Sakura and Snow

Chapter 18


By Natalie Baan



"Are you sure you don't want to sit here with me, Subaru-kun?"

Subaru slanted a look at Seishirou. With precisely staged, elegant casualness, the man lounged on the low seat built into the elevator's curving back wall, his legs stretched out long before him, his arms extended to either side along the seat's back. One hand fingered the plush wine-red fabric in a caressing invitation; tiny gold-toned lights from the miniature chandelier overhead reflected in dark glasses as he tilted his head with a smile.

Subaru could feel his eyebrows threatening to twitch. Controlling his frown into something more like a neutral expression, he shook his head. Getting caught once in a compromising position in an elevator--that he could live with. It had been their--Seishirou's--apartment building, and anyway he could excuse it with the alcohol if Seishirou ever tried to make jokes about it. (So far, thankfully, it had never come up in front of other people.) This place, on the other hand, was extremely expensive and upscale. Even before they'd gotten into the elevator, the luxurious decor of the lobby and the subdued yet attentive presence of security had made it obvious what sort of people lived here. In fact, it was exactly the kind of building where some of his wealthiest and best-connected clients might live. And although the chance of meeting any of them was small, although he'd been out of circulation for the last half-year anyway, caught up in the struggle for the end of the world, in surroundings like these he felt himself once more the head of the Sumeragi clan, moving in such circles by right of an ancient reputation, his presence an odd blend of breeding and uncanny power, of service and privilege. There had been a time when he would have been painfully self-conscious, stricken at the thought of any wrong step; it came more easily to him now, as he had so much less of himself invested in it, but he remained acutely aware of what was appropriate and what wasn't. He was not about to let himself be groped.

Not even if that glimpse of Seishirou leaning back against the seat, all predatory ease and sensuality, had shivered him to the quick with a tremor of something far removed from annoyance.

Turning from Seishirou, Subaru regarded his own reflection in the burnished gold metal of the elevator doors. He still wasn't sure why they were in such a place, let alone in a private elevator on its way to the penthouse apartment. Seishirou had been slyly evasive, with the undertone of glee that meant it was supposed to be a "fun" surprise of some kind. He couldn't imagine what, but considering that it was one of Seishirou's surprises...certainly that was why he was so uneasy, why he felt a growing pressure of foreboding, a subtle yet distinct weight as though he were already under the measuring gaze of strangers--

Subaru snapped a glance up at one of the rear ceiling corners, met his own sharp stare in the mirrored paneling. Surely it couldn't be her...but of course in a building like this they would have security personnel monitoring the elevators. Perhaps it was only some guard's passing attention that he'd felt, exaggerated by his nervousness. Still, he didn't like the thought of being caught on camera.

"We're almost there." In a single fluid motion, Seishirou abandoned his sprawl and rose to stand close to Subaru--too close to be at all innocent. One hand settled onto Subaru's shoulder, the man's arm curving against Subaru's back as they both faced the doors, as if to enclose him, to claim him as a possession, maybe to prevent flight, and he could sense steel underlying that ostensibly careless gesture, a sudden concentration of will and alertness that made him feel both safer and even more wary. His thoughts darted futilely, like the rapid pulse aflutter in his throat; swallowing, he had time for one deep, centering breath as the elevator glided to a halt.

The doors rolled open. He had a split-second perception of expansive, multi-leveled space, a sfumato of neutral-colored furniture in subdued illumination, with here and there a pool of brighter, crisper accent lighting, and on two sides of the room floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto a jewel-starred panorama of night-time skyline--only that, before motion caught and focused his gaze. The woman who was unhurriedly advancing toward them--tall and sinuous in a close-fitting dark red dress and bolero jacket, ornate gold earrings glittering against her long black hair--was unfamiliar to him; the same couldn't be said for the teenaged girl sitting on a high stool at the bar, watching their entrance impassively from behind heavy glasses, or the blond man who had paused in the act of pouring sake, his expression ingenuous and surprised.

Dragons of Earth. A chill rippled through Subaru, an icy wash of shock, recognition, an instinct-deep awareness of danger that made all the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and on its heels a sinking pang of realization, a familiar gray dawning of dismay.

"Ah, Sakurazuka-san," the woman was saying, her voice husky, musical, and amused. "I'm so glad that you were able to make it after all."


* * * * *


"The pleasure's all mine," Seishirou said brightly. He kept his arm around Subaru as he bowed, compelling the other into a bow as well and forestalling anything more than that hairsbreadth automatic twitch toward the ofuda that Subaru certainly had concealed somewhere about his person. Subaru was stiff with alarm and possibly outrage, but aside from that he didn't resist; nor did Seishirou give him time to recollect himself and begin to struggle. Straightening and slackening his grip so that it was a little less of an outright embrace, he beamed at Kanoe. "So good of you to extend the invitation."

Kanoe preened, playing her role as hostess just as thoroughly as he was playing the role of guest, and if they hadn't both had years of covering up their true selves with a polished facade of normalcy he thought they might possibly have fallen down laughing on the spot. Instead, with truly admirable poise, Kanoe glided to one side of the genkan and slid a dark mirror aside to reveal a closet, her lacquered nails clicking faintly against the glass. "Please, let me have your coats."

"Your coat, Subaru-kun," Seishirou prompted helpfully, since he was quite sure that Subaru wouldn't get into the act on his own, "and then we can go and join the party."

If Subaru had been just the tiniest bit less well-bred--or perhaps the word should be "well-trained," considering his grandmother--he would have indignantly mouthed the word party? He managed to restrain himself, but Seishirou could still read the expostulation in his flatly incredulous stare. Smiling and inexorable, Seishirou took hold of the collar of Subaru's coat, and at his gentle tug Subaru began to shrug out of it, perhaps automatically, perhaps out of a desire to prevent Seishirou from taking a more active hand in undressing him. Subaru had always worried a little too much about what other people thought; what had been a self-effacing wish to please or at least not to offend as a boy had taken on a note of pride as an adult, Seishirou had noticed. It added tension to the game of stirring up reactions, making things that much more interesting. "Thank you, Subaru-kun. Why don't you go and make yourself comfortable? Maybe Yuuto-kun will fix us something to drink."

"Sure," Yuuto said, all easy-going amiability. "Is sake good? We also have beer."

"Sake, I think," Seishirou responded on Subaru's behalf as he handed Subaru's coat off to Kanoe and then removed his own. Subaru had been distracted--as he'd taken his first cautious steps into the room, the bioroid Nataku had appeared from somewhere to watch him, wide-eyed and expressionless. The two stared at each other, then circled like strange cats meeting, Subaru skirting around Nataku at a safe distance while the bioroid pivoted in place to watch him go by. Subaru sank down with exquisitely wary grace onto one of the long beige sofas, and Seishirou, as soon as he could disengage himself from Kanoe and the coat closet, went to join him. Standing behind Subaru, he leaned forward over the low sofa back, poised with a casual possessiveness that he was quite sure most of the other Dragons of Earth could read. The bioroid, however, could be a problem, inexperienced as it was with anything other than combat. Fortunately, it still seemed stuck at the level of trying to grasp the situation.

"Why is the Dragon of Heaven here?" it asked at last.

"I wonder," Subaru murmured under his breath, faintly sarcastic, his voice so soft that Seishirou was probably the only one to hear him. Seishirou suppressed a grin.

"He's Sakurazuka-san's guest," Yuuto replied, sliding around the critical issue with slick ingenuousness. Truly, he was wasted in the civil service; his gifts belonged at the top level of the country's bureaucracy, in politics. The bioroid, to its credit, appeared dubious, though probably that was less a matter of intelligence and more due to the fact that its entire existence revolved around the end of the world, rendering it less likely to be diverted.


"Only rude people fight at parties," Yuuto said firmly. "Nataku-kun, how are you liking the sake?"

"It tastes...strange."

Kanoe tittered with a little too much force and volume before sweeping the bewildered bioroid ahead of her as she headed toward the bar. "I think Nataku would do better with soda," she said, shooting Yuuto a deadly look. The man grinned back at her, unrepentant. "I'm not so sure it should be here," she muttered to him as they passed.

"Our Kamui is otherwise occupied tonight, right? So it won't be a problem. And tomorrow is for tomorrow to worry about." Behind his facade of idleness, Seishirou's ears pricked up, but no further information seemed to be forthcoming. When he and Kanoe had last spoken, after the completion of that job he'd taken on for her, and Kanoe had invited him to this little soiree, she had made a point of mentioning, with slightly too-obvious carelessness, that the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth would not be present. It had certainly been a factor in his decision to attend--or at any rate, to attend like this. He wouldn't have brought Subaru so freely into the reach of someone that powerful and unpredictable. He wondered, though, what the Kamui could be occupied with.

"Here you go." Yuuto had paused in front of them and was holding out a cup of sake to Subaru. Subaru tilted his head, a barely perceptible motion, inclined a glance up toward Seishirou. Seishirou nodded, equally deliberate, and as Subaru accepted the drink with immaculate grace and a murmured formal courtesy a flicker of heat stirred within him, an uncoiling exultation, the tension of a nearly feral pleasure. With a mild effort of will, he tightened his fingers on the couch back, resisted the impulse to rest his hand on Subaru's head, to stroke Subaru's hair.

Ah, Subaru-kun.

You play this game so well.

Yuuto's eyes were bright and speculative as he offered the other cup he held to Seishirou--a fool, but an observant one. Though it was likely that everyone in the room had noted that exchange, all senses being on alert at the presence of this other among them, and each person was weighing its significance, trying to figure out why the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan was here and what it might mean.

And of course, that was the entire point of attending Kanoe's get-together, when otherwise he would have dismissed it as uninteresting--to make them wonder about just what bound the Dragon of Heaven to him, the force and extent of a compulsion that would bring Subaru so quiescently into the midst of enemies. Kanoe had already known about their involvement, from her visit in his dream that time--she had even included Subaru in her invitation, with a teasing slyness that had suggested she didn't really expect Seishirou to take her up on it. He knew that gossip certainly wasn't beyond her, so it was all too probable that Yuuto and Satsuki, her closest associates, also had some idea of what was going on. When he'd thought about it, it had become clear that the cloak of secrecy around their affair was already compromised, so what better response than to emerge from those concealing shadows and turn it all into a performance, a challenge, flaunting his dangerous catch in front of his fellow Angels and daring them to make something of it?

After all, one never achieved a victory, however trifling, by doing what was expected.

Satisfaction smoldered in him, a low golden burn that complemented the excellent sake's fire. He'd been restless these last few days, out of sorts, as though constrained by the weight of unseen shackles. How good it was to shake off that oppressive feeling and stretch once more, to push the boundaries, to be the Sakurazukamori moving according to his own rules, accountable to no one else. The possibility that some reckless person might actually try to lift a hand against his lover had added a fine edge of risk. Indeed, let someone try. But he'd doubted from the beginning that it would come to that, and now he judged that the critical moment was over--everyone had committed themselves to the fiction that this was a normal party, and the only dueling that might take place would be conversational. That was just fine with him; in fact, all was going as ideally as he could wish. Even Subaru was fulfilling his role to perfection, neither making an outraged scene nor succumbing to panic and trying to fight or flee, but instead carrying himself with quiet dignity, his manner aloof and carefully controlled yet with just a hint of submission as he looked to Seishirou, and only Seishirou, for his cues.

And there was the crux of that most intense pleasure, the keynote of his enjoyment of this evening, Seishirou realized--that he had brought Subaru into this den of Angels, all unsuspecting, that Subaru was completely in his hands now, following his lead in this dance, reliant upon him as guide and protector. His prey. His possession.


For all that Subaru was playing along, he was probably furious behind that composed exterior--angry and betrayed at having been set up like this, trapped and manipulated into a position that had to be less than comfortable, and all for the sake of a game that he cared nothing about. It occurred to Seishirou that he hadn't really considered the implications of this emotional jolt, its ripples across the wider field of their involvement with each other, and he felt a dim stirring of unease.

Had this, after all, been a mistake?

No matter, he decided. Mistake or not, it was done, and there was no way to undo it. He'd find a way to fix things with Subaru later, and all would be fine. In the meantime, he'd continue to enjoy himself. Shrugging off the vague disquiet that had been threatening to put a chill in his gratification, he refocused on the party, which seemed to have arrived at one of those awkward lulls where no one had quite hit upon what to say next. He thought of the Western superstition about such silences--an angel is passing--and grinned to himself. Slipping off his sunglasses, he tucked them into his breast pocket and glanced toward Satsuki, who was watching him with cool fixity, her chin cradled on one hand as she leaned on the bar.

"Sakurazuka Seishirou," she said, her tone as expressionless as her gaze. She swung one leg idly, her heel kicking against the leg of her stool. "Born April 1, 1965, in Tokyo."

"That's right." Seishirou smiled back at her with ingenuous good humor. Of course, his "official" information wasn't hard to find, but he somehow found himself wondering if she'd uncovered the romantic compatibility horoscope that he'd had done for himself and Subaru, and if so what she might make of it.

Satsuki fished a maraschino cherry out of her drink. "How strange that there aren't any hospital records," she mused, and bit the cherry off its stem with efficient precision.

"Well, it was a home birth. A traditional family, you know." That much was actually true, he reflected. And if Satsuki had come across the horoscope, she was clearly missing the point of it, or else had a peculiar idea of how to goad people into reaction. Perhaps after nine years that data was no longer available--the computer was surely trash by now, and it was quite possible that it had never been on any network. He wondered what had happened to the print-out. Taking another sip of his sake, he waited for Satsuki to let the other shoe drop.

Behind the girl's glasses, her eyes gleamed, though her voice remained detached. "So. Care to tell me the name of the midwife?" Seishirou stared back at her, drawing a look of wide-eyed surprise across his face.

"Why--are you pregnant? Should I be saying 'congratulations'?" Yuuto burst out with a laugh before he got himself under control, and Satsuki, improbably enough, colored faintly. She sat up straight and turned away, radiating stiff disdain. Seishirou was no more impressed by her feigned indifference than by her attempt at predatory interrogation, or, for that matter, her usual attitude of total ennui.

If it's about "cool," it looks like you still need a few lessons, doesn't it....

"Sakurazuka-san, you're terrible. Stop teasing our cute Satsuki like that," Kanoe put in. In Seishirou's opinion, the child was about as cute as a naked mole rat, but tastes differed. Kanoe seemed about to add something else but was interrupted by a low trilling. Reaching under the bar, she brought out a phone; with a tilt of her head, she let her hair swing aside as she lifted it to her ear. "Yes? Oh?" Kanoe's voice dropped on the sound, drawing it out long and low. "Really...yes, it's fine. Let them come on up." As Kanoe replaced the phone, she smiled with a vulpine edge that seemed, somewhat disconcertingly, to be aimed at him and Subaru. "Well, well. It looks as though we have some more guests arriving."


* * * * *


Subaru stared at the fine white ceramic cup in his hand, letting the banter wash past somewhere over his head. A fraction of his awareness remained alert to anything that might require his attention, whether it be an active threat or simply someone addressing him; a larger portion hovered about Seishirou, trying to read the man's intentions, to divine any signals that he might be sending, either deliberate or incidental. All else was consumed by blankness, a solid white-out as hard and featureless as a blizzard, a numb, angry static.

So they were back to this.

In the last day or two, Seishirou had been almost subdued. Clearly that had been too good--or strange--to be true. He had thought that maybe, maybe, even if Seishirou was acting unlike himself, even if Seishirou was struggling with something, in some kind of inner distress, at least it might mean that they were getting somewhere. He felt keenly guilty for looking at the discomfiture of the man he loved as a positive thing, but it was the truth, however cold it might seem. He had never believed that it would be easy, either for himself or for Seishirou. Seishirou appeared to want all the benefits of their closeness without paying any personal price for it, but that wasn't how it worked. There was always a price hidden somewhere, like the sakanagi, the inevitable return that came with any spell.

As a magician, Subaru had known for a very long time about the give and take of energy, about how the power behind a magical working had to come from somewhere--was taken out of the practitioner's own body, if nothing else--and how the emptiness left behind by whatever was sent out helped to draw those ripples of return swiftly toward it, filling itself once more. He had known all of that, as far as the working went, but he'd had trouble applying it to himself on levels other than the strictly technical. He had poured himself out constantly, unceasingly, for the people he was protecting, for his grandmother's expectations, and he had never understood that those resources were not endless, that a day might come when he had nothing left.

