Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
The teenaged boy knelt beneath the span of the flowering sakura tree. His back was perfectly straight, his head bowed slightly. His eyes were closed; a faint smile touched his lips. His high school uniform was immaculate, as crisp as though it were new. Around him, petals fell slowly, sporadically, no more than one or two at a time trailing down, an intimation of the fall yet to come.
As he sat there, hands resting easily on his thighs, his attention was focused inward. Memories shimmered, floating before his mind's gaze as lightly as dust motes, golden shards that never touched the ground. He sifted through them, picking out one here and there to examine more closely before setting it carefully into place among the rest. A bright pattern was being created against that inner darkness: a mosaic being pieced together, taking form.
Snow was falling, big flakes floating down just like flower petals. The sidewalk had been trampled to a brownish gray by people walking on it, but there was a clean, fluffy white layer on the sill of a large window. The little boy pushed his hand along the sill, watching the snow heap up higher and higher in front of his mitten until some of it started to spill over onto the ground.
Movement caught his eye. He stopped and glanced up. On the other side of the window, people were sitting at tables, eating, laughing, and talking, though he could only hear them a little through the glass. The light inside was golden; he could see candle flames wavering and jumping on the nearest tables. They put sparkles into the water glasses and the crystal drops hanging from the candle holders. The place on the other side of the window looked nice, all warm and glowing. The boy rested his hand against the glass. It was flat, smooth, and cold even through his mitten.
Not warm, after all.
Her laughing voice called to him. It danced like a snowflake falling all by itself, swirling about on the wind. Looking over, he saw that she'd turned from the woman she'd been talking to and was holding out one hand to him. Snowflakes had caught in her red scarf and her long, lion-colored braid of hair. She looked pretty, smiling a wide, happy smile, her eyes alight. The boy smiled too, exactly the same smile as hers, and hurried toward her until he could reach out and take hold of her hand. Her fingers closed onto his, gently but firmly.
They stood together, mother and son.
"Sei-chan, come here. I have something to show you."
The basement door was a crack into darkness. He pulled it open wider, and stairs appeared. They were only dark at the top, and not so much now that the door was open. There was light down at the bottom. Wood creaked under his house shoes; each careful step was a stretch for his legs, one foot and then the other reaching, his arm raised to hold onto the hand rail, just above the level of his head.
As he went down, the wall opened on one side, a space one step high, then two steps, then three, and the light came in there, yellow and dusty-looking. Through the gap, he could see part of the basement's hard gray floor. There was a big, dark smear on it, like someone'd made a spill and hadn't cleaned it up, and in the middle of the smear there was something pale, just at the edge of where he could see. He crouched to get a better look, and the bare light bulb on the basement ceiling hurt his eyes before he glanced past it. Bright spots and shadows made it hard to see at first, but he blinked and there it was again. That was a hand in the dark red smudge, and that was an arm in soldier green, and that was--
He started down again, still crouching at first. When he reached the post at the corner, where the steps turned, he could see everything without bending, and he stood up for the rest of the way. One step at a time, not dawdling, but not hurrying either. It gave him lots of time to look.
The man was lying on his back on the floor. His arm was stretched out toward the stairs, and his body was twisted as if he'd been squirming, but he wasn't moving now. There was a big red hole in his chest and stomach, shiny-wet in the light, and inside it there were...things. As he reached the bottom of the steps, he looked at the man's face. It didn't look like a real person's face--it looked rubbery, waxy, like a plastic toy.
He wondered if he was still supposed to call the man "Father."
She was sitting on the old futon mattress, against the far wall, in a corner where the light was dim. There were pipes hanging from the ceiling, and their shadows made darker bars across her. Her thick braid lay over her shoulder, its end just brushing her lap. It moved a little as she breathed. She held out one hand, and it was red, like the mess around the man's body. As she leaned back against the wall, tilting her head, her face slipped out of one of the lines of shadow. He could see her smile then. Her eyes were bright, watching him.
He walked around the man, careful not to step in any of the mess. It was blood, more than he'd ever seen before. The basement smelled funny, a smell that was thick and sharp and sweet, all at the same time. He looked at the wet, lumpy stuff in the hole in the man's body and wondered what it would feel like if he touched it. But he went to her without stopping.
Her smile and that brightness in her eyes told him. The way she had called to him and the way the man lay just so in the middle of the floor told him too. She might tease him later and say that it was just a game, but he knew better.
Talking and laughing and being with other people was the game. Nothing was really important, as long as you didn't let anyone find out that you were playing; when you were done you could usually forget about most of what had happened. This was like a game, but it was serious--it didn't stop when the time came to go home or do other things, but instead went on and on, deep beneath the surface. It came up again at times whether you were ready for it or not, and seeing and remembering everything really mattered, because if you missed something or got it wrong you could lose. Sometimes she called it what it really was: a test.
The game had rules. The test had rules too.
He was good at both.
