[Note: A slightly revised version of this excerpt has now assumed its proper place as the second half of chapter 14. I'm leaving this available here in case anyone happened to link to it directly.]


Sakura and Snow

Christmas excerpt


By Natalie Baan


Seishirou burst into the apartment. "I'm home!" he called. Parking his now-dry umbrella in its stand, he dumped the bag of take-out food on the raised section of floor and started getting out of his coat and scarf.

"Welcome ba--" Subaru halted in the bedroom doorway, eyes wide as he stared at Seishirou, who was juggling a large, gold-wrapped, and beribboned package in one arm while trying to shrug the other one out of its heavy sleeve. Seishirou grinned at the onmyouji's open-mouthed astonishment. Getting himself untangled from his winter wear at last, he hung it up quickly, kicked off his shoes, and stepped up onto the floor. He strode over to Subaru and wound his free arm about the younger man's shoulders, pulling the other in close for a quick but enthusiastic kiss...and then leaned back again, slipping the gift box into Subaru's hands.

"Merry Christmas," he murmured tenderly.

"Ch- Christmas-"

"Well, actually it's Christmas Eve--but why wait? I thought we could celebrate just as well tonight." Catching the still-stunned Sumeragi by both present-carrying arms, Seishirou drew him over to the couch and pushed him down onto it. "Go ahead," he urged, eager with anticipation. "Open it!" Coiling next to Subaru, he watched with barely controlled impatience as the onmyouji fumbled off the red and gold silk ribbon, then fingered the gilt paper, looking for the taped-up seam. Carefully Subaru unwrapped the present, folding the paper before laying it down on the coffee table; he lifted off the box lid, and Seishirou had to restrain the impulse to take it away so they could get to the good part more quickly. Finally Subaru was rustling aside the white sheets of tissue paper, he was reaching between them to pull out his gift....

"It's...a sweater?"

"Try it on!" Avidly Seishirou watched as Subaru's arms found their way into the sweater's sleeves and he drew it on over his head. The sweater was that rich burgundy red that looked so striking against the onmyouji's coloring; it was made of the finest cashmere, as soft as eiderdown. Subaru's hands slid across it, smoothing it over his chest and stomach, and Seishirou reached to tug at one shoulder that didn't lay quite right. "Too big?" he wondered.

"No, it's perfect, it's--" Subaru's fingers closed on the silky wool, and his eyes rose to meet Seishirou's, luminous with a sudden distress. "Seishirou-san...I didn't get you /anything/!"

"/Hush./" Leaning forward, Seishirou laid one finger against Subaru's lips. "Not another word. I won't have you unhappy on what should be a festive occasion. And besides," he added, bending closer, smiling as he pressed Subaru back against the cushions, his weight settling onto the onmyouji's body little by little, "I'm sure that you'll find some way to make it up to me." His fingers stroked Subaru's stomach through the thin, luxurious cloud of cashmere as he lowered his head to nuzzle at the Sumeragi's throat. "Eventually."

"Oh...you mean the obvious?" Amusement tinged Subaru's voice as he rested one cool palm against Seishirou's face, redirecting it toward his own. Gladly Seishirou permitted himself to be diverted, and there followed a long, pleasurable interval of kissing, Subaru stretching and shifting beneath him in ardent response. At last Seishirou leaned back with a small sigh, gazing down into his lover's radiant, slightly flushed face.

He supposed it was really too soon to be taking the sweater off Subaru.

"I guess we'd better eat before the food gets cold," he murmured. "Do you want some tea?" At Subaru's smiling nod, he pushed himself off the onmyouji, strangely reluctant to let the warmth of contact fade. As he headed for the kitchenette, he suggested, "Why don't we eat on the couch tonight?" and Subaru, making an acquiescent sound, rose to collect the abandoned bag of take-out. Seishirou watched as the onmyouji laid out the various containers on the coffee table, order and grace in every unselfconscious movement, and then smiled faintly. Somehow the intimacy of dinner on the couch seemed more appealing than their usual arrangement of sitting at the counter on stools.