Hokuto had known. He grasped now things that she had been trying to tell him all along, and he had to wonder at the boy he'd been, how he could have been so close to his twin and yet sometimes it had been as though she was speaking another language.

But could he, being the person he was, have done any differently? Before he had come face-to-face with death itself and learned the real limit of his ability to make a difference?

It had never been the cigarettes that had increased his power after all, but that he had learned to hoard himself, to save himself for only one thing, for only one person, so much so that the little toll smoking had taken from him had been more than made up for.

But now, to be asked to give and give and give, and to know that, however much he wanted to, if he let himself become utterly empty for that person it would all become meaningless....

Subaru turned the cup, its surface a polished smoothness against his fingers. It would serve Seishirou right if he threw the cup down on the soullessly neutral carpet, stood up, and marched right out of this so-called party.

Did he owe it to Seishirou to stay instead, to let himself be put on display as the man's trophy?

Half-heard words filtered in on him, highlighted by a general ripple of attention shifting toward the elevator, by Seishirou straightening, a subtle tension in the movement. Blinking, Subaru pulled himself out of the morass of his thoughts. More "guests"? If it was true, as that man had said, that the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth wouldn't be here, then who else was left? He was just starting to count off Angels when the elevator door rolled open. Cautiously he turned his head enough to glance in that direction, over the low back of the couch.

The man who moved into the room was very tall and broadly built--powerful-looking, with a face that was what Subaru supposed people meant by "ruggedly handsome." If he was in fact an Angel--and there was an aura of quiet power about him, not bearing the signature of any familiar type of practitioner but something less structured and defined, more elemental--he was one that Subaru had never encountered personally. Despite his formidable appearance, he seemed wary, ill at ease. The woman had glided forward to meet him; she paused and surprise flickered across her face. There was movement on the man's other side, a small figure stepping into view--a familiar figure, seeming even more delicate than usual as she emerged from her companion's eclipse. Clasping her hands together, she dipped into an abrupt bow, short hair swinging forward about her face.

"G- good evening!"

"Yuzuriha!" He'd spun about, legs coiling beneath him as if he might hope to launch himself over the couch and do something meaningful, her name startled out of him before he thought. She jerked back upright, her head whipping around to spot him.

"Subaru-san!" She stared at him for a blank, stunned instant. Then, for some reason, she blushed.

With an effort, Subaru remained in his seat. Nothing had happened, nobody was making any threatening moves; there was no reason to tip the situation over into open conflict for so little as this. And from the way Yuzuriha was reacting, she hadn't been startled by the Dragons of Earth, at least two of whom he was fairly sure she had to recognize, but instead by him--which meant that she hadn't been duped into being here but had come with some foreknowledge of what she was getting into. More than he'd had, anyway...but obviously she didn't know everything. A person that she loved, a Dragon of Earth--what had the man told her exactly? How had he convinced her that this was anything remotely like a good idea? And was there an underlying plan of some kind, to have the two of them meet each other here, unawares? Glancing over, he caught the Angel's gaze and discovered there only confusion and a shock that didn't seem feigned. Their hostess had seemed surprised as well, he recalled.

Could it possibly be coincidence? The idea seemed faintly absurd.

And even aside from all of that, if Yuzuriha and her escort were supposed to be friends, or perhaps something more than that, what reason could the man have for bringing her to a place like this, in the midst of what were, after all, her enemies? A cruelty and confidence like Seishirou's? A declaration of rebellion, or some more labyrinthine message, intended for the other Angels? The genuine belief that this was just a party, and that bringing a Dragon of Heaven for a date was completely unremarkable? There were entirely too many questions.

"Interesting," Seishirou murmured, a dark and speculative purr, serene echo to Subaru's own chaotic wonderings, and he fought down the urge to really panic, to leap up, snatch Yuzuriha away, and run.

He could foresee disaster, if Seishirou decided it was time to extend his game-playing to toy with these tangled threads.

On the other hand, it seemed that Seishirou might not have been expecting this either....

"Good evening, and welcome," the woman was saying, with the same dramatic and vaguely disturbing intensity with which she'd greeted Subaru and Seishirou. She eyed Yuzuriha, her stare and smile intent.

"Um, I'm Nekoi Yuzuriha. Nice to meet you!" Yuzuriha grinned up at the woman, nervous, showing a little too much teeth, and for an instant he could see the mark of the inugami in her, unconcealed by the usual kittenish mask. "And everyone else, too!" Darting aside, her gaze skimmed the room, faltering only when it snagged briefly on Subaru and then on Seishirou, before her Angel companion, who'd been restlessly shifting his weight, rocked a half-step forward, and she cast a distracted glance back over her shoulder, acknowledgement and question as the man loomed above her.

The woman's eyes flicked up at that movement. Apparently she didn't share enigmatic jokes with this Dragon of Earth as she did with Seishirou; at any rate, she made no further comment and stopped regarding Yuzuriha as though the girl was a dessert. More airily and to the room at large, she said, "My goodness, how rude--I've been neglecting my introductions. I'm Kanoe. Just 'Kanoe' is fine." She named off everyone around the room, ending, with a note of sly insinuation, "And of course, you already know Subaru-kun."

"Um, yeah." Yuzuriha gave him a shy smile, still uncertain, but he could already see traces of her irrepressible bubbliness starting to resurface. She didn't quite jump as Kanoe swept past her, pausing next to the man to give him an arch glance.

"Shiyuu-san, don't be a lump. Take a lady's coat." The man--Shiyuu Kusanagi--started, then awkwardly began trying to help Yuzuriha out of her coat while she, just as awkwardly, hurried to disentangle herself from it and from her long scarf. There was mutual interference and muttered apologies. Both of them were blushing this time. The transfer finally accomplished, Kanoe hauled the man off toward the coat closet, calling back to Yuzuriha as they went, "Make yourself comfortable, please!" Looking somewhat dazed, Yuzuriha stared around the large, shadowy room. Her gaze settled onto Subaru again, and she moved toward him, hesitantly at first, then with increasing certainty. As she slid onto the couch, smoothing out her skirt beneath her, Seishirou gave Subaru's shoulder a single weighty pat and then withdrew, moving off toward Kanoe and Shiyuu. Subaru wondered if he was going to compare notes with the other Dragon of Earth.

"He actually came," the girl Yatouji was murmuring, barely audible. "He never comes."

"Well, neither does Sakurazuka-san," the blond man, Kigai, replied. He chuckled faintly. "It must be the booze." More loudly, he added, "Miss, do you want a soda?"

Yuzuriha touched a thoughtful finger to her lips. "Would it be rude to ask for sake instead?" she mused out loud. Noticing Subaru's stare, she jumped and fluttered, backpedaling quickly. "Of course, a soda would be fine!"

At fourteen, Yuzuriha should not be having alcohol in the midst of these Dragons of Earth. In fact, strictly speaking, neither should he--as companionable as everyone was being, they were not among friends, and he knew that he had relatively little tolerance. He'd have to be very careful if he didn't want to cloud his wits.

But did he have any right, really, to be telling Yuzuriha what she should or shouldn't do? When she was old enough to sacrifice herself in the fight to save the human world from its destruction, to carry secrets in the privacy of her own heart, to be no less alone in this than he was, than any of them were?

"Have whatever you want," he murmured. "It doesn't matter to me."

"Maybe later," she responded, just as quietly. The words had twisted on him somehow, coming out colder than he intended, more indifferent, when indifference was the opposite of what he felt, but she smiled at him, unconcerned now, serene as summer. He had a moment's intimation of what she might be like someday, the woman she'd grow into in the future, if she survived. Then-- "Ah! Thank you very much!" She bounced to her feet to accept a glass from Kigai, all her usual effervescence back in full force. Kigai blinked as if startled--not all that uncommon a reaction to Yuzuriha's enthusiasm, Subaru had noticed. Then he grinned.

"The other side definitely has all the advantage when it comes to youth and energy," he said. "Satsuki-chan, you're going to have to take up the slack for our team. We old folks will be counting on you."

"Ha." Yatouji looked mildly amused, but not at all inclined to be energetic. "Good thing you're not really that old, then. Anyway, Nataku is the youngest, so isn't that who you should be bothering?"

"For what? I don't understand." Looking at the clone's pale, serious face, Subaru tried to picture it competing with Yuzuriha or Sorata in a display of high-spiritedness, and failed. He couldn't even begin to imagine such a thing. If only the world's fate was something that could be decided so simply and light-heartedly...but he'd probably be a handicap for his side in that case. The skitter of his thoughts brought him unexpectedly around to his sister, to what she might have had to say on the subject--and he smiled inwardly, finding once more the private peace at the heart of his loss, that improbable, paradoxical balance point.

As Yuzuriha sat down next to him again and Kigai began trying to explain "genki" to Nataku, Subaru took advantage of the moment, the two of them alone in the still trough between the Angels' conversations, seemingly ignored. Leaning his head close to Yuzuriha's, he murmured, "Why did you come here? This isn't safe."

"I made him bring me," she answered, her voice equally soft but resolute. "Kusanagi-san told me about the party, how the Dragons of Earth were all going to get together. It was a joke, because he wasn't going to come, but I said I wanted to go, and I kept at it and kept at it until he said yes finally. He really didn't want me to be here." Her rueful smile almost hid the traces of anxiousness about her eyes. "We had an argument about it, and I thought, 'Oh, now we're going to have a real fight,' and I was so scared that, that he--well, but anyway, it's okay now!" That instant of sparkle had a feverish, too-bright quality, as if it hid a strain not yet healed. Subaru ached along with her, knowing what it felt like to see the threads of a relationship stretched thin and fragile, and yet to be compelled to hold one's ground. Her bravery astounded him. Scarcely pausing, she went on in a quiet rush, "Though I want to do something special for him later, to make up for it. He's not very happy about the whole thing. But still, I just had to come...."


Yuzuriha stared at him, his question spreading silence like ripples in the air between them. Then she turned away. She looked down into the bubble and fizz of her soda, her hair tipping forward about her face.

"They're human, aren't they?" she said at last. "The people who are fighting for the end of the human world. I never could understand I wanted to see what kind of people they were, who would fight for something like that. Kusanagi-san...I can understand, I think. Even if we're on opposite sides, I know that it's important to him, that it means something, so I can't regret it...well, not too much. If he didn't feel that way, then he'd be a totally different person, right? And I know that it isn't easy for him. The others, though--are they happy? Are they sad? Are they scared? I just think, if I could find out what they're like, as people, then maybe everything about this would make more sense. And maybe...maybe they should know what we're like, as people, too. Before the final day."

"Yuzuriha," he murmured. Again and again she surprised him, the youngest of the Dragons of Heaven, and yet wiser in many ways than adults twice her age. It must have shown in his voice; Yuzuriha glanced up at him, seemingly startled, then blushed and sat up straight once more, laughing, flapping one hand as if to fan away his regard.

"Don't worry, Subaru-san! It's not really so unsafe--Kusanagi-san said he'd protect me if something bad happens, and I can protect myself too, with Inuki! And now you're here as well, so we can team up if anything goes wrong! It'll be fine! Right?"

"Um, yeah." He couldn't help wondering what Seishirou would do, if he, Yuzuriha, and Shiyuu had to face off against the other Angels. He thought that Seishirou would most likely take their side, if only to keep anyone else from laying a finger on the Sakurazukamori's prey, but trying to second-guess the man was difficult and often risky. Something else occurred to him, and he glanced around the room, noticing the lack of a certain spiritual presence. "Where is Inuki?"

"Oh." Yuzuriha looked vaguely guilty. "I made him wait outside. I thought if the Dragons of Earth saw him, they'd think it was going to be trouble--you know, it'd be like somebody bringing a gun or a sword to the party. And he might get nervous and bite somebody, if he thought they were threatening me." Perking up again, she smiled, adding, "It's okay, though--he's just outside, and if I need him he can be here with me in an instant!" She snapped her fingers. "Just like that!"


* * * * *


"There," Kamui said, pointing upward. "I told you I saw Inuki."

Arashi followed his gesture, and at last she spotted the inugami, a barely discernable shadow drifting near the top of a tall building, higher even than their rooftop vantage point. "You're right. I wonder what he's doing there, and where Yuzuriha-san is."

"Maybe she left him there to watch something," Sorata speculated. "Hang on--I'll check it out!" Springing up and out, he hit the side of the building across the way and launched himself again. Like a ping-pong ball, he bounded back and forth across the street, highrise to highrise, until with a last leap he reached where Inuki was floating and caught hold of part of the building's structure, bracing his feet against the wall. Twisting around, he bent toward the inugami. As Arashi peered across the distance, she thought that he might be ruffling its fur.

Carefully, then, Sorata leaned over and looked around the edge of a large window. Moving much more rapidly, he jerked back, pressing himself flat to the wall. After a moment, he peeked and then retreated again, and Arashi swallowed her impatience at his theatrics. If he imagined he was being some kind of super spy, he was definitely overacting the part. And what could he possibly be looking at?

He'd better not have stumbled across some poor woman undressing....

Sorata finally left the window and jumped back down toward where they were waiting, descending even more precipitately than he'd gone up. As he got within a couple of buildings of them, Arashi noticed that he looked somewhat alarmed, though again he might be doing that purely for effect. He arrived on their rooftop, and Arashi arched an eyebrow at him. "Well?" she asked.

"Well, I've got some good news and some bad news." Sorata ran a hand through his hair, as if gathering himself to deal with some awkwardness, and Arashi had an all-too-familiar sense of foreboding. "The good news is, not only is Yuzu-chan up there, but Subaru-san is too."

"Subaru!" Kamui burst out in startled delight, before Arashi could say anything, and she let her own exclamation go unvoiced, an inner, silent echo. She watched Sorata's grin instead, noted the strain of worry hidden within it, and felt that flicker of lightness inside her heart fade.

"What's the bad news?" she asked.

"The bad news is," Sorata hesitated for what seemed like a very long time, "there's also a whole bunch of Dragons of Earth. Now wait, wait, wait!" He grabbed the back of Kamui's jacket before Kamui had bolted more than a step or two. Kamui whirled on him, eyes blazing and urgent.

"Let go of me!"

"Not so fast! Let's not go rushing up there like crazy people! Those two are just fine at the moment."

"Just fine?" Kamui jerked against Sorata's grip, not yet to the point of blasting the monk away from him, though the air wavered faintly with repressed psychic force. "Are you crazy? How the heck can they be fine, surrounded by the Dragons of Earth?"

"They're all just sitting there right now. Everything's real quiet. But if we go charging on in, the whole thing could blow up. It's like a hostage situation, you know? We gotta handle it delicately." Arashi wasn't sure what she found more upsetting, the thought of their two fellow Seals in such an inexplicable and perilous situation, or the fact that Sorata was suggesting discretion while she was inclined to side with Kamui and go rushing off at once to the rescue. Setting her first impulse aside, however, she decided that Sorata's approach might actually have some merit.

"What are you suggesting?" she asked cautiously.

Sorata's expression suddenly took on a manic edge. "Don't worry, Miss! I've got a plan! A cunning plan! Ahahaha!" He smacked his fist into his other palm, and Arashi's feeling of unease intensified.

Somehow, whenever he told her not to worry about something in that particular tone of voice, it always had the opposite effect.


* * * * *


Nobody had killed anyone yet. Nobody had even behaved particularly badly. Subaru supposed that sooner or later he would have to start taking that for granted, or else wear himself out from the strain of constant high-tension readiness. Yuzuriha had been trying to "get to know" the Dragons of Earth, with mixed success, but it nevertheless involved a great deal of playful conversation and laughter. Though he worried for her sake, he was glad enough to remain in the background, letting the perky teenager be the center of attention while he lurked on his couch and brooded.

Presence folded about him, familiar, close, and warm--Seishirou leaning on the couch back again, bending down this time to bring his head right next to Subaru's, his breath a zephyr stirring against Subaru's neck. "How are you doing, Subaru-kun? Are you enjoying the party?"

Should he even dignify that with a response? Seishirou knew him well enough. And indeed, after a moment the man chuckled, clearly reading his silence.

"You just need to loosen up a little." Seishirou's hand squeezed his shoulder, a slyly subtle intimacy, Seishirou's arm curving around behind him in one of those not-quite embraces. "Didn't your sister say it once? 'Be more natural!'"

