Sakura and Snow
By Natalie Baan
From the shadow-realm of his maboroshi, Seishirou observed the chosen field of battle. The trees, the path, the low hill, all were intimately familiar. Of course, Subaru had undoubtedly studied the area with great care himself, during his long hunt for his sister's killer, the betrayer of his youthful innocence.
Not even a kekkai to protect? If you're fighting as a Dragon of Heaven, Subaru-kun, you're going about it very strangely.
It frankly made no sense whatsoever, in terms of the battle for the world's future. To be helping the other Seals, Subaru should be at their side, or else guarding one of the remaining cornerstones of the city. Facing Seishirou here made a clear statement that this was a personal matter, unrelated to Subaru's other allegiances, except perhaps in the most superficial way. And if that were the case, then Seishirou's reading of the situation had just been turned entirely on its head.
It had been disappointing enough--although not all that surprising, he supposed--to believe that Subaru had in the end put duty before whatever he claimed to feel for Seishirou. But to think that, for all those protestations of love, Subaru had still cared more about revenge---
Well, if it's personal, that's quite fine with me.
He couldn't really be sure of Subaru's tangled motivations. Ultimately, though, it didn't matter. Whether Subaru had deceived him and left him for the sake of the Dragons of Heaven or because of some private, obsessive hunger, his response would be no different. He could feel within himself a powerful current of...annoyance, he supposed, bitter, tense, almost jittery, a disquiet in his stomach, a clenching in his chest, a scattering of thought and reflection before the restless, simmering urge to act.
I really am going to kill you now.
Subaru unfolded from that kneeling position, rising with unhurried grace, as if he knew that his enemy might be nearby, unseen, and was alert but not disquieted. Well, Seishirou mused, it would have been a little too anticlimactic to able to sneak up on Subaru and assassinate him while he was meditating, although it might have been amusingly ironic. The breeze caught at Subaru's sleeves and hakama, just enough to ripple them out to one side of his body, and everything dimmed as a trailing edge of cloud passed across the moon. The misting drizzle of the last few minutes intensified into a brief, chill spatter of rain. Then the cloud shifted and light returned, even as that subtle gust of wind began to subside. Seen clearly once more, Subaru's face was closed and remote, expressionless. In the moonlight, his eyes appeared black.
Seishirou let the maboroshi disperse. He knew that Subaru was seeing him waver into view, as if a veil of invisible smoke were gradually thinning between them. Subaru had taken the peak of the hill, so Seishirou had placed himself about twenty meters to Subaru's left along its crest, only a little lower than that high ground, not enough to make any real difference. As he made his appearance, Subaru turned slowly to face him. One hand resting idly in the pocket of his coat, Seishirou smiled at his opponent. He had left his sunglasses behind in the apartment; there was no need for them here.
Subaru made no reply. His silence and that continuing lack of emotion only intensified Seishirou's irritation. At the very least, confronting the man he supposedly loved, Subaru should seem distressed. Seishirou thought then of Subaru at the party, lifting his sake cup to request a refill, his face a mask of untouchable reserve, those usually vibrant green eyes giving nothing back, and the memory stung with unexpected sharpness, like the bite of acid.
Didn't you say it, Subaru-kun? That you wouldn't hide what you were feeling from me anymore?
How much of what you've said all along has been a lie?
Despite his displeasure, Seishirou's smile never faltered. The drizzle had faded again, leaving tiny round drops like beads of crystal on the shoulders and sleeves of his coat. He drew his hand from his pocket, turning a 100-yen coin slowly between his fingers, rubbing his thumb across the sakura flowers embossed on its back. At the fringes of his awareness, he could feel the barrow tree stirring, its already awakened attention gathering force and focus, a soundless hiss of expectation, a mutter of unquiet souls.
Still, it doesn't really matter now.
Raising his arm, he extended it toward Subaru, his hand in a loose fist, palm down.
This is where it ends.
The image and sound of the seed-syllable, both held firmly in his mind, sufficed for the spell. From between his curled fingers, thin ribbons of silvery metal lashed out, widening and stiffening into slender, lethal blades as they flashed toward Subaru.
Subaru's lips moved, a nearly inaudible invocation. He made a swirling gesture with one arm, and all about him a shimmering field of water droplets rose from the ground to hover in mid-air, glittering like a haze of fairy lights. At another gesture, that watery veil whipped forward like a second, sideways rain. As those droplets touched the metal, they ate away at it, a dizzyingly rapid corrosion, the last blade dissolving into nothingness just a meter or so short of Subaru's face. His expression had scarcely changed, becoming a little more focused, a little more grave, as if he was very gently disappointed, but that was all.
Water, Subaru-kun? That's...an interesting choice. Although the spell had certainly been effective enough, fire would have seemed to make more sense. Seishirou frowned for a second before his smile slipped back into place, a smirk of dark amusement. Well, if you want to go around the gogyou that way.... He didn't even need a physical symbol this time--reaching out with his will and the power of the next seed-syllable, he called to the trees at the back of the hill. The ground began to ripple as though rivers of serpents were slithering just beneath its surface, all converging upon the hilltop where Subaru stood. Suddenly those serpents burst free: thick, writhing roots, new runners swelling and uncoiling from them even as they continued to surge forward, trunks and branches sprouting upward frantically as they came clear of the earth, the whole tangle thrashing and clawing its way toward Subaru.
After all, you're playing to one of my strengths.
Subaru leaped aside, dodging those twining, crushing limbs. Reaching into one of his sleeves, he drew out some small object. As he swept his arm out toward the thicket, Seishirou spotted the flash of metal, the wink of a tiny flame--a lighter, and he wasn't surprised when the roots and branches ignited into conflagration, fire bursting out from within the wood and consuming it greedily. The flames licked high in their fierce frenzy, briefly hiding Subaru from view, and as Seishirou waited patiently for them to ebb, for those still-twitching limbs to collapse into a smoldering heap, he took the opportunity to palm a small stone from the ground at his feet. Because of course, next after fire came...he glanced down in surprise, alerted by a subtle tremoring. That vibration abruptly intensified, and he vaulted to one side just as a pillar of earth punched upward right where he'd been standing. All at once the ground was roiling, thrusting up on all sides like massive, jutting fingers only to curl over, crumble, and fall--for a few moments his entire attention was taken up with ducking and jumping and the effort to keep from losing either his orientation or his footing amidst the ceaseless tumult of destruction. He found a clear space at last and leaped, lighting for an instant on the tip of a lifting spire before jumping again, a long spring to the edge of the woods. Poised in a high fork of branches, he caught his breath, glancing back toward that slowly subsiding upheaval.
Subaru-kun, that was rude of you.
It was my turn.
As the ground settled, he glimpsed the white flash of Subaru's shikifuku through the lingering haze of smoke. Snapping a twig from one of the branches near him, he pointed it with an emphatic flourish, sending a renewed wave of roots and branches scrabbling after Subaru. Subaru couldn't very well use earth against them and was forced to go back to fire. While Subaru was dealing with that, Seishirou reached out with his will, drawing upon the smoke in the air, already magically charged by the collision of sorcerous elements, gathering it together, condensing it into a form of shadows and vapor.
Subaru took a step backward, appearing in a gap between his victorious and now dwindling flames. He looked up, and his eyes widened at the sight of the eagle shikigami hanging suspended between himself and Seishirou, floating on motionless wings.
It's been fun. But I'm not playing with you anymore.
Subaru whipped out three ofuda and began to chant, swiftly but with perfect control, never stumbling. The eagle cried, crystalline and brittle, and swept its wings downward, sending itself soaring up in a single rush to achieve diving height.
Oh, Subaru-kun...do you really think your shikigami, cute as they are, can do anything against this attack?
"Hikuu!" As the eagle tipped and began its stoop, Subaru released his shikigami, three birds shining with a pale, pure light, even through the grey stain of smoke-filled air. In a tight V-formation, they hurtled up to meet the eagle, and as they rose they drew even closer, touching each other, merging with a luminescent flare until there was only one bird, plumed and crested, a little smaller than the eagle, its voice a piercingly sweet, singing note.
The eagle and the white bird crashed together. One of the white bird's feet caught the eagle's right talon; the left one buried itself in the white bird's thigh. The white bird cried out again, a high keen, like some inhuman grieving. The eagle's hooked beak snapped shut onto the back of the white bird's neck. Chest to chest, the two shikigami strained against each other, wings battering the air, their masters pouring power into and through them.
Seishirou leaned harder into his shikigami, driving the crushing power of its beak, pushing it to sever the white bird's life. In the white bird's quivering, he could read the tremor of Subaru's hands, held up in a desperate projective gesture as Subaru struggled to resist, could feel the catch in Subaru's breath. Without warning that resistance gave way, became something fluid and yielding. Seishirou saw the white bird's wings spread wider, its form distorting, losing cohesion as that singular force reverted to a trinity. Those wings wrapped around the eagle from either side and pulled, even as the eagle ripped deep into the white bird's body--and the shikigami tore each other apart, scattering into threads of darkness and smoke, into motes of light and blowing shreds of paper.
Seishirou caught his balance, careful in the tenuous footing of his treetop vantage, then slowly lowered the hand that he'd raised in half-conscious support of his shikigami. He stared down at Subaru, who stood panting, feet braced in a wide stance, still resonating with the energies of that struggle. Somewhere far off to the west, he was dimly aware of the crack and boom of destruction, and then the distinctive vibration of a kekkai being raised, but right now such things were meaningless distractions. He put them out of mind without a further thought.
Drawing in a last deep breath, Subaru straightened and lifted his head. He looked up at Seishirou, his gaze unwavering, dark, and intent--a outward-focused concentration that for some reason made Seishirou's pulse beat faster, as if Subaru were no longer that impassive, unresponsive cipher, as if they'd engaged each other and now...now.... Moving with the measured care and presence of a ritual act, Subaru reached into his sleeve once more. Drawing forth a sheaf of ofuda, he spread them slowly before himself, the cards held out parallel to the ground like a dancer's white fan.
A smile crept back onto Seishirou's face. Taking out his own ofuda, he opened his arms and made the cards leap from one hand to the other, a casual, graceful arc, before letting them flow around himself in a warding spiral, equally ready for protection or attack. The sakura's stirring intensified, a low, shuddering howl in the psyche and in the blood, the trembling of uncountable deathly flowers, that restiveness rising like the wind before a storm--like his own unlooked-for excitement, the resurgence of a long-anticipated but nearly forgotten eagerness.
After all, this fight was only just beginning.
* * * * *
At least the rain had been brief, Karen thought. Not that it would have interfered with her powers at all, but going into one's big, dramatic battle looking and feeling like a drowned cat wouldn't have been much fun. Instead, it had left her barely dampened (and already dried by her own heat) and had put just the faintest gleam on the city's metal railings and nonfunctioning streetlights, now that the moon was coming out once more. It hadn't even been enough to make the streets shine.
Just ahead, the long shape of Tokyo Station's west-side building stretched out across her path, distinctly Old-World European in its horizontal, peak-roofed silhouette. So she'd arrived at last. Angling to one side, she sprang lightly upward until she reached a construction crane on the roof of one of the taller buildings across the street from the station plaza, where she paused to survey the cat's cradle of tracks laid out below. The trouble, as Seiichirou had pointed out, was that the Yamanote Line covered such a large area; there was no guarantee that a Dragon of Earth was even at this station. But at least it gave her somewhere to start, a place from which she could keep watch over her half of the loop. From here, she ought to be able to make it in time to the site of any attack.
She turned to sweep her gaze across the city, sharply alert for signs of destruction, but something near at hand caught at her awareness instead, a flicker of subtle power, of presence. Glancing back and down again, she spotted the figure at once, standing within the railing that crowned one of the station's octagonal end-towers: pale coat, pale hair, both faintly luminous in the moonlight--or was that shifting, eye-tricking glow really a magical aura of some kind, a visible manifestation of the spiritual energy that had attracted her attention?
"Well," Karen murmured to herself. "You're not exactly hiding, are you?"
