Nukume Dori

Chapter Two

By Leareth

       

"Come on, slowpoke, what are you hanging around outside for?"

Subaru slowly turned his gaze away from the all-too familiar façade of the building in front of him. It was ordinary enough with its glass and brick, modest with three floors, as opposed to the Shinjuku high-rises one could see behind rising into the sky. On the ground floor two pillars framed a glass door just clear enough to invite people to come inside. More glass created a large, nearly floor-to-ceiling window on the second level, but this glass was opaque, allowing the person inside to see out, but no one to see in Ė quite normal for a living room. There was nothing particularly special about the third floor either; a simple balcony in front of a sliding door/window that was all, just like any other of the scores of apartments in Tokyo.

An ordinary home, for an ordinary person. Or more correctly, an ordinary persona.

"Oi! You coming or not?!"

Subaru shook himself out of his trance at the shout. In front of him, Hokuto had her hand on the door handle of the veterinary clinic and was glaring at him impatiently.

Veterinary clinic indeed, thought Subaru with revulsion. He knew the fate that lay before most of the patients.

Substitutes for the Sakurazukamori.

He really didnít want to go inside. He really didnít want Hokuto to go inside. He didnít want them to be anywhere near this place.

"Um, Hokuto-chan," began Subaru hesitantly. "M-maybe we shouldnít go see Seishirou-san today."

He watched his sister blink. "Why not?"

"Um . . ." Subaru glanced back the way they had came, fighting an urge to just grab his sisterís hand and run. Such an action was out of character for the sixteen-year old Subaru had to think himself back into. "The Sa- um, Seishirou-san could be busy and doesnít want to be disturbed," he said lamely.

Subaru gulped as Hokuto covered the distance between them in one stride of her slender legs. Although they were they same height, for some reason it seemed that his sister was looming over him as she glared straight into his eyes. He had forgotten just how domineering his elder twin could be.

Then without warning, Hokuto broke into a wide, cheeky smile. "I see!"

Subaru blinked and just managed to hold onto his hat as a playful breeze caused it to slide on his head. "Uh, see what?"

There was a little giggle from the girl. "Youíre just too embarrassed to see Sei-chan!"

"Huh?"

The smile grew even more cheeky. "Thatís a good sign! If youíre too embarrassed to see Sei-chan thatís a sure sign that you love him!"

"EHH?!"

"Aw, címon Subaru!" Hokuto leapt lightly away and held an impish finger to her lips. "You know full well Sei-chan takes a break at this time of the day. Now hurry up! Iím hungry!"

Deflated, Subaru gave a weak smile at his sisterís enthusiasm.

"Iím coming."

Hokuto didnít wait for her brother, instead, opening the door and skipping inside. The glass door swung shut soundlessly.

Subaru stared at it for a moment. Then he took a deep breath and stepped forward.

He had had ample opportunity on the trip from his apartment to think over what had happened to him but so far he hadnít reached any real resolution. No matter how many times he had doused himself with cold water in the shower that morning or pinched himself, the entire impossible situation had not changed.

For some reason, his life had just rewound about nine years. And he was living it again.

I still donít believe this . . .

He knew that there were some things you couldnít explain in life but really . . . time travel was something rather impossible to believe, even for someone who was an onmyouji and Dragon of Heaven.

If he was a Dragon anymore.

Technically it was only nineteen-ninety, which meant that the Final Day was still to come in nine years. But it had already happened.

This is just too confusing . . . Subaru sighed and put the hand he had been about to place on the door handle on his head instead. He was getting a headache just trying to think about it all. Plus he wanted a cigarette. So now what? he thought tiredly to himself. Iím alive, I have my right eye again, Iím sixteen. But Iím not sixteen.

What do I do?

Slowly he removed his gloved hand from where it was placed over his face. He looked at the black glove distastefully for a moment and wondered if he should take them off Ė it would take some getting used to wearing them again, and his hands felt constrained under the subtle Ďjitsu that was woven into the silk. His Grandmother had done that, in a vain hope to protect Subaruís life from the one who had killed Ė

Hokuto. She was alive.

That alone made this whole weird mess worth it.

Subaru closed his eyes and smiled softly as he thought back to that morning; Hokuto telling him to eat all his breakfast otherwise he might faint of hunger, adjusting his clothes so that they looked just right. He remembered that her fussing around like a mother hen used to needle him sometimes Ė now he felt that he could put up with any amount of his sisterís overly zealous attentions as long as she was there to do it.

