Sakura and Snow

Chapter 21


By Natalie Baan



Subaru lay as if sleeping on the scarred ground, not stiffly but with a kind of artless yet elegant grace: his head tilted a little to one side, his right arm outflung slightly, the other drawn up to lie across his body, his hand curled into a loose fist. Like that, the shikifuku's wide sleeve concealed the bloody ruin of his chest. Seishirou leaned forward to adjust its lie once more, smoothed down the hem. Sitting back on his heels again, he gazed down, taking in the flawless picture that Subaru made--a picture that would never come to life, now, never open those eyes and return his gaze. He had to look away, exhaling sharply. He let his own eyes rove instead across the empty, battered landscape, the broken trees, the splintered remnant hulk of the barrow tree, his attention fractured and restless. Almost reflexively, his hands tightened on his knees.

He had no idea how he'd survived the shattering of the barrow tree. Surely if the backlash of centuries of magic hadn't killed him, the freed dead ought to have...but they had poured over him and past him, shaking the air and ripping at the already ravaged earth, a thundering, mind-numbing flood, like a tsunami of soul fire, and then they had been gone, howling off to some spiritual elsewhere. And although the shock of it still burned, both physically and psychically--the raw emptiness of having that looming, constant presence, that ever-present magical support and wellspring, suddenly ripped away--it seemed oddly remote, as if those nerves had already been flayed to the point of losing sensation.

In any case, somehow, here he was.


Now what?

He'd never thought this whole thing out very clearly, Seishirou realized, rather grumpily. It had been all very well to look forward to some hypothetical grand conflict, a culmination of one's whole existence, but what did one do afterward? Sit around and wait for the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth to finish his business? And then? He supposed that he'd thought the post-human world would be...interesting. Novel. Assuming that they didn't all simply vanish in some cataclysmic apocalypse.

Honestly, in the past it didn't matter to me what happened afterward.

No more Tokyo, no more Japan, no more human race--no more purpose to being the Sakurazukamori. And without that, everything was all the same, one way or the other.

Where--when--did things start to get more complicated than that?


He froze, the thought snapping up short, unfinished. His heart was suddenly beating far faster than it should be. He wasn't sure why.

Did it really make any difference if he continued to hold those one-sided inner conversations? It wasn't as though Subaru had ever been able to hear him, or to respond.

Not even when Subaru had been alive....

That abyss yawned beneath him again, the nameless ache, the crawling, brittle feeling of dissolution. Jerking his gaze up, he stared hard at the sky, as if its dull black endlessness could balance this other void, could hold it at an equal distance--a counterspell, a sympathetic magic. A few faint, tired stars, the curve of the waning moon as sharp as a blade, unveiled, now that the haze of smoke and the last thin clouds had frayed into nothing....

White. That pale light painting the devastation of Ueno Park with its otherworldly, deathly peace, like the purity of white silk....

He couldn't get away from it. The moon was threatening to melt into a foggy smear, and he closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping a little with fatigue as he forced back the hollowness, the hot, liquid sting. Crying, he'd decided, now that he'd had a chance to actually experience it, had nothing to recommend it at all. The closest he'd ever come before had been during the year of the bet--that had probably been the pinnacle of his entire performance, eking out a genuine tear or two. He'd heard that most actors managed to do it by bringing up memories of something sad.

He'd thought about onions....


A poor, wretched veterinarian wouldn't be an appropriate match for someone with as bright a future as Subaru-kun....


Seishirou lowered his head again, the ghost of a strangely bleak smile fading from his lips. The threat of leaking suppressed, at least for the moment, he let his eyes drift open, let his gaze settle on Subaru's body once more. The pang was becoming almost familiar, if no less uncomfortable.

He couldn't remain like this forever, could he? Holding vigil beside the body of his would make for an affecting melodrama, but he couldn't quite work up the enthusiasm for it. Maybe he'd seen too many corpses to find any real interest in the idea of clinging to one and refusing to let go.

Or maybe he was just too aware of all that was missing.

The heat of the skin. The vibrancy of breath. The expressiveness of face and body--the constant flickerings of thoughts and emotions, the sometimes contrary tension, the ever-exquisite responsiveness.

