiling nod, he pushed himself off Subaru, somehow reluctant to let that closeness fade. As he headed for the kitchenette, he suggested, "Why don't we eat on the couch tonight?" and Subaru, making an acquiescent sound, rose to collect the abandoned bag of take-out. Seishirou watched him begin to lay out containers on the coffee table, order and grace in every unselfconscious movement, and then smiled faintly.

For some reason, the intimacy of dinner on the couch seemed more appealing than their usual arrangement of sitting at the counter on stools.

As he finished filling the tea kettle and turned to set it on the range, he saw Subaru get up again and wander over to him. He thought Subaru was in search of utensils, but instead Subaru just leaned on the end of the counter, watching him in easy silence. Seishirou opened the cabinet to get the cups, and from the corner of his eye he saw Subaru glance downward, one hand stroking the front of the sweater, before Subaru's lips curved once more in a small, private smile.

"Subaru-kun," and those lowered eyes lifted to his, immediately and quite gratifyingly attentive, "did you really forget about Christmas?" At Subaru's abashed look, Seishirou chuckled. "Well, well. What would Hokuto-chan say? I remember what a big deal she used to make about it." Hokuto had never been one to let any kind of special occasion go to waste, and so naturally the single Christmas he'd spent with the twins had been a whirlwind of gifts, decorations, and, of course, fabulously outrageous costumes. He glanced at Subaru, touched by old habits of caution, but Subaru seemed undisturbed, only perhaps a little saddened by those memories. It was odd--Seishirou knew that he should avoid the delicate subject of Subaru's dead sister, but for some reason being able to mention her felt right, as though she was yet another link that bound them together, rather than a barrier standing between them. And indeed, the melancholy in Subaru's eyes was paired with wistful happiness, as if he could at last enjoy some memories of the good times they'd shared without being drowned in tragedy. Wanting to turn Subaru's thoughts even further from the past's dark corners, Seishirou added musingly, "I wonder, did the two of you have nice Christmases together when you were children?"

"Not while we were living with our grandmother," Subaru replied. "She didn't believe in celebrating foreign holidays. But when we were very little, before we were sent to be trained by her, we were passed from house to house among our distant relatives. I don't remember much, because I was so young, but I remember one year there was a Christmas tree. It was full of lights and things that sparkled." Closing his eyes, Subaru rocked forward on his elbows again. He hugged his arms around himself, his smile echoing the joy and wonder of the child he'd been. "It was so pretty. I never forgot it."

"Mmm." The kettle was beginning to vibrate as the water approached boiling. Seishirou scooped tea into the strainer and suspended it inside the teapot.

"Did...did you celebrate Christmas? When you were growing up?" Seishirou hesitated, looking at the glint of light on the kettle instead of meeting Subaru's tentative, questioning gaze. Then he smiled, almost despite himself.

"Mother loved beautiful things," he admitted. "She had a collection of crystal ornaments all over the house, and at Christmas she put up lights and decorations everywhere. I think she used to overdo it a bit, though. We'd find tinsel in the carpet all year long." He glanced at Subaru's expression, which was rapt with interest. "Subaru-kun, you don't remember your mother at all, do you?"

"No, I was just a baby when she passed away. And our father died before Hokuto and I were born." Was it that vacancy in Subaru's life that made him curious about Seishirou's family, the fact that he'd known only the impersonal weight of his own clan's honor and prestige without the counterbalance of parental affection? Or was it, as Subaru had mentioned once, simply a wish to know things that touched upon his lover? The kettle began to whistle, and Seishirou lifted it off the stove.

"My father was in the Self Defense Force," he remarked, pouring the hot water into the teapot, "so we didn't get to see him much. He was always being transferred all over the country, while we stayed at home. But he'd visit us whenever he got leave. I remember him as a big man--though it might have just been that I was small at the time--with dark hair, always laughing. Of course, I never got to know him well. Mother killed him when I was about six or so."


