Subaru remained in meditation for several hours, planning how to approach the coming exorcism and forcing the backlash from the mirror-spell into a place where it could be dealt with. It troubled him a little, the strength of the backlash. By all rights it should not have been so bad; after all, the spell hadn’t been a particularly difficult piece of magic, and he remembered being able to work much more powerful spells when he had been fighting as a Dragon of Heaven without suffering any repercussions whatsoever. Now was not the time to deal with it, however, and when he sensed Hokuto and Seishirou return from wherever they had gone, he brought himself out of the meditation and went to the closet for his robes. He neglected to make his bed look slept in, though, which meant when his twin sister bounded in she knew immediately that he had not slept, that in fact he had been meditating since the smell of incense was still lingering in the room, which then meant he had to bear with her yelling that he was not a robot and promise her that he would sleep once he finished the ceremony. It didn’t help that throughout the whole tirade Seishirou had leant against the doorjamb of his bedroom laughing at it all. He stopped only when a fuming Hokuto pushed him out telling him in between scoldings about being a pervert that he could look at her brother as much as he wanted when Subaru was properly dressed. Which Seishirou did.
"Ooh, full regalia!" said Seishirou admiringly as the young onmyouji entered the living room. Subaru made some vague sound in response, checking over his shikifuku. The pristine white robes brought back more than a few bad memories, but he managed to put them out of his mind. It probably helped that his head was still aching, though somewhat less after the afternoon’s meditation. Perhaps he should have slept like Hokuto had said, at least for a while. Oh well. He was just going to have to deal with it.
On the other side of the room, obviously over her earlier ranting, Hokuto was putting the last of the pot-plants away. "He may not look it, but Subaru is a pro," she said.
"What do you mean, I don’t look like a pro?" asked Subaru, unwrapping a ceremonial dagger and inspecting it. Four other daggers stood stuck into the floor forming the corners of a square around the small altar that had been set up. There was a small circular mirror on the altar, flanked by two bottle-vases with flowers.
"You’re only sixteen, Subaru. You’re the youngest practicing onmyouji in the country."
"What’s that got to do with anything?"
"In terms of talent you’re head and shoulders above the rest, Subaru-kun," said Seishirou. "However, there is no substitute for experience. You’ve had many clients look on you a little dubiously despite your reputation for no other reason other than your youth, yes?" Subaru nodded slightly. Seishirou smiled. "Well, I’m sure any doubts they had at first glance were quickly dispelled."
Hokuto nodded. "Exactly what I meant. You’re already good, Subaru, but just imagine what you’ll be capable of when you’re older."
Subaru wore a tight smile on his face that he carefully kept hidden from the others. He didn’t need to imagine his skills in future, and if everything went as he had planned then he would be able to show Hokuto – and Seishirou – some of that. In his hand the dagger’s blade was a smooth deadly finish, and Subaru satisfactorily slid it back into its sheath. "Experience or not, everything’s ready. Are you going to stay and watch?" he asked Seishirou.
"If you want me to."
Subaru smiled a little. "I’d like that."
"Then I shall."
"Oi, you two, don’t create a world of your own!" Hokuto shoved herself in between them. "I am still here you know!"
"But every chance must be treasured!" protested Seishirou. "Especially now, since Subaru-kun actually welcomes my presence."
Subaru flushed. "You’ve always been welcome," he said shortly.
"Ah, such dedication is paying off!" Hokuto beamed. Subaru coughed a little, which was Seishirou’s signal to change the subject.
"So what are you planning on doing, Subaru-kun?"
Subaru wrapped the dagger in silk and put it in the sash of his robes. "I’m going to find out where those Dial Q2 girls live first. Their magic working has undoubtedly disturbed the spirits in their area, so I’m going to have to exorcise them before attempting any purification. Once that’s done I can deal with the girls – with the way they’ve been practicing the Art, they’re a danger to themselves as well as other people."
Seishirou smiled at him. "You truly are a kind person, Subaru-kun."
Subaru shrugged a little uncomfortably. "Not really. I’m being paid to do this." And more personal reasons, Sakurazukamori.
Hokuto came up and leaned on his shoulder, ruffling his hair. "But you’ll still be giving it your all, won’t you, little brother."
"Now that I think about it, Subaru-kun’s not the only one who has gotten dressed up for the occasion," said Seishirou. He looked Hokuto up and down; she was wearing what looked like oversized puffy pantaloons with a butterfly-styled bodice. "Why did you get changed, Hokuto-chan?"
With a silvery laugh Hokuto struck a pose. "Because Subaru might get lonely!"
"You’re such a kind sister, Hokuto-chan!"
More laughter. "You only just noticed?"
Subaru ignored them, already in mental preparation for the ceremony. He walked away and, with a flick of his robes, knelt in front of the makeshift altar. Taking a deep breath he closed his eyes, settling himself and trying to ignore the throbbing in his temple. A soft click as Hokuto presumably switched off the room lights, and they were ready.
Subaru took out an ofuda and placed it on the floor before him. Letting his consciousness sink into that pool of calm for magic-working he held his hand over the ofuda and chanted the spell that would bring it to life. It raised itself off the ground with barely a rustle as it moved to levitate just above his gloved hand. Subaru opened his eyes.
"Fly," he whispered.
The ofuda began to shine softly, hardly adding to the glow of the city-lights outside the balcony window. Of its own accord it began to move, writhing like a living thing as it stretched outwards, taking shape … wings began to beat, no longer paper but feathers, then in a puff of mist, the transformation was complete. The three-headed white raptor circled the room with an eerie cry, waiting for orders.
Search, Subaru told the shikigami silently. He thought of the three girls whom he had failed to save before and had touched again just briefly over the phone. Find these people for me.
Another cry, and with a silent beat of wings the shikigami glided through the window and out into the night sky. Subaru watched it for a moment until it was lost to sight, then closed his eyes. He didn’t have to see his shikigami to follow it. Somewhere off-side he could hear Hokuto and Seishirou murmuring to each other. He couldn’t hear the words but there was an admiring note to Seishirou’s voice that pleased him.
He smiled. Keep watching, Sakurazukamori. I’ve only just begun.
A triad-chord of calls rang in his mind as the shikigami’s heads turned in different directions sensing something. As each of those heads focused on their own target, the spirit-bird split into three, allowing each individual to set off on its own. Two of them found a house, the third an apartment, all in different sections of the city. On the surface they were perfectly normal places, but a probe into the spiritual energies surrounding each proved otherwise. It was dark and unsettled, just like Subaru remembered.