As he finished filling the tea kettle and turned back to set it on the range, he saw Subaru get up again and wander over to him. He thought the onmyouji was in search of utensils, but instead Subaru just leaned on the end of the counter, watching him in easy silence. Seishirou opened the cabinet door to get to the cups, and from the corner of his eye he saw Subaru glance downward, one hand stroking the front of the sweater, before Subaru's lips curved once more into a small, private smile.

"Subaru-kun," and those lowered eyes were lifted to his, immediately and quite gratifyingly attentive, "did you really forget about Christmas?" At Subaru's abashed expression, Seishirou chuckled. "Well, well...what would Hokuto-chan say? I remember what a big deal she used to make about it." Hokuto had never been one to let any kind of special occasion go to waste, and so naturally the single Christmas that he'd spent with the twins had been a whirlwind of gifts, decorations, and, of course, fabulously outrageous costumes. He glanced at Subaru, touched by old habits of caution, but Subaru seemed undisturbed, only perhaps a little saddened by those memories. It was odd--he knew that he ought to avoid the delicate subject of Subaru's dead sister, but somehow being able to mention her felt right, as though she was yet another link that bound them to each other, rather than a barrier standing between them. And indeed, the melancholy in Subaru's green eyes was paired with wistful happiness, as if he could at last enjoy some memories of the good times that they'd shared without being drowned in tragedy. Wanting to turn Subaru's thoughts even further from the dark corners of the past, Seishirou added musingly, "I wonder...did the two of you have nice Christmases together when you were children?"

"Not while we were living with our grandmother," Subaru murmured. "She didn't believe in celebrating foreign holidays. But when we were very little, before we were sent to be trained by her, we were passed from house to house among our distant relatives. I don't remember much, because I was so young, but I remember one year there was a Christmas tree. It was full of lights and things that sparkled...." Closing his eyes, Subaru leaned forward on his elbows again, hugging his arms around himself. His quiet smile echoed the joy and wonder of the child he'd been. "It was so pretty. I never forgot."

"Mmm." The kettle was beginning to vibrate as the water approached boiling. Seishirou scooped tea into the strainer and suspended it inside the teapot.

"Did...did you celebrate Christmas? When you were growing up?" Seishirou hesitated, looking at the glint of light on the kettle instead of meeting the onmyouji's tentative, questioning gaze. Then he smiled, almost despite himself.

"My mother loved beautiful things," he admitted. "She had a collection of crystal ornaments all over the house, and at Christmas she put up lights and decorations everywhere. I think she used to overdo it a bit, though. We'd find tinsel in the carpet all year long." He glanced at Subaru's expression, which was rapt with interest. "Subaru-kun, you don't remember your mother at all, do you?"

"No...I was just a baby when she passed away. And my father died before Hokuto-chan and I were born." Was it that vacancy in Subaru's life that made him curious about Seishirou's family--the fact that he'd known only the impersonal weight of his own family's honor and prestige without the counterbalance of parental affection? Or was it, as Subaru had mentioned once, simply a wish to know things that touched upon his lover? The kettle began to whistle, and Seishirou lifted it off the stove.

"My father was in the Self Defense Force," he remarked, pouring the hot water into the teapot, "so we didn't get to see him much. He was always being transferred all over the country, while we stayed at home. But he'd visit us whenever he got leave. I remember him as a big man--though it might have just been that I was small at the time--with dark hair, always laughing. Of course, I never got to know him well. Mother killed him when I was about six or so."


--/"Sei-chan, come here. I have something to show you."/--


He felt as much as heard the other's fractured breath of shock, and he brought the kettle's spout up quickly, stopping the flow of water into the pot. What on earth had he been thinking of, telling Subaru that? Disturbed, he set the kettle down, his fingers resting lightly on its handle and his mind blank for an instant, struck by the realization that there was no way to unsay those words. Sensing that Subaru was searching his face, anxiously trying to catch his gaze, he smiled finally, a rueful little twitch of his lips. He couldn't understand why he'd let such a foolish admission escape him, but he supposed it didn't matter as long as he could keep Subaru from dwelling on it.