The gentleness of that touch.

The look in those eyes, lingering, intent upon his face....

Moment by moment, all of that was receding further into the realm of memory. Trying to hold on to this physical remnant wouldn't stop that retreat.

And he, too--if he were to live, then moving forward, away from this, would be inevitable.

But to what future?

Inclining his head, Seishirou concentrated, opening up those inner senses, almost welcoming the twinge of pain and the glaring afterimages left behind by the barrow's fall as a distraction, something that could be pushed through and overcome. He had yet to determine what was left to him--various strands of his onmyoujitsu trailed off into frayed edges or black, silent voids--but he could still perceive. Not that it was all that hard to make out the howl of a Shinken--of two Shinken: a discordant clash of wailing tones, the blinding, searing edge of vast powers meeting. One side seemed to be struggling, falling back, and Seishirou was fairly sure it was the Kamui of the Dragons of Heaven, which really wasn't all that surprising.

Perhaps he wouldn't have to concern himself about the future for too much longer....

He couldn't sense the distinctive, focused thrumming of a Seal's kekkai--that was a bit more unexpected. Had the other cornerstones fallen already? If so, then all the more reason for Kamui to be faltering. He shifted levels, trying to filter out some of the noise of the battle at Tokyo Tower, and reached out. No, Yamanote still appeared to be intact. Had a Dragon of Heaven won there, or was it just that nobody had gotten to it yet? Groping about like this, his range was too limited, he decided; bringing his awareness back to his body, he reached into his sleeve, drew forth a single ofuda. The inside of his chest clenched sharply--his hand tensed, and he forced it to relax before his fingers crumpled the talisman. He had to clear his throat before he could murmur the word of the spell.


Wavering into existence, a black shikigami lifted from his hand, then began to flap upward. Soon it had disappeared against the night sky, but Seishirou didn't need to watch it to track its progress. Higher and higher, rising in a sharp angle above the park, too steep and swift for any mortal bird, until the city lay spread out below like a diorama and Seishirou could survey it through the shikigami's eyes.

Ginza, down. Tokyo Tower wreathed with vapor and trails of fierce incandescence, lit up by a sudden flare, a crossing of swords--but he already knew what was going on there. Surprisingly little damage elsewhere as he shifted his attention to the west--



Those towering skyscrapers had crumbled--were still crumbling, the tilted remnants collapsing piece by piece into the streets below like massive ice chunks splitting from a glacier's edge to crash into the sea, the buildings' superstructures inexorably giving way before stresses they had never been designed to endure. The zone of destruction radiated outward, starlike, from an unfathomably deep black gouge where the Government Building had been.

It seemed as though nobody had triumphed, there.

But the Dragon of Earth hadn't lost, either....

And it shouldn't have particularly mattered--but he found himself thinking of driving those echoing canyons late in the evening, glancing up into the rearview mirror to study the profile of his distracted passenger. Of walking back from the little bakery around the corner from the veterinary clinic, beneath the rattling shade of the elevated train line. Of the shape of an uncountable number of everyday moments, one following the next like links in a delicate chain, part of a year that had been a long time ago, and yet seemed oddly close and clear. And clearer still, the silent glitter of those far-off lights, framed behind a window's glass, the solid warmth of another's body yielding in his embrace, the low exchange of murmurs:


And you, you love Tokyo?



Because it's the place where I met you.


A heartbeat of stillness, and Seishirou pushed himself to his feet, his jaw set with a new and wholly unlooked-for resolve.

Something was going to survive.


* * * * *


Blade keened against blade, sliding until the guards caught. For a measureless instant, the combatants leaned into each other, separated only by a handsbreadth of space and those two crossed lengths of metal. Shivering with the strain, Kamui stared past the bright edge of his sword, looking up at Fuuma, at the tight trace of a smile, feral and mirthless, at the flat, remorseless eyes returning his gaze. He could feel the almost negligent pressure of Fuuma's power balanced against his own desperate, unsteady striving, the focused crackle of raw force fed through the channel of otherworldly steel, the great storm-cloud of his twin star's aura looming, all too familiar, just like the way Fuuma towered over him physically, and all he could think of suddenly was what that strength felt like--what it had felt like once, in what seemed now like an entirely different life, a tearing, anguished ache for his friend's arm curving around him and pulling him near, for that solid, unshakable presence, always there to support and to protect.