With quick, wary fluidity, she leaped down again, crane to rooftop to lower building, then skipped lamp post to lamp post across the plaza. The putative Dragon of Earth--well, really, who else would be sightseeing from the top of Tokyo Station at something past two in the morning?--gave no sign of having noticed her. Neither did there seem to be any kekkai-destroying in progress. Maybe she was actually going to get lucky. She jumped to the lower part of the station's roof, then up to balance on the railing on the far side of the tower from the Angel, where she paused with a catch of breath, half-expecting to be greeted with a surprise assault, or at the very least some sly banter, since this person was certainly waiting for something, with a deliberateness that suggested a trap. But the Dragon of Earth just stood there, facing away from her, gazing off down the tracks as if lost in thought. He seemed to possess an air of profound reserve, a quiet deadened by ennui and melancholy. It looked as though she was going to have to be the one to do all the bantering. What a pity--it would've been much more entertaining to be paired off against someone like Yuuto.
"There's something romantic about a train station, isn't there?" Stepping off the railing, Karen dropped easily to the surface of the roof, then took a second step forward, smiling, brushing her fingers almost idly through her hair. "All the possibilities of the journey, maybe." Now, which one would this be? If not any of the ones from the party, then that left....
The Dragon of Earth turned slowly. Long, wisping bangs and some trick of the shadows hid his eyes. He gestured languidly in her direction, and she tensed, suddenly feeling that there was something not quite right, not quite real about him, a strange insubstantiality, even as the world dissolved about them, the moonlit city swept away like leaves carried on a gale, like sand castles crumbling in a swiftly out-rushing wave, sucked away from her before she could react.
She scarcely had time for the thought. The wake of that wave was a second wave, a surge of absolute darkness. Vertigo made her lightheaded, a swooping, soaring sensation, like floating half out of one's body, on the verge of slipping off into sleep or hallucination, and for an instant it was as if she could feel the darkness touching her, rippling across her skin...no, flowing off her like water. She abruptly realized that what she was feeling was her clothes melting and running away from her body. The slight weight of her earrings vanished as they disintegrated--she caught at her throat and touched skin, even the delicate gold crucifix that she had been wearing gone, as if it had never been with her.
The wave passed, and she straightened cautiously, seeking her bearings in a world of featureless black. Or nearly featureless--a scattering of white feathers drifted here and there, carried on air currents she couldn't herself feel. Her opponent still stood across from her, plainly visible despite the lack of any light. He lifted his head, and his eyes were golden, cat-pupiled, showing no human emotion or mercy.
The dreamgazer of the Dragons of Earth. It could be no one else, and Karen's heart quailed just a little in recrimination and self-doubt. Stupid, stupid--she hadn't even managed to raise her kekkai before he'd caught her like a thoughtless child, trapping her outside ordinary reality. She wasn't beaten yet, of course, but what could she do now?
Was it even possible for her to burn a dream?
* * * * *
Nataku threw itself behind a rooftop billboard; pressing its back against a steel support beam, it took advantage of the momentary reprieve to try to work out a new course of action. This was not going well at all. It had been calmly and methodically striking at the heart of the kekkai in Shibuya, following its instructions, when the windmaster Dragon of Heaven had shown up and forced it back--
A lash of wind ripped around the end of the billboard--if Nataku hadn't wedged itself in the lee of the beam, it would have been struck and probably severely injured. It had seen the scores those thin ribbons of air could leave on metal, although so far it had only a couple of burning grazes, the marks of near misses. Even huddled in the protection of its scant shelter, it could feel the pull of fast-moving air, eddies swirling wildly in the gust's wake, flurrying its clothes and hair. The wind-howl, which had briefly quieted to a low moan, abruptly increased in volume, becoming a mind-numbing roar. The billboard rocked as it was battered hard, began to shake and creak disturbingly--it tilted, having been wrenched loose from the roof on one side, and as it buckled Nataku leaped for the edge of the building, its cloth a mad whirl between it and the source of that gale, shielding it from any stray wind currents or flying debris.
Somewhat shaken but still untouched, it dropped to the top of one of the Shibuya crossing's dead and dark video screens, out of the wind's direct path for the moment, then sprang down to the wide, empty pavement where several streets came together. Spinning to face its opponent, it gathered its cloth up, shaping it into a defensive configuration. It could block those wind attacks, but they were so many and so relentless, they came in from multiple directions and it couldn't really see them, only sense their force and vector of attack--the Dragon of Heaven came toward Nataku, over the tops of the buildings, and with a start of dismay Nataku realized that it had put itself in a very bad place, out in the open square where there was no cover, where the wind could gather speed and strength down the long, straight streets. Before it could shift to better ground, the wind struck, screaming along those glass and steel canyons, and there was no time to plan, only to block and block and block, ducking, leaping, backpedaling as well as it could with no more than fleeting glimpses behind it. If it could just get past this one wide, curve-fronted building, there was a narrower side street where it might be able to take refuge once more. A wind-razor licked through its defenses in that instant of split attention, slashed through jacket and shirt to the skin. It parried harder on that side and lost an inch from its cloth on the other, the trailing end shredded, fragments of fabric snatched away.
Focus. It had to survive, to defeat this enemy, to complete its task. The Kamui of the Dragons of Earth had asked this of it. Nothing else mattered; no other outcome was acceptable.
But for the merest breath it felt a thin, indefinable ache.
If only it weren't alone in this....
It thrust that odd pain away, forced aside the faltering quiver of uncertainty before it could be distracted any further. It had almost reached the corner of the building. The Dragon of Heaven--the man from the party, from the photograph--jumped down onto the giant video screen, then leaped to balance on a lamp post in front of the building's glass face, intent and watchful, clearly intending to pursue.
Nataku threw itself forward, whipping its cloth in an arc before it, diverting the winds' force to either side. Thin swirls of air got through over and around the cloth--razor cuts along one cheek, the back of one hand, upper arm and outer thigh, white-hot burnings, ruby scatters of blood, but the damage was insignificant. Leaping, it struck, a wavelike lash with the cloth. The man flung himself aside, and the discharge of Nataku's power shattered the glass of the building's second floor, smashed the cafe inside, splintering and sweeping away the chairs and tables. Still in mid-leap, Nataku let the follow-through whirl it around, the tail-end of its cloth flicking back in the opposite direction, a second strike, less powerful but quick as lightning. The Dragon of Heaven had gotten his hand up, was gathering a shield of winds, nearly in time, but not quite. The blow caught him in midair, sent him spinning out and down into the middle of the square, ending in a short, skidding slide across the pavement. Nataku lighted on the lamp post where the man had been standing, hesitated a split second, then spun and jumped again, upward across the face of the building, aiming back the way it had originally come, casting a wary glance over one shoulder at its opponent.
Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe it should have killed the man first, following up on that opportunity rather than putting distance between them again. The windmaster's power had greater range than the force that Nataku could generate with its cloth and ki. But the round tower of the 109 Building rose up at the end of the street, the structure that embodied this cornerstone...the Dragon of Heaven hadn't put up his protective kekkai yet, and if it could just get there....
The Dragon of Heaven straightened, though not all the way, one hand pressed to his side. A stain was visible between his fingers, spreading out from under his jacket, darkening his pale shirt. The man raised his head, a flicker of moonlight catching on the frame of his glasses as he looked up--
An abrupt hush, as though the wind had fallen. Pain, then, not terrible but bewildering, strange and sourceless, a ringing throb in Nataku's ears, a dull ache gathering in its joints and muscles, a greying of its vision as it struggled to breathe an air grown incomprehensibly thin. A muffled, cracking boom, a glittering flash at the edge of sight--despite its confusion and the increasing numbness that dragged at it, Nataku somehow managed to raise an arm, to turn its face aside as the glass front of the building next to it exploded outward. It was dully aware of that blast wave hitting its body, of the impact of jagged spikes of glass, but far more urgently than that, as the world began to darken around it, it felt a sense of piercing, desperate lostness.
In a rain of glass shards and a tangle of blood-stained white cloth, Nataku plummeted toward the street.
* * * * *
"Do it, Miss! Quickly!" Lightning arced about Sorata, crackling hand to hand, bleeding a thin web of electricity into the air about him as he leaped high, high, the long, curving trajectory of a catapult shot, aimed to fall toward the rumble and crash of destruction ahead of them. "Hey, you! Wait up a minute! No fair starting without us!"
Annoyed, Arashi skidded to a stop on the pavement of the fountain plaza, the triple-peaked mass of the Shinjuku Park Tower looming high above her, a darkness heavier than that of the night sky. If he told her one more time to hurry up about something...and what did he think he was doing, charging forward so recklessly without her? But the need was real and desperate, and she could not deny it. Holding her hands before her, she shut out the receding whoop of Sorata's voice, the sizzle of occult power, the far-off grinding roar that was swallowing up those fainter sounds, a thundering, heart-stopping howl of metal-stress, of avalanche. She reached inward instead, to the breathless hush of a perfect and absolute desire.
To the will to protect....
And that stillness unfolded from her heart, from the shelter of her hands, expanding upward and outward. Her kekkai rose swiftly, surely, and with it grew that zone of stasis, where the reality of the physical world was suspended. Another crash, another lingering scream of some structure giving way, but this time none of it had any meaning. The shadow of true destruction, it would not become real until and unless she were defeated.
It would never become real, she vowed, and the barrier was sealed and complete.
Arashi rocked back, catching her breath and inner balance as her senses swept the boundaries of her kekkai, testing them, feeling out the space that they contained. She should have been closer to the center of the high-rise district; she thought that she might have missed the northernmost buildings, but nevertheless she should have enough to protect the cornerstone. The Government Building was under her kekkai, at least, as were the buildings that had actually been under attack. Her gaze darted across the dust- and moonlight-hazed skyline, searching for the center of that disruption, for any glimpse of a small, leaping figure amidst those towering buildings, even as she extended her arm to one side, preparing to call forth the god-sword.
She caught only a flicker of motion--the jolt was her first clear realization, her arm wrenched down and back, and then the pain, sudden as being plunged into ice water, a white-cold, burning spike, a flare of raw sensation. Barely managing not to fall over backward, she stumbled and landed on one hip instead, clutching at her wrist as if that could ease the anguish. A slender blade on a red, whiplike cord stood upright from the center of her palm, its edged crossguard bracketing her hand; its tip was wedged deep between the paving stones, pinning her to the ground. With fractured urgency, she groped after its hilt. The metal was slick beneath her fingers, ungraspable, resisting all efforts to pull it free--some will was working in and through the blade, she realized, and despite her injury she reached desperately for the god-sword, for its power, to try to force it out past that obstruction--
A second blade was laid against her throat, a cool, deceptively gentle touch that froze her into stillness.
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that my hand beats yours," murmured Kigai Yuuto.
Stunned, she flicked her eyes up and sideways, seeking his face. He was smiling as he crouched next to her, his expression as tender and yet unyielding as the deadly edge resting at her neck. "This is not a game," she said through clenched teeth. Anger, pain, and fear blurred her thoughts. She was scarcely aware of what she was saying. "Don't toy with me."
"Well, if that's what you'd prefer." He seemed faintly regretful; she supposed that she was disappointing him somehow, but whatever he was about had no meaning for her. All that she could seem to focus on was rage and shame and the irrepressible butterfly flickerings of pitiable, lunatic hopes. Maybe...there might still be a chance...he straightened, the cord of his weapon falling in loose coils behind him as he drew that free blade back for a strike, and it seemed that she could suddenly feel the thinness of flesh and bone that lay as a shield above her rapidly beating heart.
Movement caught her eye; her face must have shown something. Yuuto whirled, bringing the blade around--metal clashed on metal, power flared against power, gold and blue-white, as Sorata was there without warning, an open-pronged vajra clenched in his fist, a weapon wreathed in lightning. Yuuto's blade had caught between the prongs as he'd blocked Sorata's blow; she could see him and Sorata both quivering as they strove against each other. That white light blazed up, crackling, its intensity throwing everything into stark relief, as Sorata poured more force through the vajra. Yuuto grimaced with evident strain. With a snap of the cord, he snaked the other blade away, and somehow Arashi managed to hold off lightheadedness as a gout of blood poured from her palm--was able to scramble aside, out of immediate danger, even as she struggled to heal the worst of the damage. Enough that she could call the god-sword forth.... She half-saw as Yuuto whipped the cord at Sorata and Sorata leaped high to avoid it. There was a sonorous clang, like a bell, and she looked up again to see the vajra rolling on the pavement and Yuuto springing back, his weapon a tornado-whorl around him. Sorata stood solidly braced before her, hands incandescent with electric flame. "Miss, are you okay?"
