Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
Seishirou's eyes opened onto radiant space, a pale, golden infinity cupped above him like the dome of the sky. He was lying on his back, staring straight up into it. He blinked, then turned over and pushed himself up onto one arm, the sheet and blanket that covered him sliding down his bare chest to his waist. That lustrous, unvarying emptiness stretched away on every side. Next to him, on the mattress that seemed to be the only solid point of location, Subaru lay curled around a pillow, breathing with slow evenness. Leaning over Subaru's shoulder, Seishirou stroked one finger down the other's cheek, probing the depth of that slumber. Then he lifted his head and smiled at the bright air in front of him.
"As always, it's a pleasure to see you, Kanoe-san."
A thread of darkness split the gold, widened into a spindle shape. From its center, a long and shapely white leg emerged, followed shortly by the rest of the Angels' ally and one-time Dreamgazer, who, if nothing else, surely knew how to make an entrance. The black void that she stepped from seemed to slide along with her, adhering to her body as she left it to become a flowing, clinging, high-slit dress. She moved forward, raising one hand to brush back her hair, intricate earrings chiming as she inclined her head. The sound fell into the echoless dreaming, tiny notes of teasingly remote and flawless clarity. "Sakurazuka-san," she murmured. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
"Indeed." The woman glided closer, high-heeled shoes silent on the nonexistent floor, a whisper of cloth against itself and another faint ring from her jewelry the only noise of her approach. "I've been rather busy."
"I can see why." The words were a throaty purr, as though unvoiced laughter lay just behind them. Kanoe poured herself onto the mattress, drawing up one leg with deliberate languor, her dress parting around it once more to reveal a long curve of thigh. "So this is the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan." Bending forward, she eyed Subaru with mildly carnivorous interest. "Quite a treasure."
"Look all you like." His smile still affable but no less predatory than the woman's gaze, Seishirou draped himself about Subaru like a leopard settling itself along a comfortable branch. He left unspoken the obvious corollary: but don't touch.
"Hmm." Kanoe lingered, then swayed upright again. Sloe eyes slid toward Seishirou, rambled about his chest and shoulders before lowering, their sly sparkle vanishing behind those heavy, dark lashes. "I hope I'm not being too--inconvenient."
"It is a little late for a social call." Glancing down as though merely distracted, he ran his finger along Subaru's temple, just brushing the fringes of velvet-black hair as he reinforced and deepened Subaru's sleep. It wouldn't do for Subaru to wander onto this level of dream.
His finger stopped--his eyes flickered back up to the woman's face as alertness seized him: a cold, focused tautness, like a spring compressed to the limits of its steel. "Business is business. Although," he commanded another smile, affecting a continued carelessness, "I would have expected more pomp and circumstance. Unless, of course, this is something else...."
"It's a personal matter," Kanoe said, and the intensity within Seishirou eased, like a held breath being released. Rolling back onto one elbow, he relaxed and eyed her with a more amused appraisal.
He'd thought it was just a shade too early for the end of the world.
"So your plaything's about to become a liability, is he?" She evaded his gaze, and he grinned. "Why don't you ask your Kamui to take care of it for you? I think he rather enjoys making an example of such things."
"Why use the sword when the assassin's knife is so much more appropriate?" Kanoe parried. Her long fingers tangled in her hair, twirled it with pretended disdain. Then, as he continued to scrutinize her, she added, "I feel I can rely on your professionalism."
"Ah." He didn't trouble to keep the chuckle out of his voice. Naturally Kanoe would be reluctant to set the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth after this prey, considering that the target in question was almost certain to go to ground near the one person she most wanted to keep the Kamui far away from. The leader of the Angels did tend to cut a wide swath of destruction. Seishirou sat up once more, letting the covers slide down where they would. "Then shall we discuss the specifics?" he asked. Spinning a cigarette into being with one hand, he lit it with the lighter that appeared in the other. Kanoe put two fingers to her lips, and another cigarette formed between them; she bent to the flame that he held out toward her, further displaying what was undeniably an impressive set of breasts. Glancing into the shadows between them, Seishirou admitted to himself that he might have taken a purely carnal interest in Kanoe, if she hadn't been so gratuitous about throwing herself at him and everyone else in sight, and if he hadn't known quite well who shared her bed on a regular basis. There was absolutely no attraction in Kigai Yuuto's leftovers. Straightening, Kanoe leaned back and blew out a long mist of smoke from between painted lips, then began to describe the situation for him, her voice a low, even murmur.
