Sakura and Snow

Chapter 22


By Natalie Baan



A feeling of drowsy lassitude returned to him first--and he thought it was odd, but he couldn't quite place why. Was it because he didn't ordinarily awaken so slowly? Or.... The comfort of the mattress beneath him was no less pleasant and no less disorienting. Vague memories shimmered and glinted at him, impressions like falling coins below the surface of a pool of water, bright but wavering flashes: fire and ofuda and the scent of rain, a confusion of feathered wings, the tasseled hilt of a dagger burning whitely, a muddled sense of wonder and unease.

Subaru-kun...I just had the strangest dream.

He opened his eyes. The ceiling soared above him, high and wide and unfamiliar. He stared at it for a beat, then slowly rolled his head to one side, although he already knew what he would see.

The extravagantly large bed stretched away next to him, empty.

"He's awake." He almost missed that low murmur. "Could you let Takamura-san know?" Without swiveling his head back, he opened all his senses, ignoring a brief, dizzying twinge of strain. A buzzing hum, subtle but persistent, muffled all but the dullest hints of presence.

A ward.

Unhurriedly he pushed himself up to a sitting position, taking his time, testing the response of his body to each motion. There was no use pretending that he was still asleep. He felt lethargic, stiff, and raw, not merely physically but also psychically, but not so much as he might have expected, given the memories that were beginning to press in upon him. He closed them off, focusing instead on the present. The ward ran the not-inconsiderable width of the room, dividing the larger section with the bed in it from the door; invisible planes of energy followed the walls, floor, and ceiling to enclose the area completely, apparently extending to include as well a small side room that was almost certainly a bathroom.

You could keep a person for a long time in a space like this.

The resonance of that magical barrier was exceedingly familiar. Shifting over, Seishirou swung his legs off the bed and set his feet down on the floor. As he moved, he lifted his head and looked for the first time directly through the ward's invisible psychic shimmer.

From where she stood, next to the slightly open door, the hidden priestess of Ise stared back at him.

She seemed more or less uninjured, although a number of scrapes and small cuts marked her legs and arms, the latter visible where the sleeves of her sweater had been pushed up. Exhaustion or some other extremity had left dark smudges about her eyes. But her gaze, holding his, was level and unfaltering, outwardly composed yet in its fixity suggesting an intentness that was almost feral.

Seishirou's mouth curved into a smile that had nothing to do with pleasantness. Rising from the bed, he folded his hands into a mitsu-in. His voice rasped on the first syllables of the invocation but quickly cleared, strengthening as he spoke.

"On makayakisha bazara sataba jakuunban kohara beisha un."

The girl's face tightened--leaving the door, she took two steps forward, stiff legged like a cat, and flung up her hands in a warding gesture. "On chirichi iba rotaya sowaka." Her murmured words lanced under and through his own. The ward blazed with unseen light--he could feel the force of it, a fierce, steady surge of repulsion holding him at bay. He leaned into it, leaned his will against it, meaning to break through by sheer power and determination, because just then he had no interest in facing subtlety with subtlety. His weakness, the rapidity with which he touched his limit, would be disquieting if he let himself dwell on it; it was certainly frustrating, but the girl was struggling as well, and far more visibly, her arms already quivering with effort. In the aftermath of the final battle, her resources had to be as depleted as his, if not more so. Heedless of the strain, he held himself firmly upright, drawing on all the currents of sorcery at his disposal.

"On asanmagini unhatta on--"

A skidding clatter of footsteps beyond the door, and it was suddenly thrust further open, letting in a glare of brighter light from what appeared to be a hallway outside. "Ah! Kishuu-san!" The windmaster of the Dragons of Heaven galloped into the room, panting slightly, hair in disarray and eyes wide and anxious behind cracked glasses. He paused for a breath beside the girl, made a swift gathering gesture, then touched her shoulder briefly before sweeping his arm out toward Seishirou's prison. A wall of wind blasted into existence along the line of the ward, adding its resistance to that of the spell. Behind the two Seals, a slight figure appeared in the doorway, paused for a moment to stare and then shuffled slowly forward--the artificial humanoid of the Dragons of Earth, pretty but otherwise unremarkable in an ordinary-looking sweatshirt and jeans, so that it took a split second for Seishirou to identify it, especially in this company. It seemed uncertain, and Seishirou put it out of mind for the present.

Baring his teeth in a dark grin, he collected himself and took a step forward against that resistance, then another. He could feel the outlying gusts of the windwall fluttering his clothes, his hair, and the windmaster frowned in concentration, raised his hand to focus those winds even more intensely. The air was an unyielding barrier before Seishirou, but he reached out anyway, and the shrine maiden gasped in alarm. "Look out--!"

A warning, but not for him--

--as he turned those winds minutely, found their edges, and thrust his arm forward--

Blood sprayed, red as rubies, misty as a gentle rain. The windmaster swore mildly under his breath, and the priestess set her teeth, already bracing herself. The pain was utterly insignificant against the incandescent burning of adrenaline and arcane power and the satisfaction of seeing their dismayed expressions. As he savored the heat and distinctive acrid tang of blood magic, Seishirou curled his lip in silent disdain.

Do you think you're the only one who can manipulate the wind?

Red stained his slashed white shirt sleeve, still welling up from the several places where his arm had been cut. Catching some of that blood on his fingertips, he sketched a circle of power in midair, framing both winds and ward. The bioroid stepped forward, also reading the danger now, and began shaping energy into a shield--a second line of defense, unconnected to the first one, and unlikely to make any real difference anyway. Ignoring it, Seishirou drew his hand across the face of the circle in short, swift strokes, alternating horizontal and vertical: nine cuts to subdue and to attain mastery, while the Dragons of Heaven wrestled furiously to keep their grip and the disturbed air howled and whipped about them all, charged with those conflicting forces--while he poured the living energy of blood and breath into the working, feeling the steady burn as it left him, reckless of the cost.

"Rin Pyo To Sha Kai Jin Retsu Zai Zen!"

His hand upon the ward then, an acidic lash of feedback, stinging to the bone--

--as he smiled--

--and without warning somebody seized that whole maelstrom in an overpowering grip, wrenching it into a stillness that still resonated with suppressed violence. That unexpected arrest was like smashing head-on into a wall: a stunning shock, a crumpling of extrasensory awareness. Seishirou lurched, and the windmaster grabbed for the shrine maiden, both of them nearly falling over. His senses still ringing, Seishirou looked sharply toward the door of the room and the slim form that moved forward slowly out of that silhouetting light. His face gradually became visible--familiar, and yet not. Unmatched eyes, one lambent and one dark, met Seishirou's, a long, deeply probing stare, as if to read all that lay below the surface, thoughts and impulses scarcely realized let alone put into words, while that terrible, crushing strength loomed like a storm: a soundless roar, a flaring aura of shadow and brightness like twin pairs of tremendous wings, a promise of annihilation.


The young man's mouth tightened. With a gesture of dismissal, he broke those locked-up workings, dispelling them in a dizzying rush of release until all that remained was the faint, almost subliminal thrumming of the original ward.

Seishirou swayed backward, away from the barrier, but somehow kept his feet despite the abrupt dispersal of energies, the yawning void of negated power, of refusal and surging fatigue. The last stirrings of air and magic settled, a fading coolness on the skin, a dying ember in the back of the mind, but the undeniable reality of the situation remained.

This, he could not fight.

Not now, at any rate....

Deliberately, then, he shifted back further, withdrawing step by step to the edge of the bed. Turning from the Dragons of Heaven, he sat down, setting his back to the headboard and stretching his legs casually out along the mattress. The cuts on his arm throbbed dully. Briefly it occurred to him to create a maboroshi, to make it appear as though he had vanished in a storm of darkness and sakura petals, more for pride than out of any real expectation of escape, but he dismissed the idea at once.

Not a single person present would be fooled.

The Kamui stared at him for another moment, then, still without speaking, turned and stalked out of the room. With his departure the atmosphere lightened, as if a thunderhead had blown past, although it remained uneasy. The Dragons of Heaven began withdrawing toward the door as well, not quite in haste but certainly in retreat, and Seishirou thought that they might be nearly as disquieted by the Kamui's intervention as by the need for it. Isolated by the ward and by distance, he caught only a low murmur as they exchanged some tense words, broken by a still-unsettled laugh from the windmaster.