The breeze played with Subaruís hat again, trying to lift it away. He caught it just in time and squashed it back onto his head. It was another Hokuto-patented hat; black with an orange band that matched his jacket. Subaruís lips quirked upward at the picture he made in the glass Ė wearing hats was another thing he had to get used to doing again. He had tried to get out of it when they had left the apartment, saying that he was perfectly fine without one. Hokuto wouldnít hear of it of course. "But you have to wear the hat!" she had said, pouting most adorably. "You want to look good for Sei-chan donít you?"

Seishirou-san.

The smile fell from Subaruís face.

Unbidden, an image of the man appeared in his mindís eye. A tall, strong figure clad in expensive black that matched the midnight of his hair. How the long slender fingers held a cigarette or a pair of sunglasses just so. And the face, the handsome, somewhat angular features, always wearing that cold parody of a friendly greeting as the eyes, one cloudy white, the other of amber ice, stared intensely like an eagle about to strike.

Sakurazukamori.

Subaruís sixteen year-old image in the glass door reflected his tensely apprehensive expression back at him.

He knew this time. He knew the truth about his Ďlovingí veterinarian friend. Subaruís hand, still poised over the door handle, shook. His mind was screaming for him to dash inside and save Hokuto then run, run far away, away from the clinic, away from the assassinís hunting ground.

He would have done it if he thought that Seishirou would let him go.

Subaru stared at the polished door handle for a long moment. Then slowly, he gingerly placed a gloved hand on it as if it was red-hot.

Just as he was about to twist it open, it swung away.

"Subaru-kun!"

An all-too-familiar shadow appeared in front of him. Subaru barely had time to squeak as he was suddenly enveloped in a strong welcoming hug.

"Why on earth are you hovering about outside my door?" a well-remembered, cultured voice said teasingly into his ear. "Donít you know Iíve been pining away for your presence?"

For a moment Subaru froze, his mind automatically registering the white doctorís coat and the arms wrapped around his too-slim frame. Then he took in the dark mane of hair brushing against his cheek. Immediately he began to struggle, pushing at the strong chest in a vain attempt to free himself.

"Let go of me!"

To his complete surprise, he was obeyed. Subaru suddenly found himself without support and stumbled backwards slightly before he knocked into the signboard standing on the path saying, ĎSakurazuka Veterinary Clinic.í His gloved hands fumbled for it, slipping slightly before he found a secure grip. Finally Subaru regained his balance and he pulled himself up to look straight into Ė

- two honey-gold eyes looking warmly at him from behind a pair of elegant glasses.

Subaru stopped.

So did Seishirou.

There was a still pause. The only sound audible to Subaruís ears was the rapid pounding of his heart. He wondered if the other man could hear it.

Finally, Seishirou spoke.

"Hello, Subaru-kun."

Subaru jumped at the soft greeting. There was none of the amused coldness he expected. If it had been designed to put him at ease, however, it didnít work.

"Iím sorry if I startled you," Seishirou continued, a caring smile on his face. Subaru wasnít buying it. He knew how good an actor the man was. He remained where he stood, hiding his defensive posture behind the sign as he warily looked at the Ďvetí.

"Whereís Hokuto?" Subaru blurted out the question just a little too sharply. He didnít notice Ė Hokuto was in the home of the Sakurazukamori and if Seishirou had harmed his sister . . . the image of Seishirou holding Hokutoís dead body that had haunted him for nine years loomed before him Ė Subaru felt into his pocket for the ofuda he always kept there . . .

"Hokuto-chanís inside. Sheís probably gobbling down your share of the snacks I bought," replied Seishirou.

Subaru blinked. He stared at the man in front of him. He replayed what he had just heard over in his mind and stared some more as the sound of contented feminine singing floated out of the open door of the clinic. The vet turned towards the music slightly, then back to the boy.

"I stand corrected," said Seishirou with a wry smile. "By the sound of it she has already gobbled down your share of todayís snack."

Momentum lost, Subaru could only stare at Seishirou as he tried to get a grip on the situation. He couldnít.

Still wary, he watched the other man as if he would a snake. Seishirou stood to one side of the open door as if waiting for Subaru to enter. When Subaru didnít move from behind the sign, the tiniest of frowns spread across the handsome features.