"Is that so?" He could hear the flat note in his own voice, quiet enough that only he and Seishirou could hear it, a discordance amidst the others' deliberate harmony. Bitterness twisted in him, the sour-sweetness of memories mixed with loss, Seishirou's unrelenting sense of humor, his own exhaustion with himself as a person. If only, just for once...but he had never known how to be easy, or free, or anything but the heir of the Sumeragi clan.

Except, sometimes, when he was alone with Seishirou.

Sometimes...Subaru gazed into the little sake lingering in his cup. Was there truth in wine, he wondered. He'd felt its effects before, the way it made reality shift, the world taking on a hazy, unfocused glow like that of a place suffused with benevolent spirits. He'd never gotten really drunk, just enough to be aware of that sideways step leading to a different state of consciousness--and if he were to do so, would it make any real difference? Would it let him forget himself, and not regret? Did he even dare to think of it, in a situation such as this? Finishing what the cup held, he turned the taste of it on his tongue, still undecided, testing himself against that edge.

Yuzuriha had insisted that she could take care of herself.

Could he in good conscience put her in a position where she might think that she had to take care of him?

At the bar, Yatouji started, a brief expression of surprise crossing her face. "What?" she murmured, as if to herself. Pulling out a vibrating cell phone, she flipped it open and stared at it. Its color screen reflected in her glasses, twin mirror images too small and far away from him to be more than indefinable blobs. Wisps of spiritual power coiled about her wrist and fingers, shimmering pulses of translucent rainbow energy feeding in and out of the phone, and Subaru sat up out of his slouch, carefully gathering himself as he watched that play of energy with close attention. "What the--oh, now this is just getting ridiculous." Yatouji watched the screen with cool intensity, as if intrigued despite her scorn, then gave a derisive snort. "Well, duh. That trick's ancient. So, now what, hmm?" She pushed a button on her phone, and the screen-images on her glasses flickered and changed. "Heh, good one, and now you're stuck there, aren't you? Here, I'll help you with that...."

"You kids and your toys," Kanoe said indulgently. "Care to share with us, Satsuki?"

"Mm-nn." Yatouji smirked, as if holding back improbable laughter. "You'll see in a minute or two anyway. Stay in stand-by mode, Beast. That's all." Pushing a few more buttons, Yatouji looked at the screen one last time, then snapped the phone shut with a satisfied air. "Well. This might actually be interesting. Incoming in ten, nine, eight...."

As she continued to tick off numbers, Subaru blinked, trying to unravel what had just happened. Who or what was incoming? Closing his eyes, he stilled his mind and reached out, trying to catch some trace, if there was a spiritual aura...he thought he felt a presence of shadows, shifting and translucent, like something meant to deceive the mind's eye, and among them the briefest flash of a familiar power, a star among wind-moved leaves, revealed only for an instant.

A cool fire, so very like the one that he'd seen and felt once before, deep in a dark, inner sea....

Impossible. He had to be imagining things.

"...three, two, one." Yatouji finished. She glanced toward the elevator, so he followed her gaze in time to watch the door slide open. After a moment's pause, someone poked their head partway around the edge of the doorway--Subaru glimpsed a staring grey eye, unruly dark hair--then jerked it back out of view. In the silence, a low mutter was clearly audible.

"Aw, crap. Who the heck has an elevator open right into their living room?"

"Can I help you, young man?" Kanoe asked loudly as she advanced a few steps toward the elevator. Subaru's heart had already begun to sink in unhappy realization; as a gangling, all-too-recognizable figure scuffled through the opening and into the room, it seemed to condense as well, becoming a tight, heavy lump somewhere around his stomach.

"Ahaha." Sorata rubbed at the back of his head, further mussing his hair. His other arm was taken up with a low stack of flat, white cardboard boxes. "Sorry to disturb you, ma'am. I guess I came to the wrong place. Unless you ordered the three large pies?" Suddenly wide-eyed, Sorata blinked at her with complete ingenuousness. There was a distinct aroma of cheese and sauce, Subaru noticed, and Sorata was wearing an oversized red jacket with a PIZZA-LA T-shirt on underneath it.

Subaru wondered if he could possibly be drunk already, on just one cup of sake.

Kanoe grinned. "I'm afraid not. But I'd be more than willing to take them off your hands for you. We are having a party, after all."

"Uh, that'd be great! Just fine! Since I'm here intruding on you 'n' stuff...I can always make a second trip for the other guy, right?"

"Next time you might not want to get on the private elevator," Yatouji murmured, and Sorata laughed a little too frantically, avoiding everyone's gaze.

Subaru kept his expression blank, but inwardly he frowned. Clearly Sorata hadn't expected to be dropped right into the middle of the Dragons of Earth; now that he had been, he was continuing his pretense with an edge of desperate intensity, even though he had to know that Kigai, for one, could call him on it at any time. And yet Kigai said nothing. Everyone was just going along with the game, despite the fact that no ordinary pizza boy would have gotten past the security station downstairs unannounced. Of course they all had to know or at least suspect, and they were probably entertaining themselves by watching a Dragon of Heaven scramble. How long did Sorata think he could keep this up? What was he intending--what had he even meant to do in the first place? Not one bit of his presence made any sense, or seemed remotely like a good idea.

Movement caught Subaru's eye, at the back of the elevator. His angle of view took in the left rear corner, and in those mirrored panels near the ceiling he saw color, a brief stirring that looked like ripple of fabric, a subtle shift of weight. There was definitely something to either side of the door that wasn't gold-toned metal and glass. He caught his breath, alarmed all over again.

What he'd felt before....

"Oh, but I'm afraid I don't have any cash on me," Kanoe was saying. She glided close to Sorata, practically right up against him, sweeping her long hair back over one shoulder. Sorata's gaze meandered downward, paused, then snapped back up to her face. His grin had taken on a panicked, frozen rigidity. "I wonder if there's some other way I can pay you."

"Ah, eh--personal check?" Sorata's voice squeaked high on the last word. Kanoe inclined toward him; he leaned backward, bobbled the stack of pizza boxes, and after flailing briefly somehow managed to save them from falling.

"I was thinking more, hmm...." Kanoe's hand trailed down the side of his face, not quite touching the skin, her crimson nails glinting as they caught the light. There was a muffled snort from one of the other couches; Subaru glanced over and saw Shiyuu, head lowered, fist pressed against his mouth, his shoulders twitching. Yuzuriha, kneeling on the seat next to him, was watching the proceedings with her head cocked to one side, her expression quizzical, partly dubious and partly amused.

"Sorata-san," she said, "why are you a pizza-boy?" He shot her a vaguely abashed, almost guilty look.

"Um, moonlighting?" That motion inside the elevator again, more emphatic this time, and a shadow glided around the edge of the doorway, a swirl of long skirt, of straight dark hair.

"That's enough already." Arashi stepped up next to Sorata. After a pointed stare at Kanoe, who in surprise or caution had already drawn back slightly, she looked sidelong at Sorata, frowning. "Give up. Everyone here can see right through your so-called disguise."

"Hey--but it was a good strategy, right?" Sorata protested. Arashi rolled her eyes. "Uh, until it wasn't anymore...."

Shiyuu chuckled and sat up. "Just for reconnaissance in the building, it wasn't a terrible plan," he said. Leaning back, he clasped his hands behind his head with a wry grin. "But you know what they say: no plan survives contact with the enemy."

"But for tonight, nobody's the enemy! Isn't that right?" Shiyuu glanced at Yuzuriha, startled by her sudden urgency. The silence that followed seemed to ring with the echo of that declaration, and with all the possibilities of what could be said or done in answer. Everyone looked around at each other, watching for reactions, but at the same time Subaru knew that they were looking inward, measuring their own impulses and also the currents of psychic atmosphere in the room, trying to read the situation's delicate balance and to sense which way it might slip. Behind Subaru, Seishirou straightened up, and Subaru tensed.

"I vote for pizza," Seishirou said.

There was movement yet again, this time from the other side of the elevator doorway. One last, slight figure stepped slowly into the opening and paused there, half silhouetted within that frame of sharper light, his stance tautly poised yet almost diffident. That wary tension sang with a subliminal note of power, bright and argent as the ring of windchimes, as a far-off star--and the room's ambiance, which had started easing toward relaxation at Seishirou's words, rippled as if caught by a sudden wind, threatened to waver back the other way. Subaru almost shivered with that shifting current, and even more so with the shock of his two worlds meeting. The person to whom he'd given himself so utterly, and the person beside whom he had sworn to stand....


"Pizza it is!" Kigai said, and if his casual cheerfulness was deliberate, which Subaru thought it surely had to be, it was just about impossible to tell. He came forward to relieve Sorata of the pizza boxes. "So, what'd you bring us?"

"Uh, Italian Basil, one Pescatore, an' one Baccarat."

"Ooh, snow crab! Good choices." Kigai beamed at Sorata, who chuckled and rubbed at the back of his neck in embarrassed modesty. Taking the pizzas, Kigai headed for the coffee table near where everyone else was sitting, and Sorata, with a briefly lingering backward glance at Kamui, drifted more slowly in his wake.

"So what are we all celebrating?" Sorata asked.

"It's a bounenkai," Kigai replied. "Miss, if you could just move your drink...ah, thanks."

"A party to forget the year, eh?" Sorata plopped down on the floor at the end of the table. "Well, I figure that's something we can all get behind! Ha ha ha! Right, Miss?" He grinned over his shoulder at Arashi before turning back toward the pizza. The shrine maiden stood motionless in front of the elevator as if frozen there, her eyes wide, dark, and troubled.

"So," Kigai said genially, "what does everybody want?"

"Mmm, yay! Potato and crab sauce, please!"


"The Italian Basil is pretty classic. What do you think, Subaru-kun?"

"Ah--careful with the pizza, please." Kanoe moved swiftly across the room to hover behind Kigai, an anxious hostess still trying hard to be gracious. "Or I'll have to get the carpet cleaned before my boss comes back. Satsuki, are there any napkins over there...?"

As the focus of attention settled firmly about the food, Kamui, all but ignored now, took a hesitant step forward. The elevator door slid shut at last behind him, cutting off that light. His eyes sought out Subaru's, distressed, questioning--no, pleading--and Subaru felt that need and his own fear like claws finding a grip, a clutching, cold shock, the promise of a tearing agony. He could not respond to that yearning--not here and now, not with Seishirou a shadow and a heat just behind him, watchful for his reactions. Not with his conflicting loyalties still unresolved, as they had to be until the final day. Only that delicately balanced tension let him remain in flight, a bird caught up between rising thermals and the downward press of gravity, and for a moment he was very nearly angry at Kamui, a senseless, hot throb of resentment that shamed him even as he felt it. None of this was Kamui's fault. But still, wasn't it enough--if not what he'd already done and given, then his promise to come back, to take his place by Kamui's side, to fight and, if necessary, to die as a Dragon of Heaven?

If Kamui only knew the pain that fulfilling such a promise was going to cause him....

But Kamui would never know. Resolution solidified in Subaru, hard and crystalline and bright. To make Kamui feel guilty would be unreasonable and cruel--it would only hurt Kamui, who already blamed himself for so much, while Subaru's own suffering wouldn't be eased at all.

So he'd surrender himself to that destiny, to that promise, and never speak a word of its cost. There was no escaping it anyway--it was necessary for his own purposes as well, the inevitable final move in a game that had run for so long yet seemed now to have lasted nowhere near long enough. The crisis point was breathlessly close, the desperate hope of his one wish.

Therefore, for tonight....

He'd been gazing at Kamui all the while, with what he hoped was a thoughtful or at least neutral expression. Now he made certain of it, letting his face become that long-accustomed mask, dispassionate and remote, and he saw Kamui start slightly. He hoped Kamui would take it as a warning of the need to be restrained, on guard, but that was secondary; he wore the mask for himself, to become the actor in this difficult role he had to play. For Kamui's sake, for his own, for Seishirou's, nothing must shift. He set himself to be a still point, pulled in no direction. Lowering his eyes, he once more contemplated the empty cup in his hand, moon-white, so extraordinarily simple.

"Hey, Kamui, Miss--c'mon! You're gonna miss out on the food. And it's really good, too! Say, Miss, I'm guessing you don't get deliveries out at Ise...?

A hand settled onto his shoulder. "Subaru-kun?" The man's voice was low, intimate without being insinuating, as if concerned about him, the curve and gentle pressure of those strong fingers so familiar, so warm even through his shirt. Almost, the ice of Subaru's intention melted, ran slick with water like the slow sweat of desire.


Inclining his head, Subaru glanced up at Seishirou. Mask faced mask--was that a flicker of reaction in Seishirou's one good eye? Holding the man's gaze, Subaru lifted the cup, turned it almost imperceptibly, the gesture as subtly and precisely choreographed as a presentation in a tea ceremony.

"Another, please."

And that was a reaction, though he caught just the flash of its passing, a shifting of light and shadow, a quick breeze scarcely rippling a field of autumn grasses, before it was gone and Seishirou's expression had settled into the usual good-natured smile. "Of course," Seishirou murmured. He took the cup from Subaru's hand. "But Subaru-kun, better be sure you eat something, all right?"

"Mmmflgood!" Yuzuriha managed through a mouthful of pizza, then squeaked as half her toppings threatened to slide off the slice.

"Yes." But Subaru closed his eyes first, aware even so of the presence and movements of the others around him, Kamui and Arashi hesitantly approaching the rest of the party, Seishirou circling away, heading toward the bar. He took a long, slow breath and tried to put out of his mind that momentary contact, Seishirou's fingers brushing over his.


* * * * *


Arashi frowned at her hand of cards. Ostensibly it was because she was trying to decide which ones to discard--which was certainly a dilemma, although not really a frown-worthy one--but in truth it was because of the way this whole situation had continued to spin out wider and stranger and more disquieting, to the point where the annoyance of somehow being unable to master this game was almost lost, a tiny leaf swirled away on a vast, turbulent sea.

How, in the name of all the kami, had she ended up sitting on the floor of a luxury penthouse apartment, playing poker with the Dragons of Earth?

Strip poker, to be more precise.

In all fairness, the stripping wasn't going to be total. If that had been the ultimate end of the game, she absolutely would not have let herself get involved. First team to all be showing underwear loses, Yuuto had said, which honestly was mortifying enough, now that she was thinking about it again, and why had she even said yes on those terms?

Karen and Yuuto had started it. The soapgirl had turned up a little way into the party, accompanied by Seiichirou--and Arashi still wanted to know how the Sakurazukamori had gotten Karen's phone number to invite them. Yuuto had teasingly challenged Karen, she had accepted, and then somehow the game had mutated like one of those monsters in the shows that Sorata and Yuzuriha liked to watch, expanding into a sprawling, multiplayer affair. Arashi didn't think Karen had been entirely serious about recruiting her, but it was hard to tell with Karen, and she'd found herself oddly confused. Perhaps it had been because of that second cup of sake...or had that been the third? It was mysteriously hard to keep track. Then Sorata had been so dismissive of her poker-playing abilities, which--well, it was true that she'd never played before, but he hadn't needed to be so, so...breezy and casual about it. Pride had gotten her into this, she realized, and pride was keeping her from folding her hand and walking away, and she was probably going to have to do extra meditation practice and purifications for this in the morning.

It would be ever so slightly less awful if Sorata hadn't been right. She was terrible at this. And because the rule was that all the hands on a side were taken together, and every player on the team with the lowest total had to take something off, it meant that her allies were also suffering for her bad luck or bad judgment.

Karen was already down to lingerie, though as usual it didn't seem to discomfit her in the least. Satsuki was in bra and leggings, and though her attitude remained aloof and unconcerned she kept directing coldly irritated stares at Arashi. Of the women, Arashi had started out wearing the most, so she still had her skirt and blouse, but one more losing round would mean the end for her team, as well as for her own dignity. She definitely wouldn't be writing to Kaede about this.

And the men, curse them, had only lost one hand of cards and with it their jackets. It would take two more wins by the women even to get them to undershirts, which was not the same thing as a bra. On top of which, Nataku wasn't even male, not to mention that it seemed to have no real understanding of the embarrassment that was supposed to be involved.

This game was utterly full of unfairness.

In the background, the karaoke was still going on, although it seemed to be winding down now that several of the participants had defected to the card game. The Sakurazukamori was crooning something about love being better than ice cream, singing with honeyed insincerity and a wicked gleam in his eye, and she wondered how poor Subaru could bear to sit there and listen to his notorious enemy performing. She didn't know all the history between them, but if it was as serious as the whispered gossip of all the occult and mystery orders suggested....

