Silence, the utter stillness of a subterranean lake. Complete darkness, frozen in time. Then . . .
With a strangled cry, Subaru snapped back into awareness. He thrashed about under the bedcovers, entangling himself further until he somehow ripped the suffocating net away and sat bolt upright with one hand clutching at his heart.
Wh-what happened? Where am –?
Completely disorientated, he looked around trying to work out just where he was. A large room. No place he knew, certainly no place he expected to be.
What is – how did I –
He didn’t know. He couldn’t remember. Subaru fought down a rising surge of panic – something was wrong, very wrong, he didn’t know what, he just knew. His senses were overloaded with information – Subaru shut almost painfully dilated eyes to block out the too-bright and too-sharp images assailing him. The air felt freezing cold on his burning skin that seemed too tight and restrictive on his skeleton. And sound –
– gods, the noise was deafening, thumping in his brain, out of synch with his pulse . . . Subaru desperately clapped his hands over his ears to drown it out without success –
– his gloved hands, he suddenly realised.
Subaru opened his eyes and removed his palms from his ears, wincing at the noise and glaring light. For a long moment he stared at his hands enclosed in soft barriers of black silk.
Since when did he start wearing gloves to sleep again?
And his pajamas – Subaru didn’t own a pair of polka-dot pajamas; he hadn’t worn such things since Hokuto died.
What the –?
It was then that he looked – really looked, at his surroundings.
The room was sparsely furnished and yet lavish in its emptiness in a city where space was a luxury. Floor length curtains flowed down from the ceiling in front of a glass door; Subaru could just see a balcony outside. A trio of pot plants sat on the wooden floor, the verdant green of the leaves washed out in the dim light. A tall lamp behind the large bed he was lying in, a low table off to one side behind his head. There was a black clock radio on the table, its digital face reading 7:00. It was from this that the noise – music, Subaru realised now that the volume had somehow died down to tolerable levels, was coming from.
He stared at the glowing red numbers as if seeing a clock radio for the first time. There was something odd about the image – it seemed too full, too sharp and brighter than what he had become used to.
But the room – it was the room that was most disturbing. It was strangely familiar and yet it was that very familiarity that was frightening.
It couldn’t be . . .
Subaru’s already pounding heart skipped a beat.
Why does this look like my room in Shinjuku?
The panic he had tried to quell rose again like a tidal wave sweeping him under. Too many things were strange, too many things didn’t add up, too many gaps in his memory.
This can’t . . . what is . . . am I . . . how . . . ?
On the verge of hysteria, Subaru wildly scanned the room that couldn’t be his room as if the walls were closing in upon him. The radio relentlessly kept playing, maliciously turning its volume higher and higher or so it seemed. He had no idea what was happening; all he knew was that he had to get out, had to escape – frantically Subaru threw himself out of the bed, tripping over bed-sheets and tumbling to the floor where he found himself face to face with a pair of pink pig house slippers.
The last time he had had pink pig slippers was when he was sixteen.
It was too uncanny; it was the last straw. Breath sobbing in his throat, Subaru violently flung the slippers across the room where they slammed into the far wall and scrambled towards the door. He grabbed the door handle – it slipped out of his gloved hands and he gripped tighter, twisting it then half-slipping on the polished wooden floor as he threw himself out of – no it wasn’t his room – out of the room.
Subaru slammed the door behind him, finally cutting off the music. For brief second he stopped, leaning back against the door before gathering himself. Where to go? Right – no, dead end, nothing but a mirror, left, an empty corridor – Subaru ran, stumbling as if he didn’t quite have control of his limbs . . .
Wait a moment –
The mirror –
Abruptly Subaru stopped in his headlong, pointless flight and looked back over his shoulder.
Eventually Subaru forced himself to breath. He shakily stepped forward into a patch of sunlight that was streaming through one of the open doorways in the corridor, illuminating a patch of wooden floor. It granted him a fully lit picture of himself in the mirror, not allowing him to miss a single detail.
It was the eyes he noticed straight off; two wide, liquid orbs of glowing emerald that stared back at him. Two, not one, not the mismatched pair of green and white so similar to another he knew all too well.
I can see . . . ?
He closed his left, marveling how the world didn’t go dark, then opened it and took in the fullness of what he saw. That was what had been wrong with the images he had been receiving – after spending so long slowly adjusting himself to the curious flatness of his vision, he had almost forgotten what it was like to see perfectly. And he hadn’t even realised.
Before he could ponder that fantastic mystery however, the other characteristics of his reflection sank into him. His legs, already unsteady with the revelation of his eyesight, nearly gave out again.
