Nukume Dori

Chapter Eight

By Leareth

       

Pushing the glass doors of the McDonalds open and stepping inside, Subaru was forced to pause for a moment. After the chill of the street the combined warmth of interior heating and people was an almost tangible blow. He unbuttoned his coat, standing on tiptoe as he tried to simultaneously avoid the customers carrying trays of food and search for a familiar faceó

"Subaru~u!"

The high-pitched call made Subaru start. He looked around to see Hokuto half-standing in her seat to wave cheerily at him, blithely ignoring the startled faces of the other diners. "Over here~e!"

Subaru reddened. The booth his sister was in was situated as far from the entrance as possible, which meant there was a whole floor of people to hear her and give him questioning and irritated looks as he passed. "Do you have to yell, Hokuto-chan?" he asked in a pained voice once he was within a proper conversation distance. He was about to sit down when he realized his sister was not alone.

Hokuto giggled, completely unrepentant and unaware of her brotherís hesitation. She was wearing a hat cut in the shape of bunny ears which bobbed with her movements. "But if I hadnít called you would have spent five minutes trying to find us!"

"I was thinking more that you shouldnít draw so much attention and disturb other people eating." Recovering, Subaru took off his hat and coat before slipping heavily into the space beside his twin and giving the third member of the lunch meeting a short look. "Sorry Iím late."

Sitting almost directly opposite, Seishirou gave a smile. "Thatís all right, Subaru-kun. Iím just glad you could make it. Did you sleep well last night?"

"No, he didnít." Hokuto nibbled a chicken nugget. "Heís still preoccupied and touchy, same as what heís been for the past week."

Inwardly Subaru sighed. He and his sister had been bickering over the past few days, and this was looking to be more of it. "Just let it go, Hokuto-chan."

Before he could react Hokuto reached out and gripped his chin, forcing him to look at her. "Youíve got dark rings under your eyes," she noted critically. "That means you havenít been sleeping enough lately, and that means youíre overly worried about something. Have you been needlessly worrying over things you canít do anything about again?"

"I told you, itís nothing." Subaru pulled out of his sisterís fingers and tried to divert the conversation. He ignored Hokutoís narrow-eyed look. "Donít you have work today, Seishirou-san?"

Seishirou took a sip of the drink he was holding. "My only appointments today are for later in the afternoon, so I took the chance to come out and spend time with you and Hokuto-chan." He flashed a smile. "Especially you, of course, Subaru-kun. But Hokuto-chanís correct Ė you look very tired. I hope you donít have a job after this?"

"No, I donít."

"Good! You can get some proper rest for once. Spending a night at home with Hokuto-chanís dinner Ė itíll be very relaxing!"

"Actually, Iím going out tonight," said Hokuto.

Seishirou frowned a little. "Where are you going?"

Hokuto gave Seishirou an impish grin. "Iíve got a date!"

"A date?" The vet broke into a wide smile. "Thatís wonderful! Do we know him?"

She winked. "No, you donít know him. If he passes the test tonight youíll meet him."

"Oh, so all your potential boyfriends have to pass a test, do they?" Seishirou chuckled. "What kind of test is it?"

Hokuto snitched some French fries from the tray. "Nothing too difficult. I simply judge on how good and intelligent a conversationalist he is, his sense of humor, his taste in clothes and where he chooses to take me for dinner Ö" She winked. "All the things that any self-respecting girl should keep an eye out for! After all, not everyone can be as lucky as Subaru and meet the perfect person just like that!"

"You mean I passed Subaru-kunís test?" asked Seishirou, raising an eyebrow at the boy.

Subaru flushed slightly. "I Ė I didnít do any kind of test!"

Hokuto nudged her sibling and grinned. "Subaruís too nice; he just accepts people for who and what they are." Suddenly she gave Seishirou sly look. "Iím the one that tested you."

"You tested me?" Seishirou made a face of mock-indignation. "Thatís hardly fair Ė I didnít even know I was being tested!"

Hokuto laughed. "Thatís part of the fun!"

Subaru didnít laugh. "I donít think itís fair," he said aloud.

"Whatís not fair?" asked Seishirou quizzically.

Subaru carefully looked at the table and made a show of taking his sisterís drink. "I donít think that itís fair making someone undergo a test when they donít even know that theyíre being tested."

Silence from the other side of the table. Subaru didnít dare look up from sipping his drink to see what expression the Sakurazukamori was wearing. Luckily Hokuto poked him. "You do realize that me going out tonight means you have to do something about your own dinner, hm?"

"I guess Iíll get take-out and just eat at home or something."

"But youíll be all alone! So very sad and lonely Ö" Hokuto made a sorrowful face that was too melodramatic to be serious. Alarm klaxons began to go off in Subaruís head. "And oh dear, Iím sure that if youíre left alone youíll end up not eating anything at all Ö"

Too late, Subaru could see where this was going. "Itís fine, Ió"

"Then why donít we both have dinner at my place?" suggested Seishirou. "Hokuto-chanís cooking puts mine to shame but Iíd be more than willing to do it for you, Subaru-kun."

"Thatís great!" said Hokuto happily, overriding her brotherís "no, really, Iím ok!" and slamming a hand on the table. "If Subaru eats with you then I wonít have to worry!"

"Hokuto-chanó"

"Then Iíll see you tonight at eight! Iíll make sure I cook something wonderful." Seishirou grinned and clenched his fist in a determined pose as if he were an actor in a cheesy romance film. "After all, I will do anything for my beloved Subaru-kun!"