"Arenít you going to come inside?" asked Seishirou.

Subaru didnít answer. He looked at the door and the bright, familiar reception desk behind it. In one of the rooms beyond sat his sister. Between him and his sister was the Sakurazukamori.

"Subaru-kun?" Seishirouís voice held a note of worry in it. "Is anything wrong?"

It was difficult to bite back the obvious retort. Why was Seishirou still pretending? Subaru knew. In random sequence memories flashed across his brain Ė Seishirou smirking at him from behind his sun-glasses, Seishirou breaking through his spell as if it were paper, Seishirou teasing him, amused coldness in his mismatched eyes Ė

Subaru started as Seishirou came towards him, one hand extended. Hesitantly, he looked up into that heart-breakingly familiar face.

Those eyes were now both amber gold.

"Please come in, Subaru-kun," the vet said gently.

The boy stared at that outstretched hand for a long moment. Then he stepped out from the scant protection of the sign.

Seishirou smiled and made a move as if to place a hand in the small of Subaruís back to guide him inside. Subaru dodged and gestured with one gloved hand for Seishirou to precede him through the door. There was no way he was having the Sakurazukamori at his back.

"After you."

He almost smiled humorlessly at the flash of puzzlement on Seishirouís face that was gone as quickly as it came. Even so, Subaru raised his eyebrows in surprise as the older man obeyed, turning his back on Subaru and entering the clinic.

Subaru gave himself a three-count. Then he took a deep breath and followed behind Seishirou.

He stumbled in the change from the brightness of the autumn weather outside to the indoor dimness of the reception area. At this time of day there were no people in the waiting room, however he could hear the varied array of animal noises muted through the walls. He was barely aware of Seishirouís attempts at conversation, walking with halting steps, often stopping completely in the corridor to stare around. Only when Seishirou turned to look at him did Subaru realise he was dawdling and quickly scurry along in the other manís wake.

"Whatís wrong with Subaru-kun today?" Subaru heard Seishirou ask as they came to the consultation room. "Heís acting like heís almost afraid of me."

"Thatís because youíre a sexual predator, Sei-chan!" the high-pitched voice of Hokuto said gaily.

A good-natured laugh was the reply. Subaru blinked as they finally entered the consultation room, the place where the three of them had always met for easy companionship. Hokuto grinned and waved at him from her seat on the table, a teapot with three cups of tea and a porcelain plate beside her. The plate, decorated with smiling cats that danced around the rim, was empty save for the crumbs. He didnít acknowledge his sister as he looked about the room, struck by its familiarity. Even though he had mentally prepared himself for the shock, finding himself again in the place that he hadnít seen for nine years (or since yesterday, depending on how one looked at it) was enough to make him stop and stare. The usual screen curtains lined one wall their hems hanging just above the sterile floor tiles, while the rest of the walls were taken up with bright, colourful anatomy posters and certificates of veterinary science. Subaru remembered how they used to fascinate him and feed his dreams of being a zookeeper.

Seishirou had killed that dream, just as he had killed Hokuto.

A hand was waved in front of his face. Subaru jumped and took an instinctive step back as he realised the hand belonged to the Sakurazukamori. As he did so, he bumped into the stool Seishirou had brought for him and sat down in it with an undignified thump that made the other two laugh. Subaru wasnít finding the situation funny at all. He watched Seishirou warily, questioningly, wondering why the man was behaving as if nothing had happened. Nervously, he fiddled with his fingers, expecting at any moment for the Sakurazukamori to do something. But why should he wait for Seishirou to make the first move? Wouldnít it be better for Subaru to have the element of surprise in his attack? No, Hokuto was present in the room and he couldnít fight and protect his sister at the same time. But if he waited it would be too late Ė

Ergh, great. He sighed and rubbed his temple as if he had a headache. Seishirouís packet of cigarettes was lying on the counter beside him Ė absently Subaru reached out for the box, tapped out a single thin cylinder, and smoothly caught it between his fingers. Expertly he began to raise it to his lips . . . now, where did Seishirou keep his lighter?

Subaru abruptly froze as he belatedly realised that Hokuto and Seishirou were giving him identical strange looks. His cigarette-holding gloved hand froze in mid-air.

Hokuto blinked, then frowned. "Um, Subaru," she said, pointing at the cigarette in his hand. "Since when did you smoke?"