As he stepped onto the mattress, she bent her arm into a little curve. This was where he had to kneel down next to her and settle against her side. Her breast was soft as he leaned his head on it. It lifted and fell with each slow breath, just like her braid. Her shirt, open at the neck, was spotted with more blood. Her arm folded around him, and her fingers walked up into his hair, curling into it, playing with it. He could feel them making it damp.
"Do you see him?" she asked.
The answer was too easy. Maybe he should have touched the man, to make sure that he was really there. He narrowed his eyes and looked hard, but he didn't see any of the threads that made up an illusion. "Yes," he decided at last.
Probably he'd been right, because there was a click in her voice, like a chuckle stuck at the back of her throat. "Do you understand?"
He thought about it. "He's dead," he answered. He knew what "dead" was, even if he hadn't known that it meant people coming open and showing their insides like that.
"Yes. That's right." Her hand moved, and two fingers stroked his cheek. "He won't be coming back anymore." Her voice was a quiet music, like a small bird singing a lullaby on its nest.
Those strong hands wouldn't pick him up anymore. There wouldn't be big boots clumping in the genkan and a deep laugh rolling through the house, telling them it was time for another visit. It was a strange thought, and he felt a tiny swoop in his stomach, like being swung up through the air to ride on one of those wide shoulders. But he didn't think too much about it. Right now, he had to pay attention.
Her fingers were stroking his neck. They brushed up over his chin, then stopped in front of his face. "Taste," she said, her voice even lower, her head bending closer to his. He could feel her warm breath on his hair. When he touched her fingers with his tongue, it tasted kind of like a spoon when all the cake dough had been licked off it; it made his nose prickle. He didn't like it especially. Still, maybe it was good for him.
"Ah." She sounded satisfied. She shifted so he was pressed more against her front, and both arms came around him, holding him against her. Her fingers began playing on his other cheek, painting lines up and down. "Don't forget." Her voice was soft and dreamy, as if she was telling a story. "This is what's inside every person. Blood and bone. Meat and offal. Everyone is all the same in the end." She was rocking them both from side to side, just a little. "Everybody. Just like this."
Her hand closed onto his neck--a hard grip, a dig of fingernails, and he knew he'd made a bad mistake. His chest hurt, his neck throbbed as though his heart was beating right under her hand. He felt cold and strange, a sharp, watery-weak feeling. Then, very slowly, her fingers loosened. Slowly they began moving on his neck again.
"Yes." Her voice was thick and scratchy underneath. It sounded like somebody else's. "Even me." Her fingers crept down and tangled in his T-shirt. They started to pull it up over his stomach, to touch the skin. "Even you." Her voice was full of threads being pulled apart, like a maboroshi showing the real underneath, but he couldn't see exactly what it was: just a darkness, and black things squirming, brushing past him, blind and angry and hungry. "Even you."
Her hands tugged at him--this was where he had to relax his whole body, to let those hands move him any way they wanted, just like moving the arms, legs, and head of a doll. He was safest like that, being just something that could be moved; it made him almost invisible. If those black things inside of her saw him, he knew he would die. She drew him down across her knees, bent low above him, and he felt her tongue scrape his cheek, where she'd drawn on him with the blood. She made a sound deep in her throat, like a sob, and whispered something, but she wasn't really talking to him anymore.
The way his head was turned, he was looking the dead man's body. It lay motionless, staring up toward the ceiling with those half-open eyes, eyes that couldn't see anything now. For the first time he really thought about it--about how the man had never seen anything beyond the pretend games that they'd played, had never known about the real things underneath the surface.
It probably wouldn't be so different, not having a father.
He came rattling down the stairs, his house shoes thumping on the steps, his school bag slung over his shoulder. The breakfast smells from the kitchen were already making his mouth water, even before he was halfway there. "Good morning!" he called out as he swung around the door frame, dropping his satchel in the corner.
"Good morning!" she replied. Laughter sparkled in her voice and in her eyes as she glanced back briefly over her shoulder. She was standing in front of the stove, wearing a pretty, frilly white apron over her dress to protect it from splatters. Ah--that had been bacon he'd smelled. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah!" Pulling out his chair, he sat down and clasped his hands on the table, trying not to fidget with impatience.
She looked back at him again, a longer look, a little smile curving her mouth. "Haven't you forgotten something?"
He stared at her. What could he possibly have forgotten? He'd made his bed, right? He'd washed his face and neck and even behind his ears, as well as his hands. He'd brushed his teeth and combed his hair neatly. His school uniform was in order. And he'd done all his homework the night before; she'd even helped him. Was there a field trip he hadn't remembered? Or maybe today was actually a school holiday, and they'd go out somewhere instead! She was watching him, and as he went through the possibilities and his silence dragged on her eyes grew darker, though she kept on smiling.
"What's your name?" she said at last.
His...? Realization dawned on him slowly: a strange emptiness, an absence when he tried to reach for that thought. He ought to--why didn't he have a-- He looked up at her, and saw her smile fade out, her expression going flat, like a closing door. She reached out and switched off the stove, moved the skillet to another burner, and then turned and came over to the table. Sitting down across from him, she leaned forward on her elbows and folded her hands under her chin, her gaze resting steadily upon his face.