Moving carefully he turned to survey the houses themselves. As expected, there was an invisible barrier surrounding each, but unlike the finely-crafted shells Subaru put up these were unsound, yielding. They would probably keep out most attacks, but like paper screens would gradually buckle under pressure until finally something penetrated. Worse still, instead of existing in harmony with the innate energies of the area these kekkai clashed as harshly as skyscrapers in a forest of trees, meaning that the area enclosed inside became a focus for negativity.
Subaru shook his head, almost embarrassed at the unskilled magic-workings. It’s quiet now, but the situation is like a dormant volcano – it could go at any moment. I don’t have much time. Taking care not to disturb the kekkai, Subaru sent his scouts to the windows. Using three shikigami at once was rather disorientating as what each observed superimposed over each other in the mirror in front of him, but Subaru was long used to sorting out the images. At all three homes the lights were out, but that didn’t necessarily mean people were asleep. As his spies drew closer, Subaru realized his suspicions were right. Three girls, high school students only, cradled phones against their ears. One of them was leaning against the wall of what seemed to be the kitchen, a distinct coldness to her eyes. "Did you have the same dream?" she asked a hoarse voice.
The second girl was sitting in bed, and wore heavy glasses on a chubby face. Subaru concentrated, trying to feel for her name, the single word that identified her. "Yeah," she said in reply to the first.
"What about you?"
The girl to whom the question had been directed was the youngest, still of age to have teddy bears. Her eyes were wide, and her face was pale.
"Was it one of your precognitory dreams?" asked the second girl. Her name came finally: Hachiouji. There was a rasp to her words as she spoke.
"No!" The youngest girl – Misato, noted Subaru – shook her head vehemently, then coughed into a handkerchief. "It was not a precognitory dream!" She coughed again, and Subaru started as he realized that the handkerchief was stained red.
"Are you still coughing up blood?" asked the first girl. Her name was the most elusive, implying a mind that kept itself closed off from people, but Subaru managed to find it at last: Asagaya. "Be strong. It will soon stop."
Misato wiped her mouth. "My throat hurts …"
"So do ours. The enemy wishes to stop us from talking to each other – that’s why he sent us that spell when we tried to destroy him earlier!"
What? Subaru inched the shikigami cautiously closer – even an improperly cast kekkai would react to the presence of a spy. I thought the mirror-spell was only strong enough to make them feel sick, not hurt them like this.
"The enemy has attacked us twice," Asagaya, the leader, was saying. "He’s attacked our bodies and attacked our dreams because he is afraid our special powers will defeat him."
Hachiouji nodded vigorously. "Yes! That’s it! He showed us those dreams to frighten us!"
"So that means …" Misato trailed off, clutching the bloodstained handkerchief and teddy bear close for comfort.
Asagaya smiled thinly. "That our powers are wondrous."
In any other circumstance Subaru might have found the conversation amusing. As things were, it was only pathetic. Most likely the girls were social outcasts at school – frightening eyes? overweight? insecure? – and perhaps the first time this life had been lived Subaru had felt sorry for them. Now … they were more of a means to an end than anything else.
The first time this all happened I had to stop before I could purify the girls of the curse they had brought upon themselves, which meant I had to finish up later. But that didn’t work out either; I fainted after exorcising one girl, which meant the other two succumbed to the sakanagi and went mad. He took a deep breath, setting his will in place. I can’t let that happen again. I have see it all through at once.
Keeping his mind firmly fixed on the three locations as the girls continued their discussion, Subaru began to chant softly. His activities did not go unnoticed. He heard the girls exclaim in shock as their ofuda began glowing, a warning of the movement in the magical energies nearby. He ignored them, and kept on ignoring them as the turmoil he was stirring up in the spiritual world was displayed in the material by shattering glass and flying books. His chant was summoning the disturbed spirits in the area, a dangerous gambit, but he couldn’t exorcise them unless they were in the open. He only hoped that the girls he was trying to save didn’t end up interfering or distracting him. Already he could hear them screaming as ghosts, twisted beings with malevolent faces, began to rise like foul mist from the floor. Those beyond the limits of the kekkai pressed right up against the barriers staring hungrily at the young life within they could not reach. Those inside the kekkai, however, were not so hampered. The screams of the three terrified girls rose in pitch as they cowered away from the clawed hands stretching out for them. There were scores of the spirits, Subaru noted, far more than what he recalled from last time. His spell had summoned them all. The sixteen-year old onmyouji he had been before might have felt worried at so many; Subaru now, with all the experience and hardening the years up to the Final Day had given him, was not.
"NO!! Get away from me!" Misato scrambled frantically out of her bed as the spirits drew closer, dragging the teddy with her as if the toy would provide some protection. The bloodstained handkerchief fell to the floor and immediately the nearest spirit leapt at it, quickly followed by others. They tore at it like a pack of feral dogs, trying to get at the blood. It didn’t take long for them to realize that this was only a taste, and Misato screamed again as they turned hollow yellow eyes on her. Across the city Hachiouji was trapped with her back to the wall, unable to do anything except raise her arms protectively about her head as the spirits clawed at her feet. Subaru had to move faster. Shutting his ears to the screaming he freed the ceremonial dagger from the silk, the spell rolling off his tongue. He was gasping, some part of him realized, the physical demands of casting powerful spells long-distance taking their toll. His headache of earlier flared back to full strength and he gritted his teeth, forcing it all back as he determinedly continued. In his mind the bright points that were his shikigami flared to three times their size, a trumpeting call heralding their metamorphosis as Subaru transfused his power to them. Presence thus established at the far away sites, Subaru could proceed.
His hand was trembling as he lifted the dagger. The gloves didn’t help either. Subaru gripped the hilt determinedly, more than a little irritated at his weakness, and raised his voice. "Rin – pyo – tou – sha – kai–"
The spirits closed in on the terrified girls. Subaru’s three shikigami dived to the attack.
"–jin – retsu – zai – zen – ha!"
He stabbed the dagger into the floor with the last syllable. Far away, his shikigami shone like miniature supernovas, their blinding light burning away the darkness and the faulty kekkai. With strange empty howls the spirits melted away like rain, sinking back into the ground they had come from leaving merely their hands that trailed over the girls before they too, disappeared. It was a little while before either Misato or Hachiouji noticed their departure; they kept screaming and kicking at empty air before realizing that they were alone. Asagaya, although obviously shaking, was comparatively quicker to regain control. One of her hands, Subaru noticed, was half raised as if to ward off something, or perhaps try a spell.
Subaru took a brief second to regain his breath. With the immediate threat and the faulty kekkai gone, he was free to turn his attention to the long term. Letting go of the dagger, Subaru folded his fingers into the two-finger focus and began the finale: to cleanse, to calm, to purify. His shikigami morphed back into paper ofuda, floating down like snow in front of the girls’ startled eyes. Hachiouji went so far as to reach for it, only to drop it as it began to glow with a soft light.