Sei-chan, come here. I have something to show you.


He felt as much as heard the other's breath of shock, and he brought the kettle's spout up quickly, stopping the flow of water into the pot. What on earth had he been thinking, telling Subaru that? Disturbed, he set the kettle down, his fingers resting lightly on its handle and his mind blank for an instant, struck by the realization that there was no way to unsay those words. Sensing that Subaru was searching his face, anxiously trying to catch his gaze, he smiled finally, a rueful twitch of his lips. He couldn't understand why he'd let such an admission escape him, but he supposed it didn't matter as long as he could keep Subaru from dwelling on it.

"Sei- Seishirou-san!"

"Subaru-kun, don't feel sorry about this," he said, as gently as possible. "Truly, it was a long time ago--and as I said, I never really knew him. It wasn't like an ordinary child losing a father." Indeed, it was highly probable that the man he'd been told was his father was no real relation at all, just as the woman he'd called "Mother" hadn't been his birth mother. In any case, it made not the slightest difference to him who they'd been or that they were dead, and it seemed ridiculous that something so insignificant should cast a pall over what had begun as a thoroughly enjoyable evening. He could still feel Subaru's attention on him, though, distraught and intense. He wondered what he could do about that.

"But you know, there is something that's bothering me," he murmured at last. Turning, he leaned on the counter too. He looked full into Subaru's face with a dismay that matched the other's own.

"What are we going to do for our Christmas tree?"


* * * * *


The ivy wasn't quite lost in the middle of the coffee table: a splash of dark green, crinkled leaves amidst the empty take-out containers. Candlelight glinted on the gift ribbon that was twined about it and on the gold paper that mercifully swathed its decorative pot almost to the ears. Eyes half-lidded so that those motionless flames were haloed and soft, Seishirou lay draped over Subaru, his head on the slight rise of the Subaru's chest, the cashmere sweater plush against his cheek. Subaru's hand was stroking his hair, and Seishirou sighed, enjoying the culmination of a very pleasurable evening: the savor of good food, Subaru's lean warmth fitted against him, and the quite satisfactory way that everything had resolved itself, the shadows that had troubled their relationship for the past few days finally eclipsed by a glow of contentment.

"Seishirou-san," Subaru whispered, close by his ear, "are you happy?"

"Why shouldn't I be?" Subaru's fingers hesitated and then resumed their motion, as if Subaru had been going to say something but had thought the better of it. Seishirou closed his eyes, but a flicker of restlessness stirred in him, spoiling his almost drowsy repose. He'd avoided giving a direct answer to Subaru's question; he suspected that Subaru had noticed and was deliberately refraining from comment. That complicity disturbed him--he ought to find some more reassuring response, whether it was true or not. Yet he faltered, momentarily confused.

Was this "happiness"?

"Subaru-kun--" He stopped, surprised and vaguely annoyed with himself. The tone of the word was wrong, not the casual caress that it ought to be, but instead low and just a shade too taut. Subaru murmured quizzically, the sound a small vibration against the side of Seishirou's face. He should make some outrageous comment to cover his mistake, but he lay still, groping after what he'd wanted to ask about and yet couldn't quite put a shape to, even inside his own mind.

"Do you love me?" he said at last.

"Yes." Subaru's voice was quiet and supremely certain. If he wondered about the question, he gave no sign. "I love you."

"Why?" Twisting around, Seishirou raised himself to gaze into Subaru's eyes. Subaru blinked up at him, serenity gradually shifting toward puzzlement.

"Because...because you're you."

That, Seishirou thought, was a most unhelpful answer. He drew a smile across his face, a guard against letting his irritation show. "But what do you love about me?" he insisted, adding more flippantly, "Is it my looks? My personality? My incredible sex appeal?" He'd figured out eventually what Subaru's joke had been about, that night of the apartment building fire, and since then he'd taken every opportunity to tweak Subaru for it, albeit gently. It was astounding enough that Subaru had developed a sense of humor at all, let alone about that, that he couldn't help coming back to it again and again.

