Nukume Dori

Chapter Six

By Leareth

       

The problem with sincere gratitude was that it made it difficult to part company without feeling guilty. After successfully resolving his case of the day, a minor exorcism, Subaru found himself detained by the thankful family who insisted despite his protests that they provide him with a late lunch. It had been quite a while before he had finally been able to detach himself by gently telling them that he had an appointment to keep.

There had been a time, perhaps, when Subaru wouldnít have had the heart to turn someone down. That time wasnít now anymore. Still, added Subaru silently as he ran from the train station to Sunshine 60, he had no one to blame but himself for his tardiness. He always had a hard time saying no to other people, even to those to whom he owed nothing Ė

No point in kicking myself over this anymore; Iím late enough as it is.

Too absorbed in self-recrimination, Subaru ran headlong into a startled passerby. He bobbed a hasty bow and tried apologising to the irritated glare given to him, then dashed off again towards the penguin enclosure. At least there had been one advantage in being a Dragon of Heaven; you could get to places fast. He grabbed the support pylon by the entrance, used it to catch his momentum to swing into the enclosure Ė

Ėand ducked behind the entrance display.

For a moment he pressed his back against the cool concrete, breathing hard. Few voices floated into his alcove Ė it was after lunch on a working day so the place was rather empty. The smiling anthropomorphic penguin on the display beamed down at Subaru as having caught his breath, he straightened his clothes and quietly began walking again.

The meeting place was easy to find, and there was already someone there. Looking rather out-of-place amongst the tourists and young families, Seishirou stood leaning over the barrier of the penguin enclosure, his back to Subaru. Subaru held his breath as he approached. Still, however, the man heard his coming, and turned with a large smile that on anyone else would have been sincerely caring.

"Subaru-kun."

Subaru came to a halt. Instead of bowing in greeting, however, he smiled. "Iím sorry for being late, Seishirou-san. The job took longer than I thought."

"Thatís alright." Seishirou moved away from where he was leaning on the railing. "Itís my fault for insisting on having a date today even though I knew you had a job to do. So donít worry!"

"But I do worry. I made you wait." He took a step closer. "Iím sorry."

That smile again, the practiced one. The smile that receptionists and customer service people wear. Subaru studied it, the way Seishirouís lips curved to construct the expression, and wanted to touch it to see if it was as real as it looked.

"Iím glad you came," the smile said.

Words, just words Ö

Well, two could play at that game.

"You never get angry with me, do you, Seishirou-san."

"Eh?"

"Angry. Youíre never angry with me. Even when you have every right to be."

Seishirouís smile never wavered. "But you canít get angry with those you love."

"Yes, you can." Subaru moved closer. The chill from the artificial ice and the warmth from that other person enfolded him. "You can get angry with those you love, you can even hurt the one you love. Sometimes Ö you can even hate the one you love." He smiled, as if Seishirouís change of expression were nothing more than a passing cloud over the sun. "Anyway, itís past noon and you must be hungry. Should we go for lunch now?"

Seishirou didnít answer immediately. Subaru half-turned towards the exit inviting company. Eventually Seishirou did come, and Subaru let him lead.

He had been playing this little game with Seishirou for some days now, just as Seishirou continued playing his own game with him. Considering Subaruís natural shyness Seishirouís confidence usually won, however, what few victories Subaru managed to score were enough for him. Acceptable, yes, to see that flicker of suspicion and questioning, to see the ever-confident and smiling mask slip a little now and again; unacceptable, however, to push things too far.

It was a game, just like last time, but instead of a hunt, now it was a fencing match, with subtle lunge and parry. And the masks, of course. They were very important, for safety and other things ...

"Where do you think we should go?" Subaru asked. Best to give the reins of the situation back to Seishirou now. "I donít really know the eating places."

"Hm." Seishirou looked thoughtful, and he began to lead them towards the elevators. "The Y.O.U. area of the Sunshine 60 has a nice little café called ĎAfternoon Teaí with delicious muffins, we havenít tried them yet." He pressed the call button, turning to Subaru, the caring smile back on his face. "And you told me that you donít visit Ikebukuro often. "

"Oh, that time." Subaru looked apologetic. "Iím so sorry I left you waiting for me."

A few days ago one of Subaruís jobs had gone overtime, so much so that Subaru had had to cancel the rest of his appointments for the day. The job had been particularly trying, and he hadnít even remembered that one of those canceled appointments was a lunch with Seishirou until well after the scheduled hour. By the time he had frantically run to their meeting place it had been too late.

"Itís okay!" The elevator pinged, and they both entered, Seishirou pressing the button for their destination. "It was me who insisted on meeting for lunch before afternoon duties. I did wait, but since you were taking so long I had to return to the clinic."

Seishirouís reassurance didnít do much for Subaru, who had been recriminating himself for having forgotten Seishirou in the first place. "Ö Iím so very sorry."

"Did that job go fine?" asked Seishirou, probably to change the subject.

"Yes, it did, butó"

"So you have nothing to worry about today?"

"No, butó"

The elevator arrived at their floor, pinging as the doors opened to let them out. "Great! So now we can have a proper date!"