Come to think of it, she still didn't understand why Subaru was here in the first place. If he was hunting the Sakurazukamori, then maybe it would make sense...but then shouldn't they be confronting each other?

"Hey!" Startled, Arashi jerked her attention back to the game. Satsuki was glaring at her with impatience and icy disdain. "Are you discarding anything or what?"

Hastily Arashi found her place among the cards. "Um, one, please." It was Nataku's turn to deal, and with a subtle prompt from Yuuto it slid the replacement card across the carpet toward her. Even the bioroid played better than she did. Unfair, unfair. Picking up the new card, Arashi studied her hand.

Oh. This was almost good, she thought. The high cards she'd been going for hadn't worked out, but now she had three fours (inauspicious, a random corner of her mind was musing, the number of death, unless the encompassing three of the triple made up for it?) and perhaps a chance to hold off doom for another round. And with that, maybe she'd find some opportunity to escape the game entirely. Maybe everyone would get bored finally, or she'd come up with a really good excuse to leave, or maybe a meteor would hit Tokyo or a kekkai would start to break....

Your love is better than chocolate, the Sakurazukamori was singing grandly,

Better than anything else that I've tried.
Oh, love is better than chocolate.
Everyone here knows how to cry....

Arashi rather doubted that.

She glanced sidelong at her teammates. Satsuki wasn't even looking at her cards; she held them folded together in one hand, the fingers of the other tapping incessantly on her crossed legs, a restlessness that seemed at odds with her flat, brooding gaze as she watched Yuuto take his one new draw. Beyond her, Karen sat gracefully coiled, smiling with sly confidence, the faces of her cards hidden as she pressed them to her décolletage. On the opposing side, Yuuto was smirking back at her, while next to him the bioroid examined its hand, its pale face almost haunting in its complete lack of expression, like the melancholy of a long-forgotten doll or an abandoned child bereft of any joy or hope. And Sorata....

Arashi glowered over her cards at the monk, who was rearranging his hand with an intense absorption that had to be feigned, at least in part. She was sure that behind that facade he was enjoying this immensely; it must be like a fantasy come true for him. She could just picture him picturing her in a sexy pose, her blouse opened and slipping down off her shoulders, and...she realized that he was staring back at her with a perplexed look. She snatched her gaze back down to her hand, her cheeks blazing. If she had any luck at all (although this game seemed to be proving that she did not, or if she did then it was all bad), Sorata would assume that her flush was a result of the alcohol.

It had been only two drinks. But it was entirely possible that someone had been refilling her cup when she wasn't paying attention. The Dragons of Earth were not to be trusted.

"Okay--show 'em," Yuuto said. "Let's see who takes this round." Off to the side, there was a scatter of quiet applause as the Sakurazukamori's song finished and then a murmur of conversation. The karaoke seemed to be over, and someone put on background music, the volume fading up in what appeared to be mid-song, a wailing woman's voice chanting amidst the drone of strange instruments and what sounded like a synthesized beat. It was nothing that Arashi recognized and she quickly tuned it out, concentrating again on the game. Hands were called clockwise from the dealer, which meant that....

"Ahahaha!...I got nothin'." Lowering his hand, Sorata held it out, faces up, proving that for all his keenly focused attention his cards did indeed add up to nothing. Arashi's heart gave a tiny lurch, anxiety jolting into startled relief.

"Boo!" Yuuto scoffed. "Sorata-kun, you're an embarrassment to the male gender." Sorata's mortified grin grew wider and more pained; he laughed that jittery laugh again but didn't try to defend himself. Tossing down his cards, he leaned back against the wall, fingers laced behind his head, to watch the rest of the proceedings.

So now it was Arashi's turn. Carefully she laid her cards out on the floor. "Three...three fours."

"All right! Finally." Satsuki spread her own hand out in front of her, a quick, arcing sweep. "Pair of aces." Everyone looked at Karen.

"So sorry." The soapgirl's lashes swept down, veiling her gaze. Still smiling, she set her cards down with serenely languid grace. "Fortune must be favoring someone else tonight."

"She's jealous of your charms, of course," Yuuto returned gallantly, while Arashi stared at Karen in slowly dawning horror as she realized what Karen's words implied. A glance down at the cards confirmed her fears. She'd been sure from Karen's attitude that it had been an excellent hand--there was something wrong about bluffing one's own partners. Next to Arashi, Satsuki made an exasperated chuffing sound, apparently thinking something similar. Yuuto grinned and laid out his cards, with little pauses for dramatic emphasis. "Two threes," he announced, "and two jacks."

Did three of a kind beat two pair? Arashi bit her lip. She found that her hand had stolen up, as if of its own volition, to clutch at the neckline of her blouse. When Nataku put down a pair of sixes and everyone's tension dissolved into triumph on the ladies' side, defeat and mock-serious aggravation on the men's, Arashi almost wilted at the reprieve. She'd managed to survive the round after all. Grumbling, Yuuto shifted position, pulling up his pants leg to get at his socks while Karen baited him playfully.

"I don't understand," Nataku interrupted. It turned to look at Sorata, frowning slightly. "I thought the goal of this game was to have a high-scoring hand."

Sorata froze, one sock half off, and stared at the bioroid, his brow furrowed. "Huh? Well, yeah...."

"Then why did you discard those two cards? Your hand would have been much better if you'd kept them."

"What?" In an instant Sorata was all scandalized indignation. "Hey, who said you could look at my cards! Keep your eyes to yourself, buster!" With a start of recollection he grabbed for the cards that he'd abandoned on the floor, but Yuuto was already moving, lunging past Nataku to grapple Sorata one-handed while with the other he deftly flipped over the two discards. Everyone leaned forward to stare at what was revealed: Sorata's final hand, the ace of hearts, two and four of spades, and jack and ten of hearts, and the two cards he'd let go, the king and queen of hearts.

"Royal flush," Yuuto murmured with something like awe, before his tone shifted to stunned disbelief. "You're playing to lose."

"Ehehe...." Sweating a little, Sorata raised his hands, as he might somehow be able to deflect everyone's attention away from himself. At the sight of his strained, awkward, ridiculously sheepish grin, the hollowness that had been opening gradually but inexorably inside Arashi began to constrict, to turn, becoming the emptiness at the core of a churning vortex, a terrible nothing, resonant with potential force, and rising through it a white flame, a blinding sun--she let it lift her, was on her feet, scarcely aware of how, that familiar burning swiftly finding focus, a kindling of power, a fierce ache in the palm of her hand. Yuuto yelped and jerked backward, dragging a startled Nataku with him, and Sorata scrabbled up against the wall as the godsword of Ise drove point-down into the floor in front of him.

Arashi lifted her head and glared at Sorata over the sword's hilt.

How dare he.

How dare he...for her sake....

Her head spun, a sudden fuzziness overtaking the edges of her vision, tinged with shadow. She sank down onto one knee, vaguely aware of Satsuki wrapped in a writhing mesh of black wires called up out of the floor, of Yuzuriha's squeak of alarm somewhere in the distance as Nataku's white silk cloth whipped across the room like a dragon, flashing to its hand, of Karen speaking to those Dragons of Earth, her voice light and calm, her words defusing the tension. hadn't been wise...she was still looking into Sorata's face, Arashi realized, and his eyes meeting hers were guileless in their concern, in a yearning as open and unfathomable as the sky. Confused, she glanced down, letting her gaze be caught and held instead by the liquid-silver brightness of her blade.

She had struck right through Sorata's cards, she discovered. The sword's tip had pierced the king of hearts precisely.

An inexplicable pang twinged in Arashi's chest; she released the sword, letting it dissolve back into her body. Her balance faltered as she lost the blade's support, and she had to brace herself with one hand against the floor. Her cheeks were burning once more, and the room still seemed to be out of focus, unsolid, as if anything she wasn't actively holding onto might wisp away into cloud. The music on the stereo was incongruous, overloud--a new song was starting, it seemed, with a man's voice chanting, no more comprehensible than the woman's had been, before another began to sing in what Arashi tentatively identified as English.

The Sakurazukamori groaned, breaking the stark hush that had fallen over the room's conversations.

"Subaru-kun--not this song again!"

"It's not my CD!" Raised in protest, Subaru's voice sounded odd, a trifle too high-pitched. Grateful for any distraction, Arashi glanced over, and after a moment she located him leaning on the bar, having apparently claimed Satsuki's vacated seat sometime during the karaoke. The flush on his face matched the lingering heat that she could feel in her own; his expression wavered between annoyance and some other emotion she couldn't quite identify--his lips twitched, then straightened, but in that instant she'd glimpsed the smile that he was struggling to conceal, an unaccustomed brightness in his face and eyes. Her heart stung her again, startlement, a jolt like stepping around the turning of a garden path and into a vista of absolute, piercing beauty, something too numinous to be grasped without a lifetime's worth of meditation, and she didn't understand why the mere glimmer of a smile should seize her so, unless it was the strangeness of it, associated with someone like Subaru, who in her thoughts was always so serious, so grave, or else its fleetingness, like some elusive mythical beast likely to vanish almost before it had been truly seen.

Yuzuriha popped up in front of Subaru, seemingly out of nowhere, and as he started back that feeling of confused wonder and dismay dissipated, at least a little. "Waiii, Subaru-san! Does this mean you like this song?"

"Um...." Even as he stumbled to answer her, Yuzuriha was already grabbing him by both hands and tugging him off his stool, was pulling him with her around the end of the bar.

"Then you have to dance with me!" she announced blithely. "Come on!"

"Wha--? Wait--" Subaru tried to plant his feet, his blush intensifying, and the Sakurazukamori laughed. But Yuzuriha, smiling and seemingly oblivious, had begun dancing herself, swaying from foot to foot, swinging their joined hands enthusiastically in time to the music, and at last Subaru gave in, began to echo her movements more tentatively, a diffident two-step. After a while his own smile crept out once more, as if in spite of himself, an unthinking tenderness in it that surprised Arashi all over again, and perhaps that was the source of such unquiet feelings, she thought--that she was being witness to something meant to be secret, a side of Subaru that had nothing to do with the person he'd shown them all as a Dragon of Heaven, one that even now he might have preferred to keep to himself. She felt as if she must be treading on private ground, like that time when she'd walked into his room and found him gathering himself to leave them, to follow his own inner calling...that one time when he had smiled at her, speaking of the future, and set her heart aflutter with uncertainties, just like this...and she didn't know if she would be welcome there or not.

If in that hidden world there was any place for her.

Such foolish, foolish thoughts....

Yuzuriha released one of Subaru's hands to try for a twirl; caught off guard, he didn't raise his arm quickly enough or high enough. They got tangled, and as they tried to sort themselves out Yuzuriha stumbled and half-fell against him, giggling, while Subaru stammeringly tried to apologize.

"Hey," the big soldier rumbled from his seat on one of the couches, though the amusement in his tone belied any threat, "that's my date."

"Yay!" Quick as a hummingbird, Yuzuriha was in front of him, eyes sparkling and hands clasped in delight. "Kusanagi-san, does that mean you'll dance with me?"

"Uh, hold on just a moment--" Ignoring his look of mild panic, Yuzuriha grabbed one of his arms and pulled with all her might. It didn't seem likely to have much effect.

"A gentleman should dance when a lady asks him," Kanoe called from somewhere across the room.

"Shouldn't a gentleman be the one to do the asking in the first place?" Yuuto added. "Step it up a little, Shiyuu-san--you're giving the rest of us a bad name."

Yuzuriha had somehow gotten the man to his feet. He was muttering something under his breath, apparently still trying to beg off, but he took Yuzuriha's hands as the two of them tried to sort out how to move to the music and with each other. Both of them were blushing, Arashi noticed. At some point, Subaru had made a strategic retreat back to the safety of the bar, leaving the floor entirely to them.

"What are they doing?" Nataku asked.

"It's called 'dancing,'" Yuuto supplied. "It's something that people do for fun, to relieve physical or emotional tensions."

"'Fun'?" The bioroid stared perplexedly at the couple, who were getting over a little of their first awkwardness. "But...I don't have any emotions."

"That doesn't mean you can't dance." Uncoiling smoothly, Yuuto rose to his feet. He held one hand out to Satsuki, who had released most of her protective shield of cables, leaving only a few strands twined almost affectionately about one arm. "What do you say we give a demonstration?"

Satsuki stared up at him for a long moment. Surprise made her usually shuttered face seem to open, to soften, becoming something that might actually be alive and human. "Why not," she said at last with a faint shrug, and the mask clicked back into place. Letting go of the remnant of the cables, which wriggled briefly before sinking back into the floor, she reached up and caught Yuuto's hand. He pulled her up quickly so that she stood very close to him, swaying almost imperceptibly as she found her balance, not quite touching his chest. Head bowed, she said, low, "It's a stupid song, though. And it totally sucks to dance to."

"Nevertheless," Yuuto returned, equally quiet. Turning his head, he added more cheerily, "Nataku-kun, you too! Get on your feet!"

A pair of hands caught Arashi about the waist, and she squeaked, startled. Karen giggled, close to her ear, the woman's perfume a dizzying waft of roses, that floral sweetness edged by an undertone of cinnamon, smoldering and restive. "Don't think you're getting off, either!" Karen said, a sparkle of laughter taking the severity from her words.

"What? But I...."

"It helps." Karen's voice was muted now, less bright, as if meant for her alone to hear. "It does." Arashi glanced up; their eyes met, the soapgirl's gaze briefly solemn before she winked and with a grin snatched Arashi to her feet, jerking from her another yip of surprise and incoherent protest. Heedless, Karen spun them both around, and the room seemed to whirl on multiple levels, both outer and inner, all tenuously connected about her own unexpectedly moving body: the disorientation of that motion, the familiar floating sensation that followed the release of the god's power, the utter surreality of the entire situation, the things that she could feel her thoughts skittering from like kittens yet couldn't bring herself to focus upon, the mysterious haziness that made understanding and her feet seem equally far away. It was as if she was being unwound like a bolt of silk, falling into long, artless loops and sweeps of cloth, with parts of her left trailing behind, a wake lingering across different worlds.

Bemused, Arashi tried to follow what was most immediate, her own stumbling as Karen's hands and the turning and swaying of Karen's body directed her. The warmth that she felt had to be from the sudden exertion, because surely she'd run out of blushes by now. Even Satsuki's face showed a trace of color as she and Yuuto danced together, her eyes slightly averted from him as if she were absorbed in perfectly matching each beat of the music, every gesture of her arms cleanly precise, a cool grace--his echoing moves almost idle in contrast, a practiced yet careless ease, a firefly smile playing about his lips, his attention drawn occasionally to one side as he offered encouragement to the bioroid, who seemed to have not quite grasped the concept of rhythm yet.

She was doing better than that. After all, this was easier than she might have expected, now that she'd gotten past the initial awkwardness and was settling into the requirements of music and movement--not so very different from the gliding steps and measured poses of the ritual dances performed deep within the shrine, only more fluid, more inchoate, without the stillnesses between notes that let the rustle of silk sleeves and hakama become audible, and there was no fan or sacred implement in her hand, giving direction and focus to the energy. Instead it swirled about them all in complex currents, the spiraling yin of clouds in a Taoist painting, a confused but inexorable magnetic tide, and unloosed as she was she felt it lift her, draw her out, a banner catching light, unfurling on the wind. On the count--so--and all other considerations were released to fade into obscurity.

Karen had been right.

As she found her ease with the dance, no longer needing to concentrate solely on the placing of her feet or what to do with her arms, she was able to catch glimpses of the others, all about the room: Kusanagi and Yuzuriha managing the twirl with more grace than she and Subaru had been able to, the man smiling slightly while her whole face and body seemed to shine with laughing delight; Kamui a solitary figure standing far off to one side of the large room, leaning up against one of the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows, arms crossed over his chest as he stared out at the starry city landscape; Sorata still where he'd been sitting for the game, back to the wall, his arms laced around his knees as he watched the dancers, as he watched her.... She was vaguely surprised that he wasn't up and dancing, hamming the whole thing up as he always did, making himself the center of attention. Instead he just sat there, following her with those thoughtful eyes--a jumble of discomfort and indefinite guilt threatened to come together in a keenly stabbing pang, and she swept it all aside. Bah. Let him sit, then. Raising one hand high, she spun slowly beneath that pivot point, her head tilted back, her eyes half-closing, feeling the occasional sweep of her hair against her back, the swirl of her skirt about her legs, letting herself be lost in the pure world of that motion, that measured, centered whirling.