If someone is making you cry, Kamui....

I'll protect you from him.


A spike and flare of power, although neither of them had moved--a fist of lightning slammed from Fuuma's hands and the crossguard of his Shinken into Kamui's, hurling him backward. Free air and flying and trying to get reoriented and get his feet underneath him again before--


A ringing blackness--

The world wavered back into existence, its edges splintering off into daggers of white glare and fractured rainbow haze. Pain hit him like a brick to the back of the skull, followed by a wash of nausea--he was leaning against a slanted steel strut, the same one he must have been flung headlong into, and it took everything he had to lock his knees so that he didn't crumple to the roof beneath him. Frantic, fighting down that queasy weakness, he looked for Fuuma--found him, then struggled to bring the double-vision image into better focus. Fuuma had paused and was staring into the distance, eyes narrowed. Kamui's head was starting to clear, but he couldn't quite make out what had caught Fuuma's attention. Perhaps there was a hint of some far-off energy shifting, gathering, something subtle and indistinct, but it hardly seemed important. Nothing could change the way the two of them were bound to this moment, to this fight: each other's destiny, and he'd never wanted to believe in destiny, but it held them nevertheless, had held them maybe from the first time they'd met, and it seemed as if nothing else mattered except for that--

Abruptly Fuuma snorted, then glanced at Kamui again, smiling, and for an instant his expression was so tender that Kamui felt as if he were falling. "It's too bad I can't play with you longer." Fuuma almost sounded genuinely regretful. "I'd hoped--but it looks like somebody has gotten impatient." His gaze sharpened and darkened, layers of complexity veiling his thoughts as he looked at Kamui. "One last time, then," Fuuma murmured. He swept the Shinken out to one side, holding it in an easy, one-handed grip, its tip angled down toward the metal-plated floor. His smile faded to a masklike impassivity as he added, low and intent, "Can you?"

Kamui stared at him dumbly, one painful pulse throb after another, and then Fuuma was moving forward, not actually waiting for a reply, his advance seemingly unhurried but for all its ease deceptively swift. The Shinken rose in a wide arc, Fuuma's other hand joining the first on its hilt as the great blade lifted--and Kamui realized, as the distance between them closed with nightmarish inexorability, as he struggled to haul his own sword around into a guard position, that there was no way he'd be able to brace himself to block that crushing blow in time.

Without warning the world shook: a mind-numbing discordance, a jangling, ripping tremor both like and unlike a kekkai being raised.

With a desperate cry, Kamui wrenched the Shinken up--


* * * * *


A jolt of nothingness--like having one's strings cut, Seishirou thought dimly, if one happened to be a marionette, or like a circuit breaker flipping and shutting off the flow of current, this feeling of sudden emptiness, of power poured forth beyond the limits of spirit and body to sustain it. He scarcely realized that he had begun to fall until his knees hit the ground. He had time, as that slow topple continued, for a glimpse of Subaru's ritual blade burning whitely among the remaining wooden spars of what had been the barrow sakura, the hub of a net of magical power woven across the city, branch to branch and root to root, a pale spiderweb, a veil of gossamer-thin and ghostly threads of flame. He could see in his mind's eye the ring of fire that encompassed the whole, the seal that it had taken his last effort to create. Other hands, gentle, unexpected, yet somehow inevitable, touched the spell with a tentative delicacy, then took it up, even as his awareness of it, and of them, began to fade.

His body collided with the ragged dirt, a strangely distant, barely perceptible sensation. Lying asprawl, he craned his neck slightly and could just see the pale drift of Subaru's body, like a lingering remnant of snow. Subaru's outstretched arm almost seemed to reach for him, as if offering to take his hand; Subaru's face was turned toward him, tranquil and supremely still, and Seishirou remembered, with a faint twinge of satisfaction mixed with pain, what it had felt like to caress those eyelids closed, as if bespelling Subaru's distracted gaze into a final and forever sleep. With a sigh he let go then, reaching weakly out into the space between them even as the last of that strength and purpose seeped away from him.