The word Ďdateí reduced Subaru to blushing and stammering. "D-date?" Yes, he enjoyed being with Seishirou, now that he knew that he could relax and take pleasure from their being together without having to worry about Hokuto or being hurt, but still, a date, the two of them being a couple in public Ö that Subaru was having trouble with.

It seemed that all the missing crowds of the penguin enclosure were on this level. Young women ducked in and out of the shops, some in groups, others dragging a boyfriend along with them. Men hurried past with cell-phones and briefcases, adroitly avoiding the small children tagging along behind their mothers or running ahead causing much anxiety. Thankfully Seishirou was tall, so that even in the chance that he was separated from Subaru, Subaru could easily find him.

Unexpectedly Seishirou nudged his arm. "Look, thereís a fortune telling booth!"

Subaru looked. Tucked away a small distance from a shoe-store was a desk with a computer and printer. A young attractive woman sat behind it. On the desk was a placard advertising a fortune-telling for five hundred yen.

Subaru remembered it. He looked at the booth thoughtfully as Seishirou continued talking. "I hear theyíre very popular nowadays. Do you like that kind of thing, Subaru-kun?"

"Eh?" Subaru looked up at Seishirou. "Actually, fortune-telling is forbidden to me, since my job is along similar lines."

"Oh, I didnít know that."

Sure you didnít. "Why donít you try a fortune telling, Seishirou-san?" asked Subaru.

"Mm, no thank you." Suddenly Seishirou grinned. "I know something better."

Before Subaru could react, Seishirou grabbed his gloved hand and pulled him towards the booth.

"S-Seishirou-san!"

The man smiled mischievously. "Letís get an affinity test done!"

"Wh-what?!"

Seishirou stood him in front of the desk, patting him on the back. With his arm around Subaru in that manner there was no way the Sumeragi could get away from the attendant who looked at them expectantly. "Donít worry!" the man said reassuringly. "Here you deal with a computer, not a fortune-teller, so you wonít be breaking any rules."

"But Ió"

Seishirou waved to the attendant. "Excuse me, Miss, weíd like to get an affinity test done." Subaru inwardly sighed and gave up. Seishirou had dragged him here before he had time to formulate any idea of what to do about it, and all he could do now was go along.

"Of course!" The attendant beamed politely at them. "Please give me your dates of birth."

"Whenís your birthday, Subaru-kun?" asked Seishirou.

Subaru raised an eyebrow, knowing perfectly well that Seishirou didnít need to ask him. "February nineteen, nineteen-seventy-four. Did you forget, Seishirou-san?"

"And your place of birth?" asked the attendant as Seishirou feigned chagrin.

"Kyoto," said Subaru calmly. There really wasnít any point pretending otherwise when Seishirou knew already. He sensed Seishirou look at him in surprise, but he didnít say anything,

The attendant dutifully entered all the information into the computer. "And what about you, sir?" she asked Seishirou respectfully.

"Me?" Seishirou smiled with perfect charm. "I was born on April first, nineteen-sixty-five, here in Tokyo."

Subaru motioned for the attendant to pause. "Really?" asked Subaru, one eyebrow raised at Seishirou.

Seishirou looked at him. "Of course. Why would I say otherwise?"

"Oh, I donít know." Subaru smiled. "Maybe youíre lying about your age and are actually older than you say. Or maybe you want to keep it a secret for some reason. Or maybeó"

He broke off. Seishirou was staring at him. His glasses caught the light so Subaru couldnít see the manís eyes, but he easily see that Seishirou was not smiling. Subaru fell silent, as painfully as if someone had just put a hand around his throat. Too far, too fast, he shouldnít have pushed the Sakurazukamori like this Ö still Seishirou looked at him. Locked under the gaze of those glasses, Subaru swallowed nervously, even knowing that the Sakurazukamori was bound to his word of staying with and protecting Subaru for one year didnít help reassure him Ö

Just when Subaru thought that he would break from the tension, Seishirou calmly turned back to the attendant. "Pardon me. Let me change that. November twenty-second, nineteen-sixty-five, Kanazawa."

Too polite to say anything, the attendant complied. Subaru stared. Seishirou didnít look at him. Had it been anyone else, Subaru would have wondered if he was being given the cold shoulder treatment. Eventually Subaru turned away as well, wondering if for once Seishirou really had told a truth about himself, or if he had lied.

Again.

The sudden cooling of atmosphere must have been noticed by the attendant, for she tried to lighten things up. "Itís nice to be in love with a student, isnít it sir," she said brightly to Seishirou.

Within a split second Seishirou was back to his cheerful mask as if nothing had happened. "Oh yes! I just wish that my feelings were more openly returned." Subaru, staring at his feet, didnít respond.

"You make a delightful couple," said the attendant as the printer began to churn. "Your beloved is very beautiful. Her husky voice makes her such a lovely girl."

Subaru flushed. "I Ė Iím not a girl."

The attendant blinked. "Eh?"

"Heís not a girl," said Seishirou. He slyly slid an arm around Subaruís waist, which caused the young onmyouji to turn a flaming red. "Heís a boy."

The attendantís eyes turned wide. "Not a girl?!"