"Noubou aratannou tarayaaya." Subaru wove the purification spell carefully, feeling the magic pour through him like cold water to the three places he could see in the mirror. It was refreshing, allowing him to bypass the strain he was feeling, rather how the sight of the finish line lifts the spirit of a marathon runner – but even though he had the will, whether his body had the strength was another matter. "Nou makuariya mitabaya …"
It was strong, the flow of the magic. The meditation of earlier had given him access to more power than he usually did; he was a wellspring of it, but as the magic poured out of him to cleanse the taint the three girls had brought upon themselves and their homes, it left behind an empty hollow that could be all too easy to slip into …
"… tatagyataya arakatei …"
The light grew brighter. The girls instinctively covered their eyes and cringed away. Subaru could feel his heart pounding. Just a little more, just a little more, he told himself stubbornly, just a little more effort then it would be over – the mirror in front of Subaru cracked; he was losing the contact. Gritting his teeth he forced himself to finish, holding the scrying through sheer will and pride and hope …
"… sanmyaku sambodya …"
Are you watching me, Sakurazukamori?
"… tanitaya …"
The mirror shattered into three. Far away, Subaru felt his ofuda flare, then disappear. He exhaled deeply, the satisfaction he felt at completing it all at odds with the absolute exhaustion he felt. Not to mention his headache.
Shakily Subaru rose to his feet. He swayed a little, wincing at the light that suddenly turned on, and turned to his two witnesses. Hokuto was already reaching for him worriedly. As for Seishirou … Subaru tried to catch the man’s eye, but for some reason he couldn’t.
Forcing a smile on his face, he stood up tall.
"… It’s done."
That was all he managed to say before his legs gave way and the darkness captured him.
There is no definite point at which one wakes up. There is sleep, and then there is waking, but there is no actual break between the two. Perhaps the closest to it is when the mind is processing information while the body is still limp and unresponsive, but it is still a state of waking – or is it dreaming, and therefore sleep?
For Subaru, it was simply that one moment he was dead to the world, the next he was registering the fact that he was rather hot. It was just uncomfortable enough for him not to like it, which meant if he wanted to sleep longer he would have to change something. There was any number of factors in his surroundings that could be adjusted to make him feel cooler; the too-heavy blankets, the gloves on his hands, the pajamas he was wearing, the windows of his room—
He flinched as something cool was placed on his forehead. "It’s about time you woke up," a voice said.
Subaru opened his eyes groggily, rubbing them a few times before trying to sit up. His body protested that such an action was too much at the moment, however, so in the end he had to settle for turning his head. He wasn’t surprised to see Hokuto standing beside his bed. She was wearing a zip-up jacket with patterned long sleeves paired with a short skirt and thigh-high socks. Her hair was tied up in two buns with ribbons. The overall look was very cute, which was completely at odds with the angry expression on her face. Subaru recognized it all too well. "Er … good morning, Hokuto-chan."
"What do you mean, ‘morning’?" snipped Hokuto. "It’s afternoon already! You’ve slept for nearly three days straight!"
Subaru reached up to head. There was a damp cloth on there, and was rapidly warming up. Obviously he was still recovering from the backlash. Well, since I’m not the type to bounce sakanagi off onto innocent animals, I guess I’ll just have to deal with it. "Oh," he said weakly.
"’Oh’? Is that all you’re going to say?!" Hokuto glared down at her twin with hands on hips. "You slept like the dead for nearly three days. You have a temperature of thirty-eight degrees. You dived into a long complicated ceremony without resting beforehand even though I told you to, plus—"
"Erm, Hokuto-chan, can you please not yell too loudly?" begged Subaru.
"What were you THINKING?!" screeched Hokuto. "One high-level exorcism and purification is already draining on you, but THREE AT ONCE?! I didn’t even know you could handle three at once! And long-distance at that! No wonder the sakanagi knocked you backwards! I should just—"
Subaru winced, but kept his mouth shut. There was no point trying to explain to Hokuto when she was in this state. All there was for it was to wait until she had ranted herself out. He took the opportunity to check his personal wards, expecting them to need rebuilding after the battering they had taken from the sakanagi he would have received from the spells he had performed. It didn’t take long for him to piece his protections back together, shoring them up for the future; a practiced onmyouji was accustomed to a well-ordered mind, and the exercise immediately helped the headache. Still, however, he felt exhausted, even after such a long sleep, and that disturbed him. I used to be able to do much worse than this as a Dragon of Heaven, why am I so weak now?
"—you pushed yourself so far it’s beyond stupidity do you have any idea how worried I was and how much I just wanted to slap you at times during the casting for being such a selfless idiot and aargh!!" Hokuto finished her rant with an adorable exasperated pout. Having got all of that out of her system, she sighed and sat on the bed. "Don’t do it again."
Subaru crawled out of the blankets and went to hug her. "I’m sorry," he murmured.
He felt her smile a little. "I know. Was it worth it?"
"Mm. I checked just as I concluded the ceremony; the exorcism and purification went fine. It should be alright now."
"Good." The doorbell rang just then. Hokuto got up, the damp cloth that had been on Subaru’s forehead sticking to her shoulder. Subaru also made as if to get up, but stopped when his twin glared at him. "Subaru, if you don’t stay quietly in bed you’ll get worse!" Meekly Subaru sank bank into his pillows as Hokuto skipped off to answer the door. He already knew who it was anyway.
He heard the front door open, and murmuring. "Woo hoo! Tops Chocolate Cake!" squealed Hokuto, her voice carrying easily to his bedroom. Subaru smiled. More murmuring, then footsteps. Subaru waited. Just before the expected knock on his door, he called out, "Enter."
The door opened. Seishirou’s concerned face looked inside. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
Subaru smiled and sat up a bit straighter. "I’m fine now, just a bit tired."
Seishirou came into the room, closing the door behind him. He was dressed in a black suit and tie with a white shirt. The colour – or lack or it, depending on how one looked at it – fit him, always had. "I’m glad to hear it. I was rather worried; the moment you concluded the ceremony you literally fainted on your feet." He approached the bed and looked down at the young man in it with one eyebrow raised. "Did you really have to push yourself like that, Subaru-kun?"
Subaru shrugged. "The situation was one of those where it had to be fixed all at once, not in stages. If I had left it things would have turned out badly in the end."
"So sure, are we?" Seishirou smiled. "How do you know that?"
"Just …" Subaru looked down at his gloved hands, hoping Seishirou would dismiss the posture as shyness. "Instinct, I suppose."
