[Note: If you have not read the third Drift, you should go and read this version of "Sakura and Snow" chapter 16 instead. It includes a couple of scenes from the Drift, for the benefit of people who didn't want to read the adult-rated material.]


Sakura and Snow

Chapter 16


By Natalie Baan



"I'm home!"

Seishirou removed his coat, scarf, and gloves as Subaru replied, "Welcome back," a serene counterpart to his own singsong greeting. Kicking off his shoes, Seishirou glanced at the other onmyouji, who was behind the kitchenette counter, be-aproned, slicing at something on the cutting board with methodical, slow grace, looking demure and domestic. Seishirou grinned. As he prowled up out of the genkan and around the counter's end, he noticed that Subaru was cutting up mushrooms. Tiny bowls holding other chopped vegetables lined the cutting board's edge, while a covered pot simmered fragrantly on the stove.

"Did you want rice noodles or--" Subaru began, looking absently around the kitchenette, and Seishirou took advantage of that distraction, swooping in for a swift peck on the cheek, then a nuzzle along Subaru's jawline, his hands curving to rest about Subaru's hips. "Mmm--mmph!" Subaru's yielding became surprise as Seishirou swung him around, tilting his head the other way for a full-on kiss. "Seishirou-san," he managed after a moment of not-entirely-unwilling responsiveness. He turned his face so a little huff of breath warmed Seishirou's cheek, half almost-chuckle, half remonstrance. "I'm cooking."

"So I see."

"At least...let me take the pot off the stove." Subaru's hand was sliding up Seishirou's body as he spoke, the words a sigh at the fait accompli. It traced across Seishirou's stomach, that touch moving in concert with the caress Seishirou had just run down Subaru's back, over his seat, cupping it to draw them even closer together. Seishirou spared a glance behind himself for safety's sake as he reached to click off the range, all the concession he was willing to make to such delaying tactics. Then he rocked Subaru back the couple of steps it took to walk them both up against the refrigerator door. Bending his head, he inhaled the scent of Subaru's hair before kissing its insubstantial featheriness, the different softness of the skin behind Subaru's ear, the tauter length of Subaru's neck, inclined to one side with compliant grace. His hand took a leisurely excursion up and down Subaru's thigh, now that the appliance was doing the work of holding Subaru in place for him. He began moving against Subaru, slow and ardent, a steady, inciting rhythm to accompany his lips' unhurried dance over Subaru's skin, his other hand insinuating itself behind the small of Subaru's back to tease at the apron's strings. Subaru's arms crept around him in answer, Subaru's fingers twining into his hair.

"Seishirou-san," Subaru breathed, somewhere near his ear.


"Why is your ivy in a pig pot?"

The sultry song of desire stumbled and jangled to a confused halt. Blinking, Seishirou straightened enough to meet Subaru's gaze, and he noted the sparkle in it, like stars winking and glimmering between shifting, night-darkened leaves. Subaru gestured with his chin, a tiny smile touching his lips, and Seishirou looked over to find the ceramic planter in question staring at them with huge, round eyes, its snouted face wearing an expression of perennially stupefied astonishment.

"Pig pot?" Seishirou growled, turning back toward Subaru. "I'll give you 'pig pot!'"

"Ah, no, wait, Sei--ee!" Subaru squealed most satisfactorily as Seishirou yanked the apron's ties apart and darted his hand beneath the cloth to strike at the ticklish spot just below Subaru's ribs. Doubling over, Subaru tried to squirm away; Seishirou wrapped an arm around him and dragged him back. He got in one more good assault, and then it was all just too enticing--Subaru's flushed face, lips parted as he gasped for breath, his body writhing helplessly against Seishirou's. Seishirou let him up, then pinned him to the refrigerator once more. As Subaru lifted his head, chest heaving, Seishirou bent to recapture his mouth, and Subaru was trying to laugh and kiss back hard at the same time, breathless and disarrayed, still alight with mischief but now with a certain urgency as well--

Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi!


"Seishirou-san--no--stop--don't--" Subaru struggled, twisting aside as Seishirou went after the shrilling beeper. The apron was wadded up between them; Seishirou shoved it out of the way and tried to work his fingers into Subaru's pocket. Not easy, given the close fit of Subaru's jeans and the inconvenient angle of Subaru's hip. He pulled back to get a better hold so that he could turn Subaru around, and something smooth slipped between his fingers, polished, not plastic but--

Looking down, he saw the knife that Subaru had been using to slice vegetables, the handle of which Subaru had just pressed into his hand. Startled, he lifted his gaze. Subaru met it with a smile that was luminous, amused, and brooked not the least denial.