"S-Seishirou-san!"

Just like that, the tension had passed. Back they were, to ardent lover and shy adolescent as if nothing had happened, two points of safety that kept the scales in a deceptively stable balance. And now, Subaru was acutely aware of how precarious that balance was. Should he push or challenge the Sakurazukamori too far, they would both fall, but on the other hand, if he stayed huddled and didnít dare go further, then their game would end the same as last time. The trick was to see just how far he could go Ö

His line of thought was shattered by a shrill pi pi pi! from his bag. He jumped. The startled faces of Seishirou and the attendant Ė everyone within hearing distance, actually Ė didnít help matters much as he dug, red-faced, into his bag for the source of the noise which refused to shut up until he hauled his pager out into the open and turned it off. "S-sorry!"

"Donít worry, itís okay," said Seishirou reassuringly. "I didnít know you carried a pager."

Subaru tilted the pagerís small screen away from the light to see the number. "Sometimes I get a call for a very important job and have to be contacted immediately," he explained absently.

"Onmyouji have certainly changed with the times if they carry a pager around. Whoís the call from?"

"Hokuto-chan." Subaru sighed and put the pager away. For Hokuto, who took every chance there was (and created chances if they didnít exist) to make Subaru spend time with Seishirou, to call him up like this, the job must require his attention as soon as possible. Which meant cutting his Ďdateí with Seishirou short.

"Youíd better give her a phone-call, then," said Seishirou, obviously having come to the same conclusion. The attendant, no doubt still flustered at the revelation that Seishirou was on a date with a high-school boy, had retrieved their test printout. She handed it to Seishirou who accepted it with a grin. "Letís hope the results are good, Subaru-kun!"

Subaruís lips tightened. The affinity test Ö "Yes, letís hope, but really, Seishirou-san, if youíre joking aroundó"

"Itís not a joke," said Seishirou, that affectionate smile on his face. "Donít you believe me after all this time?"

Subaru looked at him, one eyebrow raised. "Should I?"

Seishirou looked hurt. "But Subaru-kun, I love you!"

 

"I donít hate you Ö but I donít love you either."

 

For a long moment Subaru gazed at him sadly, barely aware of the embarrassed attendant beside them. The smile on Seishirouís face slipped ever so slightly.

Subaru turned away.

"I need to get to a phone."

       

"Whaa~at?! You went for a date at Ikebukuroís Sunshine 60 building?!"

Subaru focused his gaze on the vaguely familiar fax in his hand and pretended not to hear his sister. If the bunny-ears and the tea tray she was carrying were anything to go by, her dress for today was the March Hare from Alice in Wonderland. "And what were you planning to do there?" demanded Hokuto.

Sitting on the floor of Subaruís living room Seishirou fluffed up one of the large lounging pillows. "Well, we wanted to go to the café for muffins, then to the coffee lounge for an omelette, then to the Hesian for some barbeque as well Ö"

Hokuto put the tea tray down right in front of Seishirou with a clatter and glared at him. "That sounds like some grand eating tour! Whereís the romance in that?!" Seishirou simply laughed, and Hokuto turned her attention to her brother. "But seriously, Subaru, you donít even have time for a date!"

"Not my fault." Subaru waved the fax around. "Youíre the one who called up and interrupted, Hokuto-chan."

"Itís alright," said Seishirou reassuringly. "Weíll go eat that barbeque some other time."

Hokuto muttered something under her breath, costume bunny-ears wiggling in her exasperation, and reached for the teapot. "So whatís the job this time?" she asked as she filled Subaru a cup.

Subaru took the tea. "Hokuto-chan, you know the ĎDial Q2í system, right?"

"Sure!" Hokuto frowned prettily as she remembered. "Itís the one with all the double 9ís in the phone number, right?"

"Uh huh. Theyíve got something weird going on with their ĎParty Lineí and want me to look into it." He sipped the tea, letting its warmth seep into his gloves and envelope his hands.

Seishirou, holding the dinosaur-mug Hokuto had passed him, looked confused. "Whatís a ĎParty Lineí thing?"

"Donít you know, Sei-chan?" asked Hokuto, looking down at Seishirou as she filled his cup. The man smiled apologetically and requested explanation. Subaru, having heard it before, tuned out. This case, like the one with Mitsuki just recently, became familiar once he went through the facts again. Three schoolgirls harboring delusions about their place in the world had been researching old spells from magical disciplines, and using them to cause supernatural havoc over the phone at various companies. Their undisciplined practice of such techniques had affected the spiritual energies in their area, causing hauntings and nightmares. Subaru had taken it upon himself to stop them, but from what he remembered, it hadnít turned out as well as he had wanted it to. Actually, it hadnít turned out well at all. Two of the girls had lost their minds and been institutionalized, and the third had been frightened almost out of her wits and had to see a psychiatrist.

Subaruís lips tightened. No, not the best way to close a case. Heíd have to take special care this time to make sure it didnít happen again.

"Youíre very informed, Hokuto-chan," commented Seishirou once Hokuto had explained the whole Party Line to him.

"Itís natural that I should be! Iím an Aquarius after all."