"Sorry, I didn't have a chance to tell anyone before I felt all the uproar and came running back. Kazuki-chan, you too--come on." The bioroid regarded Seishirou with impassive, animal curiosity for an instant more, then turned to join the other two out in the hallway.

Lowering his head slightly, a trace of a smile still lingering about his lips, Seishirou ignored them all, biding his time until the next opportunity presented itself--as indeed it surely would.

After all, there was more than one way to skin a cat.


* * * * *


"Hellooo, Sakurazuka-san!"

Blinking, Seishirou glanced up at the spritelike figure that had just shouldered her way into the room, smiling perhaps a trifle too brightly. She held a tray balanced carefully on her fingertips and the heels of her palms; light bandages swathed both of her hands. A looming form filled the doorway behind her briefly before settling to lean against the doorframe--the soldier shot Seishirou a dark, guarded look before his gaze slid uneasily aside, his whole body language proclaiming restless tension, from the hands jammed into his pockets to the rigid set of his shoulders. Seishirou registered him in a mere flicker of awareness before returning the focus of his attention to the girl.

"Ah, Yuzuriha!" Carefully weighing just how much cheerfulness might be appropriate, he beamed faintly back at her. "Well, it's nice to see that you made it through in one piece."

"Mm, pretty much!" Her smile went ever so slightly crooked and rueful, more so than her apparently minor injuries ought to account for, and he wondered what he was missing. "You seem a lot better. I mean, than when we found!" Brief panic darted across her face, anxiety and frantic evasiveness as she looked for some way to dance back from what she clearly thought was a sensitive subject, or all too likely to lead to one. He deliberately did not picture the scene. That fleeting tension softened at last into a subdued, rather melancholy regret. "I'm really sorry about all of this." The slight lift of her shoulders encompassed the ward, the room, the isolation of his own private prison.

"Not at all! I think it's perfectly understandable not to let a suspicious character like me go wandering about Imonoyama-san's house at will." He couldn't resist a somewhat pointed glance at the other erstwhile Dragon of Earth, but the man was steadfastly ignoring him, and the girl, distracted, seemed oblivious.

"How did you--oh, well, that's true, it's not like there're so many possible mansions that we could be staying in!" She giggled and abruptly seemed to relax. "Speaking of, one of Imonoyama-san's friends made lunch for us all, so we've brought some up for you. It's really delicious!"

"Ah, that's great!" Rising from the bed, Seishirou stretched, working out the kinks in his arms and back before slowly starting forward. His gaze scanned the ward as he drew nearer to it, and he allowed a look of puzzlement to creep over his face. "But...."

"Oh, that's not a problem--the tray will go through just fine! Watch this!" Moving briskly to a sideboard that ran from her side of the ward to his, she set the tray down and slid it along the polished wood. It passed through the barrier without even a flicker of disturbance. "See?"

"Hmm!" As Seishirou came up to the sideboard, he smiled, an expression of almost fond admiration. "Kishuu-san is very clever, isn't she?" he murmured.

Yuzuriha glowed as if she'd just been complimented herself. "Yup!"

Actually, he had already known about that property of the ward. A little judicious experimentation, carefully disguised, had swiftly shown that the barrier was keyed specifically to him. Objects would go through it without resistance.

Seishirou began examining the contents of the tray, and as he removed the lid of the soup bowl to inhale its fragrance--it did in fact smell extremely good--he somehow managed to knock against the chopsticks. They didn't actually fall off the tray, but it looked as if they might, and as he grabbed awkwardly for them, he fumbled. The smooth lacquered lengths deflected off his fingertips to fall, spinning, and clatter onto the floor, one of them bouncing back through the ward. "Oops! How clumsy of me."

"It's fine! I've got it." With the quickness of instinct, Yuzuriha crouched to pounce helpfully upon the dropped implement. By the door, the soldier stirred, a dawning of alarm.

"Missy, watch it--"

Of course, she was safely on her side of the barrier. And as she turned her head, giving the man a bewildered look, Seishirou lunged--

It's one thing if I'm actually trying to get out of the ward. But for this, I don't need to break through. All I need--

--is to push it, just a bit.

He struck on a sharp downward angle, fingers extended and pressed tightly together. Like the cut of a sword, charged with magic or mastery, keen enough to divert the wind.... Startled, Yuzuriha turned back, her wide eyes meeting his own suddenly intent and predatory gaze, the bared teeth of his smile, as that protective wall rippled and bowed outward in one spot, just the length of a single chopstick.

As his hand closed around hers....

He yanked her effortlessly across the line of the ward. She cried out in pain or fright--he was already slinging her around, tossing her through the air to land on the bed, her slender limbs asprawl. "No!" There was stark anguish in the soldier's roar as he started forward, raw energy igniting around his fists. Even as he moved, Seishirou was astride the girl, one hand wrenching her shoulder down against the mattress, the other one drawn back, gathering force for the fatal strike. "Bastard--get off!" Seishirou grinned blackly. As close as he was to the Dragon of Heaven, there was no way for the other man to use his hadouken or to cross that distance in time.

And after I'm done....

You can do what you like.

He pulled his hand back further, the movement reflected in the dark pupils of her eyes as she stared wildly up at him, her face twisted in terror--


--a cat--

--a lucky three-colored cat--

--blood against the snow-white fur--


He heard the almost-silent catch of breath, the soldier's indrawn gasp of helplessness and horror. Then stillness, as if everything in the room had frozen. Only the ward buzzed, just beyond the edge of physical hearing. His hand had wavered, lowering just a little--he raised it and drew it back once more. His heart was beating rapidly again, his pulse throbbing in the cuts that his exertions had apparently reopened.


He stared down at the girl. He could feel the exquisite fragility of this moment and the tableau that the three of them made, of her body as it trembled underneath him, of the threads of life, so easily and simply severed.


--the flick of a single ofuda, hurled toward the sky--


There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of it. After all, there was no reason for him not to take the girl's life. That he would put out the bright candle of that vivacious personality, that the people who knew her would be hurt and feel grief...really, she was exactly the same as anybody else.

Then why this oppressive, deadening weight, this ache that swallowed all intention, a resistance without reason, heavy and senseless?

It doesn't matter.

For a third time, he went to collect himself for the killing blow. His arm quivered slightly but did not rise. Somehow, he realized numbly, he had already known that it would not. And as he yielded to that inevitability, strengthlessly lowering his hand the rest of the way, like a sleepwalker, the girl's gaze, still fixed on his face, softened. That fright shaded toward something like astonishment, like wonder touched with a kindling glimmer of sadness, of sympathy, and he quickly closed his eyes.



--mute suffering fading swiftly in a dimming green gaze--

--only emptiness, deathly and pure, and that vicious pain--

--this is the end of the world--



It seemed like a little eternity, measured out in the gradually slowing dull thud of heartbeats, before the girl stirred. "K-Kusanagi-san...." Her voice quavered just a bit, then steadied. "Um...if you could go down to the kitchen and get another pair of chopsticks...since these ones fell on the floor...."

"What!" the soldier exploded, as if suddenly finding vent for the tension of the last few moments. Seishirou felt him jerk forward a step. "You gotta be kidding me--"

"Please!" There was no beseeching in the word, only an insistent urgency. It brought the man up short, like a dog on a chain, and Seishirou might have found that amusing if he were not, somewhere far beneath this strange hollow feeling, starting to be vaguely appalled by the whole situation. At last, with a wordless growl of frustration, the man retreated, backing step by step toward the door, as if unwilling to take his gaze from them. As he moved, Yuzuriha shifted, hitching backward and then drawing her legs very carefully out from under Seishirou. Instinctively Seishirou half-opened his eyes, but he kept them averted, catching only peripheral hints of motion as she sat up slowly and smoothed down her skirt. Across the room, the man hesitated, a long, exceedingly reluctant pause before he finally stepped outside, pulling the door nearly to behind himself--relief, then, of a strain that Seishirou had scarcely realized was gripping him. Relief, but not complete. Because the Dragon of Heaven was still watching him, silent and thoughtful, too close, and even if she hadn't been, to unclench that grasp upon himself, to give in and let those thoughts and memories come....