Subaru buried his face in his gloved hands as Hokuto stood up in the booth and cheered. He was acutely aware of how the people around them looked up from eating to stare in their direction for a second time, whispering and looking more irritated than before. "Woohoo! Step by step Sei-chan will win Subaruís lo~ove!"

"Can you two not?" burst out Subaru suddenly. Startled, Seishirou and Hokuto blinked at him. "Did it ever occur to you to ask me?" he continued. "What if I didnít want to go to Seishirou-sanís place for dinner and was quite happy to stay at home for once?"

Hokuto looked confused as she sat back down. "But I thought you like to have dinner with Sei-chan."

"Exactly. You assumed. At least you could have asked."

Silence for a moment. "Very well, then," said Seishirou at last. He raised one eyebrow as he looked at Subaru. "Would you like to have dinner with me at my apartment tonight, Subaru-kun?"

"No." Abruptly Subaru stood up and left the booth. He retrieved his hat and pushed it decisively on his head. "Iím going for a walk. Have a good time on your date, Hokuto-chan."

The expressions on Seishirou and Hokutoís faces were almost priceless. Subaru ignored them as he turned and walked away. He could feel people staring at him as he passed, probably wondering about the little drama that had unfolded in the far booth, and he could definitely feel two pairs of eyes, one honey-gold and one emerald green, following him closely as he opened the door and exited the restaurant. What kind of thoughts were going on behind those eyes over his unexpected outburst he could only imagine.

A wind had arrived whilst he had been sitting inside, a small playful one that tugged at his hair and the hem of his clothes, but a cold wind all the same. For once Subaru was glad of the gloves he was forced to wear as he headed down the street in the direction he had happened to be facing when the door had shut behind him. He hadnít been lying about taking a walk, but really Ö now that he thought about it, walking out like that had been uncalled for, not to mention just plain rude. So why had he done it?

Because Seishirou-san and Hokuto-chan were playing their silly game again. Subaru let out an exasperated breath and walked faster. Itís stupid. No matter what platitudes Seishirou-san comes up with I know itís just a pretence. Iím tired of playing Ö

Ö but I donít have a choice, do I.

He passed a set of vending machines. One of them caught his eye, and Subaru halted. He pressed his fingers against the clear plastic as he stared at the packs of cigarettes inside. Up until recently he had thought that addiction was more a case of the body demanding something it had gotten used to having, but apparently not.

Iím worried and tense, thought Subaru as he got out his wallet. He inserted the requisite coins and pressed for his selection. No wonder Iím itching for a smoke again.

A pack of Lites dropped down with a soft thud. Subaru retrieved it. He felt a little guilty as he put the pack in his coat pocket, but its weight was familiar and comforting and the guilt soon disappeared. Having bought the cigarettes already, it was slightly easier to purchase the lighter from a nearby corner-store. The woman who served him did have a rather disapproving look on her face, though. Subaru pretended not to see, handing over his money and walking out with a polite thank-you, but it did irk him somewhat. If he had bought a cigarette lighter as the adult he actually was and not a sixteen-year-old boy, she wouldnít have given him a second glance.

It was getting frustrating, being treated like a child.

There was a medium-sized shrine nearby. Subaru entered its grounds quietly, trying to let the peace of the area flow into him as he listened to the wind move through the trees, hinting of rain later. There was no one around that Subaru could see or sense, the series of wide benches in the central yard empty save for the dead leaves. Subaru sat down on one of them before opening the pack of cigarettes. He lit one with practiced grace and placed it to his lips. He coughed Ė his lungs werenít accustomed to such abuse yet Ė but he forced the smoke through anyway. It wouldnít take long to get used to smoking again. Heíd have to make sure Hokuto didnít catch him though Ö Subaru closed his eyes, letting the smoke waft against his face like a familiar spirit offering comfort from the fears preying on his mind and the weight of knowing what was yet to come. It did not, however, offer any answers.

Subaruís confidence, never his strongest quality, had been deeply shaken by what had happened to Asagaya. It wasnít, however, for the reasons Hokuto and Seishirou thought. Believing that Subaru blamed himself for the girlís demise, they seemed surprised that despite their best efforts to support and coax smiles from him he never quite seemed to let go of what had happened. They never imagined his real reason, and he wasnít going to tell them. Seishirou was more patient with his reticence, Hokuto less so. Subaru bore her exasperation as best he could, for what else could he do? How could he tell her that it wasnít so much the girlís death and his part in it that was tormenting him, but rather what it could mean? How could he tell his sister that they were living in some perverse twist of fate and she was supposed to be dead?

Subaru bowed his head. Therein lay one of his troubles. Whatever this time-warp was, however it had happened, it isolated Subaru from those he could once have confided in. Between twins who all their lives had been completely open with each other, such restraint was acutely painful. More importantly, however, it left Subaru without a counselor. He had no choice but to rely on himself, but where there had once been certainty now there was only doubt and a constant questioning. He was increasingly edgy and tense, a mood which as his sister Hokuto inevitably was caught in. Subaru didnít remember having bickered much with his twin the first time they had lived this life, but they certainly did now. They always apologized afterwards, of course, but it made Subaru painfully aware of the distance currently lying between them. Then again, at least Hokuto cared enough to get angry. Seishirou simply put up with him. It irritated Subaru to no end. Whatever Subaru did Seishirou simply smiled with a forbearance that was almost inhuman Ė a better description than Subaru liked to think about. The Sakurazukamoriís behaviour towards him was still no different to the first time the game had been played. It followed from that that the outcome would also be no different.