"Speaking of star-signs," said Seishirou, remembering something, "Subaru-kun and I got an affinity test done at the Sunshine before you called."

Subaru suddenly made sure to seem as if he found his case report very fascinating.

"Really?!" As expected, Hokuto leapt at the subject as she always did with anything concerning her brother and Seishirou. "How was it?"

Seishirou extracted the printout from his pocket and held it out. "Havenít had time to check it, yet."

"Lemme see, lemme see!" There was a rustle of paper as Hokuto took the sheet from Seishirou and unfolded it. "Oh, Sei-chanís birthday is November twenty-second, so that makes you a Scorpio."

"Really? I donít know much about the Zodiac."

"Hmm Ö" There was a minute of silence as Hokuto digested the affinity test. Subaru resisted the impulse to go and tear it out of his sisterís hand and throw it in the bin where it belonged. It was utter rubbish to think that all the complexities and destinies of a relationship could be mapped out by computer, and even if Subaru gave it any credibility, Seishirou had probably been lying about his birth-date and place, so what was the point?

"Is something wrong?" asked Seishirou sounding worried.

Hokuto twisted on the floor cushions to face him. Subaru stole a glance at her, and also started to worry. Hokuto had that smile on her face which usually heralded mischief. "Hereís an excerpt for you, Sei-chan. Scorpio male. ĎYou are persuasive and will not admit defeat once you have your mind fixed on a particular partner. You prefer to control your mateís emotions. Like everything else, you always give one hundred percent and of course you expect the same in return.í Oh, now this is fun! ĎWhen it comes to lovemaking you are capable of attaining the highest level of passion. To you sex is a competitive game, and revenge and jealousy are two of your characteristics that will surface if you aren't winning." She put down the piece of paper and winked at Seishirou who seemed completely unruffled, while Subaru, flaming red, buried his attention in his case report. "It seems, Sei-chan, that you have a bit of a dark side that only Subaru will discover!"

Subaru choked at the statement, made in such innocent humor. Hokuto-chan, if only you knew Ö He glanced up at Seishirou. The man caught his eye and lifted his mug in a salute. There was a dark smile on his face, one that was more familiar to Subaru.

"Donít worry, Subaru-kun," said the Sakurazukamori. "I promise Iíll make the discovery part fun."

Hokutoís laughter pealed like silver bells throughout the room, becoming a counterpoint to Seishirouís own deeper laugh as Subaru looked at once both outraged and embarrassed. "S-Seishirou-san!"

"Come, come, what about Subaru-kun?" asked Seishirou, honey-gold eyes gleaming.

"What about Subaru, indeed!" Hokuto flashed a naughty grin at her twin and coughed dramatically. "Ahem. Aquarius male. ĎYou need to be mentally intrigued before you will make your move on a prospective mate. Mind contact is a necessity for sexual fulfillment.í Ahaha, Sei-chan, you canít just be a handsome face! ĎYou are generous, open and sincere to those you care about, you like to get involved in your mateís interests. You will search for answers and the truth in any relationship. You are somewhat shy and will often wait for someone else to make the first move.í"

"Now that is certainly accurate," Seishirou commented. Subaru muttered something and turned away. Still his sister continued.

"ĎAlthough you appear outwardly to be in a place faraway, you are really quite emotional and tender and long for someone special. When it comes to sexual encounters you are very imaginative, however, you also are a dreamer of erotic fantasies.í Oooh, Subaru, I never knew!"

"Thank goodness," muttered Subaru. Something stirred within him uneasily, flashes of images, sensation, of long dark nights lying in a cold bed with nothing but memory, memories that were too painful and made him flee to fantasy, which was almost as painful as memory because of all the Ďcould-have-beensí and Ďmight-have-beensí Ö

"And, finally, Ďyou fall in love quickly but you are also hesitant to commit completely to anyone.í" Hokuto put the paper down and looked at her brother. "That is so you, Subaru!"

Subaru made a face. "Come on, Hokuto-chan, you know those things are ridiculous. How can every single person born within that time period fit the same personality profile?"

Hokuto winked. "Itís not as hard as you think. Every Aquarian who reads this profile would twist it according to their point of view to fit their own lives. Besides, all the magazines carry the horoscope nowadays, itís the end of the century and thereís a boom for the occult all around the world! Surely they canít all be wrong."

"So is the end of the century is a reason for the occult to be in fashion?" asked Seishirou curiously.

Hokuto turned back to the printout, reading further as she absently replied, "Well, the prophecies of Nostradamus and the Bible say that in the year nineteen-ninety-nine the world will be destroyedó"

There was the sound of something hitting the floor. Hokuto broke off and turned around. "Subaru?"

Subaru tried to smile. "Itís ok, Hokuto-chan. I was just clumsy and knocked the tea over." With shaking hands he got one of the napkins off the tray and used it to wipe up the spilled tea. It made his leather gloves slippery.

"Are you okay, Subaru-kun?"

Subaruís hands tightenedó

 

"So. This is how it ends."

a faint sound of clashing swords rings through the air

no more time at the end of time

 

óhe forced them to relax. "Iím fine."