On the mattress between them, Subaru slept on, oblivious.
* * * * *
Standing in the golden nothingness of his dreaming, Seishirou concentrated on Kanoe's receding presence, following it until he was sure that she was gone. Although he'd claimed, as he'd risen from the mattress, drawing a semblance of clothing about himself, that he was simply being polite in escorting a lady on her way, both of them knew the truth. Kanoe wasn't a full Dreamgazer, but nonetheless she had a certain facility, and he wasn't about to slip deeper into sleep or up into a suggestible half-waking state with her still lurking about. Confident at last that she'd departed, he focused his will into an intricate pattern of visualization, repairing the mental barricade that she'd picked apart. From the feel of things, it had taken her a long and laborious effort, a realization that gave him no small satisfaction. He'd always taken pride in his work.
As he finished restoring his defenses and was examining the result, a faint wind brushed by him, touching his cheek and catching at the ends of his hair. He turned to face the breeze and blinked: he was standing on a grassy knoll, steep, brilliantly green slopes falling away from him to join the park that spread out around its feet. Distant figures roamed the park's paths, appearing and disappearing beneath the trees, or ran and played across its open meadows. The far-off sound of childish shouting and laughter rose to him; the golden light of the dreamspace had become sunlit morning air, redolent with late spring. Swiftly he probed his surroundings, but there was no trace of any Dreamgazer, Seal, or Angel. The breeze blew past again, tugging at the hem of the trenchcoat he found himself wearing. He frowned very slightly.
Like that time....
"Hey, mister!" There was a new pull at his coat, this one a more definite yank on his sleeve, and he glanced downward. A small, dark-haired boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, stepped back from him and grinned. "Want to play a game?"
Seishirou crouched, bringing himself to the boy's level, and smiled with slow intentness. "What kind of game?"
"Hide and seek," the boy said. "I'll hide, and you'll try to find me."
"Wouldn't it be better if I hid, and you tried to find me?" Seishirou smiled a trifle more widely, anticipation already waking--but it would be far more entertaining to turn the tables on the child, for the supposed hunter to become the hunted. After all, there wasn't much challenge in stalking a little boy. With an impulsive slyness, he added, "I'm a magician, you know."
"No, it's my turn to hide." The boy held his ground as Seishirou straightened and stood, looming above him. The wind swirled Seishirou's coat once more and blew black bangs across the boy's forehead, obscuring his eyes from view.
There was something about that smile....
"Shut your eyes and count backward from ten," the boy instructed. "And don't cheat."
"Very well." Tolerantly Seishirou put both hands in his pockets and closed his eyes. "Ten. Nine. Eight." Aside from his own steady voice, he could hear only birdlike cries from the children playing at the bottom of the hill: no retreating footsteps, no betraying rustle of grass. Extending his perceptions, he swept the area around himself in a widening circle, searching for the dim, starlike glow of human life, but he could sense nothing. "...three. Two. One."
He opened his eyes. The pale emerald lawn spilled down from where he stood and flowed away on all sides, stretching flawless and without any hiding place for a long way before it reached the first scattered trees. For a minute or two, he continued to scan the park, and then he shrugged, smiling wryly.
Perhaps this would be a bit more challenging than he'd thought.
* * * * *
In Ebisu, faceless people were sitting and eating lunch on tidy piles of rubble, families picnicking beneath a pristine, sun-struck sky, seemingly heedless of the ruins around them.
In the Sunshine 60 aquarium, a flock of high school girls ran chattering and laughing past glass walls of ghostly, motionless fish, hurrying on their way to some after-school rendezvous.
On the Nakano subway train, everything went dark, and the car lurched, flinging its more unwary passengers against each other. Then the train rocketed out of its tunnel, and the blackness outside was replaced by deepening twilight, before the car's yellowish lights flickered back on an instant later, blanking out the view. "Oh!" said the girl who'd been thrown into Seishirou. With the support of his hand beneath her elbow, she scrambled her feet back under herself and released his trenchcoat, grabbing for a pole instead--she clutched at it, trembling and swaying with the train's rapid motion. "I'm sorry! Um, I'm really--I'm so sorry!"