"Yes!" He could use his lightnings now that she was out of the way. Muscles and tendons finished knitting together--she glanced up once more to gauge the situation, and her heart seized with shock. "Look out--!"
Sorata snapped his gaze back to Yuuto, now poised on the roof of the arcade across the plaza. But the threat was from a different direction. The pavement that had been heaving and buckling upward erupted with full violence, releasing a snaking mass of cables and conduits. Surging up out of the ground, it slammed into Sorata even as he was turning to face it, ramming him back to crash against one of the columns of the near-side arcade.
"Sorata-san!" Somehow she was at his side, with no memory of crossing the intervening distance. She caught at his arm--he was still on his feet, slumped forward over the bunched cables that pinned him to the column, and for an instant some mad voice of optimism cried out that he was all right, only stunned and winded from the impact, before she looked down to see the spreading dark stain, the blood soaking his clothes and falling in a thick, slow spatter to the pavement before him, before she realized that the massive fist of metal and wires had driven its way up and into his body. Her own stomach lurched with shock and denial. "Sorata-san!"
He twitched, and that senseless hope refused to settle its wings and be still; it twittered inside her head until she could scarcely put two thoughts together. Maybe he could be saved--if she could just cut him free, and then--what? Sorata jerked again--he spasmed upright, as if some invisible force had wrenched him back against the pillar. His eyes were closed, his jaw fixed and rigid with strain. His other arm moved, a small, convulsive gesture, strangely aimless, a fitful stutter of electrical threads flickering about it, and she felt something peculiar, a pulse and shift beneath her fingers, under his jacket's sleeve, before a sharp, warning tingle made her jerk her hands away.
"Miss...no, Arashi...I need...I need you to...." Breathless, forced out through gritted teeth, the words hardly sounded like Sorata. Then he made a low sound, a catch at the back of the throat, an almost-chuckle, and there was no mistaking him. She wanted desperately to weep. "Sorry...I am so sorry." His body bucked and arched again, without volition, like a clumsy and grotesque marionette, and as she stared down at his arm she saw the flesh at his wrist and the back of his hand furrowing up into slender trails as if thin, sinuous worms were crawling underneath the skin.
Or something worse.
She flung out her hand. The accustomed ripping, stretching sensation of summoning the god-sword made her vaguely nauseous, dizzy with both sympathetic anguish and release. "No time," Sorata choked out as she raised the sword, hesitating over where best to strike. His head had been twisted to one side, but he'd opened his eyes and she saw the pale flash as the nearer one rolled about, seeking her. "Miss...hurry...hurry...." With a jolt, she noticed one of those squirming ridges crawling up from under his collar, then another, and more--faster now, expanding like a network of tree roots, flowing up the line of his throat, along his jaw, ever upward, toward the brain. "Miss!"
The blade of the god-sword flashed.
Everything seemed to become impossibly slow. It might as well have been an eternity before she heard the soft, dull thunk of Sorata's head dropping onto the pavement. Each gasp of breath that dragged in and out of her lungs was like the birth and extinguishing of a universe, imprisoned in a cycle without end. She couldn't seem to move as that mass of cables coiled languidly backward, shaking off the body--his body--with an almost delicate flick, a fine scatter of blood flung up before her staring eyes like a spray of black glitter in the moonlight. Dreamlike, the body fell, its limbs asprawl, gangling and limp. Lifeless. The god-sword's blade rasped as it slid along the concrete pillar, its weight dragging her unresisting arms downward--she found herself staring at the dark lump of Sorata's head, so small, so apparently inconsequential. She was only abstractly aware of the machine-agglomeration gathering itself up to loom at the end of the plaza, of the faint, trickling music of water, the plaza's fountain coming to life, slender jets arcing and rising into the air like curious serpents, as if to watch her.
His cap had fallen off, and it lay a little aside from his head. Two shadows, like stones in a zen garden.
Could it really be that she'd just...?
But he had asked it of her....
Gradually she grew conscious of her own pulse, one heartbeat followed by another, of the quivering of her body, of the hushed stasis within the field of her kekkai. Moment by moment time was starting to creep forward once more, relentless, the past slipping away along with the future that might have existed, and in their place there was nothing but emptiness--emptiness forever, where that person had been. His joking voice...his smile.... A tension was growing within her: the void's howl, the pressure of grief, of words that had been left unsaid, of feelings unrealized, a swelling, crushing flood, a voiceless scream--
And the vessel cracked.
* * * * *
It was the light that made Yuzuriha turn--sudden blaze against the dark horizon, a searing white brilliance spilling out through the pyramid shape of that far-off kekkai as if it were a glass lamp. With a gasp, she sprang to the side of the bridge, clenching both hands on the railing. The cold wind off the water touched her face and riffled at her hair. She could feel the resonances even from here, a massively deep, shuddering, tolling note with something like roaring in it, and sobbing--there was fire and water, the flash of metal or mirrors or scales, an unimaginably vast serpent-slither, the sudden, solid-noise shock of thunder, a startling, overpowering sense of otherness. She caught her lip between her teeth in wonder and dismay.
Was this, then, the true god's power of Ise?
South and west of her, much nearer than Shinjuku, Tokyo Tower's light had dimmed to a pale aura, like a ghost's candle underneath the crescent moon. She couldn't sense anyone else's kekkai, although power was moving all around the city, unquiet and dangerous, like disturbed animals ready to savage anything that crossed their path. There was fighting already, she thought, and not just at the heart of that maelstrom of divine force. If she reached for it, those others would be out there, somewhere: Seiichirou's strength a still place amidst the ribbon-dance of winds, Karen's warmth like the hidden glow of a secret, Subaru's sad eyes and quiet smile.
They should keep going. She could feel her companion waiting a few strides further down the pedestrian walk--she didn't need to look, didn't want to look, because she knew that if she did she'd see on his face that kind and pitying gentleness, the faint, rueful smile of someone who was convinced that what they were doing was futile but was going along with it anyway, for her sake.
Maybe...he was right.
But it had seemed like the best thing to do at the time. Given the impossible, heartbreaking choice of having to fight against the man she loved and probably watch him die (or else make him watch her die, and she honestly didn't know which would be worse), and the equally unthinkable option of turning against her friends and maybe even becoming a Dragon of Earth, saying no to both had seemed to make perfect sense. The two of them just wouldn't, and somehow she'd thought that it might actually be enough to break the prophecy. Seven Dragons of Heaven and seven Dragons of Earth, and if one of each stood aside...?
But it looked like it was no use after all. The war was still going on, even with them out on the fringes, and now she had no idea what to do. Did she dare to wait and see if, at the very end, their absence did change something, like a missing ingredient of a spell? (And would it be a good change, she wondered nervously, or something gone dangerously askew, a work of magic misfiring to become a curse?) Should she and Kusanagi hold their strength in reserve and try to pick up whatever pieces were left after the last battle? Or should they go back now? And if so, for what purpose?
Her chest ached so with grief and confusion that it took her a minute or two to notice the feeling of distance. She looked back along the bridge and was puzzled to see her inugami sitting on the sidewalk, several meters away, rather than at her side. "Inuki?" Gold eyes watched her, calm, steadfast, and unwavering, yet also inscrutable--and she felt the sudden jolt of realization, although of what she wasn't yet sure. Letting go of the railing, she turned and walked slowly back toward the dog spirit.
"Yes--just a minute." She was a little bit proud of herself; her voice didn't quaver or crack. She crouched down in front of Inuki. Usually this was his invitation to rise and pad toward her, to put his cool nose against her cheek, to lean into her and let her bury her hands and face in his fur, drawing comfort, touching the intangible warmth of surety. This time he didn't move, merely watched her with that enigmatic intentness. Her scalp prickled, the strange but not unfamiliar sense of being near the edge of a mystery. "What is it, Inuki?"
Somehow she wasn't at all surprised when he spoke, even though he'd never done so before. His voice was a low rumble, harsh but not unpleasant, the growl of rock against rock, the soughing of winds across the blade-like edges of the mountain. He sounded a little bit like her grandmother, too, which for some reason made absolutely perfect sense, despite the fact that Inuki was a boy. Someday she'd have to think about that and try hard to figure it out.
But not now.
Choose, Inuki had said.
Stricken, she stared at him, instantly aware of what he'd meant. "I can't!" she whispered. It came out as a frantic, strangled squeak. The inugami's gaze never faltered--not cruel, not as the wheels of fate or careless human beings could be cruel, but not yielding either. There was no pity or apology in it, only the simple necessity of what was.
And as she knelt there, face to face with that pure certainty, it seemed that time had stopped, caught up into a frozen moment. If things could only stay that way forever, unchanging, never asking her to...but she already knew, she had known all along, that in the end she'd have to do something, and she could not, now or ever, unknow those things that were true. Maybe that was part of why it had hurt so much when people had accused her of telling stories about Inuki. As an inugami master, as someone with a real power, there was no pretending.
"I...yes. I know. I have to...to...." In admission and surrender, she bowed her head, grieving the decision even as she made it. The gray pavement before her blurred as slow tears began to trickle down her face.
Inuki came forward then; he nuzzled tenderly at one damp cheek as she knuckled with dull urgency at her eyes, choking her sobs down into silence, so that Kusanagi wouldn't be worried. Good. The low huff of approval lifted her heart a little, even as the relief of it made her want to cry harder, to throw herself onto Inuki in a wailing, desperate hug. There was no time, and she had to be strong just now, but maybe...only a little...? Inuki stepped back again, gently but deliberately, slipping away from her half-raised arm.
Now, Inuki said, choose.
"But--I just did!" Even if it was Inuki, she was a bit upset. He made a sound like a chuckle, amused though not unkind, and her outrage muddled itself up into confusion.
Choice breeds choice. Those golden eyes had always been filled with love, the same untrammeled, guileless, perfect love that filled them now, as endless as a sunlit summer sky--but oh, when had they become filled with such wisdom also? A sadness, a deep acceptance, deeper than she could truly understand--but she could feel how she'd been moving ever closer to that verge, how she was balancing at the point of crossing over, halfway between two worlds, and with a shock she knew the question that was coming, even before it could be spoken.
Choose him, the inugami said.
* * * * *
The darkness beneath the Diet Building was broken only by twin candles, burning flickerless within spherical glass lamps. They stood to either side of a low futon; outside that zone of light, the room seemed endless and empty, stretching on and on as though the whole vast universe of the gods' creation had been destroyed, and all that was left was this one fragment of a world, floating timeless and adrift.
At the edge of shadow, Kanoe bent forward in her chair, leaning closer to the bed. As she moved, her foot shifted, bumping a small, heavy object. She glanced down with a combination of satisfaction and distaste at the angular shape of the gun. Crude, ugly, and out of place amidst the unworldly otherness of this sanctuary--but in its brutal efficiency, quite effective. With her heel, she nudged the thing further under the chair, out of sight. Then, free of distractions, she turned her gaze back to the tiny figure at the center of the futon, huddled motionless beneath the covers and the shimmering, fanned-out veil of long, white hair, so deep in dreams that only a powerful magical working could awaken her from that slumber. Kanoe could sense the brooding, swirling weight of visions--she reached out, caressing the air just above her sister's childlike face, and she could half-see those all-too-familiar scenes, glimmering at the borders of perception: fire and falling ruin, a desert littered with uncountable dead, Kamui facing off against Kamui. The images were as acute and discomforting as knives--almost real, now. But not as richly vivid to her as the ones that lived inside her own mind.
Two girls, light and dark, laughing as they walked beneath a hot blue sky.
A man, his arms outstretched, his body racked with pain, tears running ceaselessly down his face.
A golden cup, born in blood and suffering.
The cataclysm of an innocent world.
Kanoe's mouth twisted up into a faint smile, anticipation tempered by long waiting, by memories, by the fear that wavered even through her resolution. She inched her chair further forward, almost right up against the bed.
Sister, it's time.
It's time for you to return what you took from me so long ago.
Time for you to give up that burden....
In the dimness at the edge of the candlelight, Hinoto's two attendants lay motionless, one fallen across the other in a splatter of blood, their wide eyes staring outward into nothingness.