"Yes, Subaru-kun," said Seishirou. He looked at the youth carefully. "That is also something I would like to know."

"Uh . . ." Flustered, Subaru looked from one to the other. Realising he was still holding the cigarette in a way that belied far too much skill for a boy of sixteen, he hastily tried to shove it back into its box. With his gloved hands and embarrassment, all he managed to do was spill the entire cigarette packet onto the clinic floor. Immediately he leapt off his stool and began to gather them all up. "I, er, I was just looking," he said, frantically hoping that his weak excuse that would dissuade suspicion and save him from trouble with his sister. It didnít work.

"Subaru, I donít believe it!" Hokuto exploded. "How could you even think about smoking?! Itís a disgusting habit Ė no offense, Sei-chan."

"None taken," replied the vet. Seeing Subaru still unsuccessfully trying to clean up, Seishirou gracefully came over to help him. The youth jumped at his presence but forced himself to keep calm, though he did stand up and move away. "You really shouldnít take up smoking, Subaru-kun," said Seishirou, tipping his handful of cigarettes neatly into the box. "Itís bad for your health, you know."

Subaru flinched. Memory Ė

 

He raised the lighter, forcing his hand not to shake. The cigarette caught immediately.

"Thank you."

Without warning his hand was caught in a swift snatch and raised to warm lips. He froze.

"You . . . smoke?" An amused smile as Subaru stared in shock. "Itís bad for your health, you know."

It was too much; he jerked away, ready to fight Ė

Subaru blinked and brought his mind back to the present (the past?) as he realised his sister was talking.

"Youíre a bad influence on my little brother, Sei-chan!" Hokuto declared with a mock-glare at the man. The vet laughed as he put his box of cigarettes in the pocket of his doctorís where Subaru couldnít get them.

"People always take on aspects of the one they love," replied Seishirou. He smiled at Subaru. Subaru didnít smile back.

"What aspect of me have you taken on, Seishirou-san?" he asked.

Seishirou stopped and looked at him.

"What do you mean, Subaru-kun?" he asked quizzically.

"Exactly what you heard," Subaru shot back. He looked straight into the assassinís golden eyes. "Have I affected you in any way? Is it possible for you to change?"

Subaru felt an odd sort of satisfaction as he watched Seishirouís face. The vet blinked in surprise, but behind the glasses lurked something darker. It was probably imperceptible to most people, but then again Subaru had the dubious pleasure of knowing Seishirou like no one else ever had. He gazed up at the man, defiant.

Then without warning, the kindly veterinarian was back.

"I donít think I quite understand you. Are you alright, Subaru-kun?" Seishirou looked down at him with a worried expression.

"Donít give me that look," Subaru snapped.

Seishirou stared. So did Hokuto. Subaru tensed, wondering if he had gone too far and the Sakurazukamori would reveal himself in a storm of blood and flowers. Mentally he kicked himself. Hard. However just as he was about to open his mouth again to remedy the effect of his words, his sister unwittingly saved him.

"Eh, donít mind Subaru today," chirped Hokuto, waving her hand dismissively. "Heís been weird ever since he woke up this morning. He even forgot what year it is, if you would believe it."

"I see," replied Seishirou. Subaru frowned Ė what was that unreadable look Seishirou was giving him? It was lost as Seishirou turned to Hokuto with a cheery smile. "For a moment there I was afraid I had done something wrong and Subaru-kun didnít love me anymore!"

Hokuto laughed merrily and Subaru tried to force himself to give the man a weak smile. It didnít work. To cover his embarrassment, he turned his attention to the work counter and began fiddling with the objects covering it, ignoring how his sister was regaling Seishirou with childhood tales to prove just how weird Subaru had been at times. At the very end of the room the latest patient sat in a cage; Subaru walked over to it and peered through the grill. A large white cat blinked sleepily at him, then yawned. It woke up when Subaru slid his hand inside the gap under the cage door. Interested in a petting, the cat butted its head against his fingers. Subaru smiled.

" . . . and then there was the time he thought heíd try a spell to walk on water to see the ducks . . ."

Subaru winced Ė Hokuto seemed bent on embarrassing him today. On impulse, he opened the cage and lifted the cat out into his arms, hiding his pink face in the white fur. Satisfied with the attention it was receiving, the cat purred contentedly and settled into his arms, only protesting once when Subaru jarred a bandaged paw.