"Sei- Seishirou-san...!"

"Subaru-kun, don't feel sorry about this," he said, as gently as possible. "Truly, it was a long time ago...and as I said, I never really knew him. It wasn't like an ordinary child losing a father." Indeed, it was highly probable that the man he'd been told was his father was no real relation at all, just as the woman that he'd called "Mother" hadn't been his birth mother. In any case, it made not the slightest difference to him who they'd been or that they were dead--and it seemed ridiculous that something as insignificant as this should cast a pall over what had begun as a quite thoroughly enjoyable evening. He could feel the Sumeragi's attention still fixed on him, though, distraught and intense. He wondered what he could do about that.

Finally something occurred to him.

"/Ah!/" he exclaimed abruptly. "Subaru-kun, I'd forgotten...!" Turning, he leaned on the counter too. He looked full into Subaru's face with a perfectly guileless dismay that matched the onmyouji's own.

"What are we going to do for /our/ Christmas tree?"


* * * * *


The ivy wasn't quite lost in the middle of the coffee table: a splash of dark green, crinkled leaves among the empty take-out containers. Candlelight glinted along the gift ribbon that was twined about it and on the gold paper that mercifully swathed its decorative pot almost to the ears. Eyes half-lidded so that those motionless flames were haloed and soft, Seishirou lay draped over Subaru, his head resting on the slight rise of the onmyouji's chest and the cashmere sweater plush against his cheek. Subaru's hand was stroking his hair, and Seishirou sighed, enjoying the culmination of a very pleasurable evening: the savor of good food, Subaru's lean warmth fitted closely against him, and the quite satisfactory way that everything had resolved itself between them.

"Seishirou-san," Subaru whispered, close by his ear, "are you happy?"

"Why shouldn't I be?" Subaru's fingers hesitated and then resumed their motion, as if the onmyouji had been going to say something to that but had thought the better of it. Seishirou closed his eyes, but a flicker of restlessness stirred in him, spoiling his almost drowsy repose. He'd avoided giving a direct answer to Subaru's question; he suspected that Subaru had noticed the evasion and was deliberately refraining from comment. That complicity disturbed him--he ought to find something else to say, some more reassuring answer to give, whether it was true or not. Yet he faltered, momentarily confused.

Was this..."happiness"?

"Subaru-kun--" He stopped, surprised and vaguely annoyed with himself--the tone of the word was wrong, not the casual caress that it ought to be, but instead low and just a shade too taut. Subaru murmured quizzically, the sound a small vibration against the side of his face. He should make some outrageous comment to cover his mistake, but he lay still, groping after what he'd wanted to ask about and yet couldn't quite put a shape to, even inside his own mind.

"Do you love me?" he said at last.

"Yes." Subaru's voice was quiet and supremely certain. If he wondered about the question, he gave no sign. "I love you."

"/Why?/" Twisting around abruptly, he raised himself to gaze into Subaru's eyes. Subaru blinked up at him, serenity gradually shifting toward puzzlement.

"Because...because you're /you./"

That, Seishirou thought, was a most unhelpful answer. He drew a smile across his face, a guard against letting his irritation show. "But /what/ do you love about me?" he insisted, adding more flippantly, "Is it my looks? My personality? My incredible sex appeal?" He'd figured out eventually what Subaru's joke had been about, that night of the apartment building fire, and since then he'd taken every opportunity to tweak the onmyouji for it, albeit gently. It was astounding enough that Subaru had developed a sense of humor--let alone about that--that he couldn't help coming back to it again and again.