"You loved him," she said at last. Her voice was low and incisive.


" never got to tell him that."

Ducking his head, Seishirou gritted his teeth. How could this...worse than any failure in his life, because failure, disappointment, brief and temporary reversal, none of them had ever brought such....

Yuzuriha leaned toward him, going up onto her knees. Very gently she slid her arms about his tensed shoulders.

"Even not knowing for sure, he was happy," she whispered, close to his ear. "Because you saw what was special in him."


I wonder, Seishirou-san....

Why is it that you never see me unless we fight?


"'re wrong," Seishirou breathed. Shaking her head, she made a soft sound of denial; he could hear the hint of a smile in it, sorrowful and tender. The clasp of her embrace tightened subtly.

"He was only ever happy because of you." She caught her breath, and he felt a tiny dampness like a raindrop on his skin, a slow, warm trickle down his neck. Her voice broke then, just a little. "He was...lucky."


Seishirou's shoulders jerked, in spite of himself, a hitch in his own breathing, a burning ache that had become stupidly familiar, a tightness that choked off all words. He shuddered again--he couldn't stop that erratic, convulsive shaking.


And, as well, a bubble of clarity, startling, piercingly bright.

Of course, Subaru had always been a special person. Anyone who had ever crossed his path had known as much.

But that...wasn't it, was it?

The kind of specialness that other people don't see....

There were sounds out in the hallway, the priestess's voice rising, sharp and anxious and questioning, and the soldier's low, uneasy rumble in reply. The exchange continued on, but retreating now, leaving that instant, that fragile space unbreached--an argument, insignificant, he could ignore it--

Exhaling sharply, Seishirou bowed his head further and shut his eyes once more.




* * * * *


Eyes narrowed, Seishirou stared at the door, his fingers idly checking the fastening of the buttons on one cuff. Recognizing the procrastination for what it was, he dropped his arms. Moving decisively, then, if without any particular haste, he walked forward.

Across the line where the ward had been.

Frowning slightly, he approached the door and rested his hand lightly upon its knob, reading the current emptiness of the hallway outside. It was one of those odd situations where normalcy was stranger than any of its alternatives. It certainly didn't make any sense for the Dragons of Heaven and their allies to give someone like him free run of the mansion.

Although...could he truly say that he was still the Sakurazukamori?

And did Dragon of Heaven or Dragon of Earth really matter anymore?

The questions only intensified his feeling of unease. He thrust them to the back of his mind, concentrating instead on more concrete matters. After his...well, he didn't really want to think about that either, although he supposed that, as embarrassing as it might be in hindsight, the consequences of his little breakdown had at least been positive. At any rate, after he'd more or less recovered and Yuzuriha had left him to himself at last, he'd had an admittedly excellent lunch (once the replacement chopsticks were finally brought) and then, surprisingly exhausted, a short cat-nap. During that time there had apparently been some intense discussion elsewhere in the building, because afterward the shrine maiden had appeared in the company of one of the Imonoyama's associates. Tight lipped, she had unraveled the intricate spell that comprised the barrier and then retreated to lean against the wall next to the door, glowering, arms folded defensively, while the man had cleaned and bandaged the cuts on Seishirou's arm with cheerful, scrupulous care. Fresh clothes in his size had arrived from somewhere; he'd showered and changed (although it had taken him a moment or two to let go of the pants, slightly stiffened with dried bloodstains that the dark fabric hid so well...and what had become of his coat?); and now, apparently, he was being left to his own devices.

Which were...?

He probably ought to just take himself off somewhere. Leave this place and find a refuge where he could evaluate his situation, and then move forward with his life...but he wasn't quite sure what that life entailed at the moment, and the very existence of that uncertainty was like a leaden weight dragging at him. The world was suddenly full of unknowns that had to be filled in, studied, and dealt with--and in the absence of any clear and pressing direction, he supposed that he might as well start by investigating his immediate surroundings.

And the empty hallway wasn't going to get any emptier, no matter how long he stood there. With a snort of self-annoyance, he opened the door and stepped through. Of course, the corridor was no less palatial than his room had been: wide and high-ceilinged, with elaborate moldings, two even rows of formally framed paintings spaced out between the doorways, and a highly polished parquet floor guarded by an exquisitely tasteful carpet runner. It was a bit too ornately European for Seishirou's taste, but he had to admit that it was well put-together, somehow managing to radiate an air of exuberant, over-the-top wealth without sliding across the line into tackiness. The sound of voices pricked his attention, coming from a half-open door slightly down the hall, and after a moment's pause he began moving toward them, a slow drift that wasn't quite a prowl.

As he approached the doorway, those low murmurs resolved into intelligibility. "It's nothing." That male voice sounded tense and alert, rather at odds with the reassurance. "But I have to get back to work." There was a sound of wood on wood, as of a chair abruptly sliding on the floor. "If you need anything, you know to call the staff line. Someone will come."

"I'm all good!" Seishirou hadn't recognized the first voice, but that one was entirely familiar: Kigai Yuuto. So yet another Dragon of Earth had survived. "Suoh-kun, it was great that you stopped by. Don't be a stranger, all right?"

"Ah." Footsteps followed immediately upon that monosyllabic reply, briskly approaching the door. And as the other man came through it, he turned his head--had already known that Seishirou was there, his gaze flicking to meet Seishirou's directly, without a flinch of hesitation or surprise, an unwavering topaz glare that didn't even try to mask its sudden hunter's flame: touch what I protect and die.

Seishirou returned that look levelly, his mouth curving in a small, tight smile of acknowledgment and faint scorn.

As if there's anything here that I care about....

The exchange took no more than a heartbeat, a not-quite pause before the man turned his back on Seishirou and strode purposefully off down the hallway. Seishirou watched the other go, noting the awareness that remained keenly alert to his presence despite that seeming shift of focus, the physical poise like a perfectly balanced weapon. So it was that Takamura family...Seishirou couldn't say that he was surprised. Of course a member of the Imonoyama family would have protections. It would have been an interesting challenge, Seishirou thought idly, if he had ever been contracted against this particular target. A ninja could be quite formidable.

"Ah--Sakurazuka-san?" Yuuto's voice, raised in surprise and question, carried from somewhere inside the room. Glancing in that direction, Seishirou saw him sitting up on the bed, leaning far over to get an angle of view out through the door. "So you're up and about. That's great!"

"Mm." He supposed he should probably talk to Yuuto. Wandering into the room, he scanned it briefly. It was essentially a match for the one he'd just left, although done in shades of blue rather than the buff and gold of his own room. Winter sunlight spilled in through the tall windows, pale and translucent. A TV played on one wall--a soccer match, turned down to near inaudibility. On the nightstand next to the bed stood a tea set, a small pile of books, a vase holding a cheerful small bunch of flowers (which Seishirou rather doubted the ninja had brought), the TV remote, and a phone, so Yuuto appeared quite well situated. Fortunately it was a large nightstand. Seishirou wondered if they might add a TV and phone to his room as well, now that the ward had been taken down.

That assumed that he was staying, of course....

Yuuto had straightened up and was beaming at him in the slightly awkward silence. "So...this is all kind of unexpected, isn't it," the man said at last.

"Indeed it is," Seishirou replied, smoothly and with just a touch of dryness. Yuuto was wearing a robe over a pair of rather loose pajamas that nevertheless didn't quite hide the splints on both legs. Seishirou eyed them speculatively. "Do you expect to be down for long?

"Well, Kishuu-san did her best, so it's definitely a lot better than it could be. The splints are just until the healed breaks get a bit stronger. As for the rest...we'll see. They say I should be able to walk again, though." Eyes bright with a searching curiosity, and perhaps a glimmer of wariness, Yuuto watched as Seishirou gave up hovering by the bedside and slid into the chair that Takamura must have vacated. "Looks like you came through in pretty good shape," the man remarked. "At least somebody managed not to get kicked around by the other side. Ha ha ha!"

"Heh." Yuuto's aggressive cheeriness was threatening to give Seishirou a headache. But the implication that the shrine maiden had some sort of healing ability was potentially useful information. As for himself...he knew that he'd been perilously close to the verge of death, not from any physical injuries but from the raw strain of magical overuse and backlash, not even to mention...all the rest of it. However he had managed to come back from that, any scars that might remain were not marks someone like Yuuto would ever be able to see. "What about the others?" he asked.