"It's quite all right, especially when it's such a pretty girl." Seishirou smiled with just slightly suggestive gallantry. "I like the wings." The girl blushed and fluttered in a most charming way.
"Um," she started shyly as he began to turn from her, his gaze already shifting to sweep the car, searching for his prey. He glanced at her again, and she lowered her eyes, brushing aside a wayward streamer of long, pale golden hair. "Excuse me, but--do you know when this train is going to arrive?"
"Sorry," he replied. "I'm only here to look for someone."
"Oh." As she sighed, he examined his surroundings more closely. There was still no sign of the boy. Dull reflections appeared, vanished, and reappeared in the train's windows as it rattled through Tokyo's artificial canyons, passing in and out of the buildings' shadows. In those vague mirrors, the girl was a frail drift of white and blonde next to his coat's solidity; the other passengers were mere silhouettes. Finding nothing of any significance, he decided it was time to take his hunt somewhere else.
"I'm looking for someone too!" the girl announced then, brightly, as if struck by a flash of impulse or inspiration. "If you find him, will you tell him that for me?"
"I'll be sure to." The girl smiled up at Seishirou with innocent gratitude, and he grinned.
"My apologies for leaving you so soon," he added, letting go of the hand rail, "but this is my stop."
And he stopped.
The girl's startled face receded, dwindling in a swift rush as the train sped onward: a blur of metal and glass, upholstered seats and anonymous people hurtling past him, somehow leaving him untouched. Then he was clear, his trenchcoat whipping briefly in the wind of the train's departure as he watched its rear car retreat around a curve of track. Standing in midair, a meter and a half above the ground, he pivoted slowly and gazed back in the other direction, down a length of empty, faintly gleaming rails. There had to be some better way to go about this search. He glanced at the sky between the train's catenary wires: dark, rolling clouds torn into a ragged fringe in the west, their edges frosted with the day's dying light.
That girl had given him a rather good idea, Seishirou realized.
He smiled again.
The trenchcoat flared as it was flung high, a flowering of deeper shadow against the dusk. Poised in mid-leap above the wires, Seishirou spread his own wings, huge raptor's pinions, storm-grey barred with black--and then he was racing upward, those broad wings muscling the air, the wind tearing its fingers through his hair, fanning his white shirt close against his body. Higher and higher he flew with easy power and speed, his gaze fixed on the sky above him, on a night that grew more complete as he soared toward it, until it had swallowed the final, liquid glow of winter sunset. He slowed then, pausing, steady wing beats holding him aloft as he stared down at a glittering tracery of lights, the city sprawling away beneath him until it vanished against the vast, dark curve of the earth. White fire ringed it, an immense circle crossed and recrossed, the mark of a five-pointed star stamped in flame across its urban heart. Something leaped in him, a jolt like an unlooked-for recognition or fulfillment: part startlement, part possession. Abruptly, inexplicably exhilarated, he laughed out loud.
He crossed his arms before his chest, and ofuda shimmered into existence between his fingers. With a practiced sweep, he cast them; the charged paper slips streaked outward in two arcs, blurring into black birds as he exerted his will. "Go!" Those birds flurried off in all directions, visible against the darkness only by their movement and the gleam of magic that invested their created forms. Seishirou angled forward, his wings lifting and furling as he tilted, then rolled over into a dive--and as the city spun beneath him, a kaleidoscope whirl seen through the multifold eyes of his shikigami, a wheel of fire and night turning as he began his stoop toward it, that sharp, sweet pressure intensified inside his chest.
Soon now, I'll find you.
Yes, very soon.
Did you really think that you could hide from me?
* * * * *
A stray wind carried smoke across Seishirou's view of the city, thin, dirty grey veils that tore as they blew past, disintegrating like moldering, once-white garments. Somewhere in the streets below, something was burning. Standing on the roof of one of Tokyo's nameless skyscrapers, he stared moodily over seemingly endless, stair-stepped blocks of similar buildings.
He simply could not find that little boy.