Another test, then. The brightly colored kitchen seemed to thin and retreat, becoming insubstantial as a paper screen. Subtle pressures stirred through it like shadows, a familiar need and danger, like the whispering of restless dark wings. He sat up straighter, breathed in deeply, and focused his mind, turning his attention inward. Closing his eyes, he began to feel his way among the threads of thought and memory, looking for the thing he didn't know.
There was a white, domed thing on the kitchen table. He put down his toy truck and went to look at it. Round and white, with two holes for eyes, another for a nose, and a bare, grinning row of teeth. It looked almost like a face, almost like a person.
He got up onto a chair, knelt on the seat, and stared at the thing. After a moment, he put out his hand. He touched its curve--sort of smooth, hard, not quite like wood or plastic or stone. He touched the smudge of invisible shadow around it, and felt a tiny tug inside, a flash--
--a familiar room-filling presence, laughter, an easy solidity--
--the clasp of a small but strong hand, those beautiful golden eyes--
--a jolt, the world spinning, pain, pain, confusion, pain, a sinking downward, but still, still that smile--
It was thin and far away, like a voice calling from such a distance that there were no words, only a shirring like a cricket, a sound like the wind scraping in the park's trees. It was only an echo; there was really nobody there at all.
"Get rid of it."
He glanced over. She was sitting on the stool in the corner of the kitchen, staring out the narrow window. Faint smoke rose from the cigarette in her hand. She lifted it to her lips, drew on it, and then slowly blew out a long, wispy ribbon. The daylight in the room got stronger for a moment, as if the sun was struggling out from behind a cloud. Her face was hard and unmoving, without expression, like a dead person except for her eyes. They weren't blind or empty but were filled instead with something cold and dark, and something else hot underneath it, like a spiritual force sealed behind a ward. Her being there didn't surprise him--somehow he had already felt her presence. He could feel her now, too, watching him without using her eyes, her gaze fixed on the world outside.
"The rest as well. In the basement." Her voice was low. It sounded bored. "Don't let anybody see you."
A real game. An interesting one. He could feel the threat of consequences. He'd have to do it all really well. Tucking the skull into the crook of one arm, he climbed down off the chair. He glanced briefly into its round, hollowed-out eye holes as he held it cradled against his chest, then turned and padded out of the room.
He already had some ideas.
She stood in the doorway. The light from the hall streamed past her, framing her shadow as it stretched across the room toward the boy who lay sprawled on the bed. His hair was a dark tumble against the pillow, a few wisps straying over his closed eyes; his chest lifted and fell beneath the tangled covers. The woman's fingers stirred, restlessly stroking the side of the door frame.
"I could." Her voice was low, taut, harshly vibrant. "I could do it. I could kill him. Any day. Today. Now. He's just a child, still. They needn't ever know how it happened. And then--we could go on. You and I. Together." Her breath caught, a thin, thready flutter--her whole body trembled with it. She pressed herself against the door frame.
"The Final Day--it's not so long now. You wouldn't be too old.
"It could be you.
Clutching at the door frame, she stared at the child in the bed. Her head bobbed, like a cat measuring the distance of a jump. She leaned forward, hesitated, then drew back. Lifting her hand to her mouth, she bit at her fingers, her eyes wild and conflicted. They narrowed, and she made a soft, guttural growl deep in her throat--but she moved backward, one step, and another, until finally she turned aside and shut the door.
In the darkness, the boy's eyes drifted open. He gazed up toward the ceiling.
Pretty. So pretty. He could almost reach it, standing on the footstool and stretching all the way up on his toes. His fingertips touched one of the little glass animals; he felt it rock. He tried to reach further, to close his hand around it--
He slipped. His fingers bumped the animal, and it tipped and rolled off the dresser.
It fell onto the floor with a smash.
A glass kitten, its head and one lifted paw broken off. While he was staring at it, something moved in the doorway. She was there, looking down at the broken kitten too. Her eyes lifted from it, moving up and up till they reached his face. He didn't know what to do but stand there, still hanging onto the dresser.
With light steps, she crossed the room and knelt in front of him. Her long skirt swished on the floor. She picked something else from the dresser top--a glass bird--and held it up between two fingers. Its wings flashed red and green in the sun. She barely moved her head to look at it, then flicked her eyes back to him. There was a gold shine in them. She was smiling, and his chest felt squeezed inside. Should he smile too? She turned the bird, opened her fingers and let it fall--
Pretty shiny pieces on the floor. She picked up another one, a flower this time. His heart beat faster. Still smiling, she let it go--
Reaching out, she took his arm between her hands. Her fingertips were soft and warm against his skin--
What a brave boy, the nurses said later. He never even cried at all.