"Ah, right. So I know that you've already seen Nataku--I mean, Kazuki-chan. She was in here for a little chat after all the fuss this morning, you see." The man's explanation was tinged with self-satisfaction at his own knowledge, limited though it might be, coupled with an inquisitiveness that clearly hoped for more details. Feeling disinclined to share at that moment, Seishirou said nothing, and Yuuto went on at last, "She's a bit banged up but mostly okay. And Shiyuu-san bailed before things even got started, so he's fine. I guess he was the most cunning of all of us, ahahaha! But you can't really blame him, can you. A cute girl like that...."

It rather galled Seishirou that he was reduced to prying gossip out of Yuuto. Folding his arms across his chest, he smiled tautly as he waited for the man to get around to telling him something about the people that he didn't already know about.

"Satsuki-chan...pretty much for sure she didn't make it. Ground zero of divine wrath, after all. Heh." For an instant the man's mouth twisted, his smile going wry. "The edge of that is what caught me, y'see. They tell me...that there's really nothing left there.

"We don't really know about Kanoe," he went on more rapidly, "but the Diet Building fell too, so the Dreaming Princess must be gone, and if Kanoe wasn't at the Government Building then she likely would've been there, so either way it's the same. Kasumi-san, and Kakyou-san too, and that boy from Osaka, all gone...." Hesitating in his ticking off of the dead, he looked sidelong at Seishirou. "And you've seen Kamui...."

Seishirou made another short sound of affirmation. Now there was a mystery that could do with some light. He had been reflecting upon it off and on, turning the memory of that brief encounter over in his mind, and although he had his suspicions he still wasn't entirely sure if that young man had been one Kamui or the other...or, in some bizarre mystical fusion, both. He would have welcomed other insights, even idle speculations, but Yuuto seemed to have lost interest in the subject already and was instead gazing off into space, his expression distracted and vaguely unquiet.

"Karma is a funny thing, isn't it," Yuuto murmured. "Or should I really call it fate...why one person lives and another doesn't. I always thought that human beings would never know the answer to questions like that, that it would never make sense to us anyway, so why worry about it?" Ducking his head, he shrugged, smiling faintly. "I guess I'm too small-minded, because I still can't get my head around it. But anyway, somehow or other I managed to skate by. Not that I'm complaining!" Yuuto laughed again, waving with airy carelessness, as if to brush aside any lingering traces of mortality. "I'm happy enough to be alive. But I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter what kind of person you are, or how you live your life." Leaning forward, he propped his chin on his hand and regarded Seishirou with an air of quizzical attentiveness. "So, how was it out where you were?"

Seishirou regarded the other Dragon of Earth. "Well," he said at last, "part of it went something like this." Leaning forward, he reached out, and Yuuto's eyes went wide.

Somehow his scream wasn't nearly as satisfying as Seishirou had hoped it would be.


* * * * *


"Sakurazuka-san," Arashi said, with what she considered to be truly remarkable patience and calm restraint, "why did you break Kigai-san's arm?"

The man blinked down at her, falsely ingenuous and infuriating. "It seemed like a good idea at the time?" he offered. He slid the book he was holding back into its place on the shelf. Behind him dust motes shimmered in the narrow ribbon of sunlight that fell in a steep angle between the half-open curtains of the library's windows.

With an effort, Arashi bit back an inarticulate ooh! of irritation. Instead she replied stiffly, "Well, in the future I wish you wouldn't. It's already been a lot of work to put him back together, even without you mangling him."

"So sorry." The man's tone held not the slightest hint of any such regret. As she glowered at him, his smile sharpened and intensified, that bland, genial mask fraying to reveal a more accustomed darkness--an unsettling echo of the smile with which he'd faced them from the far side of her magical barrier, the frightening inhumanity as he'd turned the taint of blood magic against their spells, seemingly oblivious to any pain or personal danger. "But then, since you seem to have made it your mission to salvage Dragons of Earth, you took on that work for yourself." His voice dropped, not exactly threatening but with a chill of subtle menace in its disinterest as he added, "It's got nothing to do with me."

Arashi bristled. It was hardly a mission--more like the gathering of flotsam as they'd all washed up together, confused, injured, heartsick, and trying desperately to figure out what had happened and who among the missing might still be alive. She'd had no more to do with it than anyone else, although of course she'd done her part. And never mind the fact that they had salvaged him too, which Arashi was increasingly convinced had been a terrible idea. She'd had a bad feeling from the very first instant of spotting him, unconscious and seemingly fading fast, on the rain-wet ground in Ueno Park; his behavior ever since then had only confirmed her dread, and if it had been up to her they certainly wouldn't have let him out to wander the mansion at will. She had surprisingly little difficulty dealing with the rest of the surviving Dragons of Earth--they at least seemed to appreciate the existence of this raw, awkward, delicate truce and to be making good-faith efforts not to disturb the peace. The Sakurazukamori, though....

To him it all seemed to be a joke at best, a cruel and labyrinthine game at worst. Those smiles, and behind them the sly, black heartlessness of a killer that might emerge and commit atrocities at any was like walking around inside a horror movie, knowing beyond any doubt that the fatal shock was coming but not exactly when. She was afraid, and she hated that fear, hated as well powerlessness from which it grew, not merely the loss of the god's strength, which might have protected herself and the people around her, but the fact that nothing touched him, that he could not be made to feel gratitude or compunction or even simple respect for the suffering of others.

He had no right to be so unaffected. And he certainly had no right to be free. Even the other Dragons of Earth had been uneasy at the prospect. It was her own allies who had insisted on giving him the benefit of the doubt, to her appalled dismay.

You can't keep him locked up as if he's a monster! Yuzuriha had cried. Even if he is a's not that simple.

And their host had only spread his hands in helpless futility. Even if we could hold him here, Kishuu-san--for how long? And ultimately, what would we do with him? Turn him over to the regular police? To the judicial system? I'm sure you can imagine how that would turn out. Vigilante justice? Those blue eyes had held hers, level and direct, their gaze abruptly, starkly sober. I think the moment for that has passed. For who he is, for what he's done, there's really only one true authority. And the only ones who could judge him properly are--

The Sumeragi clan, who from time immemorial had been tasked with governing the practice of onmyoujitsu.

The pain was like the wrench of desperate hunger, like the dizzying gush of blood from an unexpectedly deep wound--it made her knees go weak and her heart cramp up as if compressed by brutal steel fingers. Jerking her gaze aside, she stared down at the inlaid wood floor, masking her flinch behind a tight frown. She would not let the Sakurazukamori see how profoundly he had hurt her--had hurt them all--with that particular act of murder.

But neither would she let him get away without at least calling him out for it. Resolve found sudden focus within her, the calm certainty of action, pure and fragile amidst that fear.

"There wasn't any body." Her voice held steady as she spoke, each word low and precise.


"We know that Subaru-san went to face you." Did he dare try to pretend innocence or even ignorance of Subaru's fate? Furious, she raised her eyes back to meet his, her tenuous control already slipping in the heat of indignation. "Do you think that we don't realize--"

She broke off. The Sakurazukamori wasn't even looking at her. Instead he stared off to one side as if focusing on some indeterminate distance, his gaze abstracted, blank, almost bewildered.

"Subaru-kun was--his body was there. I'm certain of it," he murmured. "How--" His eyes flicked back to her--an instant's pause, and then that smile swept back across his face, a taut slash of a grin this time, predatory and intense.

"What exactly are you trying to say, Kishuu-san? Is there something that you want to blame me for?" His voice had gone silken soft, belying the sudden deadly intentness of his expression. "I'll save you the effort of dancing around the subject, shall I? I killed Subaru-kun." Each word seemed to shake the air, an explosion of darkness that dimmed the sun, and even though she had already known it, his confirmation was like feeling that vicious shock afresh. Leaning against the bookshelf, he nodded shortly, folding his arms over his chest. "There--I think that was simple enough. So now what, Kishuu-san? Now that you have my confession, do you plan to punish me for it?" Uncrossing his arms once more, he pushed off and took a step toward her, and then another, a steady, remorseless advance. "Are you here to challenge me...for his sake?"