His own eyes, closing, brought no darkness--everything was fading into white, reality slipping aside like a slow tide, leaving in its wake an expanding space that felt somehow like a dream, vaguely yet indisputably familiar. And as he sank down into it, he sensed a presence skimming at the very edges of his thoughts: a flutter of feathers, the flare of white wings.

A shikigami?


Memory flickered, and he smiled, even as he felt, through that growing lassitude, an arrowing of distant attention: the awareness of the Kamui of the Dragons of Earth cutting sharply across the city, searching for him.

Ah, that's right....

Still falling, he reached out, back along the way that he'd come.


Hey, "Kamui."

Somebody's looking for you.


* * * * *


The train pulls into the station at last--a rattling thunk of shifting, settling tracks and then the low hiss as the doors slide open. The girl flits out onto the platform the instant the way is clear before her, leaving the scattering of other passengers still sitting dull and motionless in her wake. Across the dark red tile floor, through the turnstile, and then up the narrow stairs, her footsteps a rapid, sprightly patter as she wheels around the corner of the landing and dashes up the next flight, and then the next--she has run up these stairs before, she thinks, or something very much like them, seeking the roof, the sky, anticipation and hope spreading their wings wide, pushing against the strain that locks up the inside her chest. But this time there is no ache--only the purest joy. The open doorway is just above her now, the light blazing through it, pure white, brighter than any single star, and as she springs up the last few steps and leaps over the threshold she opens her arms to it, cries out:

Oniichan! I'm sorry you had to wait so long! But it's okay now, right?

Oniichan...don't be sad anymore.

The future isn't yet decided.

And...I love you.


* * * * *


The sudden stillness was somehow an even greater shock than the clash of blows. Quivering with reaction, Kamui struggled to catch his breath, to confirm the startling truth that he was still alive. His senses were blurring, as if he were slipping back into the haze of concussion; he started to fight it, then froze, trying to open himself to it instead, reaching desperately after a fading hint of presence, like the translucency of a bright spring day, like the gentleness and fragility of very new creatures.


Gone, as if it had left him along with that involuntary whisper. Maybe he'd just imagined it after all. With that pang of disappointment and the renewed awareness of loss, his head began to clear once more, and he realized with a start that both he and Fuuma were standing motionless, not even an arms' length apart. Kamui jerked his head up, stared wildly at Fuuma's profile, the distant and almost bewildered expression--he realized that his own hands were still wrapped around the Shinken's hilt, and the blade--

Was angled upward, through Fuuma's chest.

Delayed memory: a resistance readily giving way, the meaty slide, the grate of metal against bone--Fuuma slowing, sword still drawn back as Kamui stumbled forward--the impact as Kamui's shoulder collided with Fuuma's body--the straining, off-balance effort to get the tip of the blade up in time--pieces all out of order, flashing and senseless. The smell of blood, warmth running down past the guard, dripping over his hands. He couldn't put any of it together. Only...only....



The other Shinken slid out of Fuuma's hands and clattered to the rooftop, its clangor nothing but metal on metal now--both swords terrifyingly silent. The very night seemed to be holding its breath. Fuuma's knees buckled, he started to slump forward, and suddenly both his weight and the Shinken's were coming down onto Kamui. Kamui let go of the Shinken in order to grab Fuuma about the shoulders, trying to slow his collapse, and they both crumpled to the ground awkwardly, landing hard on their knees. The sword shifted between them, jarred by the motion--Fuuma jerked, gave a wet, gagging cough, and Kamui knew that it was blood, oh Kami-sama, the blood.... "Fuuma!"

"Heh." Fuuma's chest lifted, a stuttering breath...a laugh? "Heh.... Kamui?" His voice was a hoarse, barely audible murmur. "Did I...did"

"Huh?" Kamui shifted back just enough to be able to see Fuuma's face, wondering, even through his numb and panicked horror, at the almost wistful tone in the other's voice. Fuuma's eyes were unfocused--they were soft, oh, with that gentleness, no lying mask now but real, even as they closed, a trace of a smile tugging at Fuuma's mouth as he bowed his head above Kamui's shoulder.

"Did I make you hate me," Fuuma whispered, " kill me?"