"Still, it was an impressive performance." Seishirou sat down in the chair Hokuto had been using, either ignoring or not noticing Subaru’s startled look at his compliment. "There aren’t many onmyouji who would dare to perform such complex ceremonies long-distance. And multiple ceremonies at that. But Subaru-kun," here the man leant forward a little, golden eyes seemingly anxious, "it was very reckless. I know you wanted to help those girls, but really, you were overdoing it again. Hokuto-chan was very frightened, she was afraid that you had pushed yourself too selflessly and too far."
Selflessly? Hardly, Seishirou-san. I just wanted to show you that I’m not the weak child you first toyed with. "Really, there’s no need to worry, I managed to handle it," he said aloud.
Much to his irritation, Seishirou looked merely amused. "I’m not doubting your ability, Subaru-kun, I just wish to point out that even you have your limits. You may be perhaps the best onmyouji of this age, but you are only sixteen years old. What you’ve been doing would lay an older and seasoned onmyouji flat for a week."
Subaru kept his tongue, resisting the impulse to say that he was not sixteen, at least mentally. Since he remembered everything that was to come leading up to the Final Day the first time he had lived this life, then he also remembered all of his skills and knowledge of onmyoujitsu he had gained up until that time as well. A long-distance purification should have been well within his capabilities …
… and yet here he was lying in bed, exhausted and recovering from the sakanagi of his spells.
It didn’t make sense. When he had been fighting the Dark Kamui, the Sakurazukamori, and the rest of the Dragons of Earth he hadn’t suffered anything like what he was recovering from now, and for those battles he had been using spells with far more power with full intent of causing injury. As a Dragon of Heaven, Subaru had had more power and skill than any of his predecessors had—
Subaru stopped. As a Dragon of Heaven. An onmyouji of twenty-five years old. He wasn’t that person yet.
"Subaru-kun?" Seishirou looked at him quizzically. "Is something wrong?"
Actually, now that he really thought about it, the logic behind the paradox was blindingly obvious. Of course – as a Dragon of Heaven he had had years of experience built up to endure the Final Day, but in this time, he was reliving the past. He was, as Seishirou had said, only sixteen years old, a child in comparison, and his body couldn’t handle the level of power he was using. Rather like doing strenuous exercise without a thorough warm-up beforehand, only with far more painful results.
But if having nine years experience in a body that was yet to earn that experience made the sakanagi more serious, then what of the effect from his magic? Even though onmyoujitsu spells relied heavily on the intent and will of the caster, would the fact that Subaru had been putting more power into his castings without realizing since he was so used to high-powered castings for the Final Year be an adverse affect? After all, Asagaya, Hachiouji and Misato had been coughing blood after his mirror-spell …
A cold thread worked its way down Subaru’s spine. He didn’t hear the knock on his door or notice as Seishirou got up to answer it, staring instead at the bedspread in front of him without seeing it. If he couldn’t control his spell-casting properly, then the ceremony he had done for those girls might not have gone as planned. Since the backlash from the mirror-spell had been much stronger than expected as a result of his having harmed the girls even without realizing it, by that same token, judging by the backlash he was suffering from the ceremony, did that mean that he hurt them more badly this time?
The door opened to reveal Hokuto carrying a tray with three slices of cake on it. "Sei-chan, you have to scold Subaru too! Maybe if we both scold him he’ll finally understand that he shouldn’t work himself to death just because someone pays him to!"
Seishirou laughed. Subaru didn’t move. "I need to call the Q2 line again," he said aloud.
Hokuto and Seishirou abruptly stopped their joking. They stared. "What?!" exclaimed Hokuto.
Subaru turned to them. "I have to, Hokuto-chan. I have to check that everything’s alright."
"But you just said that you pulled off the ceremony without problem! Why do you have to follow it up?"
"I …" Subaru hesitated. "I just want to make sure."
Hokuto frowned. "You mean you’re not confident with what you did?"
Subaru didn’t answer. Seishirou looked at him curiously. "This is rather unusual for you, Subaru-kun. Why do you think that something might have gone wrong in your casting?"
Subaru looked away. "I can’t say. Just … I won’t feel at ease until I’ve made sure nothing’s happened. I need to call the Q2 tonight."
"Oh, no you don’t." Hokuto waved a finger at him. "You are not doing any work tonight – you need rest!"
"No, Hokuto-chan. It’s alright, really."
Subaru shook his head, this time meeting his sister’s glare. "This is my work, Hokuto-chan. People have asked me to do this, and even for my own self I should make sure that I have done it properly."
Hokuto threw her hands into the air. "Sei-chan, talk some sense into him!"
Seishirou gave Subaru a serious look. "Hokuto-chan has a point. Perhaps you should at least wait a little while and get stronger before trying anything."
"I’m fine," insisted Subaru. "I can handle it, don’t worry."
Seishirou looked at him for another moment, then shrugged. "If you say so. I trust your work."
Subaru nodded, grateful that one party was convinced. Hokuto was still giving that glare, but seeing that her brother wasn’t going to change his mind she sighed. "Fine. You’re a professional, Subaru, and I respect that. Just … be careful."
Subaru smiled, wishing he felt more confident. "I will."
The physical set-up might have been the same as before, but mood in the living room was markedly different. Subaru, dressed in simple white work robes rather than full ceremonial costume, could sense Hokuto’s worry and disapproval radiating from where she stood outside the perimeter he had marked out. It didn’t help that it fed through the ‘twin link’ between them into his own doubts. Had his magic had unpredictable consequences as result of this rip in time? Was he just being paranoid? What did it mean, him still retaining his powers as a Dragon of Heaven? For that matter, if he still had his powers from the time of the Promised Day, could he still cast the kekkai of the Seals? Subaru didn’t know, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out either. The kekkai of the Seals was an ability reserved for the Dragons of Heaven alone, the ones who had to fight to save humanity in 1999. If it turned out that yes, he could still call on that special power … did that mean the Final Year and the Promised Day were due to come again?
"Are you ready?" asked Seishirou, standing against the far wall with Hokuto. The city lights glinted off his glasses, making it impossible to see the eyes behind.
Subaru placed the cordless phone on the ground, trying to shake off the uncertainties that had been dominating his mind since that afternoon. It didn’t really work. He couldn’t help but wonder what the Sakurazukamori was thinking about all of this, and he doubted he’d find out. "… Yeah."
No one responded. Closing his eyes for a moment as he centered himself, Subaru knelt on the floor in front of the phone and turned it on speaker. The inactivity ring buzzed through the room like a mechanized fly dying. Subaru took a deep breath. Then he pressed in the phone number for the Party Line.
It rang for exactly three seconds. Then it connected – to silence. "… Uh, hello?" asked Subaru.
There was no answer. Subaru frowned, wishing he knew more about how the Party Line worked. For all he knew he could have just happened to call when nobody was on the line. "Is anyone there?"