He felt Hokuto and Seishirou looking at him for a long moment. Subaru kept his eyes on the floor as he cleaned up. Once he wiped up all the tea he put the soiled napkin on the tray and tried to avoid their gaze. Perhaps sensing that Subaru found the topic uncomfortable, Seishirou changed the subject. "So whatís the job about?"

"Huh?" It took a moment for Subaru to realise that he was being asked a question. "Oh Ö um, lately over Tokyo there have been a lot of phone pranks."

"Phone pranks? I get a lot of those at the clinic. They say things like, ĎWhat are you doing now?í or ĎWhatís the color of your underwear, lady?í is a gasping voice." Seishirou chuckled. "Since Iím not a woman and canít satisfy their curiosity, as a consolation I let them listen to the voices of my patients; Mr. Cat, Mr. Dog, Mr. Monkey Ö" Subaru couldnít help but smile himself a little at the mental image of Seishirou, upstanding veterinarian and polished assassin, rolling his eyes at some nameless perverted caller and holding the phoneís mouthpiece out to a dog. "What do phone pranks have to do with the job?" asked Seishirou, all business again.

"Phone numbers with Ď1999í in their last four digits have been receiving an unusual amount of phone pranks in the last few months," explained Subaru, the exercise of reciting facts a familiar rhythm that settled his mind and emotions. "However, theyíre not like ordinary phone pranks. They seem to be more like spells. At first people thought them to be nothing out of ordinary, but then accidents began to happen at the places that received the call. So, the NTT company decided to track down the calls and discovered that they were being made from a Party Line belonging to the Q2 access system."

"Then itís almost impossible to find the culprit since anyone can access that line."

Subaru nodded. Offside, Hokuto was intently going through the details of the affinity test. "Yes, so since the NTT canít do anything, theyíve asked for the Sumeragi clanís help."

"What kind of spells are being used?" asked Seishirou curiously.

Subaru flipped a page of the case report. "It seems to be a lot of different ones; Islamic, Cabalistic, black magic Ö they use everything."

"What a broad variety!"

"Uh huh. It indicates that either the persons behind it are very good sorcerers, or maybe they areó"

He was interrupted by an irritated noise from Hokuto. "Wah Ö you guys, this is not looking good!"

"What isnít?" asked Subaru.

"Your affinity test! Youíre negative!"

Subaru and Seishirou both blinked in utter confusion. "Uh, what does that mean?"

Hokuto twisted on the floor cushions to look at them. "ĎYou are polar opposites. Scorpio has a desire to possess while Aquarius needs freedom of choice. Values, ethics and approach to life are just too different.í That just doesnít make sense!"

"Oh? Why not?" asked Subaru, one eyebrow raised.

"Look at you two! Sei-chanís a vet, you want to be someone who cares for animals. Youíre both from onmyouji families. More importantly," here Hokuto fixed them both with a penetrating gaze, "you both need someone special."

Subaru carefully kept his face expressionless and turned away from Seishirou. Hokuto was always so bold and flippant, sometimes it was easy to forget the strength of her intuition. However his sister was only mortal, a fact that Subaru knew all-too-painfully, and the first time this life had passed, she had proved fatally wrong Ö

Why did he still love Seishirou?

"Is there anything else?" asked Seishirou, his voice neutral.

"We-ell Ö" Hokuto dragged the word out into three syllables, "according to this your passions will lead to conflict, and if one or both of the parties doesnít compromise itíll result in destruction and be almost impossible to recover from. Certainly enough conflict to ruin an entire day, or even an entire lifeó"

Without warning Subaru stood up. He strode over to his sister, yanked the paper out of her startled hands, and then before anyone could react, scrunched it up on his way to the kitchen and threw it violently into the bin.

"Subaru!" Hokuto glared at him, outraged. "Whatís the matter with you?!"

"I donít want to hear anymore," Subaru retorted. He returned to the group and flung himself into the nearest cushion. "It was a stupid idea to get that test done, Seishirou-san. I did not want to hear all of that!"

Seeing that her brother was truly upset, Hokuto immediately lost all of her indignation. "But Subaru, I thought you didnít believe in that kind of thing."

Subaru refused to look up. "I donít. I just Ö didnít want to hear that."

"Subaru-kun." There was a note of almost genuine worry in Seishirouís voice. "Are you crying?"

With a start Subaru realised that he was. Angrily he wiped his eyes with his gloved hands, leaving liquid trails along the leather that caught the light. "No," he said shortly.

"You donít have to hide it, Subaru-kun." Despite himself, despite everything, Subaru felt his pulse quicken as Seishirou moved to sit facing him. Still Subaru refused to lift his head. Seishirouís face softened. "Youíre correct; it is ridiculous to think that an entire personís life can be determined by a simple test. Cheer up, you donít have to take it so seriously." Before Subaru could react, Seishirou caught his chin in his fingers and tilted his face up to look at him. Seishirou was smiling. "It was only a joke."

Subaru didnít return the smile. "Like that April first Tokyo thing of yours was a joke?"