Subaru bit his lip. He had to win this time, he couldnít let Hokuto die. But after what had happened with the Party Line Ö what cost had to be paid to make the Sakurazukamori feel?

Or, perhaps more worryingly, what did Subaru have to become?

Grey ash crumbled into glowing embers. Subaru hastily brought what was left of the cigarette to his lips again with trembling hands. He had never contemplated that things could actually end up worse than the first time around Ė and how could he selfishly value Hokutoís life over that of every other persons he could possibly affect?

Selfish or selfless. Change or continue. Both had their evils, differing only in who it was that would suffer. With that before him Subaru didnít know what to choose, and he almost feared doing so. It would be so much easier if he just didnít care Ö

Something interrupted his train of thought.

Distracted, the Sumeragi sat up. The shadows had grown longer, he realized as he turned to look around. He saw nothing, but it felt as if his skin was crawling.

What is this?

Half-closing his eyes, Subaru listened with his other-sense. Immediately he picked up on an almost audible ripple of negative energy rising and falling like the cry of a strangled infant. Abandoning his cigarette-pack on the bench Subaru got up and headed towards it. He ran through the trees, half-leaping over the perimeter verandah to the back of the main compound where the smaller private courtyards were. It was growing dark as clouds began to gather over the sun, filling the grounds with half-shadows. Subaru halted, catching his breath as he looked from left to right for the source.

It feels like the birth-energy of a spirit, but Ö He started to run again. But this shrine is empty of spiritual manifestations. Which means Ö

Subaru entered the innermost courtyard.

Ö someone has just cast a spell.

He stopped suddenly. At the far end of the yard a woman was standing by a small tree. She was young, probably late twenties at the most, but the way she hunched over made her look older. Unaware of Subaruís presence, she was staring at the ground. It was difficult to tell at this distance and in the shadowy light, but he could smell freshly tilled earth, and something Ö something else, something thick and metallic, like chain links on his tongue. Subaru choked a little as the coldness swept over him again, stronger than before. This spirit Ö

He must have made a sound of sort. The woman started in surprise and turned around, revealing her face at lastó

Subaruís blood went cold.

"You," he whispered.

The woman stared as if she didnít truly see him. "No one can interfere," she said softly. "Absolutely no one can interfere."

She began to run. Subaru watched her disappear around the corner like a ghost. He remembered her, oh yes, he remembered. Too quickly it all came back Ė the womanís daughter, the little girl Mai who had been abducted and her body found in the river a month later. How the criminal had been charged with murder but released on grounds of insanity; and the mother being overcome by grief and anger at being denied retribution. How she had taken it upon herself to take that revenge, even at the cost of her own life. How Subaru had given her the chance to see her daughter again, thinking that the girlís spirit would convince her not to condemn herself, and instead for the first time in his life deliberately telling a lie, even though he knew how badly the mother wanted to hear her daughterís words.

Subaru didnít want to go through it all again. It would be so easy to stand there, to let her flee and let the consequences of her actions play out without his interference. After all, he had his own problems to deal with and he didnít need hers, it was none of his business even if he knew what she was doing would inevitably result in pain and death Ö

If only it were so easy to stop caring.

Subaru gave chase. Being the faster and more agile of the two, he didnít take long to catch up. Stretching out just as the woman tried to dodge into the trees, he grabbed her arm. She twisted in his grip like a cat. "Let me go!" she yelled. "No one can interfere with me!"

Subaru flinched as she lashed out at his face. "Stop it, please! I know what youíre trying to do, but I canít let you go through with it. You cannot summon an inugami for revenge."

The woman froze. "How do you know that?" she demanded.

"Iím an onmyouji," said Subaru. "I can sense it."

She stared at him. Subaru knew she was seeing a too-pretty sixteen-year-old, and squashed the frustration in his chest. "Are you trying to tell me that youíre a medium?" she asked in disbelief

"Yes."

His quiet affirmation made the woman hesitate for a moment. A brief moment only Ė recovering, she gave a twisted smile. "Even if you are what you claim to be, itís none of your business. Thereís no way I can be held accountable for such a crime!"

"I oversee and ensure that such magic isnít abused by others! Summoning an inugami for revenge is forbidden, not only as an abuse of power but because it is dangerous, not only to the one you want to hurt but to you as welló"

"I donít care."

Subaru stopped. He released her and stared with a mixture of pity and dread. The woman made no move to escape, but rather simply stood there with a dead expression on her face. "I donít care. My happiness has come to an end ever since that day. Hell canít be any different to what Iím living now."

Subaruís resolution was faltering. He knew what was coming, knew what would happen. He didnít want to have to lie and hurt her again. He didnít want to hurt himself again.

Then again Ö this time there was something significantly different. This time, Subaru understood.

Nine years of loss. Nine years of hunting down a murderer who had taken all happiness away from him. Nine years of his own living hell.

Something must have shown in his eyes. The woman looked at him suspiciously. Slowly, Subaru lowered his hands in a gesture of peace.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

       

They sat on the shrine steps. It was exposed and the wind was cold, but neither Subaru nor the woman cared. The conversation was eerily familiar.

"Do you read the newspapers?" asked the woman.

"From time to time," replied Subaru neutrally. He knew the story, but the point of the conversation was not information. It was to listen.

"There was a case about the abduction and murder of a little girl two years ago, do you remember it?" Subaru said nothing. The womanís face betrayed no emotion. "She was my daughter."