Coloring, Subaru squirmed and unwound his arms from Seishirou to hug them in close to his chest. He lowered his gaze, smiling and studying his fingertips as they played against each other in nervous embarrassment. "Well...I don't know...I couldn't say /what/ exactly...." The words were a meaningless murmur, self-conscious and inarticulate, and although Seishirou knew that he shouldn't have expected anything else from the shy onmyouji, he found himself inexplicably disappointed. Subaru glanced up again, looking directly into Seishirou's eyes, and fell silent, his expression becoming thoughtful and, oddly, almost pained. That look grew long and searching--and Seishirou became aware of the uncharacteristic nakedness of his own gaze then, the way that he'd been staring at the onmyouji. No wonder Subaru seemed disquieted. He should break the awkward mood, should sever the connection of their gazes before he gave more away than he already had, but he was suddenly, acutely aware of Subaru's solidity underneath him, of the Sumeragi's lips still parted, their breath caught, heedless in concentration...was aware of a minute ache inside of himself, not hunger, not lust...it was something like the twinge of loneliness, but why should he be lonely in the presence of his lover? It made no sense to him at all. He'd thought this was what he'd been looking for, and it was, but still he wanted...he wanted....

Subaru's fingers touched his cheek, and he blinked, startled out of that knot of tangled thoughts and instincts. He looked down once again into Subaru's candlelit face.

"I love...I love your smile. No, all of your different smiles." The whispered words were hesitant, as if groping their way through a labyrinth, Subaru struggling to put into language the things his feeling heart simply knew. "I love the way you touch me--the way you hold me near." Subaru's other hand closed lightly onto Seishirou's, its thumb sliding back and forth across his fingers almost unconsciously. "When you do that...in front of other people...I feel as if I'm going to break apart. Because I want it so much that it hurts...."

The Sumeragi's gaze slipped sideways, looking past him briefly. "And I love the way you hear me when I speak--the way you understand the things that no one else can. But it's not only that. It's that it's /you,/ here, this one person listening, this presence that I know so well--" He broke off, his eyes shifting back to Seishirou's. After a moment, he added gravely, almost as an afterthought, "None of those things have changed...."

A hush followed Subaru's rather extraordinary little speech--and Seishirou started out of his fascination to realize that he was hovering above the onmyouji like a hunting bird poised in the infinite, timeless instant just before the dive, so still that he wasn't even breathing. His lungs were starting to complain about the lack of air. Sighing, he relaxed deliberately, letting a smile soften his face despite the peculiar discontent that still twisted at him. None of /those/ things had changed, true, but there were plenty of others that /had/ since he'd revealed his real identity to the Sumeragi, and for all that Subaru might find acceptable or even attractive about him now, he'd felt an unspoken judgment coloring those words. It was inevitable, he supposed, that Subaru would feel drawn to those parts of himself that recalled the kindly veterinarian that Subaru had first fallen in love with...but it didn't help to disperse the unaccustomed shadow that had somehow fallen over his evening. He decided it was time to change the subject.

"Ah, now you're embarrassing me with all this flattery!" he teased. "Maybe you should start listing my faults next, to bring me back down to earth." Subaru gave him a small, lingering sidelong look, and Seishirou stared at the familiar glint in those green eyes. He'd expected dismay and protests, a confusion that Subaru would be glad to be diverted from, but surely the onmyouji wasn't about to--

"Well," Subaru murmured, tilting his head to one side and appearing to give the matter deep consideration, "you're arrogant. And...you're vain."

Dumbfounded, Seishirou could only blink at the onmyouji. "Vain?"

"Yes, you are." For some reason, this seemed to amuse the Sumeragi; his smile quirked the corners of his mouth and filled his eyes with that dancing, seemingly starlit shimmer. "You're always preening."

"Subaru-kun, I don't think--"

"You're patient with things just exactly as long as they please you, and when they no longer do then you're immediately ready to set them aside." Subaru's voice rose just enough to override his, though its gentle tone remained unaltered. That still-smiling gaze held Seishirou's evenly, a calm challenge in its directness.