His lips stilled; his head bent further, the tension going out of his body as it abruptly slackened and his weight seemed to redouble, and Kamui knew then, knew and didn't want to know, feeling the blood already cooling on the backs of his fingers, the settle and sigh of a last exhalation, held close within his embrace. He stared past Fuuma's dark head at the sky, and that should have been dark as well, but instead it was a singing white light, or maybe that was just inside his own head: adrenaline and starkest denial and a spell like pale fire scrabbling to burn something and the dead, and the dead, and the dead--dead weight, and what was gone so weightless, impossible to hold. Never--he was shaking, not just from the physical strain and exhaustion but from something roiling upward from far below the surface, a molten, shattering pressure--not once had he been able to do anything, to save anyone. And Fuuma...and Fuuma had done all of make him fight, when his whole heart had cried out in its refusal? To save his conscience, to ease the inescapable guilt?

Because one of them had had to die.

Had had to....

"Fuuma," he panted, his voice blurred and splintery, cracking helplessly on the name. "Fuuma....


And with that howl, out of the deepest places of himself--from blood and will, occult power, the force of a single, pure desire--he blazed forth with all his strength: a blinding flare, a shaft of incandescent starfire stretching from earth to sky as he reached out and caught hold of fate--


* * * * *


"The symbol is changing," Kanoe murmured, close to her sister's ear. Strands of moth-white hair trembled faintly at the touch of her breath. "The new cycle is about to begin." She closed her fingers over the sleeper's tiny, childlike hand. Curled up like a cat around her sister's body, she leaned nearer still, inhaling Hinoto's fragrance: scent of plum blossoms and silk, layers of incense and the subtle paperiness of extreme age. She could feel the bonds loosening--could see, now, the dark pool, the dark mirror deep in her sister's soul, the long-clawed double screaming silently.

Yes. Come to me.

Two thousand years of being born and dying, sometimes remembering and sometimes not. Of searching, life after life, whether or not she knew the reason for it or even what she was searching for. Of seeing her sister suffer, again and again, alone with that terrible power.

No more.

Bending her head, touching her lips to the oblique angle of throat and shoulder, Kanoe swiftly drank up that liquid shadow, drew it in a surging flood out of the vessel of her sister's body and into her own. And as it poured into her, vision struck with the force of a blow, momentarily disorienting, a rush, a whirl of too much knowledge, of fierce imperatives that she forced down with all her strength--that battle is long done. Power swirled, then stabilized, found an equilibrium, although every cell still vibrated with it, a wild song of ecstasy, of merciless, devouring strength, of completeness. And she could see--

Not like her sister's dreams, crystalline visions of far-distant moments, caught outside time and existence. And even less like the poor echo of dreamseeing that had been her limit, a ghost haunting the margins of her sister's knowing. Her vision, her knowledge was the future as it grew out of the perfect and illimitable now, heartbeat following heartbeat, the path of inevitable necessity, the vital and intimate connection of all things.

Jerking back, she drew in a sharp gasp of breath. She could feel the city reverberating around and above her, the complex interplay of old spells and new ones, the flashing-out of power and the weird, discordant resonances as Kamui bent the world about the heaven-reaching spire of Tokyo Tower. The flux was intense, but despite the breaks in the city's wholeness there was an underlying layer of stability. Intention held, and hope and labor from both past and present, and the stubborn persistence of what was. Although wounded, Tokyo would not fall.

Quick as sensation along a trail of nerves, backlash threaded across the city, sharp recoil as magic was invoked and a destiny was altered. The Diet Building shuddered; even in the basement's depths, the walls quaked and dust sifted down, pale in the golden glow of the candlelight. Lifting her head, Kanoe stared up at the ceiling above the futon, tracing the lines of stress, both physical and metaphysical, the weak point in an abruptly shifting fault.

And as that ceiling buckled and began to give way beneath the tons upon tons of steel and masonry from the collapsing building above, she smiled at it as if it were a lover.


Now you'll be free....