"Finish the mushrooms," Subaru said.

Seishirou found himself staring at Subaru's back as Subaru walked away, slipping the apron off and leaving it on the dining counter in passing. His gaze slid down along Subaru's lean form, then came to rest once more on the knife in his hand, caught by the blade's dark metal sheen. Briefly he was transfixed by the play of light on steel, by the crossed tensions of unfulfilled desire and danger, the hint of reminder in the naked blade. Then he shook his head, sighed, and moved toward the cutting board.

"You're saving the stems for soup stock, right?" Subaru, punching numbers into the phone, glanced back and nodded. Seishirou began separating mushroom parts from each other with deft, efficient slices. And perhaps if he visualized the caps as small, mushroom-shaped beepers--no, no sympathetic magic, he reminded himself. Subaru would almost certainly figure out what had happened, and in any case he'd just get a replacement device as soon as possible. Seishirou contented himself instead with the merely psychological satisfaction of mushroom-flesh parting into perfect slivers, the quiet, rhythmic thunk of the knife blade as it met the wooden board.

"Yes, this is Subaru," Subaru was saying into the phone. Seishirou scooped up mushroom pieces, deposited them in the appropriate bowl, and picked up another cap. "Yes. Yes." Between one word and the next, Subaru's voice had dropped, becoming lower and tauter. "I understand." Looking over, Seishirou studied Subaru--still just his back, the phone clutched to his ear, his other arm wrapped around himself and his shoulders lifted minutely with tension before he breathed out, a silent, deliberate exhalation, and relaxed them. "I will. No, I will. It's all right. Yes. Goodbye." Subaru set the phone down in its cradle and stared at it.

"Not more work, Subaru-kun?" Seishirou let dismay color his voice and expression, but inwardly he'd already assumed a perfect transparency, a clarity like a cool, rising wind. Alertness. A sense of the hunt afoot. Subaru's green eyes glanced toward him, quick as a start, then skittered away, leaves whirled before the gale, and Seishirou wondered if Subaru suspected that he might have his own work to attend to, was thinking of potential cross-purposes, or whether it was just the normal evasiveness of a Dragon of Heaven trying to hide secrets from a Dragon of Earth. For his own part, Seishirou was quite sure from both Subaru's uneasiness and the somewhat familiar tone of his replies that the conversation had been about Seal business, and the coincidence of such a call on this night was too significant for there to be no connection.

Perhaps someone on the Seals' side had been practicing auguries as well.

"I have to go out," Subaru said finally. His hands stirred, empty and unquiet, then closed into helpless fists. "I'm sorry."

"Oh, that's too bad. Do you have to go right now?" Subaru nodded, a tight jerk of his head. "Then I'll make sure there's a nice stew waiting when you get back."

"I...might be late."

"Ah, don't worry about it--I'll hold a vigil of love for you! And if I can't keep my eyes open any longer, I'll leave dinner in the fridge. After all, it would be sad if you didn't get to taste the fruits of your own labors, right?" Subaru looked at Seishirou again, wordless, a flicker of raw emotion lighting his face, a quickly passing flame that might have been gratitude or a twinge of deep heart's pain, or perhaps some combination of both. "So anyway, Subaru-kun, don't feel guilty or think you need to hurry home just because of me." His every move casual, Seishirou leaned onto the counter, the pose of a person who wasn't going anywhere.

"Take care," he added, smiling, his gaze gentle. "Take good care of yourself. This Tokyo can be dangerous at night."


* * * * *


Standing on the unlit marquee of a boarded-up movie theater, hidden by the building's shadow but even more by the cloak of magic he'd spun around himself, Seishirou stood motionless, watching the empty train platform below. His eyes were half-lidded, a soft-focused but vigilant gaze that he could maintain indefinitely, even while his other senses ceaselessly swept his surroundings. So far there'd been no disturbance of the ether, no glimmer of magical seeking or presence--not even so much as a mundane passerby, here in this ruinous district, this fragment of the old city adrift on the fringes of a future-driven megalopolis. Despite the stillness, he was unfailing sure that this was the place, and very nearly the time, of his appointed working. He could feel it, the steady drawing-together that brought prey and hunter toward their encounter.