* * * * *
Power flared and faded, black shikigami birds ripping into white ones, to their mutual destruction. Eyes narrowed, Seishirou stepped back, a new hand of ofuda already fanning out between his fingers. He cast them, and Subaru spun away from the sudden tumult of wings, letting it stream past, a couple of stray white birds sacrificing themselves to the outliers that might have grazed him. The dark flock looped back, a swift, tight arc, and Subaru stood, stood--then threw himself aside once more, hands lifting, held out before him as he whipped about to face the attack. Thin threads of incandescence blazed between them, lines crossing and recrossing to become the shield of a five-pointed star. Subaru backpedaled quickly but without any apparent panic, moving with a focused urgency that seemed almost deliberate, the first wavefront of shikigami breaking and burning away into nothingness as they hit the protection of his ward. The core of the flock caught up with him then, pressing him harder--he held them off for long moments, the subtle strain of it evident in the set of his jaw, the faint tremor of his hands. Then, with an abrupt shout, he turned the force of his shield outward, blasting away the foremost rank of birds. In that brief clear space, he sprang backward, over the still-smoldering remnants of roots and branches, and as the shikigami surged toward him again he gestured emphatically and spoke another invocation, half lost beneath the clatter of wings. A wall of thin flames jetted up out of the embers, blue-white and intense beyond any normal fire, and in that searing heat the rest of the shikigami were vaporized instantly.
Damn it. This was becoming almost aggravating. Although Seishirou had been pleased at first to see Subaru put entirely on the defensive, scrambling to hold off the onslaughts of his shikigami, something about the situation had become less than satisfying. Subaru should be doing more than this, Seishirou thought--it was as though the promise of their initial clash had dwindled into something tentative and inconclusive. Deflect and dodge, ward and dodge again, with all of Subaru's efforts turned toward dealing with Seishirou's spirit creatures. Scarcely more than one or two white birds had come Seishirou's way at all.
You're fighting me, Subaru-kun. Not them.
He'd have to find some other approach, Seishirou decided, something to take their fight to a new and more engaging level. Exactly what, he hadn't yet determined. Glancing at Subaru, who had called forth another scattering of white birds to hover protectively about himself and who stood now with his head bowed and his hands shaped into another mitsu-in, his lips moving on inaudible words, Seishirou almost negligently flicked another double-handful of ofuda in his direction. Ensorcelled paper sprouted feathered wings and cruelly sharp beaks, and as those attacking birds rushed toward their target, Seishirou, in a flicker of inspiration, divided the flock back into two parts, one arcing to the left and one to the right so as to come at Subaru from either side.
Let's see how you handle that, Subaru-kun. It would at least keep the onmyouji occupied while Seishirou pondered more interesting tactics.
Subaru lifted his head, and his eyes widened slightly. Then, ducking low, he threw himself to his left, directly into one of the oncoming streams of birds.
Seishirou tensed, surprised, and feeling as well a jangle of discordance, of something not as it should be. Madness on Subaru's part, or more likely just a mistake--but Subaru had moved not on impulse but with a clear and decisive intention. Half-crouching, his few shikigami a fragile net already disintegrating about him, a pair of ofuda held up in one hand to split the lethal torrent, Subaru plunged through the swarm of black birds and emerged on the other side, blood oozing from a shallow gash along that upraised arm. Behind him, Seishirou's two flocks tangled together, some of the shikigami destroying each other in confusion, and Subaru, spinning back to face them, found the crack in the spell that such chaos afforded him, set his will there and thrust it further apart, unraveling the sorcery. Seishirou's shikigami transformed back into ink and paper, tumbling like storm-torn leaves toward the ground.
Had that been Subaru's plan after all? But there had been much better directions to dodge than right into the attack...and Seishirou could not escape the thought that Subaru had gone that way because he had to.
Because he had no other choice.
Subaru already knew where he was going to move. His steps were dictated in advance, not with any regard to Seishirou's assaults but constrained toward some other end.
Seishirou flung more shikigami at Subaru, an instinctive effort to disrupt his opponent's focus and delay or break the working, realizing even as he did so that he was going to need something more effective than that, as it clearly hadn't been doing very much so far. Wielding those two tattered ofuda like a fan, Subaru dropped into a low lunge and somehow deflected the onslaught upward, over his head. With an inward curse, Seishirou uncoupled his shikigami from each other, so that they were no longer a unified flock-entity but a frenetic mob of individual birds wheeling back and diving in to harry his target from all sides. It was harder to put real force into that incoherent jumble of attacks, especially as a part of his mind was occupied with trying to trace the pattern of Subaru's movements, to read their meaning--he had hoped to confuse and dizzy Subaru, but although the onmyouji was surrounded and hard-pressed, the clarity of his concentration never faltered. One by one, those single birds fell easily at the touch of Subaru's charged ofuda as he whirled and leaped, ducked and sidestepped in the midst of that stormcloud of black wings, drawing new cards as each pair burned away. Every move was both evasion and dance, every placement of Subaru's feet was utterly deliberate and precise, and now that Seishirou was attending to such things the general shape that they'd been tracing gradually began to emerge out of his memory of the last few minutes of battle, of the way that they had circled each other.
No. The way that Subaru had circled him.
Subaru spun away from the last disintegrating shikigami in a sweeping flare of white sleeves and hakama, the silk slashed here and there and spotted with blood. A thin line of red welled along one cheek, unheeded, as he took a last, decisive step. His ceremonial dagger was in his hand--he was whipping off the scabbard, raising the blade in a two-handed grip above his head, his lips moving on a chant of power.
Where was the edge of the spell?
"--namaku samanda basara nankan! On!" And with the seed syllable, Subaru drove the dagger downward, dropping to his knees to plunge it with all his strength into the earth.
Seishirou leaped for the sky. The ground went to white fury beneath him, an instant of seething, blinding light before pure force blasted upward. The eruption caught him in midair, still rising--he tucked, letting it lift and tumble him like a bit of shell in the violent churning of a breaking wave, raw power ripping across the shield of his will, his only protection. Fire on the skin, a dragon's roar, deafening, mind-numbing, never-ceasing, waterfall and avalanche and storm. Its raging reverberated right down to his bones, as though ward and flesh alike were nothing. Then there was unexpected silence, and the coolness of free air on his face--the flutter of wind, the strangely languid release of falling. A dragon-line, he realized, and wondered at the dazed quality of the thought. Half glare-blinded, he saw the ground coming up with surprising speed, and he put out his hand--
Glitter of crystal in the sunlight. The feral curve of a woman's smile. Stabbing pain, the delayed shock of impact, and the awareness of imminent danger combined to snap the world back into focus. That flicker of the past retreated, becoming just a glimmer of disquiet. Pushing himself up one-handed, Seishirou rapidly scanned the area. The air was filled with vapor and smoke, almost like fog--he couldn't see Subaru. Reaching for the border between maboroshi and reality, Seishirou swept invisibility about himself like a curtain.
Although he wasn't entirely in the darkness of that other space, he could sense it all around himself, like the promise of night gathered and waiting in the shadows of twilight--and with it the presence of the sakura tree, surging in upon him with fresh and almost startling intensity, a ravening fury of demand and hunger, rage and pain. Wait, Seishirou snapped at it, still unsettled by his abrupt reversal. He forced its frenzied clutching down with part of his will, as with the rest he reached out for its core of healing power.
Dark branches against a winter sky, blackened bark and leafless twig. Smudge of ashes carried past upon a bitter wind. He could smell blood, not his or Subaru's but old blood, old death, century after century. Thrusting past all of that, past the turbulence of the tree's disturbed mind, he touched the crimson and gold fire at last, drew it toward himself. So slow, so agonizingly slow to move at first, like congealed honey, but he breathed through and mastered his frustration, the flash of--not fear, no--he compelled that power with unrelenting insistence and need, and all at once it came, flooding every part of him, a disorienting rush of heat that made him shudder and sweat. The tree howled, and nameless, numberless spirits scrabbled at the borders of his senses, as if with intangible bone fingers. Quiet, he told the tree, more calmly now, and its outrage subsided into a low but persistent background wailing.
His jaw set, his heart pounding, Seishirou focused that vital flame into his wrist, feeling the broken places shift and knit, although the burning stream of healing magic drowned out most of the pain. Carefully, carefully...he flexed the joint, making sure that its motion wasn't impeded. Too easy, working at speed, to fuse the bones together--but it was good enough, and he released the energy, letting it flow back into the tree, into the earth beneath him. In its wake, he felt both hypersensitized and empty, ajitter with a directionless, centerless urgency. Blowing out a quick breath to help settle himself, he turned his attention back to other things.
From the shelter of this interstice he could see out into the real world. The haze from Subaru's spell was dissipating, revealing a landscape gouged and torn by that release of raw elemental power. Subaru appeared gradually out of those thinning mists, picking his way step by step across the broken ground. Within the veil of invisibility, Seishirou tensed, coiling in upon himself like a cat as Subaru drifted nearer. Subaru's arms were crossed over his chest, palms lying against his shoulders. On the backs of both hands, Seishirou's stars were visible, burning with a pale blue flame. Seishirou felt a strange pang then, a subtle twinge as though a thread were very carefully being pulled taut.
Subaru turned his head and looked directly toward Seishirou.
Seishirou hurled himself forward. Rising from his knees in that charge, stride and flying stride as he rushed his opponent, his right arm drawing back, fingers held rigid--no thought, just the imperative to strike, the instinctive summoning of lethal force into his hand. The illusion must have torn as he moved, or else Subaru had already begun to penetrate it; Subaru's gaze met his, and Subaru's eyes widened. Teeth bared, Seishirou drove his arm in for the kill--
Time seemed to slow, the flow of moments becoming attenuated, disconnected, like a loosened string of beads, each one sliding out of contact with the next. A deceptively gentle touch on his forearm--Subaru's hands slim and pale against the blackness of his coat sleeve, coming to rest there almost tenderly. A push-block diverting the killing blow--just enough, as Subaru shifted to one side and pivoted, for it to miss him cleanly. Seishirou was already turning to keep Subaru from sliding out of his field of vision, his lost eye a definite handicap at such a near distance. Their gazes crossed again--the shock of meeting Subaru's green eyes, scarcely an arm's length away, an instant's sense of those depths, night-dark and still, focused in utter concentration, staring into him as he was staring into them. Seishirou found himself all-consumingly aware of the sharp lift of Subaru's chest as the other breathed, of the precise contours of their proximity, the whisper of moving fabric, the fragrance of sweat, blood, and skin. The cut on Subaru's cheek had dried into a thin black line, and for an instant there flickered through Seishirou's mind his lips brushing that wound, scarcely touching it, then over the exquisite softness of unmarked skin, to the hollow of Subaru's throat, the steady beat of the pulse--
Subaru thrust away from him, driving Seishirou's arm downward as he pushed off from it and sprang back. With that jolt, time jerked back to its normal speed. Whirling, Seishirou brought his left hand across, raw power flaring about his fingertips. Still in mid-air, Subaru caught that blast on the shield of his crossed arms, warding himself against the attack even as he rode the force of it, letting it hurl him further back out of Seishirou's reach. As he landed, Seishirou struck out immediately with a follow-up lash of sorcery, and Subaru leaped again, a high, arching back-flip, already tracking on Seishirou as his head came around, ready to deflect the next snaking attack, and the next.
Subaru's feet touched ground once more--he landed in a light crouch, high up on the ravaged slope of the hill. Seishirou caught his breath. Adrenaline sang in him, silvery and incandescent--the world about him felt oddly fluid, as if it might slide out of his grasp like mercury, and yet at the same time hyperreal, every detail exquisitely, almost painfully sharp. He knew that he should plan, should act, yet somehow he found himself merely watching as Subaru straightened and stood, folds of silk shifting and settling. Inexplicably, the sight seized at Seishirou, as if threatening to steal back from him that indrawn breath. This brief stillness, the crux of all the conflict that had led up to it, and that slight yet utterly compelling figure against the night sky--
Yes. He didn't know where the affirmation arose from, or quite what it meant, only that this...this....
Perfection--even in its imperfections, the frustrations and set-backs of their battle a necessary resistance, all part of the danger, the challenge of this surprisingly close contest of power and skill, the most sublime test that he had ever faced. It came over him all at once, then: body-memory, deeper even than the occult world of dreams, the recollection of every faculty extended to the utmost, of her poised high above him, a looming shadow against the sunlight, of that stark and razor-edged feeling of being alive. Yet even that defining instant was swept aside by this--
It could be nobody else. Nobody but the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan, the Dragon of Heaven, the boy who had been broken beneath the sakura tree and had returned to Seishirou's world as a man, as lover and enemy, the shining other face of the coin.