In the midst of his dull frustration, he sensed a presence appear behind him, as if answering that unspoken admission of defeat. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the object of his search standing on a higher roof level, a tiny, incongruous figure. "I guess I win," the boy called down to him, slyly cheerful.
Seishirou turned to face the child, unhurried, as though indifferent. Whatever the rules of the game were supposed to be, the only rules he followed were his own. Win or lose, that boy would die just the same. "So where were you, anyway?" he asked, reassuming the hunter's careless grin as he prepared for an imminent shift in the tenor of their play.
The wind brushed another wisp of smoke between them, hiding the boy's face. When it reappeared, he was mirroring Seishirou's smile.
"Inside your heart."
"Oh," Seishirou said as deep cracks began to splinter the roof beneath him. "Well. That explains it, then." The building broke into large, tilting slabs, tipping him backward, and it was when he went to spread out his wings that he realized he didn't have them anymore. As he began to fall with improbable slowness, he looked up and saw the wind lift the boy's hair--he saw, beneath the fringe of bangs, a flash of golden brown eyes.
Then he was plummeting amidst a soundless avalanche of huge concrete boulders, the boy's form receding above him with truly astonishing speed--until his whole body jerked and he found himself on the familiarly yielding solidity of his mattress, the covers wrapping his own warmth close about him.
Disoriented, he stared up at the spectral play of light across the ceiling, a scarcely perceptible glimmer that filtered in through the window blinds from the street outside. At last he rolled over and pushed himself upright, summoning a marginally brighter glow between his fingers. Gazing down at his still-sleeping lover, he watched the movement of Subaru's eyes behind closed lids, Subaru's lips parting on a faint stutter of breath. Subaru often dreamed, while for himself such events had always been rare, fleeting, and, as far as he could recall, never so bizarrely incomprehensible.
Somewhat uneasily, he wondered if dreaming like that could possibly be contagious.
* * * * *
Fire arabesqued across the darkness around him: a field of flames bowing and rising, then licking into suddenly ornate forms as the wind caught them, curling back on themselves like the petals of lilies. He turned, arms crossed before his chest as he concentrated, searching for any least sign of presence. There, and he paused, his heart a flicker of astonishment within him as he sensed and then saw the figure that straightened up, rising from a crouch--that shifted to face him, black coat billowing wide against the infinitely deeper blackness and those flames.
You, he breathed, silent, in the grasp of a profound yet strangely formless understanding, can be wounded too.
Unable to speak it out loud or even to put solid meaning to it, he could feel that realization swelling within him: a coiled seed struggling to burst its casing. As though he were a passenger inside his own body, he felt himself begin to move forward. He was running, skating over the ground, his feet scarcely seeming to touch. He leaped high, as high as he was able to, hung arrested at the peak of that jump, his shikifuku a white swirl wreathing him, and then, with the timelessness of a flower opening its petals, he began to fall. It was a descent that gathered speed only reluctantly, as though some resistance or inertia was holding him back--there was no sound but the wind blurring past him, fluttering in his robes--and the man below was turning, head lifting to stare at him, dark hair blowing away from those unlike eyes as they widened in shock.
The white of Seishirou's blind eye and his own shikifuku swallowed everything.
With a jolt, Subaru awoke.
He lay there, heartbeat triphammering as he gazed wide-eyed into darkness, trying to reconcile night wind and fire, flight and fluid movement with the breathless, black stillness that surrounded him, pressing him down, seemingly about to crush him. After an instant's confusion, he found himself again: he was in bed, and a real weight was holding him paralyzed: Seishirou, draped half on top of him, one arm hooked around him, the man's breath damp and even against his neck. His own outflung right arm--in fact, most of his side--was pinned beneath Seishirou. His fingers had gone to sleep.
Swallowing, he stared upward until he was able to distinguish that he was looking at the ceiling, streaked with pale echoes of light that did little to illuminate anything. Then, cautiously, he shifted his arm, moving it by centimeters, trying to find a position where the pressure on it might be somewhat less. Seishirou grumbled, a faint, slumberous murmur, before settling even nearer, one leg sliding over Subaru's, lips brushing against his collarbone. Subaru paused, holding his breath, until the man grew still again, then eased his arm into the gap between Seishirou's elbow and side. Blood burst back into his hand, and he flexed it, working its fingers until the last congestion had left them and the burning, stinging sensations had mostly faded. Then he sighed and relaxed his neck, letting his head sink back into the pillow, and gazed up at the ceiling once more.