And so the story was told again. Subaru listened impassively as the woman narrated her daughterís disappearance and the ordeal that had followed with frightening dispassion. He remembered how she had scared him the first time he had met her, how he had wondered that a person could hold so much hate and anger and yet be so cold. Now he looked her over with the pitying sort of fascination a person might show towards a beggar. Lank hair fell in clumps around a haggard face, speaking of someone who no longer cared about her appearance and the neatness of her dress was more a concession to societyís expectations than personal pride. Lines of worry and despair creased her face, and her fingernails were bitten down to the flesh. More unsettling, however, were her eyes. They were dull, like the scales of a dead fish given life only by the light striking off them. The kind of eyes that had stared at Subaru every time he had looked into the mirror after Hokuto had been killed.

This, thought Subaru with no small measure of revulsion, this was me.

"All the time that my child had been missing I was caught up every day in such horrifying dreams. I often had nightmares of her being stabbed, tied-up, abused Ö I usually woke up frightened in the middle of the night. But reality turned out to be even more cruel."

Such a horrifyingly dead voice. Was this what his grandmother had seen those few times he had visited her in the years after Hokutoís death? What the other Seals had seen? It was a disturbing thought. He had never considered or cared about such things before, in that time when he had been wrapped up in his pain and one wish, every night enduring those nightmares of Hokuto being killed by a man with a smile until he could recall the tiniest details: the way Hokutoís hair brushed her cheek at the moment of impact, the musical sound of the beads around her neck as she fell, how hard it was to see blood on Seishirouís black sleeve Ö

"I wanted to kill him more than anything else in the world."

He had wanted to kill Seishirou then, wanted to face the man who had murdered his sister and take the revenge he was due. That was what the Sakurazukamori expected. What everyone had expected. Certainly it seemed that was what he was working for, training himself and his magic to become strong enough to truly battle the Sakurazukamori. Yet by the time he had finally met Seishirou again, he had changed his mind.

When had that happened?

Beside him, the woman shifted on the steps. "I started visiting the library very frequently, searching in the old literature books for how to send a deadly curse. I searched for it everyday. My only university studies beforehand were in English Literature, so I knew nothing about what I was looking for. But then I came across this curse Ė how to summon an inugami. It gave me all the procedures."

The inugami Ė reminded, Subaru hauled his attention back to the situation at hand. Her situation. Compared to his it was so simple, so straightforward, he could almost envy her. Unlike him, she was free to passionately hate her daughterís killer. Unlike him, her desire for vengeance was not tortured by guilt or conflict. Unlike him, she probably would have found her revenge.

That still wasnít any justification, but Ö

"My daughter had a pretty little dog. I decapitated it a week ago at midnight." A new light came into the womanís eyes, feverish and not quite sane. "Before, I would never have been capable of decapitating a dog, but I did it with absolute stoicism." She smiled self-mockingly. "Iím telling you all of this because no one will ever see me as guilty. The only thing that theyíll think is what a weird woman I am."

Subaru had listened long enough. "Is that what you believe?" he asked quietly. "Do you believe that I am thinking Ďwhat a weird and frightening woman this isí at the moment?"

The woman gave a short laugh. "Heh. Why Ė are you, another Ďother personí, going to tell me that you actually comprehend what Iím going through?"

Subaru carefully stared at the tiny stones on the temple steps between his shoes. Rain clouds had gathered in the darkening sky overhead. "Youíre wrong in thinking that others can never understand what itís like to have someone you love murdered. That it hurts so badly that your life is no longer worth living." His gloved fingers tightened. "I know."

His companion jerked her head up to stare at him. Subaru could sense her wariness. "I have Ö had a twin sister," he said quietly. "Our parents died when we were very young, so we were everything to each other. My sister was the outgoing one, always energetic and lively and smiling. She took care of me; she could make a day brighter just by being there. We were so close, I didnít think there was any room for anyone else Ö but there was someone."

He paused. He had only told this story to one person, and Kamuiís condition had required urgent action that overrode any personal hesitation. Still Ö in a way it was a relief to unburden himself like this. "This person was very special, to both myself and my sister. Especially to me, though it took me a very long time to realize it. And I thought this person also considered me very special." Subaru took a deep breath. "However, that was nothing but an illusion. This person felt nothing for me, and the time we were spending together was nothing more than a cruel and elaborate game. At the end of it I was supposed to die." A flicker of reaction from his companion Ė Subaru for his part felt nothing. It made sense; he had lived with the game so long he couldnít remember not being hunted. "But that didnít happen. He took my sister instead."

Silence from his companion. Subaru closed his eyes. "I Ö felt as if my world had ended, or if my world did still exist there was no more happiness left. I had lost my sister who was all my family and the other half of my soul, and that other person who I considered special betrayed me."

The womanís eyes narrowed. Other than that, she betrayed no emotion. "Did you ever find that person?" she asked.

Subaru shook his head. "No. That person disappeared. Neither was my sisterís body ever found. But I knew she was dead. She was my twin, and so I felt and saw the moment of her death. The person who killed her was smiling. As if even killing my sister meant nothing.

"Iím like you. I know what itís like for someone to rip all your happiness away and leave you nothing but pain. I know what itís like to want revenge." He paused briefly, feeling an echo of that old ache of trying to reconcile that need to avenge with the one truth he held to: that it was wrong to kill. "But despite that Ö I cannot say that what you are trying to do is right."