So he healed you, thought Subaru, stroking the catís head as he sat on the stool again. He did his best not to listen to Seishirou and Hokutoís laughs over the duck incident and smiled sadly. The Sakurazukamori is capable of doing good . . . when he chooses to. Youíre one of the lucky ones. He scratched the cat under the chin. The barrier of silk over his hands prevented him from truly enjoying the softness of the catís fur Ė briefly he thought about removing them since he knew that Seishirou knew anyway, but then decided not to. He didnít want Hokuto to ask questions.

He didnít want Hokuto to know that she had died.

There was a break in the conversation as Seishirou stood up to clean away the tea things and Subaru tuned back in, away from his darker thoughts. "But if you want to hear about Subaru making a fool of himself then those are nothing," said Hokuto. Suddenly she laughed loudly. "It is Subaru and Sei-chanís first meeting that we must remember!"

Subaru started. What was so funny about meeting Seishirou at the Sakura Tree Barrow in the bloody aftermath of a murder and being forced into a bet he didnít understand? Then he realised that Hokuto was talking about the other time he had met Seishirou, the day the year of the bet began. He frowned, trying to remember the details. What was so funny about it? He had been chasing a shikigami through the train station, it was flying high and he had been craning his head to follow it, thus paying no attention to where his feet were going . . .

Ouch. Subaru flushed. Now he remembered. His hopes to be spared from further humiliation were dashed as Hokuto continued on heedless of his red face.

"Subaru is so clumsy, but meeting Sei-chan after falling on his face at the Ikebukuro train station is just priceless!" giggled the girl.

"I Ė I was concentrating on following the shikigami at the time," said Subaru defensively. "I didnít want to lose sight of it and since a bird flies in the sky I had to keep looking upwards so . . ." He tightened his hold on the cat as it purred against his cheek. "I suppose I forgot to look at my feet as well."

Hokutoís maniacal exuberant laughter was unexpected enough to make Subaru fall off his chair, much to the catís shock as well as his own.

"Sei-chan, you really fell for such a fool!" Hokuto declared expansively. "That must have been a terrible first impression!"

"That wasnít the first time."

Subaru sat up on the floor. Seishirou had his back to them, his face in shadow as he put the teapot away. "Huh?" he asked, confused.

Seishirou turned to face them, a mysterious smile on his face. "That time at the Ikebukuro wasnít our first meeting." He came over to Subaru, pulling him up; Subaru accepted without thinking, confused at the Sakurazukamoriís behaviour. Up until now Seishirou seemed to be acting like nothing had happened. So why had he suddenly changed tactics?

"Seishirou-san . . ." he began, about to ask despite his misgivings.

"A long time ago," Seishirou said softly, cutting him off, "a very long time ago, you and I met, Subaru-kun." He hadnít let go of Subaruís wrist. "Donít you remember?"

They were standing so close; Subaru found he couldnít move out from under that golden gaze. Pure gold now, not off-set by milky white. What was Seishirou saying? Was he trying to tell him that he did remember all that had happened Ė was going to happen, in those nine years? But why such an odd, enigmatic way of saying so?

He tried to make his lips form the question, tried to force himself to speak even though Hokuto was there, watching them curiously. But Seishirou spoke before he could. It wasnít what Subaru expected though.

"Just kidding!"

Subaru and Hokuto both fell over. The veterinarian had the biggest grin on his face. "Itís not a very popular idea nowadays," he explained to the floored Sumeragi twins, still grinning lopsidedly, "but people said that theyíve met in a previous life so I thought Iíd try it!"

Hokuto was faster to regain control than Subaru, who sat on the floor blinking up at Seishirou completely thrown off-course. "Sei-chan, you-!" she scolded, despite the fact the man was half again her size and a dangerous assassin to boot. "You must be going senile if you follow the fashions! Whereíd you hear something as dumb as that?!"

"In a book I read recently Ė an anthology of something . . ."

The rest of the banter was lost to Subaru as he started to think. Now he was more confused than ever. There was an odd sense of déjà vu to the incident, more than which had coloured the entire morning so far, but it wasnít that which bothered him.

Just what are you playing at, Sakurazukamori, thought Subaru darkly as he watched his sister lecturing the man with a sparkling smile. Meeting a long time ago Ė was Seishirou trying to tell him something? That he did remember everything that had happened between them, from Hokutoís death to the Final Day? That could very well apply to the manís comment about meeting in a previous life; but it had been meant in jest, not seriousness.