She came to a smooth stop as the music ended, held her pose as the woman singer's voice murmured a few last words into the silence--that ritual training again. Oh--but it had been a false ending, apparently, as the music started up again, an abrupt, shimmering swell of sound. It took her a moment to find her place once more; her thoughts, surprised out of their stillness, didn't seem to want to go back there. They flickered and jumped like crickets, glossy and quick in the sun. Karen during the pause had evidently been trying to coax Seiichirou to join them; the man was demurring with mild panic and a flustered smile. Karen hesitated a moment, then shrugged playfully and went to dance with Nataku, who was improving but still could do with some guidance.

These men. If she was going to make a spectacle of herself, there was no reason at all for them to get cold feet. She turned about, deliberately not looking toward Sorata. There were Yuuto and Satsuki, gold head close to dark. Beyond them, Kamui, still alone by the window--no, for Kanoe was standing by his shoulder, leaning near, her hair spilling down over her breast. Her lips moved, words inaudible through the music and at this distance; Kamui ducked his head, his jaw visibly setting, his arms tightening around himself. Compunction twinged at Arashi. No--this was wrong, that Kamui should be standing alone while the rest of them were festive together, that he should be left to the possible devices of the Dragons of Earth without anyone to keep him company, to watch over him.

And it was strange, wasn't it, that Subaru, who in that quiet way was so careful of Kamui's well-being, was nowhere around him. Had not been near him at all, Arashi realized with dawning surprise. She flicked a quick look around the room but didn't spot the onmyouji. Glancing back, she was just in time to see Kamui's eyes go wide--he stared out across the city, rigid and almost trembling, as Kanoe straightened and unhurriedly retreated. The woman wore an expression of dark satisfaction, and Arashi's stomach lurched with real unease. Not good. Confused, she looked again for Subaru, who should be here, somewhere, and she found him then, backed up against the bar, half concealed by the tall, broad-shouldered form of the Sakurazukamori, who stood close--too close, his hand resting lightly on the bar as well as he leaned toward Subaru. For all the seeming casualness of the gesture his arm read to Arashi as a barrier, as though it were meant to keep Subaru from slipping away or to ward off anyone else's approach. It was hard to tell from her angle, but Subaru seemed to be slumped toward the man's chest, one hand fisted in the sleeve of that outstretched arm, and for a heart-stopping instant Arashi thought the Sakurazukamori had killed Subaru right there in front of everyone, coldly and stealthily murdered him amidst the sake and the music and the heedless dancers. Then Subaru raised his head, she caught a glimpse of his face, and his eyes...they burned. It was almost like the first time she had ever seen him, when he had nearly run her and Sorata over in his headlong rush to Nakano Sun Plaza, to face his enemy among the ruins there--that same fixed, searing intensity, utterly heedless of anything but the object of his intent, as if the rest of the world barely even existed--and yet it was different. There was no anger, she thought, unless it ran buried deep at the root those upwelling currents of emotion, that fiery, rippling tumult of...of....

Exultation. A terrible, holy joy. The flame of something all-consuming and transcendent. Subaru was smiling, a subtle tugging at the corners of his mouth that nonetheless had the force of sunlight caught in a mirror, focused and absolute and blinding, and her heart seized again, tightening in an inarticulate distress. Subaru the pure white shining of a god's jewel, and the Sakurazukamori like dark wings cupped about his light--

She had stumbled to a halt outside the little cluster of dancers. The singing had stopped anyway, the music was wandering through one of its indefinite passages, as if it couldn't quite decide whether to fade out or transition into something new, and in the distance Karen was saying, "No, sweetie, that's the end of the song. You can stop now, if you want."

"The next one's even worse for dancing," Satsuki remarked, adding as an aside, presumably to Yuuto, "Come on, I want to get something to drink."

Subaru reached up with his other hand, his fingertips settling with dreamlike lightness along the Sakurazukamori's throat and jaw. He swayed nearer, stretching upward as if lifted on an indrawn breath, his lashes lowering, his veiled gaze softening, turning more abstracted as the Sakurazukamori bent very slightly toward him, as their lips touched--as he kissed the Sakurazukamori with unexpected ease, with an assurance that was at the same time both fierce and oddly gentle, his eyes closing fully, the conflagration of those passions reaching apotheosis: incandescence, completion, and stillness.

Arashi jerked her own gaze aside. Her pulse was a thunder of chaos, like a flock of pigeons clattering toward the sky, and her thoughts--the music was shifting, becoming something darker, more taut, stretched thin between conflicting tensions, and she groped desperately after some distraction. She was standing near a side table; someone had left a cup on it, half-full. Reckless of whose it might be, she picked it up, drank swiftly--the liquid burned her throat, stronger than she'd expected, and she coughed, choked, doubling over and leaning on the table, mortified that she was drawing attention to herself like this. Not the sake that she'd been drinking--then what--?

"Oh, dear," Kanoe said, far off, a note of laughter in her voice. "I'm afraid that might have been mine."

"Miss?" That was Sorata's voice at her side, Sorata's hand beneath her elbow, providing support, and gratitude clashed with the dismay of being seen to need such help. Embarrassing, for the hidden priestess of the shrine of Ise, and here, too, in front of.... Straightening a little, though still leaning on Sorata's arm, she blinked, trying to clear her streaming eyes. Subaru had pulled back from the Sakurazukamori, his own eyes gone wide, his face stricken with self-recollection, with realization. He turned his head and stared, not at her--and in that instant a frenzied whirl of tiny wind-razors seemed to be shredding through her insides, nonsensical indignation and resentment, offended anger, relief--but across the room.

At Kamui, who stared back at him with a matching look of shock and inexorably rising horror.

And that quickly the jumble of Arashi's emotions quieted, became the still point of understanding, for Kamui's sake. For if she was feeling this agitation, this unfathomable sense of loss, something dangerously near to betrayal, how much more so must Kamui feel those things, who had put such utter faith and trust in Subaru, although he had never said as much. Who had shared some special bond with the onmyouji, from that time when Subaru had gone into his heart, at such terrible personal risk. Who had loved Subaru, no more able to conceal it than the sun could conceal its own shining or the heavens could conceal the fates of mortal beings from those with eyes and knowledge to read them.


Had she too, therefore...?

No matter. Not now or ever. For whatever she had felt, whatever she might have felt, was as nothing next to Kamui's pain, was dissolving like salt into the sea, lost in a faint bewilderment, in a cloudy sympathetic ache, in the growing incomprehensibility of her surroundings, which for some reason had started to become nebulous, distant, almost unreal.

Nobody spoke, though in the background the music played on, the singer's voice a whisper cutting through their silence.

Don't play games with the ones who love you.
For I hear a voice that says:
I love you...I'll kill you.

"Well," the Sakurazukamori said at last. "Not to say that it hasn't been fun, but it's getting late." He half turned, letting go of the bar but leaving his arm curved in front of Subaru's body, his other hand resting lightly on Subaru's hip. A tiny wind had arisen, even indoors; it stirred at his hair and Subaru's, carrying a wisp of pink past them, then another, first breath of an improbable flutter of sakura petals. He was smiling, dark, sly, and ironic. "Thank you so much, Kanoe-san, but it's time we should be going."

"Subaru." Kamui had swayed forward from the window, only the spread fingers of one hand remaining on the glass, his voice as attenuated and fragile as that contact. "Subaru!"

Subaru had already looked away from Kamui--was staring blankly at the floor as the sakura storm began in earnest, as if dumbfounded by his own circumstances. He glanced up then, meeting Kamui's wild-eyed gaze with one just as anguished and stark. "I'll be there," he said, his voice taut, urgent. "I--" The wind and the whirl of petals, gaining force, stole the rest of his words away. And then they were disappearing together, the Sakurazukamori and the Sumeragi, breaking up into a flurry of air and illusion that slowly, slowly settled, fading into nothingness.

"Well, well," Kanoe said as the last of the sakura trailed toward the floor, her words breaking the stunned quiet. "I'll say this for Sakurazuka-san: he always knows how to make an exit."

Crack--the splintering of glass, the white sizzle of power at the fringes of perception, like the near-miss of a lightning stroke. Kamui spun away from them all, flung himself through the shattered and falling pane, a slight shadow briefly visible against the glittering night before he dropped out of view. "Kamui!" several people shouted, Yuzuriha's voice rising high and frantic among them, adding, "Inuki! Go with him!"

Kamui was...they should...she could feel Sorata quiver with the leashed impulse to pursue, to try to help. "What happened?" he was saying tensely to Seiichirou, who had come up to them. "I didn't see--" Because he'd been sitting out the dance, because she had--and then he'd been distracted, making sure she was all right, and even now, when he should be doing something for Kamui, when somebody should-- She tried to jerk away from him, and his hands tightened on her. "Whoa, Miss--"

"I'm fine!" Go, she tried to tell him, but the word stuck in her throat. The room was unexpectedly whirling around her, and even as she pushed back from Sorata she found that she couldn't let loose her grip on him, the one motionless point in a world that had somehow come off its foundations. Her clenched hands were a puzzle she couldn't seem to resolve, like a Chinese finger trap; she rocked forward into Sorata again and came to rest with a bump, her head against his shoulder. "Oh...." Still, he was, and safe, and she tried to remember why she should be making some kind of strenuous objections to this. At least her fingers were working again. She wiggled them experimentally.

"It's all right," Seiichirou said, his voice quiet and kind as always, though surely he had to be worried too. "We'll go after him." Arashi turned her head, saw Karen poised at the edge of the broken window--somehow dressed again, the cold draft from outside blowing her skirt around her legs, her gaze sober and a touch sad. Worried...about Kamui...and with a start Arashi found her place in the situation once more, wondered vaguely how she had managed to lose track of it.

"Okay," Sorata was saying, "and I'll get Miss home." Get her home...again she was taking up his attention, when she shouldn't be. Not worth it, not for her sake, and yet she felt a guilty relief, a warmth she didn't want to be separated from, even as far-off voices in her head and heart raged, mourned, argued passionately that all of this was wrong, so wrong.

"But...but Kamui...." she protested weakly.

"It's okay, don't worry about it," Sorata said, and even muddled as she was she knew that his cheer was false, a flash of brightness to distract her from the darker reality. "Seiichirou-san and Karen-san--oh, and Inuki, too--are taking care of things. So Kamui will be just fine."

But Kamui would not be fine, and she couldn't find the words to explain what she knew to Sorata: the ache of hopes fractured before they could even be born, the suffering of realizing what might have been in the instant of discovering it forever out of reach, something that would never be, that had in fact always been impossible. As the others sketched brief courtesies to the Dragons of Earth, polite closure to the evening's unlikely truce, her gaze drifted uselessly around the room. The stark grief and sympathy in Yuzuriha's tear-bright eyes echoed too closely what she herself was feeling; she looked down, letting her hair swing forward to hide her face. The room seemed to waver, sliding in and out of reality on the pulse of the music, the singer's voice a tender, pitiless murmur.

I love you...I'll kill you.
But I'll love you forever....


* * * * *


Withdrawing his hand from before Subaru's eyes, Seishirou watched as the haze of enchantment faded from them, to be replaced gradually with awareness. Perhaps it hadn't truly been necessary to bespell Subaru, but it had been a somewhat delicate matter, folding someone else into that particular illusion, and Subaru had been in an erratic and potentially unpredictable emotional state. It would have been only too easy for him to bolt out of the maboroshi, ruining the effect of their disappearance. With Subaru entranced, it had been simple enough to slip them both away, up the stairs to the rooftop garden, while everyone else had been distracted--and the Kamui's little display had just confirmed the wisdom of Seishirou's decision. Subaru would not have reacted well to that at all.

It was only now, back down at street level and a couple of blocks away from the building, with no trace of other Seals or Angels anywhere in their vicinity, that Seishirou felt it was reasonably safe to release the spell on Subaru. Even so, he watched carefully as recognition and memory returned to Subaru's gaze. They stood in the shadowy twilight between two streetlights; Subaru's eyes were very dark, their pupils dilated. They widened for a moment, then seemed to dull, like a night sky suffused with clouds, somewhere far away from urban lights. Subaru lowered his head; he stood close enough to Seishirou that doing so concealed his face. After another moment, his shoulders twitched. A faint catch of breath escaped him, sounding disconcertingly like laughter.

Seishirou frowned slightly, though he let only a gentle solicitude show in his voice as he asked, "Are you all right, Subaru-kun?"

"I'm fine." Subaru's response was thin, with a shaky, febrile brightness to it. He rocked forward against Seishirou's chest, one hand rising to clutch at the lapel of Seishirou's coat with surprising strength, an intensity at odds with the airy lightness of his voice. "Thank you."

Somewhat cautiously, Seishirou slid his arm around Subaru. Subaru let himself be turned willingly enough, and they began to walk together, slowly, side by side, but Seishirou remained wary, despite Subaru's seeming complaisance. Subaru leaned a trifle harder on Seishirou than truly necessary, and from time to time he trembled--not with cold, Seishirou thought, for the night was reasonably mild considering the time of year, though still chill enough that he was glad he'd ducked back inside to get their coats. It might be the tremor of a near edge of hysteria, held at bay for now, perhaps blurred into confusion by a little bit too much to drink. Subaru hadn't been past the bounds of discretion, but alcohol did set him afloat rather easily, and he hadn't balanced it with nearly enough food, as Seishirou had known he wouldn't. Surely he would never have let himself be drawn out to dance with that cute inugami master, however shyly and awkwardly, without the influence of the sake. And being drunk would certainly explain that kiss.

That kiss...the extraordinary intimacy of it warmed Seishirou again, even in memory, sent those fiery rivulets of pleasure and astonishment, possession and pride licking through him. For Subaru, who shunned any kind of public display, to succumb to that passion, to that desire for him--even in front of the other Dragons of Heaven, even in front of their Kamui, who one way or another was bound to take exception--

Kamui had been really bothered by it, too--on a personal level, not just the dismay of seeing one of his comrades-in-arms fraternizing with the enemy. Everything in his reaction had spoken of shock and naked anguish, a deep wound of betrayal cutting straight into the heart. There had been something going on there, Seishirou was increasingly sure, perhaps unspoken, perhaps unrealized, but nonetheless true, and hints of it had been in Subaru's reactions as well, that guilt so stark it had nearly been pain, that straining attempt to promise--what?

Subaru murmured something under his breath, too low to catch, then shivered with another of those near-silent, might-be laughs. Seishirou waited for that ripple of exhalation to fade, being careful meanwhile that his arm around Subaru's shoulders remained comfortably relaxed, that the stirrings of his faint unquiet didn't manifest themselves in any noticeable tension.

"It was an interesting party," he said at last.

"Yes." Subaru's voice, though still soft, was pitched oddly high, and Seishirou found himself thinking of Subaru at sixteen, alight over some new and unusual patient at the clinic, his words tumbling over themselves like eager puppies. But for all its effervescence there was a tight thread running through that gaiety, barely perceptible, the glint of the thinnest wire catching light, with the potential for a shrill note in its vibration, should it be plucked. "It was...." His voice dropped, becoming throaty, complex with layers of implication, things unuttered, perhaps even unrecognized. "Interesting."

He slipped out from Seishirou's arm then, stepping quickly forward, though he reached back to twine his fingers with Seishirou's in passing, maintaining a tenuous contact. At the full reach of both their arms, he slowed, swung their hands gently, humming a snatch of what might have been that ridiculous song, though those notes were too few and wandered too much for it to be definite. They trailed off into silence, and Subaru tilted his head back, breathed in, deep and sharp, as if startled by the clarity of the winter night, or by himself.

Seishirou smiled. With sudden swiftness, he transferred his grip to Subaru's wrist and yanked Subaru back, spinning the other about to face him. Subaru gasped as he stumbled against Seishirou, then swayed upright again, lifting his eyes. He met Seishirou's gaze above their gloved hands, his expression half-teasing, half-bemused.

"Subaru-kun," Seishirou murmured, "you're not really that drunk. Are you?"