Nobody but Subaru could meet him here...and thinking of that, of the road that had led them to this place, to this moment, a chain of events that seemed so inevitable on the one hand, and so fragile and tenuous on the other, Seishirou found himself amazed and also, somehow....
The moon's pale light trembled--more clouds, a breath of dampness on the skin. Subaru lifted his head, tilting it slightly, and although the distance was once more too great for Seishirou to make out the true color of Subaru's eyes, he knew it nevertheless, knew exactly how light and shadow would shift in them with that motion, with the subtle play of Subaru's feelings. And as Subaru returned his gaze, the corner of Subaru's mouth lifted--that reserve breaking at last, recognition, understanding, the pang of that old, familiar anguish and through it a brilliant kindling of something like joy, luminous and sweet, far outshining the tremulous moonlight. Seishirou's own smile bloomed in answer, fierce, exultant, and soaring. A strange heat burned within him, almost painful yet welcome, while at the same time he felt immersed in an illimitable calm. It was as if they stood somewhere outside the world, like a kekkai or a maboroshi, yet even more removed and intimate. Someplace that had entirely slipped beyond the bounds of time and consequences.
Someplace that was only for the two of them.
That this moment should never end....
To face each other here, like this.
So focused was his attention, he noticed at once the subtle flex of Subaru's knees, the almost imperceptible shift of weight as Subaru gathered himself. As Subaru sprang into motion, Seishirou was already drawing another ofuda out of his sleeve. Reflexive action--yet he paused, the slip of paper between his fingers, watching Subaru close the distance between them with long, almost floating strides. Halfway down the slope, Subaru leaped high, his shikifuku whipping about him with the abrupt change of direction, and Seishirou lifted the ofuda at last, touched it to his lips, then cast it with a light flick of his wrist, as if throwing a single flower to his lover: an acknowledgment both tender and ironic, saluting Subaru's part in their extraordinary pas de deux. The card began dissolving into a seething confetti of sorcery, a shooting star trailing sparks of midnight fire as it flew, and Seishirou stepped back, catching at the edge of his coat, ready to flare it about himself as the magical focus of his next working. The first intimations of wind and darkness were already rising about him, to greet Subaru as soon as he'd finished dealing with the distraction of that little spell--
The ofuda punched through the center of Subaru's chest.
Even though Seishirou had never taken his eyes from Subaru, for an instant it was as though he hadn't really seen it happen--there was a blank space, a flash of blindness where for some reason memory would not take hold, and he found himself nonsensically wanting to replay the moment, to try to grasp the swift, stunning simplicity of what had just occurred. Subaru's eyes were closed. From the height of his arrested leap, he began to fall, tipping forward with disconcerting slowness, then tumbling, loose-limbed yet somehow still graceful, everything silent but for the snap and flutter of white silk.
Seishirou found himself running, with the inexorability of one of those bizarre dreams. He got beneath Subaru, arms out--the force of even Subaru's slight weight, plummeting from above, staggered him, drove him to his knees. Subaru still struck the ground, although not as hard as he might have. With a sharp intake of breath, Seishirou pulled Subaru over onto his back, hiding the red flowering of blood that had sprayed from the exit wound--more crimson at the front, soaked into the torn shikifuku, but not pouring forth. Subaru's heart had surely stopped beating almost at once.
Subaru's head lolled to one side, turned away from Seishirou. His lashes were a still line of shadow along his cheek. With the awareness honed by years of occult work, Seishirou could feel the soundless sigh as the spirit, seeping out from within that dying flesh, gathered itself to depart.
Still half-supporting Subaru, Seishirou drew an ofuda one-handed, shaking it out of his sleeve and into his grasp. Pressing the talisman to the ruin of Subaru's chest, he snapped out the briefest of spells, binding that vital essence back into the body.
Subaru convulsed violently against him. Blood surged up in Subaru's wound, began to trickle in dark rivulets from between his lips. Subaru's eyes jerked open; they stared blankly, wide and dilated, their irises ringed entirely in white.
"It's okay, Subaru-kun." The calm in his voice belying the moment's urgency, Seishirou reached out with his will, thrusting back the psychic gropings of the sakura tree, which had already begun seeking after its long-promised prey. "It'll be fine. Just...." Thwarted, the tree ripped at his mind's defenses, a shattering screech of fury and frustration, like steel sliding along steel, its hunger crowding in on him, scrabbling for supremacy. He forced it down once more, compelled it with all his strength to obey--was vaguely surprised by how much strength it took, by how much strength he found, pushed to this extremity, but there was no time to dwell on that. At that instant, only one thing was important.
Driving back the maelstrom of wrath and bloodlust, he seized the flame of power at its heart. Its burning was more like the bite of acid than the usual painful-sweet, sensual fire, but he took it into himself nevertheless, clenching his teeth against its searing turbulence and the unexpected rise of a dull nausea. Quickly he shifted his attention back to Subaru's body, still arching and spasming against his arms, one hand clawing jerkily at the air. He focused upon his own hand, upon the fingers that held the ofuda to Subaru's chest, letting that contact become the channel between them.
"Everything will be all right, Subaru-kun. I promise." It was like talking to one of his patients, back in the days of the veterinary clinic, where what he had said had meant nothing. All that had mattered was that he spoke, murmuring a low and constant reassurance. He wasn't sure if Subaru could even hear his voice. Perhaps he was merely speaking for his own benefit. Still holding the tree at bay, he fought to contain the surges of that healing fire, to keep it from blasting full-force into Subaru's body and likely causing even more damage. Pale flame-colored light licked slowly through them both, suffusing them, the surrounding air growing hazed and wavering with that intangible heat. Gently, carefully, but quickly--now, what first? The heart and one if not both of the lungs--fragments of broken ribs, those would have to be moved at least, out of the vital organs--and had the brain suffered already, from lack of oxygen? How long had it been since--
"I promise, Subaru-kun. I'll take care of you."
That pulped and torn heart throbbed, one limping beat, blood bubbling more fiercely around it as Seishirou urged life back into Subaru's body. Subaru heaved with a wheezing, strangled breath. Seishirou could feel dampness beginning to seep from Subaru's back, soaking into his pants, faintly warm--no, he needed to stop that, or else Subaru might bleed out before he could finish the delicate internal work. "I won't...I won't let you...." He lost the heartbeat, fumbled after it, losing track of what he was saying as well, the tree's insistence gnawing at his mind as he tried to concentrate, to keep track of all that needed to be done--too many threads to hold onto, all fraying, all failing at once. He'd never done such a complicated healing, let alone under such circumstances, but there had to be a way. He would not give up--he would not surrender Subaru, his Subaru, not to anything in this world or the next. "You're mine, Subaru-kun. Always. I won't let you die."
And yet the chill, sinking thought would not release him: too much.
Too much. Damn it, if only Subaru would respond to his words, to his touch, would reach out for him and help somehow.... His gaze flicked up to Subaru's face, searching those eyes that gave nothing back--that showed no recognition of him at all, only mute incomprehension, only such terrible pain.
Time seemed to slow, almost to stop, as though in the midst of the tree's frenzy and his own driving imperative a crack of stillness had opened up, one just wide enough to hold them both, himself and the helpless, shuddering form in his arms. Seishirou stared down into that wordless anguish. Endless seconds, as another forced breath wracked Subaru's body, and somehow he could not look away....
Slowly, the pressure of his fingers against Subaru's chest lessened. The ofuda, blood-soaked, might not have shifted on its own, but as Seishirou's hand slipped sideways, the paper talisman followed it, tumbling heavily to the ground. The binding was released, unraveling into slender, vanishing filaments of sorcery.
"It's all right now.
Even as those words left his mouth, the spirit was already flying from the body, was flying from him, flashing out of the sakura's grasp without even a cry, although the silence seemed to ring like a bell from the suddenness of that passing. Gone, without any last word or glance.... Subaru's body sagged once more, his head sinking back against Seishirou's arm, his eyelids half-closing, shuttering those dimmed eyes. He looked merely exhausted now.
And, of course, dead.
But...how had it happened? Seishirou found himself at a loss. Everything had gone by so quickly in those final moments that he could scarcely follow it, let alone understand. Certainly he'd always meant to kill Subaru, he had waited for it for years, so then why was he so...so...surprised...but he could see, now, how of late he'd been putting aside the thought of their final confrontation, glossing over it, refusing to dwell on its consequences. He had wanted it to come someday, of course, but not...what it would bring. Somehow, somewhere, his desire had changed.
Stupid, not to have realized it before this.
Even with that knowledge, however late in coming, why let Subaru go? Why surrender his lover, his victim, when no prey of the Sakurazukamori had ever been permitted to escape?
No prey but this one....
He'd undo it, if he could. The thought was tense and sudden, almost fierce. If there were any way to call that winged soul back--but remembering those blank, pain-filled eyes, he felt a startling inner lurch, like the attack of some strange, queasy illness.
Such beautiful eyes, always--but this memory was not beautiful. Not beautiful in the least. A broken doll, faintly luminous with the magic that compelled it to live and the desperate, fluttering light of the soul sealed within it...once he might have found it a poignant and arresting image. Now it only caused him that mysterious sick feeling.
It wasn't Subaru, after all. Not really. Not the Subaru that he...
Subaru's eyes had been closed, almost tranquil, before he had intervened. Had they been closed even before that last ofuda had struck? Seishirou found that he couldn't remember.
Such an astonishing display of grace and strength and sheer occult brilliance during their duel...only to end up like this?
How could Subaru have smiled at him like that, poised upon the slope of the hill, and then gone down so swiftly, so irrevocably, to a single fatal blow? Couldn't Subaru have done something to counter it, to save himself?
"Why?" Seishirou slammed his fist down onto Subaru's chest. Subaru's body bucked with the force of it. He hit the corpse again, and a third time, the sound of those blows hollow, that dead flesh rebounding dully, with none of the vital tension and elasticity of the living.
Just a glass cup. A little stone by the side of the road....
He jerked to a stop, still quivering with reaction, although he couldn't really say why. There was blood on Subaru's lips and chin, he noticed distractedly, left over from those spasming, involuntary breaths. As he moved to wipe it away, he realized that there was blood on his fingers as well, that he'd only be making more of a mess, and he used the backs of his knuckles instead. Easier, that way, to control the faint, inexplicable tremoring. With slow, meticulous care, he traced the curve of Subaru's lower lip, letting his attention be wholly consumed by that subtle contour. Once, and then again...that dark stain removed, for the most part, he leaned down, as if drawn by the gravitational habit of attraction, and then hesitated, pulling up short.
Did he really want the last kiss that he would ever have from Subaru to be like this? Something waxen and unresponsive?
Like a blow to his own chest, then, so that he hunched reflexively against it, the memory all those other times--of Subaru's mouth vibrant and alive against his, in a timid, butterfly flutter, in the heat and hunger of absolute, wanton abandonment, in the most exquisitely patient and compassionate tenderness. And then, too, at the very end, before Subaru had left him, had left him to come to this--
I love you.
Still hesitating, almost tentative, Seishirou bent forward once more. He rested his lips against Subaru's forehead, trying to match the gentleness of that last remembered touch. Subaru's skin had already cooled.
The tree moaned in Seishirou's head, deranged and bereft. He had forgotten about it, he realized dully, had forgotten that he still held its healing power, although most of it had bled away from him when he'd released his hold upon Subaru. He thought of Subaru torn apart by those reaching roots, bound eternally within the bark, and another shudder convulsed him. His shoulders shook as a low chuckle rippled out of him.
"Hey, it's okay. Right, Subaru-kun?" He ran the back of his hand along Subaru's cheek, stroked it lightly against Subaru's hair. If one touched only the hair, one might scarcely even tell...if one were not a spiritual practitioner, and moreover a practitioner who dealt in death. "Everything's just fine now. You're free. You're free...." After all, it didn't really matter if he sat there babbling out loud to the dead shell of a person. There was nobody around to hear him. The words meant nothing anyway. They were just noises.
Meaningless, with no one to hear....