* * * * *


The spellfire that ringed the city blazed high, as if answering the column of light that had once more blasted skyward from Tokyo Tower, a torrent of power even brighter and fiercer than the first one, which Yuzuriha wouldn't have believed was possible. There was scarcely time to register that reaction and then brace herself before the wavefront hit, surging outward from the tower, and Rainbow Bridge swayed, all its cables singing out, a multivoiced, shivering, groaning howl. The sword, held hilt-up before her, resonated to that strain, the blade between her hands moaning, quivering just as she quivered, pouring all her strength into and through it. A breathless instant of realization was her only warning, the stillness of a limit reached and surpassed, the pause before a sudden drop--and that length of otherworldly steel shattered into bright-edged slivers, slashing across her palms as they began to fall.

Without hesitation she flung her arms wide, made herself the anchor point of the spell instead, the pain almost welcome, jolting her with each throb of her heart, something to hold onto as the flood of raw energy streamed about her. The metal shards slowed to hang weightlessly in midair, then puffed into feathery clouds of brightness, like plumes of airborne dust, if dust could be made up of translucent light and magic. They swirled about her, touched her skin and passed through it--the scent of fur, an immaterial yet tangible warmth, a presence that she could scarcely describe because it had always been so close, and her eyes stung with grieving, even though she knew that, truly, she was losing nothing.

I loved you, she whispered silently, for no one but herself to hear.

Closer, now, than ever....

And she could never have imagined it, let alone like this, with the world trembling on the knife point of transformation and that vast yet tenuous kekkai burning at her back--but she held the seal, held it while her soul rewove itself, while the city shook and Kamui's lightning seared the sky. Large hands cupped her shoulders, powerful yet supremely gentle--hold me up, she prayed, leaning back into that unfalteringly solid strength, and through them she could feel his concern for her, his patient and unquestioning support, and more, an endless depth of stillness, a feeling like massive roots twining down into the earth and the earth rising up to meet them, lifting them both amidst the flood.

She drew in a sharp breath--the wolf was in her now, and with the wolf the forest and the night stars, the rock and the grass and the long hunt with life and death at the end of it, the dampness of rain and the promise of a gray dawn to come. And yet she was herself, as human as anyone else in this city, part of the same sprawling confusion of a modern world; and also a Dragon of Heaven, with the power of a Dragon of Earth coiling about and through her, sustaining her, connecting her to the source of all wildness, closing the circle.

Out of that clarity and shared strength, she breathed in once more, deeply, then stretched out her arms, diverting power back across the enclosed space of the seal to be caught by other hands and reflected in turn, crossing and recrossing the city, point to point, tracing out the star of a pentagram.

Alive! Other people are alive....

The tears came then, and she closed her eyes, even as she continued to weave the spell without ceasing, steady and sure, while the hot blood welled up, dripping from her hands.

She was no longer a child.


* * * * *


Torn and bloodied, the white cloth spun slowly: a star in a circle, held aloft by will and by the curving, involuted embrace of gentle winds. Nataku leaned back against the windmaster's shoulder. Although they were both injured, somehow the pain seemed farther away, and the energy working, which should have been an impossible strain, was endurable. It thought of the windmaster's murmured words of encouragement, as steady and sustaining as the lift of those winds, as the enfolding touch of another's power, a strangeness that was growing more familiar.

It's easier, when two people help each other....

White fire streamed across the sky, to be reflected back from the ki-charged cloth and also outward on a new line, toward unknown hands. Nataku wondered vaguely whose they were. It was finding that it had an uncountable number of new questions, but also a peculiar lack of urgency about answering them.

After all, it thought, there would be time....


* * * * *


From her perch high above Tokyo Station, Karen regarded the crisscrossing lines of spellwork with amusement, paired with a glow of quiet satisfaction. A fluttering disturbance, the whisper of feathers--she started slightly as the white bird swept up behind her and backwinged to alight delicately upon her shoulder, his clawed grip as gentle as snowfall, the tips of his unfurled wings just brushing her bare arms. Long-necked and golden-eyed, crested and plume-tailed, he resembled nothing so much as a phoenix, but one as luminously pale as the moon. Bending his head, he rested his cheek very briefly against hers.

"Ah. So you won't be staying, then?"