The woman started angrily Ė Subaru hastily lifted a hand to ward off anything she was going to say. "Please, listen to me! If you kill this man who murdered your daughter, will it make you happy or bring your daughter back? Yes, I admit I wanted to kill that person, yes, I admit I wanted revenge for my sister. But even if I killed the person who killed my sister I would still be left with a life that wasnít worth living Ė and I would be a murderer with the blood of the one I loved on my hands. To become a murderer just like that person Ö I couldnít endure that." He hesitated a little, searching for more arguments like so many straws, hoping that they would reach her. "Furthermore Ö have you thought about what you will do to those around you if you go through with this? Iím sure you have people who will be hurt if you get hurt. Your husband Ė what about him? Wonít he be upset if his wife becomes a murderer, or if after losing a daughter he loses his wife as well?"

The woman stared at him. "You Ö you Ö" Suddenly she stood up and glared, livid with outrage. "You little brat. You conceited little brat! Do you think that just because youíve been through the same hell Iím living gives you the right to tell me not to kill him?"

Subaru flinched. "Ió"

"So you know what Iím feeling. So you know what itís like having someone you love murdered. If you want to give up on revenge, go ahead, but donít you dare try to impose that decision onto me!"

"I wasnít trying to Ė I mean, all I wanted wasó"

"You wanted? You wanted? Is what you want what I want? You want to be a coward." The woman sneered. "Rationalise your decision all you like, but I see what you really mean. You canít kill this person because youíre still in love. Love changes everything, thatís what youíre saying. Do you know how pathetic that sounds?"

It was like a slap in the face, and just as sharp. Subaru physically recoiled from the viciousness of the verbal assault, wishing he could shut his ears as he burned in humiliation. "Just because you love this person, is that enough to let your sisterís death go? Does your sisterís murder mean nothing? Youíre weak, thatís what you are! Love doesnít change anything Ė even if the murderer was someone special, even if it were my own husband, it would not mitigate my daughterís death!"

"You think I donít know that?" Somewhere overhead there was a rumble of thunder. Subaru breathed quickly and spoke through clenched teeth. "You donít know what itís like. Itís so easy for you Ė you donít know your daughterís murderer, you can hate him all you want, but I Ö no matter how hard I tried I couldnít erase him from my heart. It is weak, it is pathetic Ė I watched him kill my sister in front of my eyes and smile and I still canít bring myself to kill him!" Belatedly he realized his cheeks were damp Ė viciously he rubbed the tears away with gloved hands. "In fact I wanted him to kill me. An escapist decision, but I didnít care; death had to be easier to face than what I was living withó"

He broke off. The woman stared down at him. Something in her eyes made Subaru fall abruptly silent. Through the clouds the thunder sounded again. Subaru barely heard it.

"To think that you were trying to stop me from calling the inugami curse." Contempt seared the womanís voice. "You, who also canít see a future worth living, were telling me Ďyou canít do this, you will hurt those who love youí." Subaru tried to speak but the woman overrode him. "Itís all right for you but not for me? Donít try to make me believe that in that short period of resolution when you wanted to kill your sisterís murderer you cared about the opinions of others! Donít try to make me believe that you give a damn about how your death would hurt those who love you! Youíre nothing but a hypocrite!"

"Thatís not it!" Subaru tried desperately. "All I was trying to say was that your husband, even Mai wouldó"

"Mai?" The woman stared at him in shock. "How do you know my daughterís name?"

Too late, Subaru realized his slip. "I Ė Iím an onmyouji, remember?" he said lamely. "Iím sure with your research youíve read about what onmyouji are capable of."

The woman didnít move. "You know my daughterís name. Have you seen her?"

"Noó"

"You must have!" Suddenly she seized his arm. "Youíre an onmyouji. You know my daughterís name. You must have seen her! Let me see her!"

Still sitting on the steps, Subaru stared helplessly up at the woman. He knew what he would have to do if he summoned the girlís ghost. "I Ö"

"Please!" The woman kneeled down so that they were on eye-level. Subaru flinched as her gaze bored into his. "Please. Let me see my daughter! Let me see Mai! Please!"

She was so desperate, so hopeful, grabbing onto the one thing Subaru had accidentally offered with both hands. The one thing the Sumeragi had wanted to avoid.

Given Subaruís nature, the decision was inevitable.

"If I let you see your daughter," said Subaru quietly, "will you agree to dismiss the inugami?"

The womanís eyes narrowed. "I donít know how."

"I can help you. I could exorcise it myself, but that would cause you harm. Only the caster can completely unravel the spell so that there are no repercussions. If you agree to this Ö" He hesitated. "I will call your daughterís ghost."

For a few moments the womanís face was drawn taut with indecision. The wind picked up Ė it wouldnít be long before rain arrived. Subaru shivered. He hoped that perhaps she would say no, that her desire for revenge would outweigh her desire to see her daughter.

The woman nodded. Heíd known it was a futile hope.

Slowly Subaru stood up. Beyond the trees a bolt of lightning split the sky. Followed by the woman, he hurried back to the site of the summoning. With the toe of his shoe he gingerly scraped the loose layer of blood-soaked soil away, revealing the snout of a small dog. Surrounding it was a sickeningly malevolent presence. Subaru paid the psychic threat little attention and turned to the woman to begin the instruction. It didnít take long. Under his careful guidance the newborn spirit was purged, never to return, something that Subaru made sure of by setting a ward over the area. Once he was done, he found the woman gazing steadily at him, waiting.

Subaru walked past her towards the shrineís doors. The first drops of rain had started to fall.

And again, I come back to this.

The woman followed him inside. Subaru shut the doors and knelt down in the corner. The same place as last time.

Again, I am doing this.

The woman knelt opposite him. Apprehension and anticipation warred for supremacy on her face. Lifting his hands into prayer position, Subaru told her not to open her eyes until he spoke. She closed her eyes and gave a nervous nod. As Subaru watched her, his lips tightened. Then he began the spell.