He saw a slight, nearly painfully thin body half-drowning in the loose pajamas that spilled over his feet and hung low on almost feminine hips. The face was delicate and finely boned with rounded cheeks of immaturity, childish innocence evident even through the expression of utter shock, framed by soft, long windblown hair of ebony black. Dumbfounded, Subaru slowly raised gloved hands to his face and hesitantly ran his fingers over the soft skin.
Considering what he had been through and endured, it seemed impossible that he had ever been this delicate sprite that he had somehow reverted to.
His hands dropped lifelessly from his face. Now his legs gave way. Subaru sat down heavily in the sunlight, arms falling on either side of him like tired wings as he stared at his sixteen-year old self.
H-how did – why am I – Subaru realised he was beginning to babble again and firmly squashed that frightened little voice with difficulty. Think. What do you remember last?
With that goal in mind, Subaru closed his eyes and breathed in deep, cleansing breaths, cold waves of water that washed all fear and agitation away leaving nothing but calm behind. Deliberately, reaching deep inside himself he found his center, a place of stability in a self that was so often slipping down a dark, steep spiral. It was that single point that he took hold of as he cleared his mind, shifting his awareness from the warm sun on his skin and his reflection, to the bright and twisted threads of memory. Subaru traced his sense along those threads, instinctively avoiding the painful knots and tangles, searching, searching until he finally found the end of a thread. It was tied off with a tight, aching knot, and he hesitantly touched it, fingered it . . .
"Don’t let go . . ."
. . . pain, an overwhelmingly intense fire that spread out from a single point as the other slammed a hand through his heart, even as he weakly pressed the ofuda against the other person’s chest and with one last burst of strength, willed it to life . . . the pain was fading, his legs were collapsing but he didn’t fall, couldn’t fall not when he had his arms encircling the other’s neck . . . he heard his last spell’s crystalline cry as the glowing white dove exploded into the heart of the other, sensed his blood flowing away even as he felt the other go limp against him . . .
" . . . don’t ever let go . . ."
. . . darkness, blessed darkness where he could hide . . .
. . . I know this dream . . . why am I dreaming this again . . . sakura, blood and fire . . . how can I be dreaming when I am dead . . . I know this dream . . .
. . . hide in a dream where nothing would begin and nothing would end . . .
This is . . .
. . . Death–
With a sharp breath, Subaru snapped his eyes open and dropped the memory like a hot coal. He realised that his body was as tense as a coiled spring, gloved fingers tangled in his sweat-soaked pajamas. With great strength of will, he forced himself to unknot them with little success.
He had died, really died on the Final Day. He had confronted his nemesis and killed him even as the assassin killed him. He had died . . . with Seishirou . . .
For one insane moment he wondered if the last nine years had been nothing but a dream. It couldn’t be; his memories – too vivid to be illusions. And dying, to know what it was to die . . . he shuddered, the memory of death the cold of deepest space. An endless dream, locked in an endless cycle with nothing but the memories of life, watching and being able to change nothing . . . was that death?
Subaru quickly drew himself away from that line of thought to something else.
But if I’m . . . dead – why am I here?
Subaru’s mind whirled, running around in circles like a mouse at the bottom of a glass. His right eye had been blind – now he could see. He had grown older – now he was again an adolescent. He was dead – and yet he lived.
How did this . . . Subaru’s chest was heaving in shallow gasps. He tried to stand, bracing himself against the bedroom door. It opened under his weight, swinging against the wall and throwing Subaru onto the floor of the room – it couldn’t be his room . . . he whimpered and curled up into a pitiful ball against the door, covering his ears and squeezing his eyes shut refusing to look, choosing the darkness. Darkness, where he could shut out the world and hide within himself . . .
Sakura, blood, fire . . . I know this dream . . . why am I dreaming it again . . . sakura, blood, fire . . . never beginning and never ending . . .
"N-no . . . no . . ."
Like a nightmare the memory of death ambushed him and Subaru clutched at his head as if it were about to explode. He had died, died . . . Subaru was going to scream. He opened his mouth . . .
The wild eyes flew open.
"Subaru! Are you up yet?"
There was the sound of shoes being dropped carelessly to the floor and the rustle of clothes. Subaru uncurled and leaned forward on hands and knees, peering around the doorjamb down the darkened corridor.
That voice . . .
"Hey! Don’t make me come in and wake you!"
It can’t be . . .
Slowly Subaru got to his feet and took a shaking step forward.
"Nee-san?" he whispered, not yet believing.
He heard quick steps accompanied by the flap flap of house slippers. Then a heart-rending, familiar shadow framed by golden sunlight appeared on the floor. It came rapidly closer.