No, he wouldn't. What had needed to be done was done, and now--the endless reaches were calling, the dissolution into light, the promise and delight of a perfect freedom. He shifted restlessly, already eager to fly, and Karen nodded her understanding, aware as well of that piercingly sweet, bell-toned song from the other side, the constant tide of subtle tension, like a painless heartache.

And her?

"I think I'll hold down the fort here, until this is done." Her gaze roved across the city, caught irresistibly by a different pull, one that was no less intimate, no less insistent. "And afterward...maybe I'll stay around for a while?" The words, tentatively spoken, left no disharmony in their wake; she smiled with slowly dawning wonder. "It looks like that won't be a problem." More than that--a rightness, the sudden sense of a task to be fulfilled, a place that would fit her just like stepping into her own skin, and she laughed quietly, in surprise and relief. "I'm glad...."

In a rush, the white bird launched itself, the feather-flick of his wings a last farewell. "Go with God," she murmured. Turning, she followed the path of his outward flight until the light swallowed him--stared a long time into that shining herself, a wordless communion. At last she shook herself slightly and turned back to the interstice between worlds, not without a faint twinge of loss. She touched once more the anchor point that she held, one corner of the spell that would birth a new network of kekkai, giving the world back over to humanity.

As long as there were people, they would need someone to listen and bear witness, to purify their sins and sorrows, to share their joy.

Smiling once more, Karen held out her hands to the city of Tokyo and spread her own fiery wings.


* * * * *


He pushed and strained against the chunk of fallen concrete, even knowing it was futile--no way to get any leverage, pinned as he was, and not enough strength left even if he could. Panting, he fell back onto his side at last, coughed briefly from the combination of dust-choked air and exertion. The convulsive movements sent a new shock of pain ripping through him, graying his sight, and he tried to breathe slowly and evenly, riding the surface of it rather than letting it drag him under. Somewhat lightheadedly, he pondered his options. If the fountain hadn't been destroyed--but right now he probably wasn't in any condition to manage the effort of controlling water. His pulse throbbed in his abraded hands, in the searing white heat that had swallowed up his legs somewhere below the knees, a rapid, thready beat; bleeding, he thought distantly, almost giddily, and wondered if watermastery would get him anywhere with that. But considering that at the moment water itself seemed like an insurmountable challenge, that kind of innovation was almost certainly beyond him, too.

As the dizziness ebbed ever so slightly, he rolled his head to gaze up at the sky, wide open now above the tops of the rubble heaps, in the absence of the once-looming skyscrapers. It was lit by a pale flickering glow, something auroralike, obscuring whatever dusting of stars might have been visible--unless that was just a hallucination on his part. Whatever, it was suitably apocalyptic.

So this was how things had turned out. It had been a good ride, he thought. He'd never really concerned himself much with how it might end. Just take the days as they came, see what they brought and react to it however seemed best--like the trick of walking easily down a busy street, finding and threading through the gaps in the crowd, being diverted by the pretty, eye-catching distractions and putting up with the occasional obstacle until it could be dodged. But now that he'd actually gotten to this destination, it was turning out to be...not much fun. Kind of ugly and inconvenient, to be honest. Not to mention...he searched for a word that would wrap up and dismiss the whole miasma of pain, isolation, helpless entrapment, the first bleak and inescapable stirrings of fear.

Unpleasant. Now there was an understatement for you.

With a low, breathless chuckle, he lowered his gaze to scan the immediate area yet again, on the off chance that he'd suddenly spot his blade-whip within reach, so that maybe he could hurry things up a little, because he was beginning to picture this lasting an uncomfortably long time otherwise--and he started, catching a glimpse of movement, a shadowy figure amidst the rubble. It paused, then came toward him, step by step, picking a slow, erratic path forward into the shifting light: ragged swish of a dark, ripped skirt, the slide of long hair about slumped shoulders, ghost-pale face and black eyes like empty, staring wells.

The sword-wielding girl from Ise. How providential. It looked as though he could stop worrying about whether or not this was going to drag out.

And at the hands of a pretty girl, too...assuming that he could manage to get a rise out of her.

" did it," he remarked, making an attempt at cheerfulness, as she paused a few meters away and regarded him with blank impassivity. "You won. Con...congratulations!" The effort of speaking threatened to bring on more coughing; he held his breath, trying to suppress the spasm. It passed, and Yuuto grinned up at her, as blithely as he could, given the circumstances.