If no matter what I do, I am manipulated into repeating what has gone before Ö

A ghostly form began to fade into view behind the womanís shoulder.

Ö then what is the point of trying to change?

The chant fell from his lips like dead leaves, barely audible over the rain. The ghost took on shape Ė pigtails, a dress, wide, weeping eyes. Chubby hands clutched at the womanís neck. A murdered little girl, like that time Ö

 

óa wet, meaty sound as the body slid off the arm of the young man (that smile, so wonderful yet so cold!) to tumble brokenly onto the carpet of cherry blossoms beneath the tree Ė he jumped back, instinctively horrified, and stared at the dead little girl, the source of that red rain that had fallen from the branches aboveó

 

"It hurts! It hurts, itís painful Ė Mama! Punish that bad man! Kill him!"

Did that little girl cry for her murdererís death as Mai did?

"Whatís going on?"

Did that little girlís mother want to kill her daughterís murderer as this one did?

Opposite him the woman shifted restlessly. "Whatís happening? Iím going to open my eyes!" Subaru made no move to stop the woman as she turned to look. The expression that swept over her face as she saw her daughter was one of pure joy.

"Mai Ö" she whispered.

The little girlís lips moved, but to her motherís ears no sound came out. The woman opened her arms, trying to embrace the ghost of her dead daughter Ė she touched nothing but air and began to cry as the ghost spoke to her, obviously distressed by her inability to hear anything her daughter said ... "Mai! What is she trying to say to me? I canít hear her! What is she saying to me!"

He couldnít stand it Ė he had to turn away. Mai screamed for vengeance, screams that only he could hear, even above the storm outside. He could tell her mother the truth, that Mai wanted revenge as badly as she did, but what would the result of that be? Someone would die, someone would suffer. But if he lied, if he took the same approach as last time, then he would be taking yet another step down that same path. The one leading to Hokutoís death.

 

"Do you think you should change things just because youíre not happy with the outcome?"

 

Subaru didnít know what scared him more, the possible future he already knew, or the one he didnít.

Then again, at least with one he could bear the guilt.

"Mai! Mai! Please, what is she trying to tell me? Mai!"

Subaru blinked away tears. He turned to the mother and her dead daughter. The former was smiling. The latter still screamed in pain.

Subaru took a deep breath for his condemnation.

"ĎMother Öí"

       

The stormís fury had eased off until it was a steady downpour, without wind or lightning. Every now and then there was a roll of thunder, but it was distant enough to be easily dismissed. Still, the weather had chased everyone indoors, and the only signs of human life were the climate-controlled cars and lighted windows of heated apartments.

Subaru walked down the street as if drugged. The rain had completely soaked through his clothes and the extra weight seemed to drag him down. If a passing car had happened to catch him in its lights it would have shown that his skin was very white and cold. All in all he made a pitiful sight, a little puppy out in the weather, searching for a place to shelter.

Hokuto would still be out. Subaru didnít want to return home to an empty apartment Ė he had done that too many times. That left only one place to go.

Wearily, Subaru turned a familiar corner. A brightly lit window shone invitingly through the rain. Subaru headed towards it, entering the building then climbing slowly up the stairs. Water trailed his footsteps all the way to the door. He rang the doorbell. It chimed cheerfully through the darkened hall. Subaru stared listlessly at the strip of light emanating from beneath the door, his clothes dripping rain as he waited for an answer.

"Iím coming!"

Hurrying footsteps, then the click of a lock being undone. The strip of light expanded outwards, sliding over his shoes and up his body Ė as did the shadow of the tall silhouette that stood in the doorway.

A moment of silence. Subaru watched the little puddle around his feet grow bigger.

Finallyó

"I didnít expect you to come," said Seishirou.

It was a while before Subaru could make himself speak. "I Ö Iím sorry about this afternoon. About what I said. I shouldnít have been so rude Ė I know you were only beingó" The last word died on his tongue.

Kind Ö

"Subaru-kun?" A note of anxious concern played that voice, perfectly pitched, but Subaru knew that really Ö he bit his lip. Distantly he heard Seishirou ask what was wrong, that note of concern again Ė he swayed forward. Before the veterinarian could react Subaru leaned against him, resting his forehead against his chest. Rainwater ran from his hair and disappeared into the fabric of Seishirouís shirt.

"Can I come in?"

A spilt second of hesitation. "Of course."

Subaru shut his eyes. Seishirou slipped an arm around his shoulders and turned to guide him inside. The door closed firmly behind them.

"Youíre absolutely soaked," said Seishirou worriedly as Subaru removed his shoes and socks. He moved lethargically, not responding even when Seishirou unbuttoned his saturated coat and pulled it off. It was all too easy to stand there and not think Ö "How long were you walking about in the rain Ė wait, Iíll get a towel." Taking the coat with him, the man hurried to the laundry room. Subaru stood where he had been left, water dripping away onto the floor. A moment later Seishirou returned a large beige towel that he draped about the boyís shoulders like a shawl. "Youíre going to catch a chill. Thereís a set of pajamas in my room Ė go dry yourself and get changed. Iíll make some tea. All right?"