"Subaru! If you’ve been overworking again I’ll–" The owner of the shadow came around the corner and stopped. "Oh, good, you’re awake!"
For a long moment Subaru just stared.
It seemed that he was again looking into the mirror. The hair was the same endearingly unkempt and tousled style, the delicate face and shining verdant green eyes clones of his own. Then, because one usually focuses on what is not the same rather than what is Subaru immediately picked out the differences. The lithe body had just enough femininity not warrant being labeled androgynous; not that anyone could mistake gender looking at the clothes the girl wore – they were individual to the point of making a very vocal fashion statement in a world where conservatism was the norm. The eyes that were the exact shade of deep emerald of his were sparkling with vibrancy and life. And the face – continuously animated in a way his could never be. So similar and yet so different, such a description could only fit one person. His mind could not believe that it was she who stood before him; his heart, however, was singing as it simply knew.
"Hokuto . . ." Subaru whispered her name so softly he was nearly inaudible even to him.
He expected happiness on her face, some expression of joy at this unexplainable reunion.
"Earth to Subaru, why are you standing staring like a dummy?" Hokuto demanded, waving a hand in front of him in search of some response. Subaru blinked. His supposedly dead sister frowned further.
"No good morning?" she queried. Then she looked at him closely, taking in his pale and drawn face. "Are you sick?"
Before he could react, Hokuto crossed the distance between them and placed one slim hand on his forehead.
She was warm.
"You seem ok," said his twin sister, lowering her hand. "Didn’t you sleep well or something?"
Abruptly Subaru shook himself out of his stupor. At long last he understood that he was facing the real person, if not exactly how and reached out to roughly draw his twin sister into a tight embrace.
He felt her start against him as well as an expression of surprise. Then slowly, he sensed her arms come up to hold him close. Subaru shut his eyes and listened to her heart beating beside his own, a lively drum pounding out a rhythm of life, and buried his face and tears in her shoulder.
"Subaru?" Hokuto’s lilting soprano had a worried timbre to it. "What’s wrong?"
Her younger brother sobbed, body shaking with relief, joy, other emotions beyond description. "You’re . . . you’re alive."
"Of course I’m alive!" At this, Subaru suddenly stopped, allowing Hokuto to pull away slightly so that she could look into his face. "Geez, you must have had one hell of a nightmare."
Subaru blinked. "Huh?"
"Don’t think about it," said Hokuto as if she hadn’t heard him. Without warning she pulled him back into the embrace again and patted his back comfortingly. "I’m here, I haven’t died. It was just a dream, ok?"
Her brother stared in confusion. Hokuto grinned impishly and skipped off the way she had come, pulling Subaru with her. "Come get your clothes," she said over her shoulder, oblivious to the expression on his face. Numbly he could do nothing except stumble along in her wake. "I’ll get your breakfast going."
She was going too fast for him, and he wasn’t anywhere near to figuring out what exactly was happening. Hokuto dragged him down the hall, past a toilet and study and through a door on his right to a sunny dining room. As they went Subaru had an odd sense of déjà vu.
Wait – how did I know she’s taking me to the dining room?
"Your clothes are on the table," said Hokuto, letting go of his hand and heading into the kitchen area. She immediately began rummaging around the pots and pans, flinging open overhead cupboards in search of breakfast ingredients. With the all the noise and activity, Hokuto didn’t see how Subaru had stopped in the doorway and was looking about the room with in utter shock.
Mechanically he identified the leafy pot plants scattered over the wooden floorboards, the tall clock with its ABCD face, the long dining table that separated the kitchen from the rest of the room with its three chairs. He hadn’t seen them since he had moved out the apartment after Hokuto had been . . . killed?
"This is . . . my apartment?" He said it more like a question than a statement.
"Hmm?" asked Hokuto, head hidden behind a cupboard door as she stood on tip-toe getting out bowls and cups. "The paper’s with your clothes if that’s what you’re wondering."
Subaru looked to where she had verbally indicated. Sure enough, on the table was a carefully folded pile of black and orange. Laid beside it were a hat and a folded newspaper. Exactly how things used to be when Hokuto was alive and taking care of him.
"Oi. It’ll take me some time to finish making breakfast so go get dressed."
"Uh - ok!" Automatically Subaru snatched up his clothes and paper and was dashing back down the hall to his room before he realised what he was doing. When he did, he slowed to a halt and frowned over the strangeness of the situation.
Whaaat . . . ?
The music of his sister’s humming floated out of the kitchen. Subaru twisted slightly and looked behind him. Hokuto, alive and well, and apparently with no memory of what had happened to her. He tried to reconcile that miraculous fact in his brain with logic. It didn’t work.