"You've saved the world for humanity, Kishuu-san. So...what're you going to do next?"


* * * * *


Arashi stared down at the Dragon of Earth pinned beneath the ruin, at the glint of his eyes in the half-light, the insouciant, slightly strained curve of his smirk.

Tokyo Disneyland, she thought nonsensically, and her heart clenched, pain breaking into the void of numbness like a shooting star lancing across the sky.

The person she had loved had been just such a star, blazing and brilliant, someone to make wishes upon, radiant with joy-in-life.

Yuuto could play games all he liked. He was still not even the palest reflection.

"Kigai-san," she said softly, very precisely. Her voice, amazingly enough, did not tremble at all. "Are you a fool?"

Surprise flickered across his face; she didn't wait for his wits to catch up with it. Moving forward, she crouched and put her back to the large, ragged-edged chunk of concrete, curling her hands underneath it. "You'd better be able to drag yourself clear," she told him. "I can't lift this and pull you." Yuuto made a low sound, like a catch in the back of his throat--startled acknowledgement at least, if not necessarily agreement. She drew a deep breath, making sure that her feet were braced securely and that her knees weren't about to give way, then heaved upward--

--he screamed. Setting her teeth, she concentrated on the raw strain pulling at every muscle, the harshness of the concrete's edge against her hands, the twinge of the mostly healed scar across her palm like the ache of emptiness inside her where power had once slept and dreamed of itself as a sword, the bitterness, the all-too-familiar feeling of being bereft and cast adrift.

But not quite the same....

She was no longer the little girl who had once wondered if it was worthwhile to go on scavenging garbage in order to live--she carried within herself now memories of warmth and closeness that didn't fill the hole of this new loss but that framed it, gave it shape and limit.

And she imagined that she could almost feel that remembered presence, exuberant and cheerful, noisily intrusive, compassionate and wise and incessantly supportive: a welter of associations, confusingly complicated but ultimately sweet, like honey amidst the tears.


He would want her to live.

Her strength gave out abruptly, and she let the rubble fall. It crashed to the ground, and she fell with it, sitting down hard, her legs shaking. After a moment, she got her wind back and hitched herself over to the end of the slab. Yuuto had managed to haul himself clear after all. He lay curled up on his side, his face deathly pale and his fair hair ashy with dust and the uncertain light. It seemed as though he'd lost consciousness. A short trail of gore ran from his blood-drenched legs to disappear beneath the heap of rubble. Wincing, Arashi crawled across the broken, gritty pavement to kneel by his side. She rested her hands lightly on top of the sodden fabric of his slacks; he never flinched, but she felt life in him and knew that he still breathed.

Tilting her head back, she gazed up toward the heavens. She could feel the otherworldly hush all about her, the city waiting beneath that spell-lit sky as if it too were a wounded live thing, vast, mute, and gravely patient. The magical working that threaded across it seemed to be waiting as well, flickering like arrested electricity but otherwise almost breathlessly still, expectant, like the pause between a question and its answer.

With a sigh, Arashi closed her eyes and let the healing begin.


* * * * *


The magic flared, purest white. For an instant, all of the sakura trees were aflame, as if every twig was a bolt of lightning seeking the ground. Then, with the circuit of the seal closed and the working discharged, that five-pointed star dissolved into flecks of radiance that drifted downward, swirling and dancing, falling and fading until they touched the earth and melted away.

On the roof of the second observation deck of Tokyo Tower, a young man watched those motes glimmering among the buildings, a shower of light that filled the circle of the dwindling ring of fire. The wind whipped unruly black hair across his somber, dark brown gaze. Slowly he turned his head, his glance sweeping the city from horizon to horizon, as if searching for something.

His other eye was the color of violets.


* * * * *


And high above where two girls stood on a predawn hillside, a pair of dragons soared, red and blue twining against the paling sky.

"Sister, let's hurry! Come on--I'll race you!"

And smiling, the younger of the two followed more slowly as her fair-haired sister ran laughing down the long slope ahead of her: toward the river, into the light.




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