Having had a while to reflect, he was also reasonably certain that Subaru didn't know he had anything to do with the night's little game. If Subaru had harbored more than a nervous tremor, the habitual twitch of awareness that Seishirou was a Dragon of Earth and liable to get messily involved in such goings-on, surely he'd have set up a shikigami to keep an eye on the apartment. There had been nothing. Unless--had Subaru imagined that Seishirou might detect the spell and be alerted that Subaru was onto him? Inwardly Seishirou shrugged. He could go around in circles all night, second-guessing, but it would serve no real purpose. He was here, now, and whether Subaru suspected him of involvement or not, Subaru would have to track him down to learn the truth of it.

All along, that had been the advantage of the Dragons of Earth, Seishirou mused. They knew where and when they would strike, while the protectors of Tokyo's kekkai could only scramble to catch up with them.

After all, the best defense is a good offense.

Seishirou's lip quirked, a mere hint of a smile. His divination had indicated an auspicious fate, an inevitably successful kill, and with any luck that meant he would be finished swiftly and away, to return home while the Seals were still figuring out what had happened. He could be ready for when Subaru got back, to offer the promised late dinner, to provide sympathetic and--of course--perfectly innocent comfort.

A scarcely perceptible wavefront brushed his senses, a chill lighter than a thin cloud's shadow. His gaze flicked to the utility lines on the opposite side of the train tracks, and the pale-winged, translucent bird-form that was alighting there.



Somehow that frisson of spiritual presence transmuted itself inside him, become a sinking ice, cold, leaden, and slick, disquieting his stomach. He shut the sensation away. He had neither blinked nor moved; now, with immense care, he tested his concealing illusion, his mind playing across it, re-attuning it, thickening it strand by strand. The shikigami hadn't detected him, nor would it, its insentient watchfulness no match for such subtle shifts and deceptions.

But its master....

Seishirou split his perceptions, one part of his mind remaining concentrated on the train station and its surroundings, the rest of his attention expanding outward, a diffuse, swiftly widening spiral. It passed over more shikigami, left them highlighted in its wake, a pattern like the stars of a far-flung constellation, traced out upon the district's dark face. Drawing his senses back, he spun them out once more, a narrow thread flashing to seek a single, specific magical signature--his own, carved in flesh and soul, ever resonating to him--and he found Subaru then, not very near but approaching at an even clip. He could feel Subaru's pulse jump, a shiver of tension, a slight quickening of stride as though some anxiety had touched Subaru's mind. Perhaps Subaru, sensitive as he was, felt an intimation of that psychic scrutiny, or perhaps it was just a flutter of nervousness about what might lie ahead. Even at that faster pace, though, Subaru was far enough away that Seishirou should be able to complete his work without being caught in the act.

It would merely require exquisite timing.

A faint, almost subliminal stirring drew his attention, and he shifted the main part of his thought back to the train station. A tiny breeze rustled dried vines on a chain-link fence--not the motion that had alerted him, but not disassociated from it either. He concentrated his will on being imperceptible, on feeding the net of spells that would divert a glance, a magical awareness, even a passing zephyr, all so subtly that the deflection would never be perceived. Within his self-enforced stillness, he felt his blood stir, a readiness for the hunt, and he made sure to control his breathing.

After all, a wind master was never an easy opponent.

Muffled steps rang, slow and hollow, in the dark stairwell that led from the ticket machines to the platform. They quickened as they neared the top, as if anticipating the climb's end, and their owner emerged from the shadows, stepped into sickly yellow light and paused there. The young man's hair had grown out--it fell into his eyes, which lifted from the concrete at his feet to scan the platform, warily noting the dingy security cameras suspended from its roof, before turning to sweep the surrounding night. That wayward breeze stirred the hem of his long coat; one hand was in the coat's pocket, while the other hung by his side, ungloved and pale against the fabric, blunt fingers curled into a loose fist, as though clasping some unseen leash. His gaze had the quality of a thousand-yard stare, focused too wide, too far, the look of a person who knew that there was no redemption, no salvation, only the next step, and the one after that, a hard march toward an inescapable end. Any callowness there might have been about him once had been ripped away, leaving only that cruel knowledge and a bleak forward momentum. This boy who had abandoned what he'd once been sworn to guard, his relationship to his former comrades a complex tangle of betrayed and betrayer--

Or had he been the eyes of the dreaming princess all along, her spy deep in the places where her visions could no longer penetrate--and if so, had he even known it?