And as he studied Subaru intently, from such a near distance, the stillness of comprehension was more than evident. For all the tenderness of his tone, he hadn't bothered to mask the searching watchfulness of his gaze, the hunter's keen awareness, and before that acuity Subaru went very quiet, the uncharacteristic breeziness dispersing, like the life of a forest going into hiding at an intruder's footstep. The hush that was left in its wake hinted at loss, sorrow and shame, perhaps even fear--and as Seishirou stared deep into Subaru's eyes, trying to follow all those traces to their hidden meaning, he saw something else start to kindle there, electric and hot, almost wild. The corners of Subaru's mouth tugged up once more. Slowly he leaned in toward Seishirou, going up onto his toes, his lashes lowering suggestively, his lips barely parted in that unexpected, slightly feral smile, and Seishirou was drawn in despite himself, caught once more by the memory of their recent kiss, by Subaru's inexplicable yet endlessly compelling ardor. As if mesmerized, he bent his head, his gaze never leaving Subaru's face as Subaru whispered:

"Catch me."

Twisting his wrist, Subaru snapped it sideways against Seishirou's fingers, breaking free of his slackened grasp. Subaru whirled, ducked, and bolted away, and Seishirou's fingertips just brushed the back of Subaru's coat as he flung out his arm in half-distracted instinct and missed the grab.

Idiot. What had he been thinking?

But...Subaru was....

Subaru's laugh floated back to him, thin and thready, like the cry of a far-off bird. Subaru was fast--as Seishirou finally shook off his surprise, Subaru had already crossed the road and was vaulting a parked car to disappear around the corner beyond. Seishirou took a couple of quick steps forward and then sprang, streetlight to cornice--he began the chase in earnest, coursing after his prey in long, loping bounds across the multi-tiered artificial landscape of the rooftops. Reaching out, he found the beacon of his twin marks upon Subaru's hands and let that orient him to the other's flight, firmly putting aside the uneasiness that wanted some more tangible fix, sight or scent or sound, as well as the vague, disquieting sense that something was askew in his own reactions and had been throughout the evening.

Later. For now, only the hunt was of any real importance. He took the shortest line, straight across the buildings, the unseen light of his stars a sure enough guide, never letting him lose track of where Subaru was--of course--until at last he found himself poised at the corner of a roof, safely ahead of his target. Dropping catlike back down to street level, into the deep shadows of an alley, he paused there, recovering his wind, and waited.

Footsteps presaged Subaru's appearance, and low pantings of breath. No laughter, now. Glancing out of the alley, Seishirou saw him approaching, a lone figure pelting down the center of the empty sidewalk. As he drew near, Seishirou stepped forward, melting from those shadows into the twilight beneath the dim streetlights, using just the least tinge of illusion to make it seem as if he had condensed out of the darkness, was suddenly there in Subaru's path.


You can't escape....

Subaru never slowed. He ran full-tilt into Seishirou, and the shock of their collision was like a sudden fall, the flicker of alarm at losing one's balance paired with the jarring impact of hitting the ground. Trying to blunt that crash, Seishirou let the force of Subaru's momentum spin them both around, his arms locked tightly about Subaru, his grip never slackening, until they came at last to a staggering halt. They stood together like that, Subaru unresisting, motionless in Seishirou's grasp but for heaving, uneven breaths that gradually quieted into a subtle trembling and finally became stillness.

"I am a fool," Subaru said then, low, almost affectless, as if he had gone past even resignation, was falling and falling into the dark void of the inevitable. He sounded tired and quite sober.

Seishirou lowered his face to Subaru's hair, breathed in its sweet, clean fragrance. His hands were cupped now around Subaru's arms, his fingers curled into the cloth of Subaru's coat. He could feel Subaru's heartbeat and his own, still slowing toward normalcy, dull flutters ready to startle back into flight at any disturbance, at any perceived threat. Such a fragile, skittish organ, he mused, to be the repository of life....

"Seishirou-san," and for all that Subaru's voice was a near-toneless whisper, there was pleading in it, "let's go home."

At what point exactly, Seishirou wondered, had the place where he lived become "home" to them both? A personal world, a place in which to seek refuge?

He wasn't really distracted, of course. The riddle of Subaru's behavior at the party remained with him, despite the interruption of the chase--indeed, it had been highlighted all the more for him by Subaru's reaction even to the tangential approach of the real questions. Subaru knew only too well what would draw the hunter's gaze, what would trigger instinct and make the impulse of possession momentarily replace thought. But for all the showiness of the mask painted across its wings, the butterfly remained a butterfly, to those with eyes to see.

And yet...Subaru was warm and solid in his arms. Real and safe were the words that bobbed randomly to the surface of Seishirou's mind--almost nonsensically, as if something atavistic and preverbal were throwing fragments of speech at his consciousness, approximating meaning in only the most general way--and the prospect of having what he had right now in the comfort and seclusion of their own bedroom was immensely better than standing around out on the street. Especially if it meant not letting go.... Deliberately he pushed those mental wanderings aside, filing away the questions of what Subaru was hiding, what Subaru and the Kamui of the Dragons of Heaven had been trying to communicate to each other, and surely that strange, clutching sting inside his chest was the tension of wariness, an inner resistance warning him of the need to remain alert. He acknowledged it, but there would be other opportunities, later, to follow up on those uncertainties.

Instead, just for now....

"Yes," he murmured, although he lingered nevertheless, his cheek to the softness of Subaru's hair. "It's getting late."


* * * * *


Arashi clung to the stair rail with both hands as she eyed the rest of the descent warily. She was reasonably sure that the steps down into most train stations did not tilt sideways. However, she was more than capable of dealing with this peculiarity. She only needed a moment to adjust.

Perhaps another moment....

A couple of steps below her, Sorata was holding out one hand cautiously. "C'mon, Miss. Lemme give you a hand, okay?"

Hadn't they been over this? Releasing half of her grip on the railing, she swatted at his outstretched arm, once, and then again, this time back-handed, when the first swing failed to connect. "Don't--don't--" The second swing managed only a glancing touch. Somehow this indignity was all his fault. "No helping!" she instructed sternly, trying to sound as much like one of her old teachers at Ise as possible. She glared, too, or attempted to glare, although she couldn't quite tell if her face was doing what she meant it to. And then, because she was already in motion, more or less, she took a deep breath, stood up straight, and stepped out boldly--

--onto a step that wasn't there--

--and she was falling, a brief, dizzying swoop that ended suddenly in a tangle of more arms than she alone possessed, in a thump against something solid and upright and warm, and all this before she'd had time to do more than yip in surprise. She was leaning into Sorata, she discovered, inclined against him like a windfallen tree, her face buried in his chest, while both of his arms were wrapped around her. How completely embarrassing. But at least the world had stopped swinging around. Pushing herself back, slowly, she peered up at him, and he met her gaze, his eyes and grin both a little wide, a little strained, as frank concern for her warred with sneaking delight and the absolutely sure knowledge that she was about to paste him a good one.

So she kissed him instead.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.


* * * * *


"Are you sure you're all right?" Seiichirou asked for about the third time since they'd left the party.

"Oh, I'm just fine!" Karen smiled at him, unable to resist a bubble of merriment. She supposed that having someone around who was so constantly solicitous might get annoying eventually, but for now she was eating it up with a spoon. She couldn't imagine that she'd ever get tired of it. "You know, I never feel the cold."

"Oh, that's right." He smiled back at her, distracted, utterly delightful, and her heart gave a little stuttering fillip, in spite of herself. Glancing away again, he looked out over the city, shivering almost imperceptibly--not immune to the chill himself, for all his ability to control the air's movements. What a pity they hadn't taken the time to pick up their coats before leaving. And she'd really liked hers, too--but probably best to write it off as a loss. Going back for it now that the party had broken up would just be asking for trouble with the Dragons of Earth. Not that there wasn't going to be trouble, of course, sooner or later.... Karen hesitated, then stepped up next to Seiichirou and rested one hand on his arm, letting her warmth expand to flow around him. He looked down at her in brief surprise before his gaze softened into understanding. He patted her hand in gratitude and also reassurance.

"We'll find him," he said.

"Yes." Karen stared out over the seemingly endless expanse of starlike lights and darkness, and for all the calm certainty she'd spoken with she couldn't help but think how very large this city was, and how very small and hard to find one teenaged boy could be. "Are you getting anything?" she asked cautiously.

"Not yet." Seiichirou closed his eyes, the better to seek on some spiritual level. Knowing that the odds were with him, that there was almost no chance she'd catch a glimpse of their quarry fleeing across the rooftops, not with the lead Kamui had and the multitude of refuges he could have already found, she watched Seiichirou's face instead, the little furrow between his drawn brows, the curve of lashes lying along his cheek, behind the protection of his glasses, the perfect stillness of his expression belying whatever inner effort he might be making. Truth be told, she was a little envious. He had been trained, after all, in ways that she could only imagine, passed down through his family's lineage. She could tell if a kekkai went up or was destroyed, she could sense things that were near her, especially if they were as powerful as a Dragon of Heaven or Earth, but to be able to reach out and search like that.... She wondered if it was something that she could learn. If there would be any opportunity for that learning, somewhere in their uncertain futures.

Seiichirou sighed at last, his shoulders slumping as he released his concentration. "Nothing," he murmured. Lifting his head, he stared up toward the sky, gazing at some point between the horizon and midheaven--looking for what, Karen couldn't tell, but since he was still being heedless of her she took advantage of the fact to study his profile, his expression more intent yet also more remote as he focused on the distance, a look that was almost yearning in its far-off intensity, his hair spilling over his forehead as if to invite stroking fingers to play through it, to break that trance gently, very gently, and turn his attention somewhere else. No, no--bad Karen. It occurred to her then that maybe he was reading the air, like a dog searching for a scent; picturing him with puppy ears and a tail, she suppressed a giggle and waited more light-humoredly for him to finish.

"I can't feel him anywhere nearby," Seiichirou said finally. He sounded worried and somewhat downcast but not yet defeated. "I'll try a spell." With a last absent-minded pat on her fingers, he disengaged from her and jumped down from the cistern where they'd both been standing. He moved forward a few steps, into the most open part of the rooftop, and paused there, raising his hand and holding it palm-up before his face. Bowing his head slightly and closing his eyes, he began speaking quietly, almost inaudibly.

Karen lowered herself to sit on the edge of the cistern. The wind picked up a little, fluttering her dress, and she tucked the end of her skirt under her legs. She couldn't see the wind, of course, but she had the sense that it was gathering about the space over Seiichirou's hand, invisible currents streaming in from every direction, winding themselves around that still, empty center. Gathering and gathering, a subtle but steadily increasing pressure, an intentness, almost as if a multitude of unseen presences were listening to Seiichirou's whispered words--and then, as he flung his arm out, his hand turning over and closing into an abrupt fist, those flows reversed themselves, flaring outward once more. That draft was surprisingly gentle as it puffed past her, touching her face, brushing back her hair, as if all that accumulated force was diffusing, spreading itself out wide across the city, insinuating itself everywhere that it could reach.

And really, how better to track their lost Kamui than by the air itself?

Although she was of two minds about their search. A part of her sympathized with Kamui's need to get out, to go off alone somewhere to lick his heart's wounds by himself; she didn't necessarily want to share all of her personal griefs with the world at large either. At the same time, there was healing solitude, and then there was a brooding, toxic isolation, where festering thoughts could turn very dark, very ugly, and Kamui had suffered a lot in the last year. At the very least they had to check up on him, to let him know, however much he might resent their interference just at that moment, that they nevertheless were willing to be there for him, to do whatever they could for him, little as that might be.

Taken or gay. Or, as it happened, both.

Poor Kamui.

Or, on the other hand, not so taken. Not anymore. Studying Seiichirou again--his eyes still closed, his hand outstretched as if clasping the ends of those thousand gossamer threads of air, a slight wind whipping at his jacket and tie, flattening his shirt against his body and blowing his hair up away from his face--Karen caught her lip thoughtfully between her teeth. Too soon. Absolutely it was too soon, the pain still too fresh, the presences of those people who were gone still coloring his world, like stained glass tinting the sun's light. She couldn't compete with the perfection of Shimako's memory, so recently enshrined; she couldn't insert herself into the midst of his grief for his lost daughter and nephew. Maybe she never could.

Having thought that, though, it was strange, wasn't it....

"Ah!" Seiichirou said brightly. Turning his head, he gazed toward the southwest. "There's a direction, at least." He moved toward that corner of the building, lowering his hand but still seeming to hold onto that net of wind as he concentrated. "He's pretty far off...but not too far. I think. It's hard to tell precisely."

"Oh, that's good, though." With a little laugh, Karen vaulted down from the cistern to land lightly on the rooftop. "I'm glad we came together--I'd be reduced to asking people on street corners, 'Did you see a teenaged boy run by here, about this tall...?'" Drawing nearer to Seiichirou, she hesitated, then said more softly, "Although, I was wondering...." He half-turned his head, acknowledging but not quite looking at her, still seemingly focused on the distance. She gathered her courage. "Why did you even come to the party in the first place?"

"Well, it was a good idea to be there as chaperones for the kids." He gave a low, rueful chuckle. "Even if maybe we didn't do the best job of it."

His voice was too gentle. She was suddenly aware of her heartbeat, like a bird drumming at a closed window, strange and inconceivable barrier. "Even so," she murmured, glancing uneasily aside, and the silence she left between them thrummed with the real question, not quite asked, not yet answered.

He had gone to that place, and he had smiled and bowed like a gentleman and good-naturedly sung karaoke with those very people who might have helped to kill his family--who might have ordered the killing of his family--who almost certainly had to have known that those killings were imminent and had done nothing whatsoever about it. And nobody's face or manner had shown the least remorse--among the Angels, anyway, except possibly for the JSDF soldier, who had looked uneasy. (The other Seals had been on eggshells when Seiichirou had first arrived, distressed on his behalf although not quite daring to say anything, and in particular Subaru, who had taken Daisuke's death as a very personal tragedy.) None of them had seemed sorry for what had been done--none of them had seemed to care that he might be suffering, that he might be justifiably, perhaps even dangerously angry.

And at the same time, to all outward appearances, he hadn't been.

How? How could he be so--

"It's all right." Startled, Karen glanced up at him again. Though those words were still quiet, there was strength behind them, an unshakable calm serenity, only a little sad. "I don't blame them."

His attitude shocked her; she couldn't honestly believe that anyone would be so forbearing. No, not even him. "But--!" she started to protest, but his next words forestalled her.

"After all, we're not really all that different. They don't hold the same things important that we do, of course, but aside from that, when the time comes...." There was a shift in the set of Seiichirou's shoulders, as if tension were being consciously released, a relaxation into something surprisingly like lightness, though still laced with that faint, musing regret. "What we're being called to do...I wonder," he murmured, almost as if to himself, gazing out across the city, "if those kids truly do understand what it means to fight. The way something like this--a war, really--demands of us. Even Kamui doesn't, I think. Even now."

"What are you saying?" Karen asked warily. Because if she was following him....

His voice came back more strongly, clear as a cloudless dawn, nearly a challenge. "What does it mean, 'to protect someone'? Someone, or something, that's more important to you than anything else?" He looked at her then, and smiled, so very gently, so very tenderly, but there was an unyielding hard edge beneath that sorrowful understanding, well concealed yet unmistakable, and she found herself remembering with a jolt that wind razors could cut like steel.

"Karen-san, the problem with dying for the sake of the person you that you can only do it once."

After a moment he turned from her again. As he moved, light from the streets below briefly glinted along his glasses, a gleaming arc tracing their near curve, like a crescent moon. "Let's go," he said, not unkindly. "Before we lose Kamui again." He sprang from the roof's edge toward the nearest telephone pole, and Karen hesitated an instant before following, watching him, trying to reconcile what she'd just glimpsed with all that she had known of him from before.

Not forbearance, after all....

"Interesting," she murmured then, her lips curving up into a little smile, disquieted but nonetheless intrigued. She leaped after Seiichirou, that edgy mix of excitement and concern flickering within her--the dark, glittering thrill of the unexpected, the trace of anxiousness like a shadow, and at the heart of it all a secret flame of amusement dancing, irrepressible.

Well, it was true after all.

It was the ones who were always smiling that you had to watch out for.


* * * * *


She cried hard into her dog's ruff as it whined and tried to twist its head about to lick her face. Her fingers were knotted into its fur as if it were real fur, as if she could by her clenched grip hold this creature of spirit force and magic to her, let alone keep it from moving. Of course, for her it was, and she could.

Kusanagi stood above her, feeling helpless. His fingers twiddled at the bottle of water he'd gotten for her. She hadn't been exaggerating in her stories about drinking with her grandma--she was handling what she'd had tonight pretty well, for someone so small. It was defeat and grief that in the end had made her dissolve.