It was almost imperceptible, but it happened. The fingers holding his chin tightened. Too late Subaru realised how vulnerable a position he was in, letting the Sakurazukamori touch him like this. Thankfully, Hokuto interrupted them. "Itís okay Subaru, really." She sat down beside her brother and wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him out of Seishirouís grasp to rest his head against her shoulder. "Youíll just have to work harder!"

Subaru tried to smile as Seishirou switched back to joviality. "Yes, the harder the obstacle, the brighter the flame of love burns!"

"Well said!" Hokuto beamed. "Exactly what I expect from my brother-in-law!"

Subaru turned red. "H-Hokuto-chan!"

"But we are distracting you from your work. Work always makes you feel better." Seishirou picked up the case report that Subaru had left on the floor and handed it back to him. "Any idea how youíre going to go about it?" Subaru shook his head, suddenly feeling very tired. He wanted to do nothing more than to curl up in his sisterís arms, a place of safety that could be so easily snatched away. Seishirou thought for a moment. "I have an idea! Do you know the number of this ĎParty Lineí?"

"It should be on the report somewhere."

Seishirou flipped a few pages and found it. "Then why donít you try calling it up and see what you find?"

"Yes, thatís a great idea!" Hokuto was quick to jump in on the decision. "You might hit it lucky."

Under the assault of both his sister and Seishirouís encouragement Subaru found himself reaching for the cordless phone before he even remembered that this was exactly what had happened last time. Seishirou called out the number to him in his clear voice for Subaru to input and it wasnít long at all before Subaru had the phone sitting on Ďspeakerí in front of him listening to it ring. Hokuto and Seishirou moved quietly off-side.

Subaru took a deep breath as the phoneís ringing echoed in the room. After a moment or two the phone beeped. Hokuto gave him a thumbs up.

"Ö Yes?"

The voice that answered was young, female, and suspicious. Not much to start off with. "Uh, hi there," said Subaru feeling a little silly. "Um, is this the Party Line thing?"

"Who is this?" the girlís voice asked.

There was a movement out of the corner of his eye. Subaru turned to see Hokuto scribbling something on the back of his fax to display to him, ĎYou donít need to use your real name! Everyone uses a nickname!í

"What is your name," the girl demanded.

Ah. This I remember. Carefully Subaru watched his audience. Seishirou grabbed the fax and pen off Hokuto and wrote something. Before the man could show him, however, Subaru answered the question.

"Pochi."

There was a pause. The name felt just as silly as last time Ė sillier, actually, now that Subaru could better comprehend the meaning of dignity Ė but that one flicker of startlement that flashed across the Sakurazukamoriís face was all Subaru needed.

Subaru smiled.

Despite the ridiculousness of the name, it worked.

"Are you one of our companions?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked. She was still wary, but now there was something else Ė hope? excitement? "Do you have any Ďspecial powersí?"

Seishirou and Hokuto blinked. Subaru feigned confusion. "What do you mean?"

The girlís voice lowered, as if sharing a secret. "What comes to your mind when you hear the number Ď1999í?"

 

Ö blood, fire

the sound of clashing swords

warmth, acceptance, sorrow

pain Ė

 

Subaru cut off the memory and the emotions that came with it like a gardener cuts dead wood. Now was not the time for this. He slipped a sheaf of ofuda out of his pocket. "I take it that if youíre asking me these questions, youíre the one responsible for all those spells?" he asked calmly.

The reaction was immediate. Someone Ė another girl Ė gasped in fright, quickly followed by another.

"Enemy!!"

"Itís the enemy!"

Here we go again Ö Subaru was already beginning the counter-spell to the Sanskrit chanting that started to emanate from the phone. A foul-smelling mist billowed from the grill of the earpiece, a physical manifestation of the magic coming through. As it did so, the lights flickered off, and the room began to shake violently.

"Su-Subaru!" yelled Hokuto from somewhere.

Subaru had no time to look at her. It seemed like the room was caught in a localized earthquake Ė Subaru fervently hoped his neighbors in the floor below were out Ė tipping the kettle over and spilling tea all over the floor. Small arcs of lightning were striking out from the phone Ė some of them skittered over his arm and Subaru felt his nerves tingle painfully as if an acupuncture needle had been stuck there. The mist was filling the room, making it difficult to see, but Subaru didnít need eyes to work.

Words rolling off his tongue, Subaru threw the ofuda.

"On basaragini harajihattaya sowaka." Subaru closed his eyes, mentally guided the ofuda to five points surrounding point of wrongness that was the phone, forming a pentagon and holding them in place with his will. The air crackled making his hair stand on end as the two spells wrestled for supremacy. "On barodaya sowaka Ö"

The chanting from the phone was growing more intense. Closing his eyes, Subaru clasped his hands together, standing tall while the floor trembled.

"On Ė boku Ė ken!"

Subaru summoned the kekkai, glowing walls of pure light. The little electrical strikes struck it uselessly, growing brighter as the kekkai trapped the spell inside the enclosed space, only to disappear abruptly moments later. The chanting suddenly cut off. For a moment the mist from the phone swirled behind the barrier like a caged thing, then the phone let out a long, monotone beep.

Subaru exhaled a breath as the lights came back on. The momentary confrontation might have been against amateur magicians, and the mirror-spell wasnít all that difficult, but he had been directing it at three different people at three separate locations. He felt as if he had just done a hundred meter sprint with his legs chained together.