Caught between those two sisters, their pawn and, at least for one, their plaything, it was no wonder he wore the expression of an exile, a refugee of war. Now, though, he was going back, or trying to, and the wind that wreathed him gently seemed to indicate some personal resurgence, a renewal of the heart, despite his gloomy demeanor.

Unfortunately for you, the choices that one makes in life are not so easily left behind.

The young man glanced along the tracks, and Seishirou heard and felt the disturbance of the air: the thin, mournful warning of a train's horn, the rattling rumble of wheels. The train appeared around a corner and approached the station, scarcely slowing--an express, not making this stop. The young man's gaze dropped to the platform once more. Within his magical concealments, Seishirou gathered himself, a narrowing of attention, a scant tensing of his body. The train blasted through the station, accompanied by another howl of its horn, the wind of its passage slamming the ends of the young man's coat into an arrested, wildly fluttering flight.


With a practiced flick of his will alone, Seishirou flung a binding spell at the shikigami. The magic enfolded it, blinded it, crushed it into nonexistence. Through his seal, he felt panic leap up in Subaru, a white-cold awareness, a lurch into rapid motion. Seishirou sprang from the marquee. An arcing jump, high above the road, to light at the edge of the platform and then lunge across it, the beat of Subaru's running strides seeming almost a part of his own pulse--his target nearly turned in time, one hand lifting, a coil of wind forming around it, the young man's eyes widening as Seishirou's illusion was torn in the instant of the strike--

Seishirou's fingers drove through skin and flesh, the power that they emanated splintering the ribs between which they had passed so precisely. They plunged into the heart's muscular knot, and Seishirou felt its wet spasm, its thick warmth flowing over his wrist in the gap between coat sleeve and glove, even as its beat seized up into a sudden stillness. He saw the boy's gape-mouthed snarl of surprise fade toward blankness, the glimmer of life dying out in those staring eyes, so close that if there had been a final breath it would have touched him, standing within the half-circle of his victim's still-upraised arm, lingering to make certain of his kill.

Then he wrenched his hand free and leaped again, whipping imperceptibility back around himself. He landed on the roof of the train's last car as it hurtled by, Subaru's presence a shining flicker darting beneath him, under the elevated tracks, that light felt rather than glimpsed--then jumped once more to the top of a nearby building, where he folded himself into a chimney's shadow and went utterly still, less detectable than a hiding ghost. Only his heartbeat might have betrayed him, and he breathed in, deep and controlled, forced that rapid thunder into calmness.

"Saiki-kun!" Subaru flashed up out of the stairwell, scarcely seeming to touch the steps. "Saiki-kun!" The corpse had not yet begun to fall. Only as Subaru reached it did it sway backward, losing balance, and Subaru must have seen the red flower on its chest then, closer to black in the station's poor lighting. He faltered, reaching out automatically to catch that sinking form, and as it collapsed into his arms he crumpled beneath its dead weight, folding to his knees on the concrete. He bent his head, and if he spoke the dead boy's name once more it was inaudible at this distance--if he wept, the tremors were too slight to be seen without magical farsight.

Seishirou didn't bother to call up that closer vision. Instead, he watched the small, pale huddle that was the onmyouji, the black sprawl of the corpse. The chimney pressed against his back, its metal unyielding and vaguely chill even through his coat. No fire was lit below, apparently. The blood had already begun to congeal on his hand; he could feel it cooling where it touched his skin. Subaru might conceivably attempt to track him by that trace, at least until he removed it or escaped into a full maboroshi, but at the moment Subaru seemed not inclined even to try.

Abruptly Seishirou turned and slipped away across the rooftops. There was nothing more in that place that he wanted to see.


* * * * *


It was very late, and Subaru hadn't yet come home. Seishirou had cleaned the blood from himself and his clothes, and after that he'd waited up for what seemed a more than reasonable amount of time before finally going to bed, having left a solicitous note on the light switch directing Subaru to the refrigerator and dinner. Still awake, he lay on one side, his back to the bedroom doorway as he watched the play of light through the window's blinds.

He was not entirely satisfied with the night's events.