And it occurred to her, tilting her head back to stare up at him as he drew nearer, that it was a very stupid position to have put herself in, alone with the Sakurazukamori, whose greater size and physical strength all by themselves were enough to make him a mortal danger to her. But it was the fleeting glint of a thought, acknowledged with a tremor of anxiety and then let go. Not the all-too-deliberate threat that was important, but the undercurrents behind it--like reading the will and focus of an opponent in a sword match, the minute faltering followed by an immediate aggressive attack, and her mind flashed back to before--

He's strong, she had whispered, hugging her arms about herself as she slumped against a wall in the hallway's safe refuge, a brief shiver of reaction in the wake of that short, violent struggle. And Seiichirou, his face grave and disquieted, had murmured in reply:

It's a dangerous kind of strength...the strength of a man who doesn't care whether he lives or dies. His hand had clasped her shoulder, a light pressure, both reassurance and warning. Be careful, Kishuu-san.

Her attention snapped back to the Sakurazukamori's face, and her mouth firmed in understanding and obstinate determination. "No," she said. "I won't be a party to your death wish." He started, only the merest bit, but that smile faded into a look of surprise. The fact that she might, after all, have scored a hit gave her no satisfaction. Turning from him once more, she added bitterly, "Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. I don't have that kind of power anymore."

He drew in a breath. Then his hand closed about her chin, dragging her back around and tipping her face upward. Startled, she tried to pull away, but those unrelenting fingers held her fast, their grip bruisingly tight. His other hand caught her hand--the brush of his thumb across the flat, nearly healed scar that crossed her palm, the jolt of psychic contact as his eyes bored into hers, probing, searching for the hint of otherworldly energy. Setting her jaw, she glared back at him, ignoring the pounding of her heart, the sting of recollected loss, the shame and fear--but she had no reason for shame, or none that he would be able to see. She refused to flinch from this violation, from his unnerving, too-sudden closeness--no yielding and no retreat.

And if he killed her...Ise would judge him then.

She would have won that much, at least.

Slowly he let out that held breath. His fingers slackened, and she jerked away from them, took a sharp step backward as he straightened. Outrage boiled within her, but before she could find any words for it he glanced away, his face expressionless now except for a faint frown.

"I wonder," he murmured, "whether there's anyplace around here where someone can go out for coffee."


* * * * *


Arashi regarded the Sakurazukamori from behind her tea cup, lashes half lowered, veiling her gaze. The Duklyon Cafe was extremely quiet, with most of the students at home for winter break, but as far as she was concerned that was all to the good--there was less chance of collateral damage that way. She wasn't sure why she was even there herself, or whether she should be there, and the Sakurazukamori quite possibly wasn't sure either, but at any rate he hadn't objected. To her obvious bafflement as he'd begun accosting the mansion staff in search of a coat, he had explained, rather gently despite the note of irony in his voice, that going out for coffee meant going out, and as she had continued to drift somewhat irresolutely in his wake he had only hesitated, a thoughtful look briefly passing across his face, as though he might be thinking of saying something, and then he had shrugged and more or less ignored her. So she had accompanied him, as if that had been her intention all along.

This could just be an excuse and he might actually be planning to leave the campus, in which case she'd see him off to make certain that he did leave. And if he meant to cause trouble instead...well, she wasn't utterly defenseless. Even without the god's power, she had a few tricks, and she could at least try to protect people or summon help.

At the moment, though, he didn't seem to be planning anything at all. Arashi set her cup down at last, a scarcely audible clink of china. They did made a very good milk tea here, even if it wasn't a patch on Ijyuin Akira's. Camouflage dropped, she studied the Sakurazukamori more directly. She had to admit that he was a good-looking man, despite--or perhaps because of--his current rather inscrutable lack of expression. Without animation, his strong, even features were like some sculptor's template, attractive yet utterly neutral, capable of becoming anything that the artist might imagine, of receiving any projection that the viewer wanted to see. The potential for cruelty was certainly there; perhaps its opposite was as well. His profile was turned to her as he stared out the window at the empty patio, a barely touched cup of coffee sitting before him, but she was quite sure that he was aware of her close scrutiny. A cigarette smoldered between his fingers; he raised it to his lips, took a long draw upon it, then, with a faint, wry smile, murmured upon the exhale, "Death wish, hmm?"

"Is it?" she asked quietly.

He had closed his eyes; he opened them again, stared narrowly out through the glass. "I don't know."

Sakurazuka and Sumeragi. What was one without the other? Even if nothing else.... She felt a twinge of unease, a direction that something in her was reluctant to pursue, but she controlled it and went on, just a bit tentatively, "He was...important to you."

"Well, people keep saying things like that, so I guess it must be true." He looked at her for the first time since they'd arrived, smiled brightly, almost sweetly. The smile was entirely false, and yet...there had been that instant's faltering, it had bothered him that something might have happened to Subaru's body, when nothing else had been able to penetrate that wall of hard, sardonic, uncaring malice, and she thought that he wouldn't be smiling like this if there wasn't something to cover, the slick sheen of a pearl to smooth the uncomfortable grit.

"Do you hate him?" That hadn't been what she had meant to say. She didn't know what she had meant to say. Her tongue suddenly seemed frozen to the roof of her mouth; with an effort she unstuck it enough to get out, "Because he died?"

The Sakurazukamori was staring at her, his eyes a little wide, surprised, before they veiled themselves again--an inward-focused, almost speculative look. Leaving the cigarette in the ashtray, he leaned both elbows on the table, clasped his hands and bent his head, his mouth coming to rest against his interlocked fingers. His brows drew together, a nearly imperceptible frown as he gazed down at the table.

"Hate," he said at last, very softly, the words half muffled by his hands. "Yes. Perhaps this is hate. As well as...." He blew out a breath, a faint tremor that might have been a laugh.

Love? Was it even possible? And what did it mean, to love and Her eyes burned, and her throat had somehow closed up, so that when she forced herself to speak the word broke from her abruptly, high and sharp and querulous, almost a cry. "How...?"

The Sakurazukamori lifted his head; he regarded her, first with the lingering trace of that surprise and reflection, before his expression shifted, softening into something that she could scarcely credit as gentleness.

" I really the one you can't forgive?"

She stared at him--only a heartbeat before the tears came, blinding her, a hot, sudden flood surging up and pouring unchecked down her face. Raising her hands to cover her eyes, she hunched in upon herself, her shoulders tensing. All was silence--he said nothing to her grief, and she suppressed the sobs ruthlessly, strangled them into nothing more than harsh, mute breaths. After a minute or two, she got some measure of control over herself and sat up brusquely.

"Sorata-san...I killed him. I killed him myself." She dragged the side of her hand across one eye, then the other, scraping that wetness away, then inhaled against the resistance in her chest, a tight, choking shudder. She turned to stare blankly out the window herself, avoiding the Sakurazukamori's gaze. "I have no right to judge you," she whispered.

"Oh, you're wrong, Kishuu-san. People make judgments all the time, even if it's for no good reason. 'I'd prefer it if things turned out like this.' 'Oh, that person must be a bad person.'" She glanced sidelong at him in spite of herself, and he grinned, a touch sly. "'This brand of chocolate is definitely the best.' Maybe they're right and maybe they're wrong, but that's how people live, making judgments and choices, even based on the smallest, most subjective differences." He hesitated, a fleeting shadow crossing his expression. " the same as anything else.

"Anyhow," he went on after a moment, "your circumstances and mine are almost certainly very different, but in any case it's only natural that you would judge me. Whether you have a right to or not has nothing to do with it; that's just the way things are." Leaning back in his seat, he smiled at her, an amused and knowing expression, with only the least flicker of a dangerous edge. "And after all, haven't you already judged yourself?"

Ridiculous to seek validation or forgiveness from the Sakurazukamori, yet she found herself saying, in an almost embarrassingly tremulous voice, "D-do you think that it makes any difference...if it was what he wanted?"

"Was it?" His reply was low, his voice gone suddenly neutral and inflectionless, and her heart quailed in spite of herself.