Still no answer. Then, rising out of the silence, there was the sound of breathing. "Who is this?" a voice asked tentatively.
Subaru’s hands tightened. He thought he recognized the voice as that of Misato, the youngest girl, but he couldn’t be sure, she spoke so low. "I’m a friend," he said aloud.
"A friend?" A pause, as if the speaker was thinking. "Are you a companion?"
"No, I’m not. All I want is to know is if—"
"Are you a warrior?" the voice cut him off.
… but that life had already happened …?
—"No," he replied.
"Are you a special person?"
Special. A special person. To be special to someone …
… Subaru bit his lip. "No," he whispered.
He could almost hear a smile. A second voice began to speak. "Since you are not one of us—"
"—then you must be the enemy we are to fight," a third finished.
Subaru blinked. "What?" he asked stupidly.
"You’re the one who called before, aren’t you," accused the second voice, the voice which carried with it impressions of cold, cold eyes – Asagaya! "You were the one who attacked us and sent us those bad dreams, isn’t that right!"
Subaru tried to protest. "No, you’re wrong, it wasn’t me who—"
"And now you’re dared to come to us again!" Asagaya’s voice sounded triumphant. "You may have hurt us, you may have tracked us down, but we have been waiting for you!"
"Your attack three nights ago failed," the third speaker – Hachiouji – hissed, "but we have endured to become stronger!"
Subaru raised his voice trying to make himself heard. "No, you don’t know what you’re talking about, just listen to me—"
"We have been waiting for you," repeated Asagaya. "And now we shall destroy you!"
The attack came quickly. Foul-smelling vapours ghosted out of the phone’s earpiece as Asagaya and Hachiouji began to chant, growing denser like storm-clouds, an analogy not so far from truth as tiny yet potent lightning bolts began to strike out from their depths. In the split second before they struck Subaru flicked out a fan of four ofuda, sending them to attach to the hilts of the four daggers stabbed into the floor around him, activating a shield. The space he was enclosed in was still connected through the phone to the other spiritual spaces the girls were in, but at least the rest of the room, and more importantly, Hokuto and Seishirou, were out of harm’s way now. He gritted his teeth as one of the lightning strikes danced down his back. "Stop this!" he yelled at the phone. "You have no idea what you’re playing with—"
"Demon! We’re chosen to stand against you!" Hachiouji’s voice screeched down the phone. "We have special powers to combat you demons!"
More lightning strikes struck his body, and Subaru let out an involuntary cry of pain. "I’m not a demon! I just want to help you—"
He broke off as the guttural chanting from the other end of the phone changed. Around the phone winds began to circle, cold currents of air that spun faster and faster rising towards the ceiling until Subaru and the phone were at the center of a contained cyclone. He managed to glimpse Seishirou restraining Hokuto as she tried to approach, and he silently thanked the man. The billowing sleeves of his robes lifted like wings as the winds enclosed about him, screaming so that he could barely hear the spell that controlled it. When the wind touched him it sliced his skin – wind razors. It nicked his cheek, his shoulder, drawing blood that did not fall to the floor but rather spun with the wind like liquid red ribbons. Individually each wound wasn’t serious, but too many of them … Subaru remembered one rare afternoon he had spent with the Seals in 1999 and Aoki Seiichiro the Wind-master describing just what damage he was capable of. Perhaps the only bright side to being under attack like this was that it showed that Subaru’s exorcism and purification of the girls and their homes last time had not done the damage he had feared he had. He wondered about that incongruity, wondered what exactly it meant – another razor sliced deep into his upper arm and he couldn’t help but scream. To his surprise, someone answered.
"Stop it, you’re hurting him!" Misato – up until now she had been markedly silent, Subaru realized – sounded frightened. "I can hear him, he’s just a kid like us!"
"What are you saying?" Disbelief coloured Hachiouji’s voice. "He’s the Enemy!"
But …" Misato faltered. Subaru felt blood streaming down his injured arm; biting his lip against the pain he lifted a hand in the two-finger focus, summoning a small personal shield not daring to do anything more while he wasn’t sure what he was capable of with the paradox his powers were in. "Are we trying to kill him?"
"Of course." Asagaya’s voice was cold. "He’s the Enemy. We are the ones chosen to save the world."
"Are you on his side or ours?" demanded Asagaya.
Misato’s voice began to rise in fear. "No, it’s not that, it’s just that—"
Subaru, listening to all this as he struggled to avoid injury, saw where it was going. "Leave her out of it!" he shouted to the phone. "Misato, hang up the phone and stay out of this—"
"If you’re not with us you’re against us." Asagaya’s voice resonated with anger. "You’ve betrayed us."
"Traitor!" hissed Hachiouji.
Misato’s voice was frantic. "No – that’s not it!"
The wind intensified, if that were possible, knocking over the small altar Subaru had set up. The table toppled onto its side, spinning drunkenly about as it caught the wind like a wooden sail, while the lighter vases and mirror were lifted into the air. The white cloth that had covered the table flapped madly about as the wind razors tore at it. Subaru ducked one of the flying vases only to suffer a slash across the back of his hand. From the phone he could hear Misato screaming as she was subjected to the same attack he was under, only without his defenses. "Leave her alone!" he shouted at the phone.
"Still not dead yet?" Asagaya answered him. "You really must be a demon. But I am chosen to fight against you!"
"You’re wrong!" retorted Subaru. Anger was rising in him, anger at the sheer idiocy and stubbornness of the girl, and the fact that she had turned so quickly on one of her own. Somewhere on the other side, Misato cried in pain. Subaru took out more ofuda and cast it – the first was shredded by the wind, but the second survived. The white shikigami gave a keening call before disappearing into the phone. "Stop this!"
"We’re chosen! We’re special! We’ll fight to save the world! We have special powers to combat you demons! Even if the world is destroyed we’ll survive and then we’ll save the remains on mankind!"
There was a yell from Hachiouji as Subaru’s shikigami turned back into an ofuda and exploded, then swearing. Subaru risked a quick scrying; Hachiouji was kneeling on the floor hands over her eyes. Her glasses lay a little ways away, and her skin was burned. Subaru’s eyes widened. I didn’t mean for the blast to be that big! He rolled to one side – the wind had lessened slightly after he had interrupted Hachiouji’s casting, but was still lethal – trying to figure out just what was going on with his magic. But there seems to be no ill-effects from the ceremony I did with the intent to save them, so why are my attack spells still too strong—
The ceremony. Exorcism and purification. Attack and defense. Intent.