Mechanically Subaru nodded. Seishirou smiled and gave him an almost paternal pat before moving away to the kitchenette. The clink of tea things followed Subaru as he unsteadily made his way to the bedroom and closed the door behind him. Switching on the lights, he had to pause and blink a little at the spartan openness that greeted him: a large single bed, a few pot plants in the corner, a standing screen, an in-built wardrobe. Not unlike his own room, actually. Subaruís body seemed to recognize that similarity; he wanted nothing more than to lie down, curl up and go to sleep. Somehow he managed to summon the energy to strip off his sopping wet clothes, undoing the buckles with clumsy gloved fingers that seemed twice their normal size. He was shivering; barefoot as he was, the polished wooden floor seemed to suck the last of the warmth out of him. He could hear the rain lashing monotonously at the window.

A set of pajamas lay neatly folded on the bed. Subaru stared at them dully for a moment Ė had Seishirou been planning on wearing those to sleep? Ė before pulling them on. They were too big for him, of course; Subaru had to roll the pants up at least three inches or so. He was just doing the same to the sleeves when Seishirou knocked on the door.

"Subaru-kun? You done in there?"

Such thoughtful politeness. Subaru drew in a shaky breath. "Yes."

The door opened. Seishirou came in carrying two steaming mugs. "I tried calling Hokuto-chan but since I got the answering machine I left a message saying that you were staying here tonight. What with the state youíre in, I donít think youíre in any shape to be moving about anymore." Handing one of the mugs to Subaru he smiled. "Donít worry Ė if Hokuto-chan teases you about scandalous behaviour Iíll tell her off."

"Thank you." Subaru cradled the mug between his gloved hands. It felt almost unbearably hot, not because it actually was so but rather because Subaru was still very cold. He shivered; as comfortable as the pajamas were they did little to actually warm him. Certainly they did nothing to help the quiet ache that seemed lodged in his chest. Unexpectedly something heavy enfolded him, and Subaru looked up, startled. Smiling, Seishirou pulled the blanket he had taken from his bed more tightly about the boy, wrapping it around him like a cocoon.

"That better?"

"Eh." Subaru looked away from the manís gaze. What with the blanket, the too-big pajamas, the tea, all given to him so freely, on top of his depression, he was feeling as small and fragile as a child. How pathetic.

Seishirou put a hand on his shoulder. "Come." He gently pushed Subaru over to sit down the bed. Seishirou remained standing. "Thatís better. Now," he continued, picking up his mug from where he had put it on the floor, "whatís wrong?"

Subaru didnít respond. He brought the mug of tea close, letting the fragrant steam waft against his face and wishing it could carry him away. Seishirouís expression seemed to soften. "What happened, Subaru-kun?"

He sounded so worried, so genuinely concerned. The Sakurazukamori had perfected the art of picking sentiment for the occasion as he would pick clothes. It would have been a flawless performance if Subaru hadnít known better. He always went along with the charade, pretending as was expected of a naïve sixteen-year old, though he never accepted it in his heart. But even lies had the power to comfort Ö and at this moment, comfort was the one thing that Subaru needed.

For now, just this one time, he was willing to take what he could get.

"Subaru-kun?"

Subaruís fingers tightened on the mug. "Seishirou-san," he asked quietly, "am I a weak person?"

If his question surprised the veterinarian, it didnít show. "Why would you ask that?"

"After I left you and Hokuto-chan, I went to a nearby shrine." Subaru spoke slowly; it was hard to keep his mind on the words and remember details that could and could not be said when all he wanted was to close his eyes and shut himself away from the world in sleep. "There was a woman there. She had buried a dead dog in the shrineís grounds to raise an inugami. I confronted her, tried to stop her Ö she told me why she was doing it. She wanted to kill a man who had murdered her daughter. I knew Ė I mean, I could see how she felt, that she wanted revenge more than anything else in the world, but still I tried to talk to her and change her mind Ö" He swallowed numbly, trying to shut out the accusations the woman had shouted at him that still echoed in his mind like a possessing spirit. "In the end I summoned the ghost of her dead daughter, on the condition that she cancelled the inugami spell. She wanted to see her daughter so badly Ö but the little girl was in so much pain, she wanted her mother to kill the man who had killed her, was imploring her to do so Ö" Memories of Mai screaming in pain Ė Subaru unconsciously pulled the blanket closer. "The mother couldnít hear her, of course, but she could see her daughter crying. She begged me to tell her what her daughter was trying to say to her."

"What did you do?" asked Seishirou.

Subaru bit his lip. "I lied to her."

Silence from Seishirou. The rain outside seemed uncomfortably loud. As if the admittance had removed a keystone to his support Subaru could feel what was left of his resistance crumbling like a rotten bridge. The hand holding the mug began to tremble. "The worst of it Ö the worst of it wasnít even the lie, or that the daughter wanted her mother to kill her murderer, it was that I knew, I knew the hurt I was going to cause telling her what I wanted her to hear Ė and I still did it! I was too scared to tell her the truth because I didnít know what would happen if I didó" He choked, fingers knotting in the blanket. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. "When I was trying to convince the woman not to kill her daughterís murderer, she Ö she became angry. She shouted at me. She told me that I was weak, a pathetic coward. That even if that man were someone special, even it was her own husband who killed her daughter she couldnít let her daughterís murder go unpunished." Subaru hunched in on himself Ė the accusations the woman had hurled at him had been bad enough by themselves, but they had been compounded by the fact that they were nothing he hadnít applied to himself before. Torn trying to reconcile the need to answer Hokutoís murder with the knowledge that he couldnít become a person capable of killing anyone, least of all someone he cared for so deeply Ö "I understood what she was saying to me. Victims go through so much pain, how could they not want retribution against the person who caused it? But to answer murder with murder ... I canít see how a person could do that. I couldnít do that." He looked up to Seishirou then, eyes desperate for some sort of counsel. "Do you think thatís weak of me?"