Coloring, Subaru squirmed and unwound his arms from Seishirou, drawing them in close to his chest. He lowered his gaze, studying his fingertips as they played against each other in nervous embarrassment. "Well...I don't know. I couldn't say what exactly." The words were a meaningless murmur, self-conscious and inarticulate, and although Seishirou realized that he shouldn't have expected anything else from the shy onmyouji, he found himself inexplicably disappointed. Glancing up once more, Subaru looked directly into Seishirou's eyes and fell silent, his expression becoming thoughtful and, oddly, almost pained. Faced with that long, searching look, Seishirou grew aware of the uncharacteristic nakedness of his own gaze. No wonder Subaru seemed disquieted. He should break the awkward mood, should look away before he let slip any more than he already had, but he was suddenly, acutely conscious of Subaru's solidity underneath him, of Subaru's lips still parted, breath caught in concentration. He was aware of a minute ache inside himself, not hunger, not was like the twinge of loneliness, but why should he be lonely in the presence of his lover? It made no sense to him at all. He'd thought that this was what he'd been looking for, and it was, but still he wanted...he wanted....

Subaru's fingers touched his cheek, and he blinked, startled out of that tangle of thoughts and instincts. He looked down into Subaru's candlelit face.

"I love...I love your smile. No, all your different smiles." The whispered words were hesitant, as if groping their way through a labyrinth, Subaru struggling to put into language the things his feeling heart simply knew. "I love the way you touch me, the way you hold me near." Subaru's other hand closed lightly onto Seishirou's, thumb sliding back and forth across his fingers almost unconsciously. "When you do that in front of other people...I feel as if I'm going to break apart. Because I want it so much that it hurts."

Subaru's gaze slipped sideways, looking past him. "And I love the way you hear me when I speak, the way you understand the things that no one else can. But it's not only that. It's that it's you, here: this one particular person listening, this presence that I know so well--" He broke off, his eyes shifting back to Seishirou's. After a moment, he added gravely, almost as an afterthought, "None of those things have changed."

A hush followed Subaru's rather extraordinary little speech, and Seishirou started out of his fascination to realize that he was hovering above Subaru like a hunting bird poised in the infinite, timeless instant just before the dive, so still that he wasn't even breathing. His lungs were starting to complain about the lack of air. Sighing, he relaxed, letting a smile soften his face despite the discontent that still twisted at him. None of those things had changed, true, but there were plenty of others that had since he'd revealed his real identity, and for all that Subaru might find acceptable or even attractive about him now, he'd felt unspoken judgment coloring those words. It was inevitable, he supposed, that Subaru would feel drawn to those parts of himself that recalled the kindly veterinarian Subaru had first fallen in love with, but it didn't help to disperse the cloud that had somehow fallen over his evening. He decided it was time to change the subject.

"Ah, now you're embarrassing me with all this flattery!" he teased. "Maybe you should start listing my faults next, to bring me back down to earth." Subaru gave him a sidelong look, and Seishirou stared at the familiar glint in those green eyes. He'd expected dismay and protests, a confusion that Subaru would be glad to be distracted from, but surely Subaru wasn't about to--

"Well," Subaru murmured, tilting his head to one side and appearing to give the matter deep consideration, "you're arrogant.'re vain."

Dumbfounded, Seishirou could only blink at Subaru. "Vain?"

"Yes, you are." For some reason, this seemed to amuse Subaru; his smile quirked the corners of his mouth and filled his eyes with that dancing, seemingly starlit shimmer. "You're always preening."

"Subaru-kun, I don't think--"

"You're patient with things just exactly as long as they please you, and when they no longer do then you're immediately ready to set them aside." Subaru's voice rose just enough to override his, though its gentle tone remained unaltered. That still-smiling gaze held Seishirou's evenly, a calm challenge in its directness.