"I don't know! I thought so then, but," what if she had mistaken what he was trying to say, what if, in the flash of panic and anguish and instinct, she had killed him only so that he would die by her hand and not Satsuki's, "what if I was wrong?"

"Then you did the best that you knew at the time." His shoulders lifted in a slight yet eloquent shrug. "There's no reason to blame yourself for that."

He did compassion rather well, for a monster. And whether it was all lies or not, she somehow found that clenched knot inside herself loosening--an abrupt lightening, a cleanness that expanded outward like the unloosing of a magic circle, the work completed, the purification of time and space being breathed out into the ordinary world and ever so subtly infusing it. She closed her eyes for an instant, just to feel that release. Then, looking soberly at the man, she tentatively proffered her next question, like an offering.

"And Subaru-san...?"

He blinked, started to glance out the window again--stopped himself and reached for his coffee cup instead, half lifted it, and then paused, staring for a long time into the cooling dark liquid. Slowly he replaced the cup on its saucer. When he broke the silence at last, his voice remained quiet, but there was a hint of tension to it, for all that he spoke with apparently breezy matter of factness.

"What you need to understand, Kishuu-san, is that Subaru-kun and I never really spoke the same language. For all that one or the other of us always thought that we were communicating, it was never truly so. Love. Hate. Betrayal. Loss. Concepts that simply don't translate." He hesitated, then went on, almost as if reluctant, "I said 'never,' but I think that after a long time and a great deal of struggle and pain, Subaru did in fact come to learn my language--or perhaps merely the limitations of it. Enough, in the end, to figure out how to teach me a little of his. To be the bridge between two a medium, and as a person too, that...was always his gift." His face tightened, a furrowing between drawn brows, a barely perceptible compression of his lips--he did look away then, into the world outside the glass, with a remote, half-lidded gaze that suggested he wasn't really seeing it.

"He knew...from very early on, I think...that it would end this way." The words were measured and toneless. "And he accepted that ending--no, he embraced it, and used it, regardless of the cost to himself, and ultimately he transformed it." He let out a long, low breath, as if exhaling a nonexistent smoke. "Isn't it remarkable to think that somebody would persevere like that," he added very softly. "And for what?"


Of course, I've picked you.

But we've just met, and we haven't spoken much at all, and how can you....


Who am I, that you should die for me?

And as the familiar pang of that thought began to ease, but before she had found any words for it, any way to frame that aching hollowness or the silvery-sweetness that she'd unexpectedly found hidden at its heart, Sakurazuka remarked, almost casually, with the air of someone changing the subject, "You knew that he was gone and not just missing. Even though there wasn't any body."

"Kamui did," she murmured, distracted.

"Ah. That one." Shifting his seat, the man stretched, catlike, and then went on conversationally, "So the battle for the world is over. Kishuu-san, does that mean you'll be going back to Ise?"

"No." He tilted his head, as if quizzical. She hadn't even considered the matter before he'd asked, but as she spoke she felt the deep-rootedness of that conviction, instinctive and unshakable. She groped for a way to articulate it. "I...I'm not that person anymore. It's not that they wouldn't welcome me, even without the god's power. But I would feel its absence there, more than anywhere else. I would feel...the loss of that identity. Of that self." And a kind of loneliness, too, in being so far from the place where she had finally, truly felt that there might be real meaning to her existence, not just for the sake of her mother or for her role in the final battle but for herself. Where she had been special to someone just because...she was. "I've been a priestess for most of my life, so I don't know yet what I'm doing to do." It was her turn to gaze musingly out the window, into the wintry blue sky, pale and remote above the fairy-tale rooflines of the CLAMP school's somewhat whimsical shopping district. "But...I've decided."


"I hate death." And she smiled then, because in truth it wasn't about death at all but death's opposite: that pure and blazingly brilliant moment of resolution, of surging impulse, of having real reasons to fight to survive. "So somehow...I'm going to live."


* * * * *



Frowning slightly, Seishirou rested his ungloved hand upon the gray bark of the sakura tree.

Had he actually been trying to die? Or, more accurately, trying to get himself killed?

He would have said it was inconceivable, a kind of surrender or failing that somebody like him would never succumb to. Other people did such foolish, pointless, despairing things, and he had never really understood why. He couldn't say that he understood it even now, but neither could he deny the trend that his actions had taken, the edgy restlessness, the acute relief in the face of conflict and risk, the disappointment when the moment had passed and the status quo returned. Death wish, the priestess had named it, and now that it had been labeled so precisely he could not pretend that there had been any other justification for his behavior.

Even if Yuuto had been rather provokingly annoying....

But still, would he have found the other Dragon of Earth quite so irritating if he himself hadn't been off kilter? In hindsight, his lapse in self-control and rational judgment was embarrassingly obvious. It was nothing short of ludicrous that he had gone out of his way to antagonize, well, everyone, when playing a more sympathetic role and earning their trust would have been a surer, smoother route to freedom.

And it bothered him, not only that he'd been acting so recklessly on such a senseless, self-destructive impulse, but that he hadn't even realized it until it was pointed out to him. He was accustomed to using people's perceptions of him as mirrors, as a way to check and adjust the mask of pleasant, smiling normalcy. He was not used to having them reflect his real self, and particularly not aspects of that self that he wasn't aware of.

Only Subaru had ever....

His mouth tightening, he looked up, into the patternless crossing and recrossing of bare twigs, dark against the pale gray, shifting clouds. The branches stirred, disturbed by one of the occasional gusts of wind, and he watched them fixedly until stillness returned.

Surely this was the place.

Then why....


"With the spell, Tokyo's protection is tied into the sakura trees." Firelight played across the soldier's features, a stark contrast of warm orange glow and deep shadow. "So I guess it means that as long as there's any cherry tree left in Tokyo, the kekkai of the city will never fall." Leaning forward, he stirred at the fire; a brief shower of sparks sprang up, and as they subsided he laid another log in the grate, then sat back once more. "I think it's better that way," he went on reflectively. "It's not just a set of structures that human beings have imposed on top of nature, something totally manmade and artificial. It's something that has its own life, its own connection to the world, where there's the possibility of an exchange or a relationship. could even say a partnership, someday." Turning, he looked up at Seishirou, his expression still guarded and far from trusting, but more relaxed now, possibly resigned. With a shrug and the glint of an ironic grin, he added, "And if people are dumb enough to mess things up so badly that all the cherry trees die off, they'll have brought the end upon themselves. So ultimately their fate lies in their own hands. I think that's about as fair as one can ask for."

"Ah." Seishirou glanced at the cheerfully burning fire and raised his eyebrows. "So in that case, is this okay?"

Yuzuriha bounced up from wherever she'd briefly taken herself off to; planting both hands on Kusanagi's shoulder, she leaned forward over him, kicking one heel up with a superabundance of youthful energy. "They're special logs made from recycled coffee grounds," she announced brightly. "They release fourteen percent less CO2 and a lot less particulates!"

"They're not perfect," Kusanagi said. "But they're a start." Reaching up, he closed his hand very gently over one of Yuzuriha's. She slid her other arm around his neck, the gesture equally tender, bent closer to him until her chin rested on top of his head. The man started a little, then settled with awkward, somewhat self-conscious pleasure into that embrace, and Seishirou had to admit that they made a cute if unlikely couple. "People aren't perfect either," the man murmured. "But somehow...maybe the human race will find another way."

"A secret battle where hardly anybody knows what's going on or what's at stake, and people never get any chance to make things right?" Yuzuriha's tone was faintly indignant, but she was smiling, her eyes dancing with happiness as much as with the leaping flicker of the flames. "We can definitely do a lot better than that!"


Blinking, Seishirou refocused on the broad trunk before him. This was the place where the spell had been cast, where he had pieced together fragmented remnants of power into an improbable sympathetic magic. He could scarcely remember what he had done, let alone credit that it had worked, but apparently it had indeed succeeded, beyond any reasonable expectation. He was sure that he couldn't be mistaken about the location, as familiar to him as any place that he had ever called home, in Tokyo or elsewhere--he recognized the angle of the hillside's slope, the curve of the winding path at its foot, the silhouette of the grove against the sky, but....