"S-ss--" Even speech seemed to be slipping away from him, escaping as memories shifted like a slide of loose sand. Shuddering, he found his center and tried again. "S-sei--" The word gleamed at him like a jewel, half-buried, winking in and out of concealment. He would not lose it again. Between the glimmerings of thought and experience, the shadows of ordinary forgetfulness, he reached down and dragged what he sought up through the black shards of the seal he'd found and broken. Up into the bright sphere of consciousness with a final effort, shaking and triumphant. "Seishirou."
The sunlight had shifted, he found when he opened his eyes, its angle steeper, lighting only the corner nearest the window. She was leaning back in her chair, arms crossed beneath her breasts. A cigarette smoldered lazily in one hand. He could smell its smoke, acrid against the oily smells of cooling eggs and bacon. His stomach gurgled audibly; he winced, then glanced at her face. Her eyes probed him, a measuring gaze that gave nothing back. The pause made him uncertain, and after that uneasy. The clock on the wall ticked faintly in the silence.
Her mouth tightened.
"Too slow," she judged. Leaning forward, she touched his forehead with two fingers. He felt that hard-won knowing waver and melt away, vanishing even as he fumbled after it. A weak, sinking feeling came over him, and somewhere in the center of it a hot core of resentment, but there was nothing he could do. She sat back in the chair and tilted her head, watching him without even a cold smile.
Squaring his shoulders, he closed his eyes and started over from the beginning.
He blocked the first two strikes, but the third ofuda tore through his shield. It hit him, and the magical energies jolted through his body, throwing him backward, a blast of pain like a ball of black fire erupting inside his chest, thin, crackling flares searing out along his arms and legs, and then the hard crack of slamming into the floor. He gasped for breath and tried to uncurl, to get his hands up at least--shield, shield. Another ofuda struck him and knocked him further back, sent him skidding on his side across the tiles in a fresh burst of fiery agony. His throat locked tight. No screams. He could feel the next talisman already being charged, then thrown, flashing toward him as he struggled to make his arms and legs answer. As if in a bad dream, he couldn't seem to do anything. There was an instant's shock of relief when he realized that the ofuda wasn't actually going to hit him--it struck the floor instead, and he felt it discharge, a ripping surge of energy. The floor cracked, shuddered, began to break apart. There was suddenly nothing solid and whole beneath him, only tilting pieces, and he did yelp then, grabbing instinctively, as if he might find something to hold onto. A huge creaking roar, a stomach-turning drop, blackness and a snapping crash--
Darkness. Not just nothingness. Where...? His eyes were closed, he realized. Slowly he understood that he was lying on something hard, not flat, lumpy and full of jagged edges. They were digging into his stomach, scraping his legs and arm and cheek. His palms throbbed in time with his heart. He hurt, he hurt, a dull, all-over tingle on the skin, fading now, replaced by the stabbing ache of muscle and bone--arm, shoulder, hip, chest. Everything. He stirred, tried to move that so he wasn't being poked quite so hard in the stomach, drew in a shaky breath--it tasted of dust, and he coughed, his whole body jerking until those spasms finished and he lay trembling, waiting for that new intensity of pain to fade.
He opened his eyes, turned his head. He had fallen through into the ground floor of the abandoned building where they'd been training. No light came in through the boarded-up windows. Above him, though, a ragged hole let weak sun stream down from the large, open upstairs area.
She stood at the edge of the hole. A veil of dust motes filled the air between them.
"Get up! Or I'll kill you."
He began pushing himself up onto his hands and knees, trying to move quickly enough to keep her from doing anything, but slowly enough to give himself a little extra time to recover. He breathed more deeply, controlled the cough. Some new strength had come from somewhere, a fire that surrounded the pain, that let him lock it away in the same place where he'd shut up that unvoiced scream, and others before it. Screaming and crying wouldn't save him. Using pain as an excuse wouldn't protect him. There was no mercy in her for weakness; only by being strong and completing the test could he survive. He heaved himself to his feet, careful, feeling for solid footing in the pile of debris. Glancing upward, he saw her lift one hand, fanning two ofuda between her fingers. That fire in him intensified, became a burning core.
He wasn't going to die.
Not for her.
He drew power up out of himself, reaching deeper than he ever had before. That inner fire fed the magic, or maybe both were the same thing, pouring into each other to create a greater whole. He wove the shield point to point before himself, had time to brace before the first strike came--those two ofuda hit, and another pair, and more, their magical energies flaring and dying against his protection. He could smell the spells' sizzling tang, could feel the jolts of collision through his shield, but their painful force didn't touch him. His own magic streamed like an invisible current across his skin, burned inside his head, but he kept his concentration, he clung to the power and made it do what he wanted, and his defenses held, held--
A strange clearness filled his mind, like a pure, otherworldly light. He felt different, more alive somehow, more aware of everything: the pain in his body, though it seemed far away now, the shape of the space around them, the crumbled building materials underfoot, the qualities of their spells' energies. Her attacks and his resistance seemed to melt into one, a rhythm surging and subsiding between them, as if the magical battle was something that had its own life. Lifting his eyes, he met her gaze and felt a surprising pang. That they were connected by this, like two slender branches with a spider's web strung between them, the whole thing resonating to every breath of wind, every passing insect's touch--the inside of his chest ached, as though he'd taken a too-deep breath. This was right, a rightness that he'd never known before. It burst like a star inside him, too bright and sharp to grasp all at once. The moment, the place, everything seemed to shine, and especially her, as if she was a different person too, not just that constant presence of motherly care and danger, but somebody particular in herself.