After a few moments of surprise, Seishirou recollected himself enough to remark, with a sly grin, "You know, you forgot one." Lowering his eyes from the quizzical look that made Subaru appear so innocent, he touched one fingertip to the point of the sweater's crewnecked collar. From there, he stroked downward over the smooth planes of Subaru's chest until he was pressing lightly against the breastbone. "'Cold-blooded assassin.'"

"No. I didn't forget." In spite of himself, Seishirou's gaze leaped back up to Subaru's. The other's eyes were deep and profoundly still. "But then, you knew that already. I thought it might be good to tell you something that you might not know."

And as Seishirou was trying to decide whether he was being mocked or not, Subaru hesitated and then sighed. Shifting position, he ran one hand up Seishirou's arm to the shoulder, a slow touch that made Seishirou's hairs rise and heightened the prickle of adrenaline beneath his skin. His muscles tensed.

"That's why it's so hard to answer a question like this," Subaru murmured. He looked at his own slender fingers as he spread them in a fan against Seishirou's white shirt. "To say that I love this or that part of a person--because a person can't be divided into pieces like that, some to keep and others to be thrown away. It's's like saying that a person can only be one thing or the other: that an assassin can't also be gentle, or that a someone whose work is to protect other people can't be selfish inside his own heart." Rolling that hand around to the back of Seishirou's shoulder, he slid the other one up Seishirou's side--he drew Seishirou down with a gentle persistence that Seishirou gave in to almost dazedly. There was something very wrong about the entire situation, something that he just couldn't seem to grasp. His cheek came to rest against Subaru's shoulder, Subaru's fingers cupping the back of his head, twining into his hair.

"I love Seishirou-san," Subaru whispered, tightening his arms around Seishirou, as if those few words were the counter to every confusion, every conflict. Seishirou stared blankly at the corner of the rug, its gold and black patterns blurring in the candlelight.

"But Subaru-kun," he murmured, a weak place in Subaru's assurances becoming apparent to him at last, "I'm not gentle."

"I watch you," and those words were a breath against his hair, a faint hum where their bodies came together chest to chest, a quiet thunder of agitation rising in his pulse. "I always watch you. In the little things, the way you tend the plants, the way you wash the dishes or do the chores, I see the care that you take." Subaru exhaled, a tiny shiver of contracting muscles. It felt almost like a laugh. "You're always gentle, except when you choose not to be."

Subaru was wrong--Seishirou was certain of that. After all, "gentle" wasn't a word that ought to describe the Sakurazukamori. But then, everything Subaru had said all evening long had been exactly the same. Those structures of fragile logic seemed to hold together on the surface but cracked like the thinnest ice whenever Seishirou tried to grasp them, to fit them into his own understanding. Still, for the merest instant, he made the attempt. He let his mind rest hesitantly against the peculiar thought to see if it would support any weight.

To see if he might be...if he could possibly be....


--dream of a golden sky splintering, little pieces breaking away from it like glass--

--like pain--


His entire body jerked before he'd even realized it was going to do that. He clenched his already tensed back and shoulders against the tremor, his fingers digging into the couch cushion. For what seemed like a crawling eternity his mind went blank; then he wrenched it back to the present, forcing himself to relax into Subaru's embrace. He lay motionless for a couple of seconds, recollecting himself, before he allowed the breath that had gotten caught inside his lungs to escape him in a dry, quiet chuckle. Another deliberate pause, and he pushed himself off Subaru, feeling the other's arms loosen around him, slackening just enough to let him go.

"If you say so, Subaru-kun."

Straightening, he looked down into Subaru's face, noting concern, an unspoken question and the shy considerateness that kept Subaru from asking it, affection, and a dozen other less definable things. For himself, though, there was just the brisk, bright clarity of intense alertness, a vibrancy that remained as confusion faded, as though all his senses had been roused.