Hadnít it?

He stared at Seishirou, now laughing with what seemed to be genuine humor and not the cold amusement Subaru remembered. The assassin, once again the veterinarian, playing the part so perfectly that Subaru, who knew the reality of the face behind the glasses, had to remind himself not to be fooled. But Seishirou flowed between the two so smoothly and so quickly it was difficult. Subaru was having a hard enough time trying to figure out just who he himself should be in this strange situation Ė Seishirou, with all his talent at pretense, was about as tangible as the illusions he cast.

"Who are you now?" Subaru murmured softly.

Not softly enough it would seem. "Whoís who now?" asked Seishirou curiously, suddenly appearing right in front of him. Subaru jumped at his sudden close proximity. "Nothing," he mumbled, backing away slowly.

He yelped as he bumped into Hokuto and spun to face her. She was looking at him suspiciously, arms folded across the pink bodice of her puffy black dress.

"Just what is wrong with you today, Subaru?" she said impatiently. "Who are you talking about?"

Subaru averted his eyes and tried to act casual. "N-no one," he mumbled.

Of course, his sister wasnít so easily dissuaded. "Whaddya mean, Ďno oneí?" she demanded jabbing a finger at him. "Are you two-timing Sei-chan?!"

Subaru spluttered. "Where on earth did you get that idea from? Why would I Ė"

"Itís okay, Hokuto-chan," said Seishirou. He placed a steadying hand on the girlís shoulder, a look of mournful resignation on his face. "Iím not attractive enough. I donít have a good body."

The young onmyouji turned red. "Seishirou-san!"

"After all," continued Seishirou, "a mere veterinarian like me is not worthy of Subaru-kun, a beautiful young man known all over Tokyo." He produced a handkerchief from some pocket of his white doctorís coat and dabbed at illusionary tears. Subaru glared. Now that was really going over the top.

"What do you mean a Ďmere veterinarianí?" Subaru said sarcastically.

The subtle nuance of his voice went unnoticed. "Oh, so youíre saying that I really am good enough for you, Subaru-kun?" asked Seishirou. "That being a vet is actually a worthy occupation?"

Subaru blinked at the unexpected interpretation of his words. "Y-yes, a vet is a good occupation," he stammered without thinking before he caught himself. "Uh, wait a sec! I mean-"

Seishirou wasnít in the mood to listen to the rest of what Subaru was going to say. "Iím so relieved, Subaru-kun!" said the vet happily. Beside them, Hokuto was trying to hide giggles. "So then, shall we set a date for our wedding?"

The young manís eyes boggled. "Wh-wh-what are you saying?!" Now he knew Seishirou was playing. "Youíve got to be kidding! Iím a guy! And you-"

He cut himself off. And youíre a deadly assassin whoís going to kill my twin sister and make a mess of my life, thought Subaru. He didnít say it out loud. Not with Hokuto around. Of course heís kidding. Heís been kidding all morning. I think.

He expected Seishirou to drop the joke now. If he remembered correctly, the Sakurazukamori never bothered trying to hide when he was obviously caught out. Therefore, Subaru wasnít at all prepared when Seishirou leapt off his chair and advanced disturbingly close to him with an expression of intense passion on his face. Subaru instinctively moved backwards, but this time Seishirou followed.

"But Subaru-kun!" said the man, coming after him. "I really do love you!"

The words stopped Subaru in his tracks Ė or maybe it was because he had backed into the wall. His heart skipped a beat. He wanted desperately to think it was true. But of course, he knew it wasnít. The Sakurazukamori was utterly without feeling, completely incapable of experiencing emotion. Subaru knew that all too well. There was nothing he could have done at all to affect twenty centuries or so of dark tradition.

The bet Seishirou had pushed Subaru into had been impossible to win. He had never even given Subaru a fair chance.

Right?

"Stop joking around like this, Seishirou-san," snapped Subaru, pulse racing despite himself. He gulped as a hand was placed on the wall beside his head.

"Do I look like Iím joking?" asked Seishirou. His expression was completely serious.

For one wild moment Subaru believed him. Seishirouís golden eyes were piercing behind the glasses as he leaned his face closer to Subaruís stunned expression.