His opposite. His opponent. In delight and sudden anticipation he grinned at her, filled with excitement, though he wasn't quite sure for what. She smiled too, her real smile, the one she showed only to him: a flash of bared teeth, her eyes aflame in the sun's thin light. Leaping high, she seemed almost to hang suspended for a moment before she fell lightly toward him through the still-swirling haze of dust, her hands wreathed in the fire of sorcery, her braid a long whip snaking behind her.
Look, look, there's Sakurazuka-sempai! Wah, isn't he cool?
I wonder, does he have a girlfriend?
Those eager voices dissolved into giggles and whispers. As he turned into the library, the corners of his mouth tugged up into a half-smile. His thoughts, though, were mostly elsewhere.
That winter when he was nine--he had forgotten it. No, it had been forgotten. The memory had been lost within him, buried deep, like other things:
That dim room, bars on all the windows. Skin like snow, hair as black as dreamless sleep. The smell of blood.
Moonlight and shadows, teeth sharp against the skin. The near-silent slither of a thick braid as it slid over one shoulder, falling onto him.
The slow shocks of someone much larger and heavier bearing down a little at a time, moving, touching--
Now that he was beginning to remember, piece by piece...some things that he had never even thought to wonder about before made perfect sense.
"It could be you."
But instead, it's me.
He could feel tiny dragonflies of attention hovering and darting about him, those girls peeking at him from around the shelves. Unhurried, he strolled between the stacks, into the broad, hazy bar of sunlight from the window at the far end, running his fingertips along the books' spines, their dust jackets crinkling. They smelled like old rooms, like places long left unvisited. In that hush, he had a premonition of doors about to open, and a strange pressure began gathering inside his chest, growing, urgent for release.
Patience. Patience. The day was coming--not yet, but soon. He was sure of it. Until then, he'd go on just as he had. He'd be careful, and he'd continue to survive, getting stronger all the time. That was fine with him.
It was the life that he knew, after all.
He glanced back down the aisle, and a girl squeaked and jumped out of view. Unseen, his smile flickered wider, speculative and amused.
You're pretty cute, aren't you? I'd bring you home to play.
But I don't think you'd like "Mother."
One of the men in suits held the car door for him. He climbed in, and the man shut the door, then got into the front with the driver. Gazing out the window as the car began to move, he could feel her presence across the seat, could smell musty traces of cigarette smoke. He could tell from the quality of her attention that she was looking out her window too, but that every sense other than sight was fixed upon him.
"Well?" she asked at last. There was tension under the surface of that low, seemingly careless murmur, a kind of straining hunger. He watched the walls next to the road slide past. Old snow lay along their tops, dull white on this gray, cloudy day, a serene, somber harmony with the dark wood and stone.
"Beautiful. She was very beautiful, just like always." It was easy to keep his own voice light. It was harder to keep the laughter out of it. He could feel her raging on her side of the car like a contained fire, wanting more, a need almost as desperate as the need for air. Did she look well? Did she look happy? What was she wearing? Did she speak of me? Lifting his chin, he watched the passing rooftops, the swoop of power lines against the moody sky, and he smiled, an expression that was joyful, wondering, to all outward appearances utterly innocent. "It's funny. She looks so much younger than you do. 'Mother.' "
Frustrated cold fury blazed from the other side of the seat. She would do nothing with the men in suits around, though, these men who seemed to know something of the hidden game, but not all, not the truths behind their masks of tender mother and quiet son. He'd have to be careful for a while after the men were gone. But not for long.
Sakurazukamori. The word opened a world before him. A world where he had a power that was only for him, a secret that nobody living would share. He turned his head still further toward the window, his breath leaving a faint mist on the glass.
When he smiled, the smile was his own.
A couple of weeks and a "careless" revelation or two later, he was taken away by the men in suits for "more suitable care and training."
He made sure to glance back as he left, to catch the look in her eyes.
The boy stirred, shifting his shoulders, and opened his eyes. With calm satisfaction he drew in a long, deep, settling breath. Around him that desultory trickle of sakura petals continued without change. Every memory, every thought was in place in his mind, exactly as it should be, each piece interwoven with will, self-identity, and power until they all formed a luminous, perfectly integrated whole.
He smiled a little more widely.
It was time.
* * * * *
The woman picked her way over the humped-up tree roots, hidden beneath a thin layer of hard-packed snow. She moved like a hunting cat, testing each footfall, stopping every step or two to stare and listen--and more, to search her surroundings with other, inward senses. Every movement was taut, controlled, and graceful. Wait, and move, and wait again. No breath of wind stirred the bare branches above her, or moved the low ceiling of gray clouds; everything in the world seemed still. Certainly, it had to be a trap. Yet she came forward.