He caressed Subaru's cheek again, lingering over that contact in spite of himself, still vaguely conscious of the liquid, simmering heat of that remnant healing fire. Closer, less comprehensible, a burning prickle in the back of his eyes, a growing feeling of constriction in his throat. Subaru's face swam before him, threatening to blur into unintelligibility. The tree's howl gained in volume once more, all those voices of the tortured, suffering, imprisoned dead, and in a surge of wild revulsion, elation, a mad, inexplicable impulse, Seishirou flung that flame of power away from himself, back into the ashen heart of those roots and branches--hurled it with all the force of will that he was capable of.
And with that shout, that jolt, a crack in the centuries-old bindings, like the first hairline fracture in a dam. There was an instant in which the full weight of all that long-contained spiritual energy pressed against the weak point and its edges frayed and crumbled but still held--
Seishirou was already turning away. Bending low over Subaru, he gathered that motionless form into his arms, cradling it in the shelter of his body. He lowered his head, his cheek coming to a familiar, almost comforting rest against the silky dark hair.
With a tearing like some unfathomably vast curtain, with the deafening shriek of failing steel, the heart of the Sakurazuka clan's sorcery splintered. The night's darkness went to crackling gold, as if it had been transformed into a world of lightning. Huddling above Subaru's body, Seishirou had just time to tighten his grip, to duck his head even further and close his inexplicably watering eyes--but even through closed eyelids he still could see the white-hot eruption of light as the sakura tree cracked in two and then shattered, as a galewind of souls screamed forth--
* * * * *
"Nnngh!" Kusanagi staggered, had to grab hold of the railing of the bridge to keep from falling--he barely registered its cold rigidity, overcome by a sudden torrent of sensation: lashing winds, branchsnap and trunksplit, battering confusion, destruction and danger--the green world's mute terror passed root-tip to root-tip, transmitted in the stirrings of the air. All across Tokyo, all the trees, but in particular those--
Hunching forward, he pressed his free hand, fist clenched, to his temple, wincing at the assault even as it retreated, leaving behind a shocked peace, like the aftermath of some violent but purifying storm. "What the hell was that?" he muttered, more to himself than anything else. Frowning, he straightened up and stared northward across the narrowing river, toward where a brief flare of not-really-light was already fading above the city's dark bulk. "The cherry trees...?"
"Kusanagi-san." He glanced quickly at Yuzuriha. The translucent, cracked calm of her voice sat uneasily with his own misgivings. Pushing herself upright, she swayed to her feet, her dog crouching golden-eyed a pace or two beyond her, quiet and watchful. She stared blankly into some middle distance, and he wondered what she saw or felt, whether that disturbance had touched her at all.
"I know what I have to do," she half-whispered. "But...but I can't do it by myself! I need you." Her voice quavered, liquid and unsteady, rising and then settling once again. "I need...your strength.
"Will you help me, Kusanagi-san?"
He started despite himself, strangely uneasy, not even knowing what she was asking for. "Missy--"
She closed her eyes. Tilted her head, and he could see the silvery glint of tears along her cheeks. Putting two fingers to her lips, she whistled once: a long, high note, piercing and tremulous.
* * * * *
White feathers, drifting like snow. At least, Karen thought, he hadn't made it cold--or if he had, it was affecting her no more than any ordinary chill. She didn't really know much about the capabilities of a dreamgazer, how much control he might exert within this dreamworld, whether he could bend the rules of reality to his whim.
On the other hand, she was pretty sure she knew why he had stripped her naked.
Pursing her lips, Karen blew into her cupped palm. A tiny flame licked to life, dragon-slender--it coiled and flared, swiftly growing to fill her hand. Its presence warmed her, not merely a physical heat but the deeper glow of relief and renewed self-assurance. Even here, it seemed.... Lowering her hand, she held it cradled before her, the golden, flickering radiance that it cast bringing to that unrelieved blackness both light and shadows, shifting and playing like live things across the pale canvas of her skin. Illuminated, the dreamgazer's eyes glittered, flat and inscrutable; he held himself unmoving, his face still expressionless, although she thought she glimpsed the set of his jaw tighten minutely, as if he'd just been thwarted. No prurience whatsoever--and Karen figured she'd been right. Not for his own sake, then, but to get at her. Meeting his gaze, she smiled back at him, challenging that impassivity with her own calm amusement.
"Well. Now what?"
Right on the heels of her words, there was a low hiss and whoosh: the familiar sounds of ignition. Another little flame burst to life high above her. Then another and another--two by two they winked into existence, more and more of them, spiraling downward like winding chains of spirit lights. And as their gathered brightness grew, there was a small figure twirling in their midst, face upturned in delight, arms outstretched--
Oh. Oh, this....
"Paul! Isn't it beautiful?"
The hush of the empty church was all around her, the timeless smells of wax and incense, the faint mustiness, the citrus-and-oil scent of wood polish on the dark, burnished pews. In the stillness, those flames spun through haloes of dust motes that surrounded them with a peaceful, soft shimmer. Prettier even than blinking Christmas lights--and much better than fireworks, because they weren't noisy, and they never died away.
"See? I can do it without using a match."
Because of course she should never play with matches. Matches were dangerous. Mama said so.
"It's so beautiful...Mama will be pleased."
Like a flying procession of candles, unhurried yet dancing with a sober, luminous, grown-up joy, the flames waltzed past the peaked, mullioned windows, glided one by one through bars of color falling from the great rose window above the western door: ruby, cobalt, amber. Their reflections flowed along the massive golden cross above the altar, and Karen had the sudden urge to cringe back, to cover herself, as she hadn't before her opponent's remote, coldly measuring gaze, although she couldn't say whether it was to hide herself from the eyes of God or from those of the little girl, heedless and innocent in her play.
God knew who she was.
A bang shattered the quiet, the falling back of a door latch, and Karen whirled, her heart racing with renewed guilt and fear. The little girl only laughed, turning toward the woman who stood framed in the doorway, her shadow stretching long and black before her.
"Mama! Look! Isn't it beautiful?"
The woman sucked in a breath, hands rising to her face in horror, then flung herself forward. Karen found herself frozen as the woman strode down the aisle, fists clenched--the woman passed her, only inches away yet blindly oblivious, the long rosary about her neck swinging wildly. She reached the child, and Karen turned her face away, but she still heard the loud, echoing slap, the muffled thump of a small body falling, still shuddered with the lingering, remembered jolt of pain, and, far worse, the inner stab of terrified anguish, of shame.
Sounds of scuffling, the little girl being dragged to her feet, a strangled whine of fear escaping her. Another blow, and another. The lines of flames flickered, dimmed, then began to wink out, swift and relentless as dominoes falling. It might have been some trick of memory, or her imagination, or the dream, but the sunlight seemed to lose strength as well; the building grew darker, more cavernous. The woman, moaning under her breath, began to drag the child down the aisle, and the little girl wailed suddenly, reaching back for her stuffed bear, left behind on one of the pews.
"Out!" The girl's crying stuttered and choked as she was shaken hard and then thrust ahead of the woman, driven forward with yet another slap. "Outside! You little monster!"
"That's enough." Karen forced the low words out past the ice that seemed to lock up her heart, her breath. The walls of the church had nearly disappeared into that gloom, but she could somehow feel them growing impossibly heavier, an intangible weight pressing inward all about her, could feel them growing taller as if to reach up to a scornful heaven, threatening despite their massiveness to teeter, crumble, and fall, burying her alive. The only light remaining was the sullen multihued ember of the rose window, and beneath it the blinding rectangle of late afternoon sun from the open door, with those two retreating figures silhouetted against it, the child sobbing and stumbling, the woman jerking her cruelly along. Opposite from them, the gold cross caught that light and seemed to loom up at the edge of her vision, cold and oily. The deepening shadows made it seem to move, to twist, and as if echoing that half-glimpsed motion a hissing river of whispers was rising, pouring over each other, steadily getting louder--Karen put her hands up reflexively, but there was no real sound, nothing that she could block out--
Demon...after all, she was born bad...what could you expect...just a sinner...never any good--
"That's enough!" Dropping her hands, Karen opened her fist, and the fragment of fire still cupped within it raged to incandescence. She let it grow to encase her, a blazing mandorla, her hair flying in the sudden updraft. Her light threw the darkness back to pool in the farthest corners of the building as with a surge her flames leaped high, licking at the vaulted ceiling, rolled about her feet and the wooden legs of the pews like lava--
"Do you actually think that you can set this place on fire?" The dreamgazer's voice made her start--it was the first time he had spoken. She turned her head and glared at where he stood, still half in shadow, leaning against a column underneath the choir loft. "There's nothing to burn." Raising his hand, he pointed upward languidly, and she jerked her gaze up, gasped as the ribs of the vaults high above them suddenly snapped like pencils in the hands of careless schoolchildren. The vast weight of wood and stone and mortar that had seemed to be pressing down toward her crumbled, and huge, crushing chunks of it began to slide free, plummeting toward her like an avalanche.
With a scream of defiance, she flung an arc of flame about herself--whipped it up over her head, a holocaust blast, hoping against hope that it would be intense enough to vaporize the falling masonry, because fire by itself had no force to deflect anything, and there was nowhere for her to run. Strangely, she heard the grinding thunder of destruction begin to fade--not slowing and stopping, but growing steadily softer, as if it were receding from her, until it vanished beneath the roar of her own power. Through the gaps in her shield of flame, she saw the stones slowing improbably, growing cloudy and translucent even as they fell, until with a hissing sigh, like sand sliding against itself, the collapsing church dissolved into another slowly whirling cloud of feathers. Sparks from her flames danced among those weightless white plumes, but not a single one of them was singed.
"The only things that are real here are you...and I," the dreamgazer murmured from the midst of that flying veil of feathers. "Well," he added, and the flatness of his voice mocked her as he echoed her words. "Now what?"
Her heart racing, Karen gathered her flame back into her hands, seeking reassurance in that gesture of control. After all, she'd been right--her power to affect this dreamworld appeared to be limited at best. She thought, though, that maybe if she could find the right note of fiery energy--if she could find a way to tune her flames to the spiritual "reality" of this dream--there had to be some way to do that, if she could only figure out how. And failing that--hadn't he said it himself?
That he at least was real....
No. Think. Think--because he did not expect her to think. He had gone straight for her emotions, for raw, instinctual reactions, from the very first instant when he'd stripped her clothes away from her. Surely he could have crushed her with that collapsing church, if he'd wanted to--she had no doubt that, as in a maboroshi, a fatal injury in the dreamworld would fool the mind and shock the real-world body into dying as well. But instead he had concentrated on trying to goad her, terrify her, provoke her. He had to be after something less straightforward than her immediate death.
Passive-aggressive and manipulative--she knew the type all too well. The more directly you went after them, the more subtle and slippery they were likely to be. She'd bet almost anything that he was expecting her to come for him now, considering that little hint he'd just dropped, and if she did she'd undoubtedly be playing right into his game, whatever that might be. At the very least, he'd probably amuse himself by making her look like a fool, here in this place where every little thing was under his control. At worst, she might fall into some devious trap and end up taking herself out, saving him the effort. And really, how embarrassing would that be?
Fortunately, she had plenty of experience in dealing with this kind of silliness.
"My, my--very impressive!" she said lightly, her lashes lowering over a deliberately amused gaze. "I wish I could indulge you with a proper display of hysterics, but I'm afraid I just can't do that." She clasped her hands idly behind her back, glad that she had long ago learned to put aside any body modesty. "Anyway, not to be rude or unappreciative or anything, but don't you think this is all just a bit out of step? After all, the point of this whole final battle thing is the future. If I hadn't already come to terms with the past," and she smiled then, a warmth that nevertheless had something of the conflagration's fierceness at its heart, "I wouldn't be here."
Although once again she somehow couldn't see the dreamgazer's eyes, she could feel him staring at her. "You're...not what I expected," he murmured at last. She wondered whether she should be flattered or insulted by that.
"We all have masks that we wear," she replied instead, with a little shrug. "But then, you already know that. Don't you?"
That slight tightening of his mouth again--a different tension this time, she thought, a grimace not of aggravation but of unhappiness. Then, with another of those unsettling dissolves, his appearance changed.