"W-why?" she sobbed brokenly. "Why...K-Kamui...he...."

"It's his decision." His chest hurt--the hope that those words sounded gentle as he meant them to be, not cold. Though truth was cold, more often than not. "He'll be all right. He's strong." Strong enough to compel the inugami not to follow him any further, even though it was hers beyond any ordinary definition of possession--hers as breath and laughter and the determined sparkle of those brown eyes were hers. Hers like her own life. To have that kind of power, to command reality the way that Kamui did, without even realizing it....

Yuzuriha had straightened up a little, her hands still twined in Inuki's fur, though more loosely. The dog sat, quiet now, watching her with alert golden eyes. "It's not enough." Her voice was whispery and stark, falling off somewhere past the ragged tail-edge of her distress. He looked down at his own hand, wrapped around the half-full plastic bottle. Useless, for this. For anything that really mattered.


And wasn't that why he'd accepted his part in this whole thing, as a Dragon of Earth? Because it had seemed that there was no other possible way to make a difference, one man aching with the world's cries of anguish against the crushingly vast, indifferent mass of humanity. He could build, he could fight, he could work all day under the sun on the latest Self-Defense Force project, he could blast down encroaching housing developments with a barrage of hadouken, and no matter what he did, nothing, really, would change. The march of so-called progress was just too big, it had too much weight and momentum behind it, and whether he went along with it or refused to take any part, either way that action was just one tiny, tiny grain of dust in the avalanche. Its presence or absence wouldn't even be noticed.

So he'd turned to the one thing he could do: help take down the keystones, the secret support of the whole dull, monstrous edifice. Bring it all down, wipe the slate clean, and hope for the promise of a new beginning, a better future. It was extreme, of course, but was there any real choice? He hadn't thought so. And he'd told himself that they deserved it, all these people who couldn't bring themselves to care more about the suffering of uncounted trees and animals and flowers than about their own status and lazy comfort. He'd told himself that after all he was probably just the hand of karma, paying them back for all the pain they'd caused, endorsed, or simply ignored, on those luminous festival nights when he'd walk through the city on leave, through crowds of gaiety and riot, when he'd pass by a cluster of pretty, flirting girls in kimono or a proud young father showing his baby son fireworks for the first time and had to tell himself something. He'd told himself all those things, over and over, sitting in sunlit parks and watching the children at play, children who would most likely grow up to take their parents' place at despoiling the world, he figured. And he'd told himself that it was actually all okay, and that he wouldn't go completely out of his mind, pouring concrete to turn a once-green riverbank into a straight, sterile channel while his sweating fellow soldiers laughed and joked above the growl of machinery, because it was only one damn grain of dust and sooner or later all of this would be swept away and it didn't matter.

But looking at Yuzuriha now, kneeling on the cold sidewalk, he could only think of her laughing and chattering vibrantly with her friends, those Dragons of Heaven, of her dancing with that young man with the shy smile, then dashing over to take his hands, her fingers light and warm as the brush of a little bird's wings, her eyes bright. The knowledge that the keystones' fall would crush all of that put numbing ice into his veins, a sour, raw ache in the back of his throat. All those people who'd made her happy, everyone she loved and longed to save, and sooner or later even Yuzuriha herself (because she'd fight for what she wanted to protect, she was a brave child, she wouldn't give up easily)....

He wondered if there was anything he could tell himself then that wouldn't turn to ashes, shriveled and dirty on the tongue and in the soul.

Yuzuriha's breath caught--her own thoughts, whatever those might be. Probably they weren't any easier than his were. Lifting her head, she jerked about to face him, her eyes wide, damp with the remnant of tears, but unblurred.

"Kusanagi-san!" she cried, and he could see her already gathering herself, determination and a wild, desperate resolve. His own eyes widened briefly; then he ducked his head on a silent, half-ironic chuckle as he let that bitter tension go, packed it all up and buried it, someplace deep and far away.


Because when it came down to it he knew that he had no ability to deny her anything, and if she had some intention, maybe even a plan...hell, that was better than what he'd managed, wasn't it?

And maybe she could take him to a place that he couldn't imagine, where he could find something pure to fight for, after all.


* * * * *



The bioroid turned the word over in its mind, testing it. It seemed the appropriate choice.

Eating. Drinking. Dancing. Laughing. That...whatever it was that Dragon of Heaven had done with the Sakurazukamori. And then leaving, in such a way as to cause the most possible excitement and upheaval....

Was that what people did?

The air was cold, up on the rooftop garden. Nataku reached out and touched the greenery of one of the delicate weeping bushes. It jerked back at the sudden prick of discomfort and peered closely at the tip of one finger. A tiny seed of blood swelled there, nearly black in the diffuse light.

Strange. Not merely anomalous, although that word did describe the night's utter difference from anything else in Nataku's experience. It was a word the scientists had used, a blip in the data, an irregularity that had not been explained, that might or might not be significant. It did not capture the disorientation, the feeling of being lost, the little shiver that was like being cold, but on the inside.


Kanoe, Yuuto, and Satsuki were still downstairs, cleaning up from the party. All the others had left, two and two, except for Kamui, who had gone off by himself. And soon those three would probably leave too, to go back to the Government Building, all together....

Nataku thought of its Kamui, somewhere out there in the surrounding city. It threw the trailing end of its cloth over its shoulder. "I'm going back," it said abruptly into the garden's silence, its words a puff of white mist against the darkness, melting almost at once into nothing.

One leap, to the parapet railing. Another, out into the open air. And as Nataku dropped toward the lower buildings, the wind of its fall whipping at its clothes and hair, images of the party still flickered across its mind--

That smile. Now Nataku remembered. From the photograph it had looked at briefly, when they had gone to that place. That man, who hadn't been there at the time, and the woman, and the very little girl who had sprung forward with such surprising fierceness--

Don't hurt Mommy!

Nataku landed on a sloped glass roof, a penthouse atrium. One foot missed the metal crossbars, and as light as that landing was, the glass still cracked, a thin tracery like a spider's web. Insignificant. Nataku leaped again, its white cloth snapping softly in its wake as it began to traverse the city--back to the cool dimness of the Government Building, like the basement where it had been born, as if it could somehow leave behind the unquiet, the unfamiliar, the twinge like a strained muscle in the chest.

Only its purpose was important.

Only being by Kamui's side.

Only that.


* * * * *


"Well, that's it!" Kanoe glanced over and saw Yuuto tying off the garbage bag. Not an undue amount of trash, really, for a party of thirteen people. Using real cups rather than plastic or paper had certainly helped. She nodded acknowledgment, then turned away once more to gaze out through the broken window. The city pooled before her, spreading as far as the eye could see, a vast undulation of darkness and tiny jewel-lights.

"Nataku just left," Satsuki's voice cut in, clear and remote, somewhere behind her.

"That's fine. It can go where it likes." Amusement colored Kanoe's words as she added, "It's not a child." Child it was, and child it was not, as they all were who were bound to this struggle--some nearer and some farther, but all close in some way to their childhood, to what it was to be a child.

The destiny of the human race....

Only her own sister, for all that the tiny form resembled a young girl, had lost that connection, somewhere far back in forgotten time. And perhaps she, herself...she found that she could hardly remember innocence, the feeling of all the world being new, of infinite possibility. What she remembered instead was remembering, was awakening over and over to those memories and feelings that were ancient and yet fresh each time.

So much hunger, so much much pride.


No, she was still that child, after all.

"It's too bad about the window." Yuuto's voice was quiet at her shoulder, gentle and light even in its concern. She shifted, a not-quite start at his closeness. She hadn't noticed him come up. "Will you really get in trouble for it? Maybe you can get it repaired before your boss comes back."

Ah, Yuuto. Guardian of her dreaming, pale moonlight painting the world in shades of peace and unreality, a molten white glimmer on the surface of the water, soothing and impenetrable sheen. "It doesn't matter," she murmured. "I made a fuss before, but actually it's okay because he won't be back anytime soon." Not before the time of decision, so near them now. So very near. A rich and foolish man, a cowardly politician, taking himself safely out of the city during this time of terrible earthquakes, leaving his constituents behind with excuses and thin promises. But he had been good to her, in his bumbling way. She wrapped her arms about herself, against the chilly air that licked in through the space left by the shattered glass.

"Oh, so it's all right then. Anyway, I guess it could be argued that Kamui is a force of nature, right? An act of God, you could say." Notes of amusement and deep, serious quiet came and went in Yuuto's words, as always, and it was a trick to figure out which mood was only for play. This time, she thought it was the gravity. "By the way, what were you two talking about during the party, before Kamui got all upset and ran off crying?"

"Oh, that? It was nothing important." Kanoe focused her gaze on the far distance, as if it could trace wherever the Kamui of the Dragons of Heaven had fled. Her lips drew up into a smile, even though Yuuto, standing a little behind her, probably couldn't see it. The wind kissed her face, gentle and cold, like necessity. "I just reminded him of something that he had forgotten."


* * * * *


Kamui stumbled to a halt on the sidewalk, half doubled over. He grabbed the nearest thing, a tall wrought-iron fence, for support. He'd run and run, but the memories just wouldn't leave him.

It was so unfair.

Those words again. Hadn't Subaru said it, on the day he'd moved out of the house? That all of life was unfair, and yet somehow people kept going, buoyed up by the possibility of love and by hope.

But if love and hope were broken....

Believe in me. Have faith in me. I won't betray you. Maybe those weren't the exact words, but that had been Subaru's message, as he'd understood it.

I promise. I'll come back to you on the final day.

I'll be there. For the final battle, that had meant....

Only for that?

Water blurred the street, the gray, shuttered faces of buildings, and Kamui knuckled fiercely at his eyes. Damn it. He felt dizzy, off balance, even though he hadn't had any of the sake that the others had been drinking. He would have--even Yuzuriha had been drinking, for crying out loud--but the look Subaru had given him when he'd arrived had been so cold, so emotionless and hard. It had shocked him, and he'd taken it as a warning, he'd made sure to stay on his guard, and all the more so as the others, even Arashi, gradually got sucked into the partying. Somebody had to watch over them. Somebody had to protect them if the Dragons of Earth did anything. At least he could do that. He and Subaru....

But then there had been the dancing, and Subaru giving in to Yuzuriha's silliness, and he didn't know what to think about that. It had been weird. And soon after that everyone had been weird, and it had been generally stupid, and in the middle of it all the Sakurazukamori had come over and had a low exchange of words with Subaru, standing much too close, while Kamui had watched them secretly in the window's reflection, tense and ready to act if Subaru had seemed to need it.

How could he have ever imagined that Subaru...that Subaru would....

The image of that, that kiss was seared right through his retinas and burned onto his brain--he wasn't still seeing it as much as feeling it, a crawling flame of horror, a piercing, desperate need to deny what he'd just witnessed. The pain was like being crucified all over again, those jagged spears of glass and metal stabbing through his limbs but all the anguish concentrating itself in his heart.

Had Subaru known? Even then? On the day he'd left them, and they'd all thought he was nobly and tragically going off to hunt his old enemy down and resolve their conflict at last, had he had something entirely different in mind?

Damn it, Subaru....

You could hate someone for deceiving you like that, with careful, gentle words that were never actually lies. You could hate them with a towering fury, a single-minded, animal savagery. The problem was--he couldn't. He couldn't, it was still Subaru after all, no matter what Subaru had done, and besides he knew only too well how those conflicted feelings could trip you up, could make you stumbling and bewildered and strange even to yourself. He didn't know what crazy thing he might have done if Fuuma had happened to show up at the party. It had been bad enough with Fuuma not even there: the twisting knot of relief and disappointment deep in the pit of his stomach, the tiny but constant thread of anxiety, thinking that at any moment that person might walk in, and then...and then...all the possibilities dissolved back into that cloud of not-knowing.

Or not wanting to know, maybe....

But now it was obvious that Subaru and the Sakurazukamori were...something...but still Subaru was saying that he was a Dragon of Heaven, that he'd be there on the final day...and...and....

It was wrong.

Oh gods, it was wrong that Subaru had to go through that. That Subaru should have to tear himself in half like that, to betray one beloved person or another. And Yuzuriha, too, with her friend....

And he and Fuuma, also....

It was wrong. So wrong, and it was all because of this battle and this stupid destiny and himself at the very heart of it--the decision he'd had to make, to fight for or against the human race. It had been his choice, everyone had told him so, and if he'd never even existed maybe it wouldn't have had to be made, and Fuuma wouldn't have had to become a Dragon of Earth and do that to Kotori, and maybe Subaru could have found happiness somehow--

To represent or hunt the stupid majesty of the stupid fucking gods--

A dry sob had escaped him; he tightened his throat and clenched his teeth against any others. He'd hit the brick base of the fence, and his hand throbbed dully. But the pain didn't blur that other aching, deep inside, the burning wish that he were someone else, anyone but "Kamui"--

Ah, it doesn't look as though you're enjoying yourself.

The words of the Dreamgazer of the Dragons of Earth came back to him, a fresh twist of the knife, a blinding flash of remembrance. His eyes widened; it was as if he were back there again, leaning up against the glass, staring out across the night-time city as he listened against his will to that low, laughing voice.

Is it because you're stuck here in the middle of all these Dragons of Earth?

Don't judge us. Her voice had shifted, becoming suddenly serious, cold, and stern, although no less quiet. It's not your place to judge anything. Only to choose, and then to fight for what you choose, at any cost. Isn't that right?

Do you think you're the hero of this story?

The laughter had returned then as she'd leaned close to him, whisper of silky clothes and hair, a breath of strong, dark perfume. Well, in the end you're exactly the same as our Kamui. You have blood all over your hands, too.

The people who were in that building--do you think they could tell the difference?


He couldn't forget it. How had she known--but of course she'd known. It had been a dream, after all. He had known it was a dream, though one so clear and vivid that it could have easily been mistaken for life. He'd been chasing a cloaked figure across the endless ruins of a city; they'd been hurling blasts of power at each other, carving gouges into the already demolished landscape, but he hadn't been able to see the other's face. Until at last the other had paused, standing on a heap of rubble slightly below him, had turned to look up at him, and the wind had rippled the hood of the cloak back, letting it fall away--

It was his own face, smiling back at him. A pretty face, people had said of him often enough, and he guessed it had to be true, but that smile was radiant with malice, so pure and cold, so utterly cruel.

So evil.

What are you waiting for? the other Kamui called up to him. That voice was mocking and careless. Aren't you going to try to finish me off?

He called power to his hands then, without thought, without hesitation, because this person, this monster he could definitely kill. He summoned that raw, white-hot destructive force, more and more, rising through him as quickly as lightning, so intense that he could feel the dream straining and warping around him, but he held onto that reality by the strength of his own will. This was his chance. His double shifted to a defensive stance, looking wary, and a fierce elation filled him.

You don't know what I can do!

And as he swept his arm out, his whole body wreathed in that gathered power, the dream-image changed. Another figure was becoming visible, fading into view through the other Kamui, even as his double became translucent, only a shadow and then gone, replaced--

--by Fuuma, staring up at him in question and surprise.


He couldn't stop. Didn't want to stop. That strike, a wild ecstasy of rage and release--even if it was Fuuma, it was only a dream.

Too late anyway--he was--

The blast tore through the image of Fuuma, already wisping away into nothingness as the dream frayed, reality bleeding through in widening ribbons as the spell was broken. It smashed home, and something exploded--the shock had made him stagger backward. He'd realized suddenly that he was standing, awake, cold in pajamas and bare feet, the red light of flames flickering around him. Lowering the arm he'd raised involuntarily to ward his face, he'd stared down in horror at the burning apartment building below him, its walls buckling around the great hole ripped into it, beginning to crumble and fall, the roar of fire and destruction almost drowning out the tiny, far-off sound of screams.


For endless moments, he'd only been able to look, hands clasped over his mouth, in case he might start screaming himself. Then he'd fled, racing across the rooftops, shivering, teeth chattering, a blind, panicked, mindless flight. He couldn't do anything for those people. He couldn't protect anyone, he couldn't save anyone, he could only make more and more people die because of him, like Kotori, like her parents, like his aunt Tokiko, like Daisuke and Seiichirou's family--

He hadn't told anyone. He'd snuck back into the house and hadn't said anything. If he could have, if there had been a chance to, he might have wanted to talk to Subaru about it, but--

His back against the iron fence, Kamui pressed his clenched fists to either side of his head, a low moan catching in his throat. It felt like his skull was about to crack open from the pressure of terrible memories, of demands that he couldn't answer, of blame and self-disgust and anguish. Maybe he was going crazy. Maybe he had always been crazy.