"Iím a man, and youíre a boy, Subaru-kun," said Seishirou, inching closer so that the entirety of his forearm lay right next to Subaruís head. "Itís just happened that the person Iíve fallen in love with is a boy, but . . ."

Subaru blinked. Why did this sound so familiar? Provocation was not Seishirouís intent, leaning over him like this. The whole thing seemed so surreal . . .

"Thatís what Iím saying," continued Seishirou, shrugging his shoulders in the way people do when they are joking about themselves, "but . . ."

"But a man who loves a boy is somewhat perverted," finished Subaru slowly.

Seishirou looked at him quizzically and stepped back. "Why, Subaru-kun," he said, eyebrows raised. "Thatís exactly what I was going to say." He laughed. Subaru didnít.

They were interrupted by a loud stamp of a boot. "Thatís right!" snapped Hokuto, grabbing their attention. Subaru blinked as his sister, half-standing on Seishirouís desk shook a fist at them. "Now matter how you say it, Sei-chan," the girl scolded, "youíre a pervert! Only weird men go after boys!"

Subaru looked at Seishirou as the man laughed. A new suspicion began to flicker in his mind.

"But Iím not going to split you two up," continued Hokuto, a gleam in her eye. "No, no! I give you my blessing!"

The young onmyouji looked at Hokuto, then back at Seishirou as the two carried the joke between themselves. Hokuto, who still supported a liaison between himself and Seishirou, obviously had no memory of what had happened to her and behaved no differently. In fact, while Subaru was edgy and fiddling with cigarettes, Hokuto was exactly as she had been during that one year of the bet.

And Seishirou . . .

The realisation emerged in his mind the way a bubble rises through water, never rippling the liquid skin until it surfaced with a distinct pop.

He doesnít remember.

If Hokuto or Seishirou had looked at Subaru at this moment, they might have believed that he was lost in daydream. As things were, Subaruís thoughts were far from dreams.

But why would he not remember while I do? Maybe heís just playing . . . again.

Is he?

The young onmyouji watched carefully as the veterinarian scooped up the cat, which had crawled under the desk, and put it back in its cage. The manís actions were unhurried, easy, and he had turned his back upon Subaru. For the entire day Seishirou had treated Subaru no differently than how he had when Subaru really had been sixteen; that is, an enticing combination of warm affection, caring, with bursts of intense passion. No matter how good a control the assassin had over himself, Subaru seriously doubted that even the Sakurazukamori would have been able to wake up to find himself nine years in the past without displaying more reaction than what he had seen so far.

But it wasnít only that. It was also the fact that Seishirouís actions, like Hokutoís, were for most part, a replay of the first time Subaru had lived this day.

"Well then, shall we go out?" said Seishirou Ė as Subaru belatedly knew he would.

"Closed your clinic already?" asked Hokuto.

The veterinarian slid his doctorís coat off and went to hang it up. "Doesnít seem like theirs many customers today, so I can take a break," he said cheerfully.

"Great!" Hokuto danced off the desk with an exuberant grin. "Letís go see the sakura! Ueno Park would be great! I love eating oden while gazing at the sakura in Ueno Park!"

Ueno Park? Thatís where Ė Subaru gulped. "But Hokuto-chan," he began. Quickly he tried to think of an excuse not to go. "Um, Seishirou-sanís only just finished, he might be tired." Where have I heard that before? "And the sakura -" He cut himself off before he finished the sentence. There was, after all, one sakura still in bloom.

His reply had no effect on his twin in this time that it had the last. Even though Subaru had a vague idea of what his sisterís response was going to be, the enthusiasm of her reply still bowled him over. "IDIOT! Thatís why itís a good idea!" shouted Hokuto impatiently as Subaru winced. "When Ueno Parkís in full bloom youíve got to shove your way past all the camping salary men! But today thereíll only be kindergarten kids and old folk in photosynthesis!"

In vain, Subaru tried to calm his hyperactive sister down while Seishirou exchanged his doctorís coat for his suit jacket. Hokuto, pleased with her wit, gave a silvery laugh. Hearing it, Subaru hesitated before speaking to chide her. He had missed that laugh. He was glad it hadnít been changed by memories of a dark past/future.

And Seishirou hadnít changed either . . .

Subaru was so deep in though he didnít even protest as Seishirou placed a hand on his shoulder to guide him out the door in Hokutoís wake.


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