Why was the ground unbroken, when he clearly recalled how it had been scarred and torn, the earth itself upheaved by their conflict? The flattened, winter-dead grasses lay undisturbed; there was no sign of the charred tangles of tree roots and branches. And the barrow tree itself....

Seishirou's gazed roved from the spreading, upswept branches to the gnarled roots that dug deep into the soil. He remembered every curve and fissure of the sakura's trunk, every distinctive crook of its limbs--as he had to, having recreated it so often in illusion. And he remembered just as well the jagged ruin of a stump, the splintered bole and broken, scattered boughs.

Yet the sakura stood before him, entirely undamaged.

And it registered no more to his magical awareness than any other tree.


No, there was something there, but he couldn't grasp it, couldn't define it. Like trying to touch the moon in a pool of water, only to discover that the pool itself was a mirage and did not exist....

Did the ritual knife of the Sumeragi clan remain at the tree's core, where he had set it during that working, its presence an echo of foreign sorcery sealed within the wood?


Seishirou swallowed reflexively, his throat tight, his mouth oddly and unexpectedly dry. The wind picked up, rattling the branches, whipping suddenly at his hair and the hem of his coat. "Subaru-kun--" His voice sounded strangely lost and out of place, vanishing amidst the other, nonhuman sounds of the grove; he hesitated, then went on, silently this time.

Subaru-kun...are you here?

The branches danced, purposeless and erratic. He watched them nevertheless, as intently as he had ever watched the least movements of an enemy or a target, scarcely noticing the air's chill against his exposed skin. The wind dropped eventually, fading to insignificance, the grove grew still once more, and neither the movement nor the stillness held any meaning whatsoever.

Seishirou leaned forward abruptly, pressing his palm harder against the bark, as if it might be possible to push into it, to reach through it and touch whatever it concealed.


He broke off again. Stepping back once more, he stared blankly at the tree. Another moment of emptiness, of that all-too-persistent nothing, before he recognized within himself the surge of inner heat, the recoil of a bitter, burning tension that had once been an extraordinary novelty and had lately become almost commonplace.

Do you hate him? Arashi had asked, and Seishirou tilted his head back, closed his eyes and clenched his hands into fists, awash in a fierce confusion, a storm of churning, contradictory impulses.

Hate. And love. And thus, despair. He could trace the outlines of the two opposites and the place where they met, now--whether it was exactly like what other people experienced or not, it was close enough for him to understand it. To understand, but not to free himself from the grip of that unyielding paradox, and he found himself wondering, almost plaintively, this your revenge?

No. No, not revenge, although it might have been a kind of return, like the unbreakable law of sakanagi that governed every magical action. Perhaps, after all, his bet had been a kind of spell, and everything that had come afterward, from that very first moment when he had bound himself and Subaru together, had been a means of working out the intricate mechanics of its reflection, of balancing that complex, far-ranging equation of encounter and desire and need.

Be careful...what you ask for.

The spasm passed, sooner than he might have expected; in its wake, he felt a deep, inexplicable weariness, and yet, at the same time, there was a new sense of calm that was almost like release: a remote, faintly rueful tranquility. He opened his eyes, his gaze half focused; brown and gray, wind-swept and raw in the aftermath of rain, the park stretched away on all sides, blurring into vagueness at the limits of his perception. Purified, and no longer his...whatever the sakura might be now, its heart was closed to him--that much was more than obvious. And although the future had been transformed and fate and destiny had rewritten themselves, certain facts of reality remained implacable.

People still did not come back, either from the other world or from the cherry tree barrow.

Aaah...death and change are pitiless, aren't they.

His mouth curving up into a slight smile, Seishirou uncurled his stiffened, icy fingers, then slipped his bare hand into the pocket of his coat. As warmth slowly returned to it, he contemplated once more the extent of what he had lost. Love--that before everything, as piece by piece he continued to discover a whole world of missing Subaru and all that Subaru had been--and legacy as well, the familiar, arcane, death-charged presence of the sakura tree, the traditions and work of being the Sakurazukamori. There was nothing to stop him from continuing on as an assassin, of course, but without all the rest would it have any meaning, or would it be just a hollow imitation of the past, like a ghost mindlessly repeating what it had known in life? And yet, if not that...then who was he? It was rather daunting to look ahead and see only a vast unknown, where once there had been the steady assurance of deep-rooted power and an unshakable self-identity, and that, too, was a loss, one that seemed to take the last of the ground out from under his feet, so that despite his somewhat dreamlike detachment he wondered fleetingly how it could even be possible to go on.

But then, those girls....

Arashi had also lost somebody important to her, and the power of a kami on top of that; and Yuzuriha, too--realizing it later, he could have kicked himself for not even noticing, that first morning, the absence of her spirit companion.

And if they could somehow find a way to move forward with their lives, then he certainly wasn't about to lie down and just give up.

Seishirou let out a long, low breath, its warmth forming a subtle mist that swiftly faded. Drawing his hand out of his pocket, he slowly pulled on his glove, idly watching the stretch and give of the black leather as his fingers flexed.

Probably the area's restoration was a side effect of the seal-spell, something to do with the way it had been anchored into the trees. Probably anything otherworldly that he might be sensing was connected to that healing, and maybe also to the spell itself.


Straightening, Seishirou lifted his head and gazed up at the sakura once more. After a minute or so, his lips quirked--another smile, only a trifle wry.

"Well," he murmured at last. "Later, then."

Turning, he moved off, walking with deliberate purpose toward the path that would lead him out of the park, back toward the subway station and the train that would eventually return him to the campus of the CLAMP School. He was going to have to give some thought to his future living arrangements, he realized; the Imonoyama mansion made a luxurious vacation get-away, but there was a limit as to how long he could reasonably impose upon that hospitality. Besides which, no matter how entertaining it might be to aggravate the Imonoyama's ninja, he really needed to concentrate on getting his own affairs in order.

Before anything else, though, there was still a loose end or two that he ought to follow up on.


* * * * *


"It really is the best view, isn't it?" With that comment to announce his presence, Seishirou vaulted from the last of the crossing girders up onto the highest point of the television broadcasting array that crowned Tokyo Tower's second observation deck. His coat flared about him as he moved, a note of visual drama that also served to disguise a subtle magical gesture, one meant to divert the greatest part of wind's force around the spot where he'd be standing, because spectacular view or not, the exposure at this height was exceedingly cold. Sitting hunched up on a railing, his arms locked about one bent knee, the Kamui turned his head minutely to glower at Seishirou, a blackly forbidding look that made Seishirou suspect he'd been wise not to try any kind of surprise approach. Threat weighed the air like a storm, and with it a distinctive aura of power, a double shadow looming against the sky, further darkening the already deepening winter twilight that surrounded them both. Seishirou grinned with deliberate cheerfulness, refusing to be put off. "Say, I like the wings. Another pair, and you could be a seraph."

The Kamui regarded him for another moment, almost as if incredulous, then, with a low snort of annoyance, turned to scowl out over the city. "What do you want?"

"Honestly, I'm curious," Seishirou admitted. He had his suspicions, but both that psychic emanation and the physical appearance were just different enough that he couldn't be absolutely certain. Nobody else appeared to be questioning this--they all seemed to have jumped to the same conclusion, and while in essence they were probably right, he had a feeling the truth wasn't quite so simple as they assumed. He'd decided to come right out and ask. "Which one are you?"

There was a moment's pause, as if his directness had been a shock, possibly an affront, before the other spoke, his voice a dull, unforthcoming murmur. "I'm Kamui." Seeming to realize that there was still some potential for confusion, he hesitated, then added, bowing his head on the scarcely audible words, "...I'm not Fuuma."

"Ah." Seishirou nodded thoughtfully to himself, pieces clicking into place with that confirmation of what he'd already suspected. "Because your mother was a member of the Magami family, you had that power too, to take another person's fate upon yourself. Am I right?"

"How does everyone know about my mother's family?" The querulous mutter was purely Kamui, and Seishirou laughed, earning himself another sidelong look.

"And then, with the fate of two Kamuis in the same person," Seishirou went on, "it's not quite the same thing as a kage-nie and his or her patron, is it? Since your powers and your destinies were both equally matched...."