Oh, his work had been carried out, of course--inexorable death, as was expected of him, swift and sure and quite professional, if somewhat rushed. And he had achieved his secondary, more personal goal of not allowing himself to be caught in the act by Subaru. But instead of accomplishment he felt a tense discontent, an unquiet restlessness. It had been, he thought morosely, a rather graceless kill. Oddly enough, it had been too quick, too stealthy. The Sakurazukamori was supposed to be the unknown assassin, striking without warning and then melting mysteriously into the night, an elusive, shadowy figure of dark magic and terror. What he was not supposed to be was furtive.

One might even say--sneaky.

Seishirou shifted underneath the covers. It did nothing to relieve this peculiar discomfort.

And why had he been so consumed by the need to cover up his presence? It wasn't as though Subaru was unaware of the kinds of things he did. After all, hadn't Subaru said it once himself, deep within Seishirou's maboroshi?

"Knowing who you are and what you do, I love you...."

Something cold and unpalatable twisted inside Seishirou, as though he'd swallowed ice, or a tiny globe of metal. Of course Subaru must suspect, if not outright know, that he'd been involved. The spell that had bound the shikigami. The mystical blow struck through the heart--even if he wasn't the only practitioner who killed in that way, Subaru had seen him do so on at least two occasions. Presented with such evidence, even a more innocent Subaru might have blinked, although it was meager enough that he certainly would have found some naive excuse, some reason why this death couldn't possibly have had anything to do with Seishirou. As he was now, Subaru was not naive and did not make such excuses. Seishirou would be the very first person to cross his mind.

The thought that things would be all right somehow as long as Subaru hadn't actually observed him at the kill now seemed ridiculous. It was like a child covering up his eyes and insisting that he couldn't be seen. And if Subaru did confront him about it, if the usual weaving of lies didn't suffice, what then? The prospect that had consoled him in the past, the anticipation of their ultimate fight, rang hollow, a resolution that, just then, gave little satisfaction.

It's coming for us one day, Subaru-kun. It's destiny, and anyway it's the proper ending for this story of ours--onmyouji against onmyouji at the end of all things. That's the way it should be, the only way it can be for a Dragon of Heaven and a Dragon of Earth. You know it too, I'm sure.

But to have it come about because of something as senseless as this....

Really, it's pretty stupid. I'd laugh, if it weren't so anticlimactic.

Seriously, though, if I'd had any real idea--

A key turned in the apartment's front door. Seishirou stiffened, then let that tension flow out of himself, slumping a little more onto his front as he relaxed into the limpness of feigned sleep. Beneath the sheet and blanket, further concealed from view by his body, he spun a mere filament of magic into being around his fingers, a ghostly wisp that was scarcely detectable next to his own aura, a kindling that could be whirled into sudden flame, ready to strike. Eyes nearly closed, he watched as a faint glow fell across the wall and window, a trace of illumination from the hallway, let in through the opening door.

Subaru didn't turn on the lights. Senses tuned to a high alertness, Seishirou heard the whisper of paper--presumably Subaru unsticking his note from the switch--a pause, and then a stronger rustle of crumpling and the sound of something falling into the waste basket. Seishirou wondered if he should read any comment into that. Subaru's coat thumped indistinctly against the wall as it went onto the coatrack; the light waned, then winked out as Subaru closed the door. In the darkness, Seishirou shut his eyes, listening to the soft thud of one shoe followed by another, and afterward an almost noiseless scuff of sock-clad feet moving toward him.

He could feel Subaru's presence as the other drew nearer and at last stood above him, close to the bed. He could read with a hunter's instinct the weight of attention as Subaru gazed at him, was aware of the subtle energies of a living heart, the quality of indrawn breath, the personal force of a practitioner, a collection of impressions that told him precisely where Subaru was. He could picture with acute vividness the look in Subaru's eyes, their dark, serious regard, but he turned his mind from the image and concentrated instead on holding himself perfectly relaxed yet ready, poised to answer any action, any decision.

Do you know, Subaru? Or do you merely suspect? And if you know, what will you do?

Like a bird flicking itself into unpredictable flight, a explosion of wings seemingly out of nowhere, a memory came to him, and he kept control of his heartrate only with difficulty. Another bed, sunlight falling through white hospital curtains, and Hokuto's voice, calm and much quieter than usual--


Though it's well hidden, you smell of blood....