A sudden breeze brought life to the air. It lifted and spun stray snowflakes that glittered from some sourceless light. She whirled.
The little boy standing beside the tree raised his head. The wind tossed dark bangs above his wide, distressed eyes. They held a look that was lost, frightened, disconsolate.
She hesitated for only a split second. Then power flared between her hands. In a heartbeat it had gathered and burst into the form of an orange-gold, fiery bird-form, a flowering of wings and tail and crested head. She sent the shikigami blazing toward the child, aiming for the aura within or behind him, the living being hidden at the illusion's heart. With a shrilling cry, the shikigami tore into its target and erupted with a blast of lethal energy.
Behind her, Seishirou hurtled down from the tree's branches.
She whipped around to face him, but not quickly enough. Before she could block or call up another spell, his hand was slamming into her chest. Blood sprayed out her back, a thin spatter of drops falling across the snow. She jerked with a last frantic effort at breath, her eyes darkening, the gold vibrancy going out of them, leaving them a flat, dulling brown. Drawing his hand back a little, he curled his fingers inside her body, and gently pulled her closer to him. They were nearly the same height--he was perhaps a little taller, but she was sagging, sinking down as life continued to leave her, growing steadily heavier on his arm. He bent toward her, slowly leaning closer, and closer still. His lips were almost touching hers when he stopped.
"Goodbye," he murmured. His smile curved a hairsbreadth wider. "'Mother.'"
Straightening, he let her body slide off the end of his arm. It toppled backward and thudded on the ground in an ungainly sprawl. The snow was already rippling and heaving--slender roots burst out from beneath it, groping their way toward her, wrapping about her limbs, cutting deep into the flesh. They tore at the still-twitching corpse while he worked the binding magic, caging her wailing, wrathful soul and sealing it to the tree.
You can join your special person now.
If you can find her.
His working done, he closed his mind to the chorus of howling, gibbering voices. The roots had done their part, dragging her remains down under the earth, drinking up every drop of spilled blood, leaving the snow's surface disturbed but clean. The sakura tree shone for him, a soft white light, the breath of spring filling its branches, born from that uncountable multitude of pale pink, fragrant blossoms. He was comfortably warm just in his school uniform, without a coat. This was the power of the sakura tree: an eternal spring, an endless blooming. A constant flowering and fall that would never cease.
Stepping closer to the tree, he rested his palms against the bark. He watched it absorb the blood from his hand and arm. Even the dark, cooling stains soaking his jacket and shirt sleeve were sucked out and into the tree, until not so much as a fleck was left. Very convenient, he thought. He could feel the tree's curious, restless attention like a brooding fog around him, a presence that felt oddly familiar, although he couldn't quite place how. Pleased and amused, he stroked the tree's awareness with his mind, letting it sense him. It acknowledged him already, of course, after the rite of succession that had made him the Sakurazukamori, but still they needed to become more accustomed to each other. With all of his necessary business completed, they had plenty of time to take care of that.
He glanced at the torn and twisted corpse of the German shepherd puppy that he'd tied up next to the tree, its life force the vital spark hidden inside his illusion, the key that had allowed his distraction to work. It had been a good idea, he reflected, letting the dog stand in for him. He'd have to remember it; maybe it would come in handy again someday. At last, somewhat reluctantly, he stepped back from the sakura, letting his hands slip away from its bark. He listened to it mentally for a minute or two, until it had whispered itself back into slumber. Then he turned, preparing to leave the maboroshi realm that held the tree's true existence.
A man was standing a few meters away, in the circle of the sakura tree's aura.
He started. He hadn't sensed anyone coming up behind him--and how had the man wandered into the maboroshi? Perhaps he was a psychic of some kind. Seishirou wondered what, if anything, the man had seen. Then he shrugged. It really didn't matter. Anyone who saw the Sakurazukamori at work had to be killed, and if he was erred on the side of killing people unnecessarily, well, who'd care? The tree certainly would be happy, to be fed so well. Smiling, Seishirou turned further toward the man, drawing on the mask of an ordinary, inoffensive high school boy as he watched for his new prey's reaction. Would the man be lured in closer, unsuspecting? Or had he seen enough to be cautious, or to try to flee?
The man lifted his head a little. He was pale, slender, not much taller than Seishirou, dressed in a long white coat over dark jeans and turtleneck. He had short black hair wisping over his forehead and deep green eyes--beautiful, extraordinary green eyes. Seishirou felt a inward jerk, a strange, abrupt pang in his chest. The man's attractive face held an expression of quiet sorrow. Surely, then, he knew something about the kill, or perhaps he had some intimation of his fate. Still smiling, pulse quickening with an unusual excitement, Seishirou stepped closer. His first real prey, outside the rite of succession. He was very, very glad his victim was so beautiful. Maybe he'd kiss the man, too, after he was dead, just as he'd kissed his real mother, Setsuka.