"One of us had to win," Kamui broke in, low and abrupt, "and one of us had to die. Which one...I don't know if that was decided or not. But I...I think maybe I was meant to survive. The way things happened..." He trailed off, and when he spoke again the words were soft, almost lost in the wind as he huddled further in upon himself, hugging that bent knee more tightly to his chest. "I couldn't do anything about it."

"So you died and lived." And that without any of the special techniques of a professional kage-nie, so far as Seishirou could tell. The raw power and driving imperative such a feat would have required was faintly staggering...but then, this was Kamui. Ducking his head on a wry smile, Seishirou shrugged. "Well, at least you're taller."

Kamui twitched. Before he could regain his balance and decide that this conversation wasn't worth continuing, Seishirou added smoothly, "And the other one...?"

Kamui hesitated for a long moment. Then, very slowly, as if reluctant and yet compelled in spite of himself, he unclasped one arm and pointed outward across the city. A sudden jolt of displaced perception, a disorienting visual rush as some inexorable force seized Seishirou's other sight and dragged it along, snatching it right out of himself--a dizzying flight that narrowed in on a distant location with hurtling speed, a flash of tall buildings passing, the steadily diminishing expanses of a ward, a neighborhood, a single street. Like a compass needle flicking to rest, the circle of vision settled about a lone figure walking uphill, past the front steps of a line of small, neat houses. He carried a plastic shopping bag of some sort slung behind one shoulder, like a student idly carrying a school satchel. Although the height and overall appearance hadn't changed, his manner was so uncharacteristic of the Kamui of the Dragon of Earth that Seishirou could readily have taken him for some entirely different person. He moved heavily, as if distracted by some intangible weight far greater than the insubstantial burden that he was carrying; his expression was closed and introverted, and yet as he lifted his gaze, pausing for just an instant to look up, perhaps at his destination, or perhaps just at the darkening sky beyond the top of the hill, something glimmered from below that surface: a bewilderment, a pang of mute lostness.

"He doesn't remember." An edge of cold wind flurried Seishirou's hair, licked at the hem of his coat--he blinked hard at the orange-painted metal railing before him and at the spangled carpet of city lights rumpled up beyond and below it, swiftly reorienting himself. Along the western horizon, the last visible curve of the sun burned, a slender, dwindling line of red that looked nothing at all like blood. Kamui added, "It's better that way," with an effort at bleak finality that nonetheless rang a trifle plaintive.

"Hmm." It had been rather discomfiting to have his senses abruptly taken over like that. Seishirou made a mental note to work out some form of defense, and also to try to figure out how he might be able to accomplish something like it himself. Although he could probably achieve a similar dramatic effect just by using illusion....

"Do you have any regrets?" That was a new intensity in Kamui's voice. Seishirou looked up and met the other's gaze, direct now, keenly focused and challenging. The Tower's lights had come on in the minute or so when Seishirou had been distracted by that far-seeing; their harsh glare caught and highlighted the right side of Kamui's face, made that one vividly purple eye gleam, as hard and brilliant as glass, and left all the rest in shadow. The Tower's spire resonated with an almost subliminal force, like silent thunder or an earthquake just beneath the level of human perception, and Seishirou was reminded that it had been Kamui out of all the Seals who had known what had happened to Subaru, who had in some manner sensed that passing. Given that, and the all-too-evident feelings that Kamui had had for Subaru, the only real surprise was that he had waited so long to take Seishirou to task for it. But there seemed to be something more subtle and complex than mere anger behind this particular tension...and Seishirou was starting to have a pretty good idea of what it was.

"That I got involved with Subaru-kun?" he murmured at last. "No. Never for that. And as for the rest...I have to live with my mistakes. Just like anyone else." Kamui started--perhaps it wasn't the answer to the question he'd thought he'd been asking, or perhaps he hadn't realized he was being quite so obvious, but it was the answer to his real question, nevertheless. Seishirou grinned, a wolfish baring of teeth. "Kamui-kun, I'm the last person you should go to for advice. Because if it were me in your place, I'd absolutely be meddling."

"It's not...I don't...!" Kamui paused to master himself, but when he went on it was in a small, strained voice--the same verbal flailing, only more subdued. "I just...don't know." His mouth tightened convulsively, a tense downward curl of misery. "Kotori...didn't come back for me. Only for his sake. If all I ever brought them was unhappiness and suffering, then maybe...."

Seishirou let out his breath, a short huff of annoyance, then sprang outward, over the railing. A brief drop, the updraft a brisk, invigorating lash of chill air, as clarifying as a waterfall purification, before he alighted on one of the antennas jutting from the Tower's side. Far below, the Tower's well-lit walkways and parking lot were a pool of muddy gray, the roofs of cars like polished riverstones; beyond, the city lay dark and deceptively still, a peaceful glitter of lights with only empty night between them. Gazing out across that field of nameless and ephemeral stars, Seishirou drew in a long, slow breath, then glanced back up over his shoulder. Kamui had risen to his feet and stood balanced on the edge of the broadcasting array, a slender, attenuated shadow against the Tower's spire, fists lightly clenched at his sides.

"You wanted my advice?" Seishirou called back to him, voice raised just enough to carry over the wind and the distance. "All right, then. Come down off this tower. Go back to school. Get a job, someday. Live." And stop whining, he added silently, although he'd been more than half tempted to say it aloud. At least Kamui had a second chance...forcing aside the habitual pang, he added, "Life is where the two of you can meet and have a chance at finding happiness again. If you bring all of this into it," with a sweep of his arm, he encompassed the Tower, the kekkai, both old and new, the foreboding occult aura, the echoes of a battleground of heartbreak and bitter destiny, "then things are definitely going to end badly." He smiled, hard and mirthless and just a touch feral. "Take it from a professional stalker."

For a moment, Kamui just stared at him. Then the other's gaze shifted--Seishirou felt the lift of that sharp-focused pressure, a weight like the heavy steel blade of the Shinken being removed from him. Kamui stared off across the city, in the direction of that far-seeing, then closed his eyes--a slow relaxation like surrender, as deliberate as the transition from deep levels of trance into waking. That stormcloud of presence faded, a dissolution like a maboroshi being released, melting into the sunshine of a true reality, until there was just an ordinary-seeming teenager, improbably poised on a narrow lip of steel between the night sky and that stark fall, the wind whipping his hair into untidiness. As his expression eased, a gentleness came into it, something that could perhaps even be taken for a smile.

Never entirely ordinary, Seishirou thought, because as the Kamui of both Heaven and Earth that war was contained within him now, held to an uneasy armistice by nothing but the force of his own will. The godlike potential for destruction and for preservation....

Probably the best thing for him, and for the world in general, was not to take himself too seriously.

"Oh, and speaking as something of an expert on dead sisters," Seishirou added offhandedly, "just because she didn't come back for you, it doesn't mean that she's not a supporter. She probably came back because her brother was being particularly dense." Seishirou favored Kamui with a sly smirk. "I bet she's over there on the other side, calling out, 'Go for it!'" Kamui choked and sputtered, as if denial were still remotely possible, and Seishirou turned away, waving a casual farewell as he stepped out to the end of the antenna. "Well, good luck...."

"He loved you."

Kamui's words, sudden and harsh, stopped Seishirou as if he'd run into a wall. He stared down at the gradually shallowing curve of the Tower's leg far below him, wondering at the force of that jolt. It wasn't as though other people hadn't been saying essentially the same thing. "He loved you more than anything," Kamui went on, his voice taut with bitterness and still-raw grief. "That doesn't excuse anything. But that's why...." He trailed off. Despite himself, Seishirou looked back--their gazes met, a long, unwavering stare, Kamui's eyes cold, narrowed, and unforgiving.

"For his sake," Kamui said at last, and with his voice dropped down into its lower register he sounded almost uncannily like his opposite star. "Because he wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

The corner of Seishirou's mouth curved up, a faint trace of a smile. "Fair enough." He bowed his head slightly, acknowledging that forbearance. Then, turning, he leaped from the antenna into the open air, his heart beating a trifle more rapidly than normal--not from the vertiginous drop, to which he was certainly quite accustomed, but instead from that near miss: a reprieve from danger that left all the future wide open and unexpectedly full of promise, despite the lingering, bittersweet ache of loss.

Apparently, his death wish had been cured.




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