Subaru’s exorcism had purged every single one of the spirits haunting the girls; before, some had remained. The purification had likewise succeeded beyond his original expectation, but because it was a wholly positive spell, had done no harm. His attack and offensive spell-castings on the other hand, were by nature, to cause harm. Suddenly it all made sense. The intent, the positive or negative nature of the spells he cast, that had not changed. It was simply that because of his experience as an older onmyouji and a Dragon of Heaven, those spells were more powerful.
It was, both at once, a frightening and exhilarating realization.
Another wind-razor nicked his skin, the sharp pain bringing him back to the situation at hand. Subaru swore under his breath. There was no sound from Misato’s end, and he couldn’t tell if the girl was simply scared into shock, unconscious, or heaven forbid, dead. He couldn’t spare the attention to check on her, but, narrowly dodging as one of the vases nearly hit and almost slipping on the blood that had dripped onto the floor. He should attack, fight back, but if he did he might—
Subaru’s eyes widened as he realized too late the wind had pushed the table to the corner of his barrier. Before he could react the wind spun the table around with enough force to knock the dagger there out of position, and with a keening howl the pent-up pressure within burst out. Immediately the living room was plunged into chaos. Out of the corner of his eye Subaru watched his sister instinctively avoid the loose objects in the room the wind was now flinging about. Seishirou was doing likewise with a familiar deadly grace that Subaru knew all too well. Before he could go to their aid, however, one of the pot-plants struck the back of his sister’s head—
—Hokuto fell heavily. Abandoning his position Subaru ran over to her. He knelt down and cradled her close, frantically feeling for a pulse or injury.
"Is she alright?" Subaru looked up to see Seishirou crouching close beside him assumedly taking advantage of the shielding Subaru had put on himself. The vet’s eyes widened when he saw the stains on his robes. "Subaru-kun, you’re hurt."
"It’s not bad," Subaru replied automatically. He breathed a sigh of relief; apart from the knock on the head that was probably going to hurt like hell when she woke up Hokuto was fine. He stroked her hair, exactly like his. His other hand curled into a fist. Even though the injury wasn’t serious, that didn’t change the fact that Hokuto, his twin whom he had already lost once before, had been hurt.
Things had gone too far.
Subaru had run out of patience.
The wind died down at last, whether dismissed by the girls controlling it or simply running out of strength, Subaru didn’t know. Ignoring his wounds he draped Hokuto’s arm over his shoulder and carried her to the sofa where he laid her down. A scrap of the white tablecloth had come to rest a little ways away, and Subaru picked it up, using it as a makeshift bandage for the deep cut on his arm before turning to the one person in the room who had escaped the battle so far unscathed.
The man looked worried. "Is Hokuto-chan alright?"
"She’s unconscious." Subaru turned to the phone, still sitting in the middle of the battered room. "You know onmyoujitsu, don’t you."
He wasn’t looking at Seishirou, but he could hear the surprise in his voice. "Subaru-kun, why are you asking this now—"
"I know you have the Art, Seishirou-san," Subaru cut him off. "You protected me that night on Tokyo Tower. I remember." He began walking towards the phone. "Protect Hokuto-chan for me."
He could feel the look the Sakurazukamori was giving him, tangible, like snow falling on his back. Now was not the time to worry about it, but. Reaching down with his good arm he picked up the phone. "Are you still there?" he asked coldly.
"Enemy!" screamed the voice in reply. "You turned one of our companions against us and you seek to kill us! But we are special, we are the warriors who will save the world in 1999 and we will stand strong against you!"
"You have no idea what you’re talking about," retorted Subaru. "I saved you three nights ago, from the disturbance your own idiocy had conjured up and I purified it all so that it would not come back!"
"You attacked us!! We were saved because it is our destiny to survive and fight you! You are the Enemy!"
Subaru put down the phone and watched detachedly as the next attack came, half a dozen faces mostly mouths filled with teeth, came out of the phone. "If I am your enemy, it is because you have made me so. I do not want to fight you."
"We are chosen to fight you!"
"Chosen by who?"
Subaru gave a short laugh. The toothed demons circled behind him and dived. Subaru lifted a hand and they crashed ineffectually onto his shield. "I seriously doubt that."
"We’re special!" The voices of Asagaya and Hachiouji were harsh, deliriously so. "We were warriors in a previous life, and thus in this one as well! We are the Chosen Ones who will fight and save humanity on the Promised Day in 1999!"
Subaru’s eyes flashed. "You? Fight on the Promised Day? Do you have even the faintest idea what you are saying?" Anger stabbed through his words, anger at the cavalier attitude to that which had caused so many people so much sorrow— "Do you think it’s about glory? Do you think it’s so easy? You have no idea what it’s like! You don’t know the pain, the despair—"
"You are at the bottom of your heart because something terrible happened"
—blood, so much blood
"—you have no idea how much people suffer! All of us – all of us – would have given anything to live a normal life like yours!!"
In answer, mist formed around the phone again. It quickly grew in size, taking shape; fanged snout, demonic eyes, legs. The inugami streamed away from the phone over Subaru’s head, and howled with Asagaya’s voice.
Subaru drew a sheaf of ofuda. He watched the inugami charge towards him, waiting, evaluating the threat and his response. "We’ll defeat you!" screamed Asagaya. "We’re special! We are the warriors who will save humanity from destruction!"
The inugami was almost upon him. Subaru cast the ofuda, and immediately the room was full of white birds. They swooped in on the inugami, beating at its head with their wings, pecking and clawing. The inugami snarled and tried to snap at the attackers, but they were too fast and too many. Subaru smiled in satisfaction. He’d keep himself on the defensive as much as possible, to avoid attacking and doing too much damage. Given his magical strength now, it would be best to play safe.
The flock of shikigami harried the inugami ruthlessly. The spirit-dog twisted into weird shapes, reforming itself over and over again in an attempt to escape. Every time it began to try to go for Subaru the shikigami would intensify their attack in their master’s defense. Maddened with pain the inugami thrashed wildly like a hooked fish and howled, a sound that was echoed from the phone as Asagaya felt her control of the spell slipping away—
—and with a baying cry of triumph the inugami broke free.
Subaru threw himself to the ground as the dog-spirit roared over him, still relentlessly followed by a flock of white birds. No longer bound by its master’s command the inugami raged about the room without direction smashing what little furniture that hadn’t been moved out of the living room, but while the inugami no longer had a specific target, its purpose and nature were unchanged; that is, for destruction. It tried to find a target, any target. Its eyes landed on Subaru and it charged towards him again only to be rebuffed by shikigami which refused to let their master be hurt. Defied that way, the inugami retreated. It saw Seishirou standing by an unconscious Hokuto. Immediately the rogue spirit tried there.
Seishirou simply looked at it.