Oh, my. Despite herself, she drew in a breath. The Western-style clothes that he'd been wearing had become a white kimono--his hair blew free, strands of some pale, indeterminate color spilling down around his shoulders, past the long, slender line of his bared throat. His eyes remained golden, but they had lost that alien, catlike quality, becoming softer and darker, more veiled and yet more vulnerable, framed with startlingly light lashes like a vanishing rime of frost. The heavy traditional garment seemed to accentuate his slightness, like a burden of snow highlighting the thin lines of branches against the sky, and that face, drawn tight with melancholy as if with a physical pain and yet--
Too beautiful to be a woman. She'd always thought it was a rather idiotic turn of phrase. Looking at him, though, she could sort of understand it. A little too delicate for her taste, really--like a doll to be kept safe on some high shelf, never played with for fear of spoiling it, and she found herself for some reason thinking of Paul, of the rough, reassuring thicket of his fur, the glint of his solid glass eyes.
"Well," she murmured, and then couldn't think of anything else to say.
He lifted his gaze to hers--naked in his own way, she supposed, and yet defiant in turn, matching her insouciance with the stillness of a deep, dark water. "Kasumi Karen," he said, the words low and strained, though in the perfect hush of the dreamworld she could hear each one clearly, "I want you to kill me."
She stared at him for a long, stupid moment. "...what?" Oh, for God's sake--was this going to be another of those mind games? He let out an unexpected little huff, not even close to a laugh, although from the edge of near-hysterical irony it might have been meant as one.
"I thought it was going to be easy," he muttered, as if to himself. "I thought--"
"That a soapgirl would be easy to fool?" She chuckled, ruthlessly putting down the familiar twinge of anger and hurt. "Oh, hon...you really need to get out more."
His eyes hardened again, though they remained human. "Listen. I'm serious. They won't let me die." For all the quietness of his voice, that sudden intensity gripped her like claws. In the silence of her shock, he went on, "If I defeat you, if this cornerstone falls, the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth has promised to grant my wish. He's promised that he'll kill me." His mouth twisted with a fleeting bitterness. "But if I refuse, or if I fail...that wish may never be granted. Ever."
"You don't trust him," Karen said slowly. "Even if you succeed...."
"What binds the one who hunts the majesty of the Gods?" the dreamgazer shot back. "No. I don't trust him. I'm useful to him, just as I've always been useful to someone. I'm tired of it. I'm done with being useful." His hands closed into fists, tense and ineffectual at his sides, and he bowed his head. "For once, I want to do something for my own sake, just for myself. And what I want--the only thing that I want--is to put an end to this. To be free...."
"You want me...to be the implement of your suicide." The horror in her voice must have been obvious. As he looked up at her again, his expression grew gentler, more pleading, but there was also poorly concealed urgency behind it, a threadbare strain of desperation.
"It's not like that. To be honest...I've never even been alive. Not really. This," he gestured vaguely at the feather-shot darkness around them, "this isn't life."
"But you could live. If you came out of here...or wherever you are," Karen faltered with that uncertainty, then plunged on, "if you got away to someplace else, where nobody from the past could find you, then you could start over, right? You probably don't even know it, but life, real life, is beautiful--hard sometimes, yes, but even so, it's beautiful." She closed her eyes, only for an instant, but in that instant the dead black void around her was eclipsed by a blaze of memories, so sudden and vibrant that her heart leaped in spite of herself: the city in all its kaleidoscopic overload, color and light, taste and scent and unending movement, the delight of every sense, the loneliness amidst all those unseeing millions, the sweet joy of finally connecting with someone, however fleetingly. Swallowing hard, she looked at the dreamgazer again, her pulse still aquiver with the unexpected shock of yearning. Never to have seen the black-on-crimson of the Shinjuku skyline at sunset, first lights coming out against the gathering darkness, or the crowds outside the station shifting like a restless sea beneath the lightning flicker of the video screens, never to have heard the sharp, merry laughter of the girls at work, or to have touched another person's hand.... "Could you really throw it all away without even seeing it? That whole world outside--"
"I'm sorry," the dreamgazer murmured. "I know that to you that sounds like freedom. But for me...once is enough. I can't face the chance that I might escape from this only to be dragged back into it yet again. You're right that I don't know life, but I do know something that I think must be worse than death. And there are too many people who'd give anything, do anything, to have even the briefest glimpse of the future." He shrugged in apathy or self-deprecation. "Maybe I know too much about people to believe in their goodness, after seeing the things they dream of, but I'd always be waiting for the cage door to close on me again. I'd always be wondering who would be the one to give in to that temptation and sell me out. There was only ever one person who--and even if I don't see her on the other side, even if she's moved on, or if we end up in different places--" He broke off abruptly, then after a moment's pause went on, the words low and rapid and forlorn, "That's why I didn't just ask you. If you didn't know...if it's just a fight, it isn't really suicide, is it?"
"I can't do this." She shook her head. "Now that I do know, I can't just pretend that it's all right--"
"But for the sake of the human race?" He paused, eyes half-lidded, head cocked as if he were listening. "There's a dream loose in the dreaming," he said then, very softly. "The future...is not yet decided. I'm not only a seer for the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth. I'm his door into the world of dreams. And a door goes two ways." Those gold eyes flicked to her, cryptic yet intent. "Kill me, and in that moment he becomes vulnerable on this level. It may not be much, but even so...."
It took Karen a couple of seconds to replay those words and really register what he was saying. When the realization kicked in, so did adrenalin, making her nerves sing with a sharp, anxious tension. A chance to strike some meaningful blow against the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth, whom otherwise she'd never even be able to touch...a chance, maybe, to make her own Kamui's terrible trial a little lighter, a little easier, to speed the end of this whole bitter war and help keep safe the people that she cared about. Something like that...it was better than she could ever have hoped for. Yet she stared at the dreamgazer, stricken.
She could only do it by killing him as he stood there.
By killing him in cold blood.
Fighting against an enemy, both of them throwing all their skill and power into the clash...it was different somehow. Though she might regret the necessity, though she might wish that she didn't have to hurt her opponent, at least they were both putting themselves on the line, and if the other's defenses slipped and she took advantage of it, well, that was how such things went, it could have been her instead, just as easily, and that seemed...not fair, perhaps, but right. It was always over so quickly anyway, with never any time to think or to question. But to just stand there and watch someone.... She tensed, overcome with a different, less pleasant memory: the man screaming and flailing, wreathed in leaping flames, her fist clenched in the coarse wool of her school uniform skirt, pressing it down against her thighs, shadows sliding on brick walls, that fierce heart of brightness blurring even though her eyes were wide open and staring, sudden silence then except for the crackling sounds, skin blackening and peeling back--
It had been the first time fire had come to her since that afternoon in the church.
"Fire," she murmured somewhat hoarsely, as though she had been the one whose throat and lungs had been seared into mute anguish, "is not a pretty way to die."
"I don't care."
"You say that now," she retorted, her voice scaling upward, and she fought down the edge of incredulous, faintly hysterical laughter. "But--"
"Kasumi-san," and his words, for all their quietness, quivered with a sudden, stark intensity. "Please."
She looked at him again, that drooping figure swathed in white silk, pale and sad, like a drowned soul--pathetic, yet the bleak light of pleading in his eyes made her heart catch. For a long moment, she couldn't speak.
"What's your name?" she said at last.
His gaze slid away from hers, as though he would have preferred not to be asked that, as though he expected refusal to follow in the wake of the question, but he answered her nevertheless. "Kuzuki Kakyou."
"Kakyou-san, then?" She stepped forward and found herself standing right in front of him, more suddenly than she'd expected. A quirk of the dreamspace, she supposed. He flinched, but she caught his hands as they moved and held them lightly, her thumbs tracing slow lines across their backs. She could feel the subtle ridges of bones beneath the flesh. "It's okay," she murmured, and he shivered, his breath catching with something like hope--and fear too, she thought, now that the moment he'd sought for so long was finally here. "I can make it quick. There won't be any pain."
He whispered the words this time, fierce and low, closing his eyes as if to seal himself against any wavering: "I don't care."
But she did care. She was flooded with that unexpected emotion as if with sunlight, golden and drenchingly sweet: an overflowing pity and love for this poor child--for all of them, really, caught up in the struggles of their strange, complicated lives and of this war, but most especially for him, here and immediate for her now, as if his suffering was an archetype for the rest and yet remained keenly his own. Moving closer, she reached up and drew him down slightly, brushed her lips against his cheek. He started, then froze outright as she put her arms around him. "What--"
"It's okay," she repeated. Leaning against him, she buried her face in his thin shoulder. She could feel his heart beating rapidly where her chest pressed against his, could feel the trace of body warmth even through the kimono. A most subtle flicker of power, a threadlike lick of fire through the web that bound energy into matter, and the silk turned into ash, sifted away on the sourceless breeze that carried those slowly swirling, ghostly feathers, leaving behind only pale gray smudges on even paler skin. Skin against skin, heat against heat, life against life. Real enough, even in this place.
She suppressed a giggle. Too funny--and not enough time really to enjoy it--but that was all right too. She'd made her choice, and the flame was already gathering, swiftly building, condensed within the vessel of her body. Fiercer and hotter, intensifying without release--she shuddered, bit her lip, focusing all her will on keeping it contained for as long as she could. Oh, it hurt--even her, who had never felt what it was like to burn. But for the little time that it would take, she could bear it.
Besides, it was the only way to keep that promise.
To be that quick, and that complete....
Aoki-san, I'm sorry. The thought was the merest fleeting regret, a glimmer of wry amusement. I guess you're probably right.
But maybe sometimes...once is enough.
She'd shut her eyes, but even through their lids she could see the light as it began to stream out of her, as if her skin was becoming translucent. The inferno within her was a silent, devouring roar, white heat shading into blue, like a superheated star, and she tightened her grip convulsively. Faintly, as if at a great distance, she felt Kakyou gasp. Then his arms shifted, lifting and closing about her with a slow, hesitant awkwardness, the least hint of relaxation coming into his body as he bent his head toward her, his hair spilling down past her cheek, and even as she rippled at the edge of immolation her heart sang out like a carillon of bells, the pure and perfect joy of knowing that she was doing the right thing.
How lonely his life had been....
He would not go into death alone.
* * * * *
A bright flash at the edge of attention, two souls flaring out of this world, and whether it was some fleeting ache of memory left behind from its former vessel or holy fire acknowledging due kinship, the being that was the true form of the god's power of Ise paused, briefly bowing its sun-maned head.
That momentary light had already winked out, quick even as mortals measured things. Now--it turned back to the task at hand. Unfurling, it rose up in all its incandescent glory--it blazed upward into the sky, out of the too-small space that sought to contain it. Those walls of energy fell outward, like the limp petals of a battered flower, before fraying and dissolving into nothingness.
A streak of divine light, it shot straight up and then rolled, coiling above the sprawl of little human habitations. It stared down into that dark place upon the dark earth. The tiny glimmers of all those lives, scarcely to be seen--but there, directly beneath it, a brighter glow, a web of power woven throughout the cornerstone, and there, at its heart, there--
The god fell, plunging out of the heavens like retribution, like a shard of the sun, like lightning--and the thought hurt strangely, for no real reason. It knew that a human's gaze was upon it, saw the ripple of reaction, saw power drawing back toward the center, desperate to protect. A peculiar beast roared defiance at it, quick-reacting and yet dull, spiritless, a spitting crackle of energy, a shell of metal for a carapace.
So this...was what humans could make.
The god tore through the slender cords that were rising to meet it and struck the tall building at their heart. The structure cracked in two, the earth beneath it was ripped asunder, and the god released its fury into the wound, like a vast storm breaking.
* * * * *
Panting a little, Seiichirou kept the heel of his palm pressed tightly against his side. He thought that the bleeding had mostly stopped, with the layers of shirt and jacket beneath his hand serving as a makeshift bandage. He was pretty sure they were also stuck to the wound, which was going to be unpleasant when the time came to remove them and take care of it, but things could certainly be a lot worse. And maybe it was a little too optimistic to be thinking of afterward already--of still being alive to have his injuries treated, and of anyone else being around to help. But even so....
He stared at the figure lying motionless on the sidewalk. Thin cracks crazed one lens of his glasses, vaguely distracting but not really interfering with his sight.
Was it truly unconscious and out of the fight?
Or...had he actually finished it?
At that instant, the northern skyline flared, a near-blinding golden-white burst. The air shook as if the whole city were being rocked by thunder, and he would have thought a bomb! if that shockwave hadn't tasted of a fierce, strange, otherworldly purity. He flinched from it nevertheless, raising his free hand to shield his eyes. The still form of his opponent seemed to stir, and even though it might have been nothing more than a trick of the glare or the breeze catching in those fallen loops of pale cloth, his heart plummeted.