Sleep would be long in coming, if indeed it returned to him at all that night. Left to himself, he'd surrender to wakefulness and go out into the other room, where he could listen to music on the stereo's headphones, or read, or light some incense and let the scent and curling smoke become a focus to still his unquiet thoughts. But there was no way he could escape the bed without rousing Seishirou, and if that happened then he knew he would no longer have the same space in which to be alone and let the disturbance of his tenuous inner balance run its course. Even if Seishirou didn't follow him with one distraction or another, all the man's instincts would be troubled by his being there. Seishirou's attention would circle him, restless and inquisitive, a constant presence stalking his mind and heart--and he didn't have the will for it, not when premonition was already haunting him, the cryptic whisper of what might come to pass when their dance had reached its resolution. In that dark, insomniac hour, even the thought of dealing with the man exhausted him; all he wanted to do was lie there in a state of perfect blankness and never have to take another action or hold his own against Seishirou's impositions and hungry affections. But passivity had its price: lying trapped as he was, without any diversion and far from the hope of sleep, all that remained was memory. He found himself treading over familiar ground: the labyrinth of what had been and what might have been. In the shadows of the ceiling, he saw once more the hollow eyes of that young man consumed by the possessing ghost--and then, with a clarity like that of the supernally blue winter sky, he was back there again, reliving that recognition, realization, the clench of adrenaline-tinged conflict twisting inside him. He felt the keening shock of power, the needfulness of his response--could see the swirling white-out, the howling, pitiless lash of icy cold.
The other face of softly falling snow.
Subaru blinked hard, then drew in and released a tautly controlled breath, careful not to jostle Seishirou. If only he could have...there was a part of him that yearned to have let Seishirou take control: to have retreated into being the too-gentle, ineffectual person he'd once been, allowing the active part to default to Seishirou--to let the Sakurazukamori be the one who killed, leaving him unstained. Nostalgia opened its vast, uncrossable gulf in him, a longing for that lost innocence, that freedom.
He was terrified of what he might be growing capable of.
Squeezing his eyes shut, he turned his head, letting his cheek brush Seishirou's hair. He inhaled deeply the man's spicy-sweet, animal fragrance. There was no stopping anymore. Pain was inevitable. Indeed, he sensed that it was somehow necessary. No matter how much he wanted to spare himself, or the man he loved, to do so would defeat all he hoped for. It was not enough, he knew, to live these last days blindly, sheltering in each other's presence, to shut out all that was unpleasant, trying to forget the bitter necessities that were to come. For his own part, if he were ever going to become strong enough to do what he needed to do--to become Seishirou's true equal and opposite--he had to grasp that capacity for darkness within himself.
Considering what his one wish, if granted, would inflict on Seishirou--could he do any less?
Oh, Seishirou-san, forgive me.
Because of me--
His breath caught. After a moment, he bent his captured arm, awkwardly and with great care, and slid his hand up Seishirou's side, curling his fingers around the man's shoulder. He brought his other arm across, wrapping it about Seishirou's body, turning to face the other as best he could. He was rewarded by a slight tightening of Seishirou's embrace, a somnolent, instinctive echo of his own drawing-nearer, a quiet sigh as Seishirou resettled, apparently still drifting well below the surface of sleep. He bowed his head, his eyes still closed, and touched his lips to Seishirou's forehead. That perfect joy bloomed in him, as miraculous as always: a tenderness as translucent and luminous as some astonishing deep-sea creature, surviving even in the crush of the ocean's vast pressure. And as they lay entwined, he found the grip of dread was loosening, balanced out by love and faith, and by the simple knowledge that he was, after all, doing only what he must.
He could cower in the Sakurazukamori's shadow, paralyzed and conscience-stricken, reliving all that had already happened, every loss and grief, until the final day came and found the two of them exactly where they'd always been, or he could go forward into the uncertainties of the future, with the only sure thing being that there would be change.
He had already made his decision.
And when I'm here with you, like this, I find that I have hope.
If I can just be strong enough, and not afraid.
But even if I fail, if I fall, may I still fall gently.
And rest within these arms once more.
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