Seishirou didnít immediately answer. With a thoughtful expression he put his empty mug down and moved to sit beside Subaru on the bed. "Do you believe that it is wrong to kill people?" asked the vet.

"Yes."

Seishirou smiled. "Then everything is all right."

He blinked. "Wh-what?"

Seishirou shifted to face him more properly. "Whatever you may think now about what you did today, you did it to protect that lady from herself. Your intentions were good, and you acted accordingly. No matter what she said to you, no matter what anyone else thinks of you, you did what you thought was right." Seishirou bent down a little to look directly into Subaruís face. "Did anything that woman say to you make you think, even for one moment, ĎI should let this woman kill that man?í"

"No Ö"

A hand came around Subaruís back to rest on his right shoulder. The other took away his mug and put it on the floor. "Then please," said Seishirou as he gently pushed Subaru down to rest his head on Seishirouís lap, "stop hurting yourself."

Subaru couldnít move. He held himself stiffly, suddenly very wide awake, Seishirouís shirt touching his hair and the left side of his face pressed against the manís leg. As if sensing this, the hand that Seishirou had laid on his shoulder began to move, stroking him through the blanket as if Subaru were one of the frightened dogs brought into the clinic.

Seishirouís voice softened. "Subaru-kun, I think you did the best you could when you lied to her. Donít think in terms of Ďrightí or Ďwrongí Ė some things canít be seen that way." Still his hand moved over the curve of Subaruís shoulder. "The important thing is that you do and choose what you want, what you believe in Ė and once having chosen, have the strength to see it through all the way to the end."

Subaru tried to twist around to look up at his friend. "But Seishirou-sanó"

The hand moved up to cover his eyes. Gently he was pushed back down to lie on Seishirouís lap. "If you do what you believe deep in your heart is the right thing to do, then it doesnít matter what anyone else thinks."

It was soothing, this touching. Subaru could feel himself relax, sinking into the words and the warmth around him like a seashell into a black ocean. Seishirouís hand shifted up to trail through his hair, a comforting rhythm, and Subaruís tired eyes began to shut. Absently he touched the seam running along the length of Seishirouís slacks with gloved fingers, cloth against cloth as Seishirouís hand moved to glide beneath the pajama collar to his throató

Subaru stiffened.

Suddenly the hand was removed. Carefully but insistently, Seishirou moved to get up. Subaru blinked a little, disorientated as with the removal of his human pillow he was forced to sit up, but before he could say anything Seishirou kindly guided him to lie down properly on the bed and drew the sheets over him. "Youíve had a hard day. Go to sleep Ė Iíll stay by your side. If someone comes and calls you weak or a liar, Iíll chase them away."

Subaru could hold himself up no longer. He was falling into sleep, and he let it happen. Suddenly, however, a realisation struck him. He sat up, calling out just as the lights were turned off.

"Seishirou-san?"

A pause. The tall silhouette framed in the rectangle of blue shadow turned to look over his shoulder, one hand resting on the doorframe. "Yes?"

Subaru hesitated. The words he wanted to say stuck in his throat. He looked away. "Thank you."

He sensed a smile. "Goodnight, Subaru-kun."

The door slid shut. Subaru stared at it for a moment, then slowly lay back down. Pulling the sheets up to his chin, he listened to the rain outside, feeling very small in the unfamiliar room, the unfamiliar bed and clothes Ö he curled up into a tight ball, trying not to think, that to the question of whether Seishirou himself thought he was weak, he hadnít been given an answer.

Then again, Subaru wasnít sure if he wanted to hear it.

Rain drummed forebodingly on the window. Squeezing his eyes shut, Subaru let himself be lost to sleep.

       

Seishirou shut the door and made sure it was properly closed. He moved quietly, despite being weighed down by a towel, two mugs, and a set of wet clothes. Balancing all of these in one hand and over one arm, he stood in the darkened hall outside the closed bedroom door like a poised bird of prey, listening to the soft sounds of movement inside as his guest presumably made himself comfortable for sleep. After what had happened today, rest was what a heart like Subaruís needed most.

The sounds stopped. All that could be heard was the rain. Pushing away from the door, Seishirou caught sight of the mirror on the adjacent wall. It reflected his contemplative expression back at him.

Seishirou stared at himself coolly for a moment. Then he walked away.

The apartment was dark. Strange shadows slid over the walls from the rain-slicked windows. Seishirou walked easily despite the lack of light, going first to the kitchen to leave the mugs on the rack, then to the laundry room where the towel was negligently draped over the sink and Subaruís clothes went into the washing-machine. Once that was done and the machine was whirring, he turned to the damp coat hanging behind the door. Without hesitation he reached into the right-hand pocket, searching for that weight he had first noticed when he had taken the coat from Subaruís shoulders.

The washing-machine gathered speed as the Sakurazukamori pulled out Subaruís cigarette lighter.

Thoughtfully, like a jeweler inspecting a gem, Seishirou turned the lighter over in his hands. It was nothing special, just one of those cheap things available at any corner-store or petrol station. The container was almost full. On impulse Seishirou struck it alight. Immediately the sharp smell of gas filled the laundry room. Blue-yellow fire caught in his glasses and gleamed eerily off the narrowed honey-gold eyes beyond. Those eyes were strangely intense.

With an expert flick, Seishirou killed the flame and stared into the darkness.

"Most curious," he murmured.

The Sakurazukamori fingered the cigarette lighter meditatively a little longer. Then he shrugged, put it back in Subaruís coat pocket, and quietly exited the room. The hunterís gaze did not leave his face.


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