The man watched Seishirou's approach with that unwavering look of almost tender sadness. A breeze blew a swirl of sakura petals past him, stirred his coat and the fringes of his dark hair as he murmured: "Seishirou-san...."
He sees me!
He knows my name!
He knows who I am!
The reaction was instinctive, senseless, out of all proportion. Seishirou jerked with it, a flinch as reflexive as leaping back from mortal danger, but wilder, a white blankness sweeping his mind, a loss of control that was disquieting. No--terrifying. Disoriented, he tried to stumble backward, but his legs were being restrained. He was lying on his back. He didn't know why. Something was holding him, shaking him, pressing him against a clutching softness. He couldn't see, and he twisted, struggled for breath--his eyes snapped open as he arched upward, and he saw that face just above him, green eyes wide and anxious. "Seishirou-san!"
His response was immediate--grabbing the other by the shoulders, he heaved and flipped them both over. That easily he was on top, the slender form pinned beneath him with a startled gasp, their bodies tangled together in a tight cocoon of cloth, the whole thing as quick as his jolting heartbeat. He could feel another pulse, almost as rapid as his, trembling against one hand, the fragile ridge of a collar bone under the other, the shallow, jostling movements of two people breathing fast, in slightly different rhythms. He stared blankly down. Anyone who sees the Sakurazukamori. He should--this was--Subaru gazed up at him, bewildered and distressed, and at that recognition, the recollection of his lover's name, a flash of self-possession returned. Swiftly, as if he was falling, like a shooting star yielding to irresistible gravity, he brought his mouth down onto Subaru's in a rush of passion, of need, a kiss that was devouring, seemingly almost desperate. After a moment's surprise, Subaru answered, giving back with equal fervency. Subaru's eyes flickered closed, and Seishirou took the opportunity to roll his own aside, darting a hasty glance around the room. The bedside lamp's intimate glow; the rucked-up covers drawn back from the flat plain of the mattress; the angles of floor, walls, and ceiling meeting at the shadowy near corner; the doorway opening onto the living room's darkness--all was familiar and exactly as it should be.
Somehow he found that no less disconcerting.
Dragging his attention back to Subaru, he made himself relax, let their kiss soften to become more melting, less frenetic. Subaru's fingertips touched his bare arm, rested there, then trailed upward to his shoulder. Trying to work his other arm around and beneath Subaru, he was balked by the twisted covers; a little slow writhing failed to loosen those bonds, and he ran his hand up to caress Subaru's hair instead. All was perfectly gentle, sensual, two people settling into the comfort and fulfillment of each other's presence. Drawing their kiss out to a lingering closure, Seishirou lifted his head and gazed down at Subaru once more, a faintly yearning smile tugging at his mouth.
"Subaru-kun," he murmured, "do you know what I want right now, more than anything else?" Subaru's own smile brightened subtly, an evanescent moongleam of dreamy bliss. Seishirou paused for effect.
"Ice cream!" he announced, and that gleam winked out into the vacuum of outer space as Subaru just stared at him. "You know, I'm having a real craving. Do we have any more of the good kind, the one with the little chocolate fish in it?"
"No...I don't think so."
"Oh. Oh, that's too bad." With a sigh, Seishirou sagged. Rolling a little to one side, he propped himself on an elbow and gazed with thoughtful longing toward the other room. "What to do, what to do. Grapes aren't quite the thing. There's hot chocolate, but I was thinking of something more substantial--ah! There's that doughnut left over from yesterday. Though it might be a little stale by now...."
"I'll go out."
"Really?" Seishirou blinked at Subaru with a surprise that was only partially feigned. "Are you sure? It's late, and after all it's really not that important. I can certainly make do with--"
Cool fingers came to rest on his lips, silencing him. Bemused, he gazed at Subaru. Subaru's smile had returned, a little different now--an edge of irony to it, amusement, a resigned tolerance, and through and about the rest that patient, enigmatic, oddly knowing love.
"It's fine," Subaru said.
"Oh. Okay." Subaru wriggled his legs experimentally, and Seishirou shifted over, tugging at the sheet and blanket to help loosen them. Once Subaru had scrambled free of the bed, Seishirou busied himself with rearranging the covers and himself, catching the occasional worthwhile glimpse as Subaru shed his pajamas and pulled on sweat pants and a shirt: a flash of long, pale legs, the stretch and flex of a slender torso. By the time Subaru was dressed, Seishirou had draped himself across the mattress, the covers slid down into an artful rumple about his waist, his arms cradling the pillow on which his head rested as he soulfully watched his savior. "Thank you, Subaru-kun," he murmured. He was rewarded with an acknowledging glance, a headshake and another fleeting glint of that smile as Subaru headed for the doorway. Subaru vanished into the living room's dimness; a few moments later, the apartment door opened and then closed. Seishirou lay still for a while longer, listening to the silence, following with his other senses the retreat of Subaru's presence until it faded at last from his immediate perceptions.