No. Don't get up, he prayed.
Don't get up.
That white-out faded from the horizon, and the flash of instinctual panic faded as well, leaving in its wake the more muted feelings of anxiety and an all-too-familiar heartache. That had been Shinjuku, of course.... The bioroid was moving, one hand sliding slowly along the glass-strewn pavement, then bracing to push itself upright. As it levered itself up on that arm, its whole body quivering with the effort, Seiichirou sighed faintly, then collected his focus once more, relaxing and reaching out at the same time, letting the first seeking winds find him. He could feel those currents twining about his fingers, but he didn't yet gather them to strike.
It still might not rise. It might be too injured; it might give up.
And he wondered, with a pang of complex sorrow: if any of his family had still been alive, would he be waiting? Or would he have already struck to finish off his opponent, regretting the need but unwilling to take that risk? To protect the people who were most important to you, when you were no longer an irrepressible, seemingly immortal teenager, when you knew all too well the fragility of what you were trying to save and the limits of your own power....
He might have, he supposed ruefully. But he found that he couldn't bring himself to do it now. Anger wasn't enough; loss and suffering weren't enough. Though there were still people that he'd like to protect, it wasn't the same--it would never be the same. Duty and compassion might get him through this fight, but that absolute, unflinching determination, that will to do whatever needed to be done...it had been left behind somewhere, lost in that fading place and time when the center and light of his life had still existed.
He should put up his kekkai, he thought dully, while his enemy was struggling to stand.
He hadn't raised a kekkai since before Daisuke had....
The bioroid made it to one knee but couldn't seem to get to its feet. It held the white cloth up before itself anyway, stretched taut between trembling fists. Its face was tight and strained, and its eyes glittered--he was close enough to see that pooling gleam spill over, running in a thin rivulet down one cheek. Blinking hard, it shifted its gaze from him long enough for a hasty swipe at its face, then stared blankly at the cuff of its sleeve.
It was crying, and it didn't understand what the tears were.
Seiichirou slumped, feeling anew the throbbing ache of his wound, his tiredness--not just the exhaustion of a battle at the end of an already long night, but a deeper, seemingly endless weariness. He wanted to go home. He wanted to have a home to go to--a real home, not just a hide-out. He wanted the Tokyo of a year ago to reappear, as if all of this had been nothing more than a terrible dream. And the Dragons of Earth threw this bewildered, uncomprehending creature at the cornerstone, and he was supposed to hurt it badly enough to take it out of the action at least, if not kill it outright, and even if he did, none of the things that he so desperately longed for would return to him.
The thought was softer than a whisper, like a shift of air pressure miles and miles away, quiet herald of a change in weather.
A kind of peace came over him then. He couldn't explain it. There was nothing to explain, only a still, wide-open clarity. As he looked at the Dragon of Earth, he found himself aware of choices, of the possibilities that could be born or die from something as small as a butterfly's flutter or the cracking of a single heart.
Could he, though? Could he make that kind of choice--could he change course like that, as simply as that, without betraying the memories of the people that he had loved?
Daisuke...probably wouldn't have understood it, Seiichirou thought wistfully, or at least not without a fierce inner struggle. Compromise had never come easily to him. And Yuka-chan...even though she had been sweet tempered and kind, little children had a surprisingly well-developed sense of retribution. And she must have been...so scared. So very scared.
Ah. He felt like a paper cup, suddenly crushed in upon his own emptiness, with nothing left to hold, to give him shape. I can't....
But this child...probably it was scared too.
Ducking his head, he blew out a short breath, somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Then he glanced at the bioroid again. It hadn't moved. Its expression was as blank as a doll's, just like always, but he thought that there was something pitiable in it, as though it would be looking rather desperate, if it only knew how.
Slowly, letting the wind slip away through his fingers, he held out his hand.
"Hey, there," he said quietly, just loud enough to carry. "It's okay. I'm just guessing, but...it looks to me as if you don't really want to do this anymore. Am I right?" The bioroid tensed, and with an effort he kept from stiffening in response. Smiling somehow, he went on, as calmly as possible, "I don't know your reasons for fighting as a Dragon of Earth. Actually, I don't know much at all about who you are and where you come from. So I probably shouldn't assume anything. But you were just 'born' not so long ago, right? So this must all still be very new to you." The bioroid appeared to be listening, at least; it was watching him, motionless except for shallow, constricted breaths, as if its chest hurt. It didn't seem to be thinking of leaping right back to the attack. Seiichirou decided that this was a promising start.
"Maybe you're doing this because somebody important asked you to," he said, half-musingly. "Maybe they told you that it was necessary, that there were good reasons for destroying the kekkai. Or maybe you have reasons of your own. Either way, if you really do want to keep going, that's all right. I guess I'll manage." He chuckled; it came out a bit weaker than he'd meant it to.
More seriously, he went on, "But if you're starting to feel as if you don't want to, then you should stop and think about that. Because only you can decide how much is 'enough.' Whether it's worth it to keep on fighting, no matter what. Even if you're hurt. Even if you're alone, and maybe...maybe a little afraid." Something unreadable flickered in its eyes--acknowledgment? derision? confusion? "I hope you don't think I'm being patronizing," he added gently. "I just thought that maybe nobody had thought to tell you those things yet.
"And that person--well, if there is a 'that person'--if you're as important to them as they are to you, then I'm sure they wouldn't blame you. Whatever you decide, in the end they'll understand. They wouldn't want you to suffer." Although thinking about it, he actually wasn't so sure, considering what he knew of the Dragons of Earth. And really, it was a shame.... He found himself threatening to mist up on the bioroid's behalf, and he told himself sternly not to be so sentimental. It was still a Dragon of Earth itself, after all, and he had to remain on guard. He wanted to end this without anyone getting killed--including himself.
"To...suffer?" With a lurch, the bioroid thrust itself to its feet, and Seiichirou's heart contracted in sharp, startled dismay. It stood unsteadily, listing a little, its gaze fixed on the pavement by its feet as if it were still dazed, still trying to gather its resources. But it was standing, that deadly white cloth trailing in its hands. "Why...why should that...matter?"
For an endless, nightmarish moment, Seiichirou was at a loss. How did one explain...how would one explain to a child, because it was a child after all, he realized, an impossibly young child. It knew nothing about being human, had no frame of reference for even the most basic, seemingly obvious things. And of course, if it didn't even know what tears were, then it might not be able to name its own pain or fear, let alone see that it should have the choice to avoid them. Seiichirou started to despair of being able to talk it down, but that was only part of the reason for the sudden queasiness that overtook him.
That nobody had ever told it that they were sorry to see it hurt or in danger....
"People...don't like to see other people suffer. Especially if the person who's suffering is someone special. It's just...it's too sad." He swallowed hard. "I can't stand aside and let this city be destroyed, and the human world with it--not at the cost of so many lives. To me, that's important enough that it has to come first, before anything that I might want just for myself. But I...I honestly have to say that I'd really rather not fight you anymore. I don't want to keep hurting you like this." He'd been willing to fight, even to kill if necessary, but this was too cruel to be necessity--it was purest tragedy. All along, the bioroid--no, Nataku--all along, it had been used like a weapon, like a thing, and it had no way to understand how wrong that was. "Please." Extending his hand once more, he tried to smile, although his face ached with the strain, and he thought that he must be doing a rather bad job of it. Nataku had raised its head and was staring back at him, its angel's face pale, its eyes wide and strangely glazed. "For your own sake, I wish--"
It moved then, a tottering step his only warning before the staggering forward rush, its hands lifting, reaching out toward him.
An instant of frozen, panicked indecision before he registered the absence of ki force, the loose slide of silk escaping from opened fingers, and realized that he'd been right to do nothing. Nataku's legs crumpled mid-stride, and Seiichirou, his arms half-raised in automatic self-defense, caught that slender form as it fell against him. Its arms closed about him in turn, one scraping heedlessly across the gash in his side, and brief stars of pain dazzled him. Gasping, he blinked until they slowly faded and the world stopped threatening to gray out around him. His pulse was still racing furiously, though, as if his body refused to believe that maybe this struggle was over at last, that the person leaning against him might no longer be a threat. Shifting his weight, he braced himself to better support its slight weight. Nataku shivered, its forehead pressed against his chest. He was barely able to make out its low, fractured murmur.
He honestly hadn't thought that his heart could break any further. Slowly he shifted his arm, rested one hand on the bioroid's shoulder. Carried along in its rush, the white cloth had been caught between them, and a length of it lay draped over one of Nataku's arms. He touched the silk, vaguely amazed at how soft it was, considering its lethal uses.
As soft as the scrap of white clutched in the hand of a desperately brave, brutally murdered little girl.
"I...," he whispered, and he had to clear his throat against the surge of sudden bitterness, pity, a tender and almost unendurable grief. "I'm not your 'daddy.'"
It didn't reply, only settled against him, sighed soundlessly, and then went still. Tilting his head back, Seiichirou gazed up at the flat expanse of sky beyond the scarred and shattered buildings, setting his jaw against that tightness in his throat, the blurring heat at the back of his eyes. A trail of fine sparks blew past high above them, carried on the wind--somewhere, something was burning. It seemed to echo his own sense of loss, of being left scattered and adrift.
I've made the right choice, haven't I?
* * * * *
It remembered the man's voice, calling out that name over and over. It remembered his face--the strange expression on it, like pain--and the gentleness of the large hand that had closed about the girl's much smaller one.
They wouldn't want you to suffer.
Its chest hurt with each breath, a faint echo of that memory. It knew that this situation wasn't the same as the one in its dream. Yet it thought that it understood, now, why that man had looked so strange, so distressed and lost.
That man, Kazuki's father, had wanted to take away her suffering.
He hadn't wanted her to die.
The Dragon of Heaven's hand rested on Nataku's shoulder, a gentleness that was slightly awkward but otherwise seemed almost familiar. He wasn't that man, of course. But when Nataku thought about the eyes of the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth, and when it thought about the look on the wind master's face...it found itself confused.
People...don't like to see other people suffer. Especially if the person who's suffering is someone special. It's just...it's too sad.
The stings and aches of its many wounds seemed to sharpen and at the same time to grow more distant. If it died, would the wind master be sad? Would anyone? It thought that the wind master might be, and that was a very peculiar sensation indeed. So strange, this unsettledness, this slowly gathering yet not quite unpleasant tension, as if something inside it was collecting itself to leap for the sky.
I want to live.
* * * * *
Within the silent prison of his thoughts, Kamui repeated the name like a mantra. There was no reply. He had felt, somewhere across the city, the convulsion of unbelievably ancient power, then something like a breath of wind, a whisper of fleeting presence, and he had known--
Now, there was nothing. Arashi's kekkai had fallen; no one else's had gone up. He was terrified to reach out for the others and find no one there, but even without trying he could feel holes spreading invisibly through the psychic fabric of the city, places where people he knew should have been and weren't.
He'd been wrong. He had tried, and he had messed it up again.
Fuuma...the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth...hadn't come for him.
And because he didn't help the others...maybe everyone was going to die.
Clenching his teeth even tighter on the scream of loss and misery that clawed at his throat, trying to escape, he buried his face in his knees, his tensed shoulders quivering. The Shinken, wedged in the crook of his arm, was a cold, awkward weight, yet somehow not as icy as the girder at his back. The power that he'd run through the Tower's superstructure had faded to a dull, nearly invisible aura--he didn't have the strength nor the will for it anymore. If the Dragons of Earth would just hurry up--hurry up and get it over with--or did he dare to leave the Tower, try to find Yuzuriha, or anyone, and see if he could still save them?
Subaru...I'm so sorry...
A low sound, metal resounding to some contact. He jerked his head up, startled. Across the observation deck's roof, framed by the slanting girders--Fuuma at last, all in black, long black coat with the glint of buckles, the blade of the other Shinken resting almost negligently against his shoulder as he loomed before the night sky, balancing with casual ease on the railing. Kamui choked on an indrawn breath--it felt as if his heart was trying to turn itself inside out. He stared desperately into Fuuma's face, searching for any pity or mercy, for any trace of the kind and gentle boy he had once known. But there was only the Dragon of Earth smiling back at him, carelessly cruel, his eyes a dark and unreflective mirror, without compassion.
"Sorry about that," the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth said. "Did I keep you waiting?"
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