I'll kill anyone who gets in my way!

I don't care about what happens to other people!

He'd said things like that when he'd first come back to Tokyo, trying desperately to clear a space around himself, to be alone with his unhappiness. Whether he'd really meant them or not, it didn't seem to matter. It had been like a prophecy, and he was still living it out, seemingly unable to do anything else.

Useless. He couldn't even make a kekkai. All he could do was....

Kill people. Or get them killed.

No. No more.

A bleak clarity slammed down over him, sudden and absolute. It was like the eye of a storm, breathless, deathly still, stunning in its contrast to the chaos that had come before.

Get it over with. Now.

It was the one thing he could do. Tonight, before anything else could happen, before the others shook off the distraction of the party and found him, putting themselves at risk again.

He could do that.

It would just be Fuuma and himself, with no one else involved.

And then....

With abrupt determination, Kamui pushed off from the fence. He leaped to the top of a streetlight, then to a rooftop on the other side of the street--he lit out across the city, not wildly now but with focused intent and a singular destination, moving, had he only been able to see it, like a hunting cat, arrow-fleet, flying more often than not: a rush like a gale, a whirlwind angel.

A Dragon.


* * * * *


As Kamui dwindled in the distance, Kakyou drew back the point of view of his dream-vision, letting the buildings become smaller, farther away--darker, as the streetlamps' radiance was left behind on the gray pavement, deep down in those artificial canyons, until there was only blackness and tiny, brilliant spangles of lights, too far away to illuminate anything. Stars amidst the wasteland. He let that view spill wider, slowly flowing full circle around him, a false heaven reflecting in the pool that surrounded where he lay, reclining on the darkness as if on a chaise, propped up on that soft nothingness. Everything was still, without currents or sounds, without visible signs of life.

The Kamui of the Dragons of Earth leaned over him, chest brushing his shoulder, breath warm against his cheek. "Well?"

"You already know," Kakyou murmured, his tone a shade too dull to be reproof. The Kamui's fingers stroked his hair back, away from the column of his throat, their touch tender and without mercy; he waited for that grip to seize him about the neck as if he were a child's toy, but apparently the reminder was enough. The memory, the mere possibility of it--in this place, the line between actual and might-be was cloudy, and ultimately not to be relied upon. Silenced, if not physically, Kakyou finished the thought in the refuge of his own mind. You always know everything, don't you.

"I know what you wish for." That presence withdrew. The Kamui's voice sounded compassionate; perhaps he really intended compassion, insofar as his purpose allowed it. "You only have to fulfill your part."

"I understand." Leave me alone, he wanted to say. I've done my part up to now. I'll do what I have to do. Whether it's by your command or not.

You always know everything.

But not this.

Not the unlikely alliance, or the slow, drawn-out game they'd played to set this goad to the Kamui of the Dragons of Heaven, or the secret that they'd let slip to him, if only he'd grasp its meaning in time....

With abrupt grace, the Kamui vaulted off that raised spot. He landed in front of Kakyou with a splash, calf-deep in the dreaming pool, shattering the image of the city into wavering chaos. Startled, Kakyou struggled up onto one elbow, caught at the loose throat of his kimono with his other hand.

The Kamui smiled at him. Dressed again in that long, black coat, he was night against night, unfathomable. The coat's hem skimmed the surface of the pool as he shifted, stirring wavelets with each motion, ripples that spread in every direction, crossing and recrossing without end.

"You're a very pretty distraction," the Kamui said. Kakyou drew in a breath, barely kept from recoiling. Reaching out, the Kamui clenched his fingers in the dreaming's airy substance as that amused grin became something darker, something inhuman and unconcerned. "Well, anyway," he went on, "it doesn't really matter.

"Dreamgazer--it's time to wake up."


* * * * *


Arashi opened her eyes. She was lying on her back, someplace dark, or mostly so. A dim light seeped in through slatted blinds, not quite enough to strike sparks of pain from the heaviness of what she thought must be an incipient headache. The yielding surface that she lay on suggested "bed"; the feel of the space, of the air, the subliminal ring of magical wards told her that it was home, her own room. There was something damp on her forehead--a washcloth, skin-warmed and tepid. As she noticed its scant weight, as she thought of the person who must have put it there, she sensed that presence nearby, apparently seated on the floor a little way from her bedside, even before he stirred, shifting slightly in the stillness.

"Miss. You doing better?"

She reached up, touched the washcloth with her fingertips. "I'm sorry." Her voice scratched wretchedly, and she could still taste nausea at the back of her throat.

She thanked the goddess and all the kami that she'd kissed Sorata before she'd thrown up in the subway.

He chuckled softly, and she wanted to hit him just on principle for finding any of this funny, but there was a catch in his voice like irony, a tiny hook of pain and longing, and she understood that she was hearing something more than the usual cheerful energy. "No, don't apologize," he said. "It's not every day I get a chance to take care of you. I gotta say--I kinda think I'm honored. That you'd let me, I mean."

She could remember his hands, so gentle, holding her hair back out of her face. He had only waited, saying not a word, and her chest hurt at the memory.

At that inexhaustible patience, this night and always....

"There's water on the night table," he added as she began to move, pushing tentatively at the covers that had been drawn up over her. "And some aspirin, if you need it."

She sat up, very slowly, sliding back until she was leaning up against the wall. The washcloth fell off, and she caught it, then stared dumbly at it, as if it were something that she needed to comprehend. "Sorata-san." She rubbed her fingertips hesitantly over the cloth's nubbly texture. "Do you ever think about...about things that might be?"

"Huh? Well, yeah, sometimes. That I knew my parents, f'r instance. That I got to grow up like a normal kid, and there was never going to be any of this final battle nonsense." His voice dropped, becoming barely audible. "That I'd get to live." It lifted again, quick but still not loud, considerate of her possible delicacy. "But you can't keep on holding onto those things. So many things that might be--they'll just crowd out what's really yours. And then in the end you won't have anything. Only regrets. Only suffering."

Noble truths. She knew enough to recognize the echo of the teaching. But in her tradition, the way was to believe in wishes, and in the improbable mercy of the gods. To pursue the things that one desired but didn't have, while not always wise, was perfectly acceptable.

But not for her.

"If I could," she said, and the disturbed flutter of her pulse made her queasy all over again, "if I could, I--"

"Miss. It's okay. Really."

"It's not!" She twisted the wash cloth, wringing it in misery and resentment. In the end you won't have anything--but what did they have? Any of them?

At least Subaru was....

"I understand," Sorata said, relentlessly gentle, unusually serious and calm. "Because as the hidden shrine maiden, you're the vessel of the god's power of Ise...." And she knew that he knew the unspoken corollary that followed, as most practitioners knew the general outlines of each other's rules.

The first and most important requirement of the god's vessel was that it be unbreached.

Drawing her legs up, she wrapped her arms around them and buried her face against her knees.

"I'm sorry," Sorata said, low, after a long, strained moment of silence. "I can't say anything to help you. Except that it totally doesn't seem fair, does it, 'cause I don't have the same restriction on my side. It's just, you know, supposed to be a good idea. It's a rule, not a magical law, or something." He laughed again, the sound stumbling to an awkward halt. "Um, I'm just making this worse by talking about it, aren't I? Okay, shutting up now...."

Tilting her head, she slanted a tentative glance toward him. She could just make him out, a shadowy outline on the far side of her small room. "Sorata-san?" She wet her lips, nervous, no, more than nervous, feeling herself skirting the edge of something almost inconceivable, something perilous even to speak of. "Would you...would you want to? If I said...'yes'?"


"I'm serious!" That reverent awe and surprise in his voice was just too much. She'd kill him if he was playing with her. Her face burned like a flame in the dark--fortunately a lightless one, secret and unseen. After what seemed like forever, she heard him release a held breath, the faintest tremor of sound, and her own breath caught in answer, even before he spoke.


Hearing that response, she still couldn't quite fathom it. "Really?"

"Oh, Miss," and the yearning was back in his voice, along with that ghost of laughter, "do you actually have to ask me something like that?"

Is it better that I live? Does my life or death matter? How else could she believe, without asking? And sometimes, not even then. Suddenly urgent, as if that 'yes' were a tide that might sweep out again at any instant, leaving her adrift and alone, she said in a rush, almost stammering, "So if you wanted to--if you want to--I mean--" She couldn't get out the words. She wanted to weep in frustration and dismay.

Sorata groaned with excessive theatricality, jolting her from the midst of that confusion. "Miss, please--don't tempt me, 'kay? I'm a monk, not a saint. (And a perfectly healthy teenager, to boot!)" Quieter once more, he added, "Maybe it's presumptuous of me, but I'd like to think I know you better than that. Could you really be satisfied with yourself if you made that choice, after everything?

"Because in the end, the one thing I don't want is for you to regret me."

Kishuu-san. Don't just wait. She pushed the memory down, the truth of it that made her heart start up like a butterfly, brilliant and frenetic and unconstrained. Because what Sorata had said was truth as well. Because the person that he'd chosen would never be so reckless, would never throw away everything for a moment's comfort in the dark. If the god left her, she would have nothing for the battle to come. Sorata would be reduced to protecting her or, if she left his side, to worrying about her safety. And there was no more certain way to ensure that that cruel destiny of his would come to pass.

"Yes," she murmured. "I...thank you." Silence wrapped them softly, a brief shared warmth, before Sorata pushed himself to his feet, stretching long and deliberately.

"Drink some of the water, okay? It's supposed to help. And then try to get some sleep. It's been a long night."

"Sorata-san." She'd released her knees, let her feet slide down and her legs straighten. Smoothing her skirt across her lap, she turned her head aside, stared blankly at the bare wooden window sill. "You're not allowed to die."


"I mean it." Perhaps she was still a little drunk. In the dark, her mouth quivered, somewhere between laughter and crying. "I'm forbidding it. If you disappoint me...I'll never forgive you."

There was a pause. "Well--all righty, then!" And that boundless enthusiasm was back in Sorata's voice, irrepressible, inexhaustible, so that one could almost believe there was no black chasm of fate gaping beneath its energetic tightrope dance. "If it's you saying it, Miss, then that's how it's gonna be. Absolutely! For the promise of your sweet loving someday...." She could picture his face in her mind, the ridiculously demented grin, the cheesy wink. She closed her eyes in order to see it better, to never forget. Then the light, quick sound of footsteps, and he was bending above her, one hand on the mattress next to her and the other braced against the window frame--a heartbeat to feel his arms on either side of her, close enough that she could sense his warmth but not quite touching her, before his lips brushed the crown of her head. They lingered there, soft, tender and breathing against her hair, and her heart was breaking, breaking: for that gentleness, for the glass hope of an uncertain future, the promises that might never be fulfilled.

"Sleep now," Sorata whispered.

If he asked her to eat, she would eat. If he asked her to sleep, she would sleep. As he withdrew, slowly, she waited for him to step back from the bed, then turned to fumble carefully for the glass of water. Through the dim, unquiet shadows of her mood, it took a moment for her to realize that he had stopped moving; she glanced after him and saw him standing in the middle of the room, staring toward the window with a suddenly fixed attention. "What is it?" she asked, alerted.

"Uhh, nothing," he said distractedly, but by then she could sense it too, a discordant note resonating at the back of her mind, thin and far-off, almost imperceptible. Uneasily she looked toward the window herself, not at the bars of shadow and yellowish-gray light themselves but at the beyond, into the unseen. That jangle of wrongness became more acute, and her disquiet deepened.

" not right."


* * * * *


Pi! Pi! Pi! Pi!

"Subaru-kun," Seishirou grumbled, his thoughts groping sluggishly and somewhat resentfully toward full wakefulness, much like his outflung hand, which was pawing half-consciously at the general vicinity of where his bed partner ought to be. He got only a handful of covers as Subaru slipped out from underneath them. "I thought you turned that damned thing off."

"Sorry. I'll be right back." Light footsteps retreated toward the other room. After a moment to realize that, yes, he was awake, and that he should certainly stay awake until he found out who was contacting Subaru, Seishirou let out a low, aggravated huff of breath. Wriggling sideways, he reached out to turn on the bedside lamp; blinking in the sudden light, he rolled over onto his back and arranged himself more comfortably, propped up against the headboard, amidst the pillows. Glancing at the clock, he frowned. They'd barely slept at all, and who would possibly be calling for Subaru so late? Or, more accurately, so early?

It had to be Seal business. Perhaps someone was demanding explanations of Subaru's behavior at the party. Or they could be having some problem with their Kamui. But still, couldn't they have waited to trouble Subaru with it until some reasonable hour of the morning?

Seishirou rubbed at his eyes, still frowning slightly. He had been dreaming again, he thought. That might explain the persistent disorientation, the way he was feeling rather out of sorts. He couldn't remember what it had been about, though. There had been something involving a very intense, somehow threatening ringing, as if a giant bell had been sounding in the distance, sending out a dangerous vibration....

He cocked his head, his attention shifting abruptly to Subaru's voice, out in the other room. "Yes," Subaru was saying. There was a longish pause. "I understand." He sounded very calm, although there was the faintest quaver, quickly suppressed, as he added, "Yes. As soon as I can. Goodbye." The phone was hung up quietly, without haste, and all was still for long seconds, as if Subaru were pausing to think, or to compose himself. Then the tiny reading lamp on the table next to the phone went out. Subaru appeared gradually out of the darkness, drifting into the light that spilled out through the bedroom door, luminous in his white pajamas, like a spirit manifesting itself. He looked sad and distracted and a little blank, as if he'd gone partially numb, or as if he were trying to hide his feelings with only limited success.

"Is everything all right, Subaru-kun?"

Without answering, Subaru came up to the edge of the bed. He settled himself there in a rustle of silk, one leg curled gracefully beneath himself, his eyes downcast. He didn't seem to be in any great rush to go anywhere. Perhaps it wasn't such an immediate crisis, after all. Lifting his gaze, he looked into Seishirou's face...such a long, long, searching look, with the flatness of his expression coming to life, little by little, growing verdant with inexplicable yearning, with an almost painful need.

"Seishirou-san." Reaching out, Subaru ran his fingertips through Seishirou's hair, brushing it aside from his forehead. Then, somewhat hesitantly, he leaned forward. "I love you," he whispered. His lips came to rest where his fingers had passed over; they lingered there while his hand cupped Seishirou's head, his thumb tracing the line of Seishirou's cheek, and Seishirou wondered vaguely at the gesture. Strange kiss, like a benediction. Subaru pulled back with a tiny catch of breath, and Seishirou waited patiently to discover what would come next, whether it be explanation or tears or simply a silence that might have to be soothed with gentle reassurances.

There was only a single word.



* * * * *


And as Seishirou sank down very slowly, slumping a little to one side, half-lidded eyes dulling and then closing entirely, Subaru's hands parted about him, as if releasing a bird into flight. They hovered, still, anxious birds themselves, one on either side of Seishirou, until the man had settled more deeply amongst the pillows, as though there were some chance that he might fall. Only when he was at rest, safe, did they rise, trembling, to press against Subaru's lips, half in protection, half in prayer.


He stared hard at Seishirou's face, his gaze flickering and wild, mere instants for a study that he could have taken a lifetime over. Even though it was already in his memory, in every detail--still, to see it like this, relaxed and unguarded, yet also somehow unquiet.... Another heartbeat, and another, and he knew that however many there were it could never, ever be enough--he snatched himself from the bed then, because the spell would not hold, not for long, not against Seishirou, who in using it time and again had been the very one to teach it to him.

He went swiftly around the foot of the mattress, already tearing at the buttons of his pajama top as he moved. He threw on his shikifuku, hasty and fumbling, most of his attention on that figure on the bed, watching for any motion other than breathing, staying alert for any loosening of the spell. He grabbed his pack of ofuda and the ceremonial dagger from the dresser, and still Seishirou did not move--one look, one final look, which burned him so that he almost wished he might go blind from it, to have that all-consuming pain and sweetness forever joined with the last thing he would ever see. Then he was fleeing through a gathering blur of tears, bolting toward the genkan and the apartment door: that door onto the remnant of the night, and the day that was to come.




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