It hadn't been his intention to get Subaru out of the apartment--just to confuse him, knock him off balance, give him something to think about other than Seishirou's somewhat peculiar reactions.
Still...maybe it had been for the best.
Seishirou rolled over. He slid himself up until he sat with his back to the headboard, took a moment to breathe deeply, then glanced to one side and noted his cigarettes and lighter on the night table, in their usual place next to the clock. Leaning across the bed, he reached for them, and unanticipated movement caught his peripheral vision, froze him into wary alertness. His eye found the motion's source, though by then it had gone still--his own reflection in the standing mirror on the far side of the room. Slowly he finished collecting his cigarettes and sat up again, watching himself as he moved, a figure that seemed far away, a room that was like another world, closely bounded by the dark wooden frame. As he straightened enough for his face to come into view, he studied it as though it was someone else's: handsome, expressionless at the moment, a mask with shuttered, watchful eyes, one a warm brown struck with just that merest hint of gold, the other an alien, empty white. The lost eye was a shock of otherness, breaking any illusion of similarity, dispelling the ghost of memory.
The image of that person.
He smiled, and his smile was echoed by that mask in the mirror. Though he remained uneasy, he felt in control of himself once more, as though he'd found the turning point that would lead him back to normalcy, or, at any rate, back to what was normal for him. Flipping open the pack, he shook out a cigarette and put it between his still-quirked lips.
How strange, he mused, striking flame from the lighter, that such memories would come back into his thoughts now. Not, of course, that he had really forgotten them. They were part of what made him himself, after all, everything he had experienced and overcome; repossessing them, knowing himself clearly and entirely for the first time had been a tremendous freedom, the penultimate attainment of his coming into power as the Sakurazukamori. Certainly she had tried to do things to his mind, to dominate or cripple the person that she couldn't destroy outright--not even with conscious design, he thought, not with any plan for eventual victory but with the senseless, selfish malice of a frustrated small child. In the end, he had survived it, he had reclaimed those scattered pieces and built from them the edifice of will and self-identity, and from there all had gone just as it should. He was here, alive and strong, and she was not. He looked back on her exactly as he looked back on all the rest of his life: she was another part of that succession of obstacles and triumphs, of small, bright pleasures to be enjoyed and the occasional unpleasantness that had to be dealt with, and none of it any more special than anything else.
He imagined that it would have infuriated her to know the truth.
I never hated you.
He found himself obscurely amused. He touched the tiny, dancing flame to the cigarette's end and watched it catch, a delicate orange tracery devouring paper and leaf, bite by infinitesimal bite. Snapping the lighter shut once more, he laid it and the pack on the bed. The cigarette smoldered, a familiar acrid scent, the accustomed taste of burning in his mouth. Its smoke rose up in languid, seemingly random curves.
Not his birth mother, in the end, but the woman who had raised him, trained him, played games with him at will for the first years of his life. Perhaps she had been some cousin of Setsuka's, or of whoever his father was--there had been enough resemblance between them that no one had ever questioned their relationship. He neither knew nor cared. He had feared her, naturally; he had resented her power over him as he grew old enough to recognize it, just as any human being would resent a capricious, apparently omnipotent god. He could remember an oppressive sullenness, even the occasional sharp stab of anger, but nothing that he would call "hatred."
Nothing like the way you hated me.
He drew in a lungful of smoke, then tilted his head back and blew it out, an unhurried stream. His shoulders shifted in wry acknowledgment, almost a silent chuckle.
But then, how could I have hated you? For as long as I can remember, I've never felt things the way ordinary people do--but even so, it's not just that.
In fact, it never even occurred to me that I should hate you.
You were my reality. As a child, you were the defining fact of my existence. My whole world consisted of you. Can somebody who's been blind from birth ever truly hate that darkness? Never having seen anything, never knowing what it's like?
A fleeting thought glimmered across his mind then, its significance subtle and elusive, yet as unsettling as a chill draft fingering the skin.
But...if that person had been given a taste of what it meant to see?
His reflection stared back at him, eyes narrowed. After a moment, he glanced aside. Leaning over again, he collected the ashtray from the bedside table and tapped into it a growing tail of gray ash. It occurred to him that perhaps he should take a hint from this dream and revisit his inner landscape to make sure that everything was in order. Who knew what disruptions his recent sakanagi might have caused--or it might even be the other way around, that some crack in his sense of self had helped open the way for that backlash. And there was the fact of the dreaming itself, so uncharacteristic for him, and the undercurrents that had been plaguing him even before that, since the death of the young windmaster, a jitteriness that was almost like anxiety...there had been strangeness in him of late, things he didn't fully grasp or understand, and now of all times he could not afford such flaws.
He could not forget who he was.
Seishirou sat up straight once more, drawing one leg up to his chest and resting his arm on his bent knee. Concentrating on the cigarette clasped between his fingers, he set to work on focusing and clearing his mind as he waited for Subaru to return with the ice cream.
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