After what felt like a particularly drawn-out hour, Subaru moved, slowly, and not toward him. That unlooked-for reprieve almost made Seishirou twitch, but he managed to remain motionless. He listened to Subaru walk past the end of the bed, to the whisper of fabric drawn across skin, the jingle of the button on Subaru's jeans and the low burr of the zip. A drawer slid open, and he thought of the Sumeragis' ritual knife, tucked in among Subaru's T-shirts--but why would Subaru be getting undressed to kill him? For despite his incredulity, the evidence of his senses seemed clear; he could discern the heavy fall of denim dropping into a heap on the floor, the susurration of thin silk being shaken out and fumbled on.

The drawer closed, and Subaru approached the bed once more. Behind Seishirou, the covers lifted; he felt a draft, a dipping of the mattress as Subaru slipped in next to him, an icy foot that brushed his calf before being withdrawn. The covers tugged minutely as Subaru drew them over himself, and then he sighed and became still, stretched out along the opposite edge of the bed with his back to Seishirou, like a reflection. Moments passed, and somewhere in that mute gap between them, Seishirou's wariness began to dissolve. It was replaced by a gradually expanding perplexity.

Slowly, as though he were drowsing, he rolled half over and looked at Subaru. In the light that seeped through the blinds, he could make out the topography of Subaru's body, lying stiffly on one side: the rolling slope from feet to torso to the deep shadow of Subaru's hair. Subaru shivered, the movement both visible and felt--shivered again and then curled in on himself, the covers tightening as he drew them closer. With some caution, Seishirou turned over the rest of the way, letting the misty thread of his spell evaporate. He reached one arm out, hesitated, and finally laid that hand on Subaru's shoulder. Subaru shuddered at the touch--Seishirou couldn't tell if it was a flinch or another of those tremors, stronger than the previous ones. Curling his fingers around Subaru's arm, he tugged lightly, felt clenched resistance, and then, improbably, a crumbling release.

Subaru shifted, turning toward him, and Seishirou pulled Subaru into his arms and the nest of heat he'd generated underneath the covers. Subaru's body against his was a shock of cold; Subaru's muscles jerked in helpless reaction. He pressed his face into Seishirou's chest, and Seishirou felt some warmth there, at least: a silent stutter of breath, and then, after a minute, a different warmth, damp, falling drop by drop to splash and spread against his skin. As he held Subaru through that shaking, the mixed throes of thawing and grief, he stared at the far wall, just perceptible at the edge of the light.

How do you do it, Subaru-kun? How do you not break into a thousand pieces?

He stroked Subaru's hair, and Subaru's trembling eventually ceased, becoming in the end the quiet of an exhausted sleep.


* * * * *


Seishirou woke to movement, the awareness of something slipping out of his grasp--and then a lance of pain that stabbed through his temple as he opened his eyes onto a blinding brightness. Hastily he squeezed his eyes shut again, which proved not to help all that much. The bed heaved like a restless ocean, and Seishirou buried his face in his pillow with an inarticulate grumble of protest as his wits flailed, trying to achieve coherency. Subaru. Getting out of bed. Morning. A truly horrendous headache--if somebody was going to drive a pointed stick through his head, Seishirou thought, it was manifestly unfair that they should twist it as well. He breathed deeply of the pillow's warmth and faint fragrance, and then with an effort he found that knot of tension and coaxed it to release, soothing the clenched misery of nerves and blood vessels in his head until he could at least think.

It had to be some kind of backlash from the previous night's working, he realized. He couldn't imagine what else it might be--he hadn't felt even a hint of approaching illness the day before. But he had taken all the proper precautions against a magical return.

Then why...?

Subaru, he remembered, and pried his head off the pillow, cracking his eyes open to take a wary look around. The room proved not to be floodlit after all, now that his sakanagi hangover had been eased, merely filled with the diffuse light of an ordinary sunny winter morning. Seishirou frowned. Turning his head, he caught sight of Subaru, a shimmer of white just past the end of the bed, as though Subaru had paused on the way to the closet, or perhaps the bathroom. Subaru's attention was being held by something--not Seishirou, but some object just out of view.

Seishirou pushed himself up on one elbow, a dull twist of nausea uncoiling in his stomach as he moved. Subaru was staring at the plant stand, his expression transfixed. The sun coming in through the blinds marked his pajamas with a pattern of pale golden stripes. Subaru took a step forward, then another, reached out and touched a fingertip to one of the ferns, and every frond fell off the plant at once, scattering to the floor in an almost inaudible chorus of tiny, dry whispers.