Perhaps that was one of the reasons he liked to gaze so long and deeply into Subaru's glass-green eyes, he thought, smiling. He reached out, brushing his fingertips against Subaru's cheek, and Subaru's dark lashes lowered, his head turning in answer to that caress.

Perhaps it was the tantalizing danger of having those eyes gaze back at him with full knowledge of who and what he was: the baffling, intoxicating conundrum of this person, both enemy and lover, who saw him as no other ever had.

Even if what Subaru saw was...very strange.

Seishirou hesitated, then half-shook his head. Leaning forward, he touched Subaru's forehead with his lips, putting the last echoes of disquiet out of his mind. Instead, he marveled once more at what he had let himself in for, allowing Subaru to come so close to him. It was lunacy, of that he had no doubt. Nevertheless....

"Come on," he murmured, "let's clean up and then call it a night."


* * * * *


Seishirou flicked off the bathroom light and stepped out into the already darkened bedroom. As his sight adjusted, he noticed Subaru standing transfixed in front of the picture window, an intent black silhouette. Curious, he walked over, picking his way easily around the plant stand, even in the room's deep shadows. Stopping close behind Subaru, he could feel that his presence was noticed, although the other didn't turn to look at him. "What is it?"

"Look, the clouds have broken. The weather's cleared." Resting both palms against the window's crossbars, Subaru leaned nearer to the glass. Outside, the rooftops of the neighboring apartment buildings marched down the hill, disappearing into the darkness beneath the waning moon, while in the distance the lights of Shinjuku's skyscrapers glittered, a kaleidoscope mesh of stars strung across the night. "Look," Subaru whispered again, half to himself and half to Seishirou, "look at all the lights. Sometimes...isn't this city beautiful?"

"Mm." After another pensive minute, Subaru pushed away from the window and straightened, almost brushing against Seishirou. Automatically Seishirou reached out to draw the two of them even closer, Subaru's head inclining onto his shoulder as they swayed together. They remained like that, watching the shimmering skyline as if it existed solely for them, as if the city and the moment that held them would never end. It was an illusion, Seishirou knew, part of the false peace that they had invented for themselves, but still he found it obscurely satisfying. He followed the slow, tidal rhythms of Subaru's breath, repeating and repeating against him, and he wondered about that mood of tranquility.

After a little while, he simply gave up wondering.

"Seishirou-san," Subaru murmured at last, his words hesitating into the silence, tentative as snowflakes, "that time when the woman's suit got possessed. Afterward, when we were all driving home you remember?"


But I love this Tokyo, Seishirou said.

Because it's the only city on this Earth that's "enjoying" walking the road to destruction.


Smiling, Seishirou lowered his face into the midnight of Subaru's hair, feeling Subaru shift in response to him, the onmyouji warm and yielding in his embrace. "Yes. I remember." "Love" was of course inaccurate--"interest" was probably closer, a fascination with the city's excesses that was not unlike his attraction to Subaru--but he supposed that what he'd said nine years ago had been true, in its way. "And you, Subaru-kun," he returned, amused, "do you love Tokyo?"

"Yes," Subaru answered, "'s the place where I met you."

Surprised, Seishirou looked down onto the intricate curves of one ear, a cheek's pale, highlighted contour, all that he could really see of Subaru from behind and in near darkness. Then he laughed, sliding his hands down to Subaru's hips and turning Subaru around. "Then let's make tonight yet another reason for 'loving Tokyo,'" he murmured, adding in a teasing whisper, "Besides, isn't it time for me to unwrap my present?" He bent forward, his mouth and Subaru's discovering each other easily, finding their way by touch, by breath, by a shared will.


In the dark room, two shadows moved before the face of the large picture window, slowly rising and falling on the bed in shapes and rhythms of desire, while beyond them the city's lights continued to shine with unceasing steadiness, countless tiny stars adorning the night.




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