After a few moments of surprise, he recollected himself enough to answer it with a slyly feral grin. He remarked, "You know, you forgot something." Lowering his eyes from the quizzical expression that made Subaru appear so innocent, he touched one fingertip to the point of the sweater's crewnecked collar. From there, he stroked it downward across the smooth planes of Subaru's chest until it pressed lightly over the breastbone. "'Cold-blooded assassin.'"

"No...I didn't forget." In spite of himself, Seishirou's gaze leaped back up to the Sumeragi's. The other's eyes were deep and profoundly still. "But you knew that already. I thought it might be a good idea to tell you something that you might not know...."

And as Seishirou was trying to decide whether he was being mocked or not, Subaru hesitated and then sighed softly. Shifting position, he ran one hand up Seishirou's arm to the shoulder, a slow touch that made Seishirou's hairs rise and heightened the prickle of adrenaline beneath his skin. His muscles tensed.

"That's why it's so hard to answer this kind of question," Subaru murmured. He looked at his own slender fingers as he spread them in a fan against Seishirou's white shirt. "To say that I love this or that part of a person...because a person can't be divided into pieces like that, some to keep and others to be thrown away. It's just...it's like saying that a person can only be one thing or the other--that an assassin can't also be gentle, or that a someone whose work is to protect other people can't be selfish inside his own heart...." He rolled that hand around onto the back of Seishirou's shoulder, slid the other one up Seishirou's side--he drew Seishirou down with a gentle persistence that Seishirou gave in to almost numbly. There was something very wrong about the entire situation, something that he just couldn't quite seem to grasp...his cheek came to rest against Subaru's shoulder, the onmyouji's fingers cupping the back of his head, twining into his hair....

"I love Seishirou-san," Subaru whispered, tightening his arms around Seishirou, as if those few words were the counter to every confusion, every conflict. Seishirou stared blankly at the corner of the rug, its gold and black patterns blurring in the candlelight's shadowy glow.

"But Subaru-kun," he murmured, a weak place in Subaru's assurances becoming apparent to him at last, "I'm /not/ a gentle person."

"I watch you," and those words were a breath against his hair, a faint hum where their bodies came together chest to chest, a quiet thunder of agitation rising in his pulse. "I always watch you...in the little things, the way you tend the plants, the way you wash the dishes or do the chores, I see the care that you take." Subaru exhaled, a little shiver of contracting muscles. It felt almost like a laugh. "You're always gentle," he confided to Seishirou, "except when you choose not to be."

Subaru was wrong--Seishirou was certain of that. After all, "gentle" was not a word that ought to describe the Sakurarzukamori. But then, everything that the onmyouji had said all evening long had been exactly the same. Structures of fragile logic that had seemed to hold together on the surface but had cracked like the thinnest ice whenever he tried to grasp them, to fit them into his own understanding...still, for the merest instant, Seishirou made the attempt. He let his mind rest hesitantly against the peculiar thought to see if it would support any weight.

To see if he might be...if he could /possibly/ be....


--dream of a golden sky splintering, little pieces breaking away from it like glass--

--like pain--


His entire body jerked before he'd even realized it was going to do that--he clenched his already tensed back and shoulders against the tremor. He was keenly aware of Subaru, who had gone still beneath him. His fingers dug into the couch cushion almost convulsively. For what seemed like a crawling eternity his mind went blank; then he wrenched it back to the present, forcing himself to relax into Subaru's embrace. He lay motionless for a couple of seconds, recollecting himself, before he allowed the breath that had somehow gotten caught inside his lungs to escape him in a dry, quiet chuckle. Another deliberate pause, and he pushed himself off Subaru slowly, feeling the other's arms loosen around him, slackening just enough to let him go.

"If you say so, Subaru-kun."

Straightening, he looked down into the onmyouji's face, noting concern, an unspoken question and the shy considerateness that kept Subaru from asking it, affection, and a dozen other less definable things. For himself, there was just the brisk, bright clarity of an intense alertness, a vibrancy that remained behind as that confusion faded, as though all his senses had been roused...perhaps that was one of the reasons he liked to gaze so long and deeply into Subaru's glass-green eyes, he thought, smiling. He reached out, brushing his fingertips against the onmyouji's cheek, and Subaru's dark lashes lowered, the other's head turning in answer to that caress.