With a groan, Seishirou collapsed back onto the pillow.

He regathered himself quickly, however, aware that he couldn't afford such vulnerability. He had to be ready to deal with any reaction that might come from Subaru. Turning onto his back, he took a few more deep breaths, his gaze fixed on the ceiling as he smoothed out the roils in his body's energy system. He heard a soft rustle, a barely perceptible thump from Subaru's vicinity, but nothing more. The pain in his head diminished to a mere twinge, the nausea to an uncertain queasiness. That would have to do, at least until he could spend time and magic on a full recovery. As he sat up gingerly, he almost started--Subaru seemed to have vanished--before he looked lower and spotted Subaru kneeling on the floor. Subaru's head was bowed, the white pajamas draping him in graceful, downward-flowing lines, like snow lading the branches of a weeping pine. He was picking up the fern fronds; two were already clasped in his fingers as he reached to gather several more.

"Leave that, Subaru-kun." Seishirou hitched himself forward until he could slide his legs off the bed and put his feet down on the floor, under the trailing end of the covers. He noticed that the broad leaves of the dieffenbachia in the corner had turned yellow, that the inumaki had shed a shower of needles into its saucer and onto the shriveled foliage of the other fern below it. He wondered if the ivy in the kitchenette had been far enough away to have escaped the carnage. "I'll take care of it later."

Subaru's outstretched hand wavered, then lowered to rest on his knee. His fingers pinched tightly the stems of the two fronds that he held; their tips wavered, as though in some minute current of air. "Why?" he breathed.

"Because he was a fool who changed mistresses once too often." The vehemence in his own answer surprised Seishirou. Subaru stared at the angle where the floor met the wall, his gaze flat, endless, and opaque, the sun falling onto his hair and highlighting it with an iridescent sheen. Seishirou hesitated, then added more quietly, "Because it was just another job. It could have been any target, but he was the work that I took on."

"Because you saw no reason not to."

Subaru's stark gaze wavered--he closed his eyes, a trembling of lashes along his cheek as he tilted his head back, his profile tightening with some inexpressible suffering. For what seemed like a long time, though it was surely no more than a minute, Seishirou had no words as well. It was as though the truth in Subaru's statement hung and resonated in the air between them, and he was frozen waiting for it to resolve itself--for a rising note to shatter this glass interval, for a dying away that he could do nothing about, and all the while this stretched-taut sensation, as if he himself were the plucked string quivering--

"Subaru-kun," he said sharply, "come here." And he truly didn't know if Subaru would comply, or if Subaru would just turn those darkly lustrous, accusatory eyes upon him, eyes that would tell of hatred, of a final, inescapable decision made, or simply of burnt-out indifference, an end to caring. His heart thudded dully in his chest. It leaped when Subaru moved, letting the fronds fall and then pivoting, still on his knees--it beat faster, a rush of heat, a quickening inside himself as Subaru began crawling toward the bed. Head lowered, Subaru slid his right hand out in front of the left, his shoulders rolling unevenly with the motion, dragged his knee along the floor as he reached forward. He lifted one hand and then the other, tangling his fingers in the bedspread as he drew himself up to press his chest to Seishirou's knees, to bury his face against Seishirou's thigh.

For a heartbeat, neither of them moved.

Then Seishirou laughed once, an abrupt release of breath. He shifted his hand to stroke the back of Subaru's neck. He could feel tension in it, this surrender like the scant yielding of a heavy-gauge steel spring, like the muted crackle of a spell sealed beneath a ward.

A surrender, nevertheless.

"You amaze me, Subaru-kun," he murmured. "Honestly, you do. If someone were to betray me like that--" His hand had closed on Subaru's hair, and he opened it, smoothed through the rumpled strands. "I think I would have to kill that person."

"I'm not you." Subaru's voice was muffled. He ground his face against Seishirou's leg, his fists twisting into the covers. "I'm not you."

Raising his eyes, Seishirou gazed across the room, peripherally noting the little heap of clothing left on the floor by the dresser--a fleeting impression. His thoughts were elsewhere.

"No," he replied at length, slowly, and wondered at his own disquiet, this sense of undercurrents, of implications not quite grasped. "No. You're not."




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