Somewhere behind him, there was a groan. Subaru turned worriedly as the mist dissipated, thankfully taking the smell with it. "Is everyone alright? Hokuto-chan?"

Hokuto looked a little shaky but otherwise was unhurt. "What was that?"

"An inverted mantra," answered Seishirou, picking up the fallen pot-plants. The Sakurazukamori, Subaru noted, looked completely unruffled by the incident.

"An inverted whatsit?"

"Inverted mantra," repeated Subaru, relieved as Hokuto rapidly regained her composure. "Itís supposed to be a spell for protection, but when chanted backwards it becomes a curse." He sighed; his living room was a mess, as if a miniature storm had hit it. "The problem with phones is that it connects two spiritual spaces into one, so the apartment kekkai didnít react to the attack."

Hokuto looked outraged. "How pathetic! The kekkai of Japanís top onmyouji can be defeated by the modern home appliance? Hmph!"

"They were girlsí voices, werenít they," commented Seishirou.

Hokuto nodded. "Yeah, they sounded about my age."

Subaru went to fetch the fallen kettle. He was feeling a little dizzy, something which disturbed him. "Since they sent an inverted mantra over the phone, I think we can safely assume that theyíre the ones responsible for all those phone pranks. One thing Iím certain of, though, is that theyíre not onmyouji."

"Are you sure?" asked Hokuto.

"If they knew how to cast an inverted mantra, they probably know other techniques, Cabalistic and Christian and such," explained Seishirou. "But a true onmyouji wouldnít use them. Iím sure Subaru-kun knows every spell in both black and white magic, but heís never used them, yes?" Subaru nodded. "Those spells are not something you can play around with without consequences, because their effectiveness relies purely on the casterís ability. The more powerful the spell, the more dire the consequences should the spell not succeed. A professional onmyouji knows the dangers, and so he would never try what is strictly prohibited."

Subaru half-listened to Seishirouís explanation with a mixture of wry admiration and disbelief. Now that he thought about it, why hadnít Seishirouís obviously intimate knowledge of onmyoujitsu techniques and practices warned him the first time that his veterinary friend wasnít what he seemed to be?

"Wow, Sei-chan, you know so much! So? So? Címon, tell me, are you related to that assassin group Sakurazukamori? Tell me, tell me!"

"Oh dear, we seem to be out of tea, Iíll go get some more!"

"Oi! Every time I ask you about this you go and change the subject!"

Ö even Hokuto, who had little onmyoujitsu power to speak of, had picked up on that detail. Subaru shook his head at how foolishly naïve and trusting he had been. What a blind fool.

Leaving the mess until later, they moved to the dining room. Seishirou carried the discarded cups to the sink and brought out three fresh glasses, then went to look for ice. "But that was quick thinking, Subaru-kun, with the mirror-spell, given the suddenness of the attack. Very well executed, too." He flashed a seemingly casual complimentary smile as he put the kettle on. "Though I do wonder at how you predicted what nickname I was about to suggest. What a coincidence!"

Subaru shrugged, going with Hokuto to sit on the stools. It felt good to be sitting down. "First thing that came to mind," he replied as nonchalantly as possible to the light probe. Inside he was tense Ė had that little jab at Seishirou been a good idea? Never mind, it was done, and he had to live with it. Though it would be easier if his head wasnít throbbing so. "Maybe we think alike."

"There you go!" Hokuto beamed, oblivious as Subaru silently thanked her for her moderating presence. "Affinity tests arenít the be all and end all!"

Subaru coughed. Seishirou tactfully changed the subject. "Well, if our little friends are just doing it for fun, then Subaru-kunís spell should have taught them a good lesson." He poured the hot water over the tea strainer into the glasses with a wicked grin. "So, if they were not suitably prepared Ö"

"Oh my!" gasped Hokuto. "Those poor girls!"

Subaru reached gratefully for the iced-tea Seishirou pushed towards him. "They should be all right. They'll probably vomit everything theyíve eaten today rather painfully, though." He drank deeply; it soothed his dry throat, but not his head, which felt as if it were a spinning top. Damned backlash Ö why is it so bad this time?

"Really? Eww!" Hokutoís face was an expression of comic shock. "The Dial Q2 system can be accessed from anywhere Ė I sure hope they were at home when they threw up, otherwise theyíll never get married with public behavior like that!"

His head was rapidly feeling worse Ė Subaru gave up on trying to combat the backlash and slumped forward to rest his head on the counter with a little groan. Seishirou looked down at him with a worried expression. "Subaru-kun?"

"Uh oh, now what have you done to yourself?" Hokuto reached over to press a cool hand against his head. Subaru closed his eyes, sensing rather than seeing her grimace. "Youíre burning up. What have I told you about taking care of yourself while spell-casting?" Subaru muttered something inaudible. Hokuto sighed and tugged at his arm. "Címon. Off to bed with you."

Subaru tried to shake his head with as little movement as possible. "Nngh. Canít. Have to finish job."

"Itís not urgent, it can wait until tomorrow."