She doesn’t seem to have changed . . .
Out of curiosity, Subaru inspected the wardrobe Hokuto had picked out. A short loose jacket of flaming orange sat on the top of the pile. There were also stretchy, skin-tight black pants and a long sleeved top of the same colour, which he vaguely remembered were one of her standard choices for him. Subaru sighed. Such fanciful clothes really weren’t his style. Blacks, greys and whites were what he was now accustomed to.
"Why is she . . . oops!"
The tightly woven black cloth provided little friction with his satin gloves, so the entire pile slithered out of his hands and onto the floor. The neatly folded paper also fell and was no longer neatly folded as Subaru tried in vain to catch as many things as he could. Hokuto would kill him if she saw her brother treating clothes like this, so he rapidly gathered it all into a messy bundle then began to pick up the newspaper that had scattered around him like a fallen leaves. One page was lying folded over itself against the wall like a hunchback and Subaru reached out for it. Somehow in the welter of loud ads and words like ants crawling over the paper, Subaru managed to read the date. He froze in shock.
It took a few seconds for the date’s full impact to hit him. When it did, it was as subtle as a tonne of bricks and Subaru sat heavily on the sun-warmed floor, staring at the innocent paper as if it were a live snake. Why was today’s paper so old? It was supposed to be nineteen ninety-nine, the Final Day. Wasn’t it?
It didn’t look like it. The paper was as crisp and fresh as if it had just come off the press – which perhaps it had. Subaru drew in several sharp, deep breaths. He wasn’t too sure just how many more shocks his system could handle today – if it was today.
"Oh my . . ."
It was absolutely impossible – and yet how else could he explain his sudden rewind in age, or Hokuto’s presence?
" . . . god . . ."
And how else could he be alive when he knew that he had died? The newspaper and clothes fell out his shaking hands to the floor again. Subaru didn’t notice or move to pick them up. How could such a – an impossibility (he hesitated to term it a miracle) have occurred?
More importantly, what did this mean?
"Subaru, come get your breakfast!" The twenty-five year old in a sixteen-year old body heard his supposedly dead sister calling, but didn’t respond.
It’s absolutely impossible . . .
"N-nee-chan . . ." Somehow Subaru managed to get the words out loud enough for Hokuto to hear in the kitchen. "What’s the date today?"
"It’s Sunday the eighth of November," she called back promptly. "Why?"
Subaru ignored the question. "And also . . . what year is it?"
There was the sound of feet coming towards him. He flinched as Hokuto leaned over to rest the back of her hand against his forehead. "You feeling ok?" she asked, frowning.
"Please Hokuto," said Subaru, half-desperately, clutching onto her puffy black skirt. "What year is it?"
Hokuto looked at him, startled and more than a little alarmed. "Nineteen-ninety. You sure you’re not sick?"
Subaru let his hands drop, eyes wide and dilated with all the panic of before. What in the name of whatever deities existed had happened to him?
A pair of slim hands took hold of his shoulders and shook him sharply. Subaru glanced up into a pair of emerald eyes full of concern.Nee-san.
She was here for him. Hokuto, who he thought he would never see again. He had gotten used to her loss – sort of. Every day for nine years her death had hurt him, everyday he had woken up knowing he was alone. For nine years that loss had been a part of him, so much so he couldn’t even remember what the happy times had been like.
But now, it seemed that those nine years had never happened. He shook hair – long hair, cut almost girlishly like his sister’s, out of his two green eyes as he slowly realised what this time warp meant.
His twin, his other half, was alive.
"Hey! You want me to call a doctor?"
Subaru blinked. She didn’t know, she really didn’t know that she had . . . died. He forced himself to smile reassuringly.
"I-I’m ok, Hokuto-chan," he said with hopefully more conviction than he felt. "I just had a bad night."
"I’ll say," Hokuto snorted, not wholly convinced. She stood up anyway and helped her brother rise to his feet. "Maybe you’ll feel better after eating breakfast."
Breakfast, cooked by his sister . . . he could already smell it. Subaru’s smile became more genuine. "Yeah."
Hokuto still looked suspicious but turned to return to the kitchen anyway. "Well then, hurry up," she admonished. "Otherwise we’ll be late."
"Late?" Subaru frowned. "What for?"
At the end of the sunlit corridor, Hokuto flashed a cheeky grin over her shoulder. "To see Sei-chan of course! Don’t you want to see your honey?" Like quicksilver she skipped out of sight around the corner, completely oblivious to the fact her twin had stopped dead in the middle of the hall.
Subaru stared after her, rooted to the ground as if someone had just pulled a knife on him.
"Seishirou-san . . ." he whispered.
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