The inugami stopped. As Subaru watched, Seishirou seemed to smile a little, not the vet’s smile he had been giving Subaru all this time, but something darker. The Sakurazukamori gestured slightly.
The inugami howled. In that moment Subaru’s shikigami fell on it again, clawing at its eyes. The inugami bucked and tried to fight them off but was given no mercy. It did, however, have one option left. Before anyone could do anything, the inugami raged back towards the middle of the room.
Subaru’s eyes widened in horror as the inugami dived back into the phone. His shikigami, commanded only to defend, did not follow. There was a scream.
Too late Subaru sent his shikigami after the inugami. Asagaya screamed again, desperate, her voice carrying high over a deep triumphant snarl. Hachiouji was also screaming, fear accenting her voice until it was almost unrecognizable, and Subaru hastily diverted some of his shikigami to her – being still connected to the Party Line, she was also at risk – still Asagaya screamed, begging someone to help her, for her mother, for mercy, in pain—
There was a wet snap from the phone.
Asagaya’s screaming was abruptly cut off.
"What’s going on?! What’s happening?" screeched Hachiouji. "Demon! What have you done?!"
Subaru couldn’t answer. He stared, horrified, at the phone. Distantly he could sense his shikigami tearing what was left of the inugami apart, a futile exercise since it was already fading from existence – along with the life of its creator.
"Demon! What did you do? Oh god, what’s going on, what did you do to her?" There was a choke, then the sound of crying. "What did … demon – oh god …"
Subaru couldn’t move. Somewhere faintly he heard Seishirou calling his name asking what had happened, if he was alright, but he didn’t hear it. All he could see was the last image from his shikigami as they turned back to unmarked paper; the body of a girl, a schoolgirl barely older than he in this time, lying in a pool of blood her chest ripped open and neck snapped. Her eyes, usually so cold, were wide and terrified.
"… you killed her… oh god, demon – help me, s-someone, mother …"
It was strange, some part of Subaru thought detachedly, how shock worked, making it so that he felt everything as is through a glass wall. He knew that very soon he’d be frightened, guilty, angry, anguished and more, but for now any emotion seemed frozen. As the beginnings of a backlash headache began to beat in his head, all he could think was that somehow, somewhere along the way, something had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Someone calling him from the edges of darkness. He didn’t answer. There was a sigh, then a soft creak as his bedroom door opened further. Two sets of footsteps came towards him, one of them light the other heavier and measured. Subaru didn’t turn to greet them, instead remaining where he had been ever since he had gotten back that morning, sitting on the edge of the bed with gloved hands clasped in front of his chin staring through the dark room at the city lights beyond his window. He had long recovered from the backlash of so much spell-casting, but the body always healed quickly. The heart and mind however … his sister sighed. "It’s seven o’clock, Subaru. Why don’t we all go out and get something for dinner?"
Subaru’s only response was the close his eyes. He felt the bed shift a little as Hokuto sat down beside him, and didn’t resist as she pulled him into an embrace, careful not to jar his injured arm. "It’s been three days," she said quietly. "You’ve hardly spoken, hardly smiled. When are you going to move on?"
Move on. To proceed. To go forward. In his mind he ran the words over, waiting for them to have some effect. They didn’t, and he turned his head into her shirt like a small child, wanting nothing more but to hide. From somewhere nearby, Seishirou began to speak. "You’ve been contacting the homes of those girls, haven’t you." Subaru mechanically nodded. The vet continued. "What did you find?"
The voice Seishirou was using, the softly insisting tone Subaru had heard him use on frightened animals to gain their trust, worked despite himself to get a response. The young onmyouji took a deep breath. "I … I contacted Misato’s home first. She’s in hospital being treated for multiple slash wounds. There will be heavy scarring, but she should recover. Hachiouji …" He hesitated, then swallowed. "Hachiouji is seeing a psychologist. Her parents say that she keeps crying and saying that she’s seen ghosts and fought demons. If they are supportive and patient, her heart and mind may heal eventually, but it will take time."
"And the last?"
Subaru unconsciously clutched his sister’s hand, fighting back tears. When he did speak, his voice was trembling. "I saw Asagaya’s mother. I didn’t dare to speak to her, but I saw her. She looks as if she is living in hell. Her daughter died horribly and no one can explain way. The teachers tell her that her daughter was strange, and she hears the whispers from the schoolgirls that her daughter was a witch, that she was playing with things she shouldn’t have and has paid the consequences—" He choked a little, remembering the expression on the dead girl’s face, the horror Hokuto had shown when she had learned what had happened at the end of the ordeal …
"Subaru." Hokuto held him closer. "It wasn’t your fault."
"It is!" Abruptly he pulled away and met his sister’s gaze, emerald eyes miserable. "If I hadn’t chased the inugami back, if I had destroyed it at the onset, if I hadn’t called up the Party Line again, if I had done something different—"
"You did what you had to do." Wildly Subaru turned to see Seishirou kneeling beside the bed. The vet’s expression was sympathetic, but firm. "You would have had to call the Party Line again at some point. From what I could tell despite what you did for them the girls were still continuing with their activities. You would have received another job or request to stop them eventually. As for the inugami, either way, the girl would have suffered. If you had destroyed the inugami the backlash from the failed spell would have hurt the girl. If you hadn’t destroyed the inugami it would find some other target, either the girl’s compatriots or the girl herself. Your only other choice was to let the inugami fulfill its purpose – to kill you. Obviously that outcome was not an option."
"You don’t understand!" Subaru suddenly stood up so that he was looking down at Hokuto and Seishirou, spreading his hands as he tried to explain. "No one was supposed to get hurt! I was meant to save them! It wasn’t supposed to end this way!"
Hokuto gazed at him, sadly compassionate. Seishirou … he couldn’t read the man’s face. Subaru clenched his fists, bowing his head with the weight of what he couldn’t say.
I knew that last time already no one was saved.
I had the power to make decisions for the better.
I should have known what to do to make it end right!
Words and feelings Subaru could not voice … and he felt all the more alone for it. "It wasn’t supposed to end this way," he whispered again.
He sensed Seishirou looking at him. "You say it wasn’t supposed to end this way, but it has. You can’t go back and change it, Subaru-kun."
Anger flared, just a little, making him raise his head and meet the other’s gaze. "And if I could?" challenged Subaru.
The Sakurazukamori lifted an elegant eyebrow. "Do you think you should change things just because you’re not happy with the outcome?"
Subaru stopped. He stared at Seishirou as Hokuto added her piece. "What we’re trying to say is that there is nothing you can do to change what has happened. You have to accept that." Her brother didn’t answer, and Hokuto slid off the bed going to his side, then, taking his chin in her hands, made him look at her. "You have to let go and move on with your life, Subaru. This incident was your work. Finish collecting data and forget the rest. If your next job fails because of this, then you’re not a pro, are you."