Perhaps it was the tantalizing danger of having those eyes gaze back at him with full knowledge of who and what he was...the baffling, intoxicating conundrum of Subaru, both enemy and lover, seeing him as no other ever had.

Even if what Subaru saw was...strange.

He hesitated, then half-shook his head. Leaning forward, he touched Subaru's forehead lightly with his lips, putting the last echoes of disquiet out of his mind. Instead, he marveled wryly at what he had let himself in for, allowing the Sumeragi to come as close to him as this. It was lunacy--of that he had no doubt. And yet....

"Come on," he said, "let's clean up and then call it a night."


* * * * *


Seishirou flicked off the bathroom light and stepped out into the already darkened bedroom. As his sight adjusted, he noticed Subaru standing transfixed in front of the picture window, an intent black silhouette. Curious, he walked over, picking his way easily around the plant stand, even in the room's deep shadows. Stopping close behind Subaru, he could feel his presence register, although the other didn't turn to look at him. "What is it?"

"Look, the clouds have broken...the weather's cleared." Resting both palms against the window's crossbars, the onmyouji leaned nearer to the glass. Outside, the rooftops of the neighboring apartment buildings marched down the hill, disappearing into the darkness beneath the waning moon, while in the distance the lights of Shinjuku's skyscrapers glittered, a kaleidoscope mesh of stars strung across the night. "Look," Subaru whispered again, half to himself and half to Seishirou, "look at all the lights. Sometimes...isn't this city beautiful?"

"Mm." After another pensive minute, Subaru pushed away from the window and straightened, almost brushing against Seishirou. Automatically Seishirou reached out to draw the two of them even closer, Subaru's head inclining onto his shoulder as their bodies swayed into familiar contact. They remained like that, watching the shimmering skyline as if it existed solely for them, as if the city and the moment that held them would never end. It was an illusion, Seishirou knew, part of the false peace that they had invented for themselves, but nonetheless he found it obscurely...satisfying.

He followed the slow, tidal rhythms of Subaru's breath, repeating and repeating against him, and he wondered about that mood of contentment.

After a little while, he simply gave up wondering.

"Seishirou-san," Subaru murmured at last, his words hesitating into the silence, as tentative and soft as snowflakes, "that time when the woman's suit got possessed...afterward, when we were all driving home together. Do you remember?"


--/But I love this Tokyo,/ Seishirou said.

/Because it's the only city on this Earth that's "enjoying" walking the road to destruction. /--


Smiling, Seishirou lowered his face into the midnight of Subaru's hair, feeling Subaru shift in response to him, the onmyouji warm and yielding in his embrace. "Yes. I remember." "Love" was of course inaccurate--"interest" was probably closer, a fascination with the city's excesses that was not unlike his attraction to the Sumeragi--but he supposed that what he'd said nine years ago had been true, in its way. "And you, Subaru-kun," he returned, amused, "do you love Tokyo?"

"Yes," Subaru answered, "because...

"...it's the place where I met you."

Surprised, Seishirou looked down at the intricate curves of one ear, a cheek's pale, highlighted contour, all that he could really see of Subaru from behind and in near darkness. Then he laughed, sliding his hands down to Subaru's hips and turning the onmyouji around to face him. "Then let's make tonight yet another reason for 'loving Tokyo,'" he murmured huskily, adding in a teasing whisper, "Besides, isn't it time for me to unwrap /my/ present?" He bent forward, his mouth and Subaru's discovering each other easily, finding their way by touch, by breath, by a shared will....


In the dark room, two shadows moved before the face of the large picture window, slowly rising and falling on the bed in shapes and rhythms of desire...while beyond them the city's lights continued to shine with unceasing steadiness, countless tiny stars adorning the night.


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