"Canít. If those girls keep going on like this theyíll get into serious trouble."

Hokuto glared, but seeing as Subaru had shut his eyes it was rather ineffective. "At least wait until tonight or something. You will get some rest!"

Subaru was about to argue further when without warning, he found himself bodily lifted up. He yelped, flailing for something to grab onto Ė which turned out to be Seishirouís neck.

Seishirou grinned down the very short distance into Subaruís face as Hokuto cheered. "Please donít strangle me, Subaru-kun. The chance to hold you like this doesnít come very often."

Subaru turned red, whether in embarrassment or outrage he wasnít sure. "S-Seishirou-san!"

"Woo woo, you go, Sei-chan!" Hokuto applauded.

Seishirou laughed, the sensation of which Subaru could feel uncomfortably close as he rested against the manís chest. "Can you open the door, Hokuto-chan? My hands are rather full."

Giggling that silver bells way of hers, Hokuto skipped to the lounge room door and opened it, then dashed out into the corridor to Subaruís room. Subaru blushed as a rather fanciful imitation of the wedding march was heard trailing after her. "Really, Seishirou-san, you donít have to carry me like this."

"You know my greatest pleasure in life is to take care of you. Besides, isnít it the manís job to always be ready to look after his beloved?"

Something about the remark, the usual teasing, discomfited Subaru differently than it usually did. Still smiling, Seishirou shifted his arms slightly to bear Subaruís weight better, then carried the young man out of the room. It was, Subaru realised with some surprise, a pleasant experience. He felt as if he were weightless, a child held aloft by a strength that although he knew was deadly, could also be inexplicably gentle Ö

"Are you all right?" asked Seishirou softly.

Subaru opened his eyes, startled out of the half-doze he had been slipping into on Seishirouís shoulder. He felt warm. "Ö Mm."

Seishirou chuckled, walking slowly so as not to jolt him. In the dimness of the corridor, his hunterís eyes seemed to gleam. "Thatís good to hear. Iíd hate to see such a talented onmyouji be defeated by his own sakanagi."

Subaru blinked. Seishirou didnít notice, but continued talking. "That was most impressive back there. You really have so much potential. If it is truly realised Ö I hope to be given the honor of witnessing it."

There was no reply to this. Maybe Seishirou thought that Subaru was exhausted and falling asleep. In actuality Subaru was using all of his concentration and strength of will to keep his body relaxed. Cradled as he was in Seishirouís arms, the slightest tension on his part would be immediately apparent. Still, he wondered that his heartbeat hadnít already given himself, his sudden flash of inexplicable realization, away.

 

To be more than a Ďthingí in your eyes Ö

 

A subtle shift in gravity as they turned a corner, and they were in his room. Hokuto had pulled the curtains closed ("you two look so sweet!") creating a little pocket of cool darkness in the afternoon that soothed Subaruís head immediately. He didnít resist as Seishirou laid him down on his bed and drew the covers up beneath his chin. "Go to sleep, Subaru-kun. A bit of rest and youíll be fine."

Hokuto brushed her hand along his forehead one more time, then bent down to kiss him. "Donít worry, brother-mine," she reassured him. "Sei-chan and I will clean up the living room then go to my apartment for a while, but I promise weíll come back and wake you up later so you can finish."

Subaru smiled, closing his eyes as if already going to sleep. "Alright, Hokuto-chan." He paused for a moment, hesitating. "And Ö Seishirou-san?"

There was a slight movement not very far away. "Yes?"

"Thank you. For the lift, I mean," he quickly added.

A smile, like a beam of sunlight on a foggy day. "It was my pleasure."

Subaru heard murmured whispers for a few moments, then the sound of the door being quietly closed. Subaru lay still for a few minutes, listening as Hokutoís light steps grew fainter. He couldnít hear Seishirouís footsteps. What was he thinking, of course he couldnít. Hunters had to move silently if they wanted to catch their prey.

He opened his eyes. Quietly, Subaru got out of bed and went to his cupboard where he found a few wands of incense and a box of matches. He didnít have anything to hold the incense in, and he dared not go to his study yet. In the end Subaru stuck the incense sticks in the soil of one of the pot-plants near the window, and, lighting them, sat down beside it in a lotus position. He breathed deeply, using the wisps of fragrant smoke as a focus to clear his mind of all distraction. Once he was ready, he sank into a meditation as if slipping into a dark sea where there was nothing but heavy silence, broken only by a few small yet evocative thoughts that slipped through the black water like tiny luminescent fish. Though meditation was meant to relax and calm, Subaru felt his pulse quickening. Anticipating.

 

"Thereís so much potential in you. If it is truly realised Ö I hope to be given the honor of witnessing it."

 

This is not a just job. Subaru let the thought harden into diamond of determination. This is not just about saving those girls. This is a challenge.

 

"For me, breaking your arm is like breaking glass Ö I feel nothing."

If I couldnít even make you see me as a person, how was I to make you love me?

 

Trying to ignore the muted headache that was throbbing like distant thunder at the limits of his senses, Subaru called upon his deepest reserves of power. Watch me, Sakurazukamori. Iíll prove to you just what Iím capable of.


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