Subaru turned away, back through the window and the multitude of lights beyond. "I can’t forget," he whispered.
"No one’s asking you to forget," replied Hokuto gently. "All we’re asking is that you accept what has happened."
"A girl is dead because of me, Hokuto-chan. How can I accept that?"
He could sense Hokuto reaching down the bond they shared, trying to offer comfort, and immediately Subaru pulled back. There was a flash of hurt in response … "Subaru," said Hokuto slowly, "are you scared of what we think of you because of what happened?"
Subaru flinched, the accuracy of his twin’s understanding stinging like an open blow. Suddenly he felt a wave of relief from his sister, a sensation that was violently translated into action as Hokuto abruptly hit him over the head. He yelped, rubbing at his injured scalp, then turned to glare in hurt indignation – only to stop short when he saw his twin’s face. Hokuto was smiling, a smile that was more relief than anger. Her eyes were bright with tears. "You idiot," she whispered. Suddenly she grabbed him in a fierce embrace. "Did you really think that I would turn my back on you because of what happened? How can you be so stupid!"
Subaru was having a hard time trying to find words to speak. "I—"
"You’re my family. You’re my brother. You’re my twin. No matter what happens or what you do, that won’t change." Hokuto gripped his head in her slim hands and forced him to meet her eyes. "Don’t ever think that I’ll think reject you. I will always stand with you. Got that?"
Those emerald eyes were so intense. Could his ever be like that? Weakly, Subaru smiled. "… Got it."
"Good." Hokuto let him go. "You made us very worried, you know! Isn’t that right, Sei-chan?"
Subaru glanced at the vet. Seishirou stood watching them with an odd approving expression on his face. "I’m very glad to see Subaru-kun smiling again," he said.
"See?" Hokuto grinned, then firmly took Subaru’s hand. "Now, you’ve been moping in the dark for days, I’m losing patience. We need to cheer you up! How about karaoke?"
Subaru spluttered as his twin dragged him to the door, Seishirou falling into step beside him. "Karaoke?!"
"Okay, maybe not. But dinner at least! I want something different, maybe Italian or something. How does that sound?"
Seishirou casually put a hand on Subaru’s shoulder to guide him out. "Sounds good to me!" the man said.
"Then it’s agreed on!" Hokuto let go of Subaru’s hand and pirouetted to grin cheekily at him. "I’ll go get your clothes, Subaru! We have to put you in something cheerful!"
"Er …" Hokuto gave him a Look. Subaru gave in. "Okay."
With a silvery laugh, Hokuto skipped off to head for her apartment where she presumedly had an outfit already prepared for him. Subaru watched her go in silence, an observer watching a butterfly dance. Somewhere inside there was still the guilt, the hurt staring at him like his reflection in a mirror, but at least now he could look at something else as well. Hokuto was wonderful for being able to make him put things into perspective. If he hadn’t withdrawn into himself and let Hokuto support him after Seishirou had broken him that first time …
"She was very upset because of you," said Seishirou softly. Subaru glanced at him. Seishirou kept looking in front as Hokuto closed the door. "She was frightened, wondering what kind of effect the conclusion of that case would have on you. This is the first time ever since that night that she’s laughed."
"… Oh." Guiltily, Subaru turned away. Still Seishirou kept talking. His hand had not yet left Subaru’s shoulder.
"It’s about time that you came back to your senses, you know. I was already thinking that perhaps there was no more point to all of this. After all," here the hand on Subaru’s shoulder tightened, just slightly. "We have unfinished business, don’t we, Subaru-kun."
Subaru stiffened. The Sakurazukamori chuckled. Abruptly he let go of Subaru’s shoulder and walked towards the door. "I’m going to see what outfit Hokuto-chan has picked out for you," the vet said as he opened the door. He halted just before exiting, hand on the handle, and winked at the young man. "Maybe she’ll let me help choose something."
The door closed. The automatic lock clicked into place. Subaru stared at it without seeing. Like a noose around his neck, the implication of what had just passed closed in …
The Bet. It had been days since Subaru had really thought about it. In his comfort zone, his ideal life where he would have both of the people he loved so dearly, he had been growing complacent. Time was passing more quickly than Subaru felt comfortable with, and it was leading to an end that he already knew and feared. He had to change things, to see the game through to the conclusion it should have had. What he wished it should have had. The outcome turned on whether Subaru could make the Sakurazukamori see him …
… and he had succeeded, at least a little. Subaru was aware that Seishirou had been keeping a closer eye on him than was usual lately, and it was by no means an unpleasant feeling. He had caught the Sakurazukamori’s interest – but he had not maintained it. Wrapped up in his guilt over Asagaya’s death he had spent three days dwelling on things that he had no power to affect, three days nursing the despair over his failure to help those he had meant to save. He had withdrawn away from everything and everyone, and for a time almost forgotten the paramount reason behind this second chance. As a result, he had lost what little ground he had gained from the Sakurazukamori.
Subaru was losing the Bet.
Two figures, one in white, one in black, beneath the shade of a beautiful sakura tree. Both equally loved ...
"You can’t defeat me."
"... I know."
... both there because of him—
Subaru clenched his gloved hands, trying to squash the panic rising in his gut. No, he told himself, no, it’s not finished yet. I cannot give up hope. Our ‘business’ is not finished yet. I still have time. I still have a chance. Just as Seishirou-san had the advantage the first time by concealing his true nature from me, so I have the advantage now. My magic is equal to whatever Seishirou-san can throw at me. I know he is the Sakurazukamori. More importantly, by already knowing what is to come, I can plan ahead what to choose, what actions to take …
... but it won’t always be for the better, will it.
Subaru bit his lip. Unbidden, the memory of Asagaya’s broken body flickered in his mind, merciless and accusatory. His knowledge of what had happened the first time this time had passed hadn’t helped her. In fact … by trying to change her fate, there was the very real chance that Subaru might have inadvertently precipitated her death.
I’m taking a different path to what I know passed before, Subaru thought uneasily, the guilt he had been harboring over the girl’s death rising again like a tide. I’m making decisions aspiring for the better, but with Asagaya … I completely failed. I thought by doing things different I would save her, but instead she paid the ultimate price for my mistakes.
If I had let events move as they did before towards Hokuto-chan’s death Asagaya would have lived—
He broke off. Suddenly, the impasse before him became horribly, horribly clear.
If I change the future, people will be hurt.
If I live this life the same as before, Hokuto-chan will die.
When Hokuto and Seishirou returned to fetch Subaru, they ended up having to unlock the front door. Subaru, standing frozen in the hall with dread, hadn’t heard a single knock or call.
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