Subaru swore under his breath as his rogue hat decided to fly off his head yet again. This time, instead of spinning down the path like before, it decided to head off in the direction of a small group of picnickers, who glanced up, startled, as the flustered youth interrupted their conversation.
"I’m sorry! Please excuse me!" Subaru smiled weakly as he picked his hat out of their picnic basket. At least it had landed there instead of the koi pond a meter away. Paying only the slightest attention to the looks he was getting, Subaru squashed his hat back onto its proper place, and ran to catch up with his companions. They were some meters ahead. Hokuto skipped lightly, chattering like the birds in the trees, as opposed to the more calmer and measured steps of Seishirou beside her.
Subaru’s eyes narrowed. Actually, now that he thought about it, there was an air of a stalking predator in the Sakurazukamori’s movements as well. The thought was decidedly uncomfortable, especially with his sister still blithely oblivious as to the reality of the situation. He quickened his pace – then abruptly slowed as they turned a corner. His companions didn’t notice.
"See? The sakura are beautiful! The pink ones especially. They tickle a girl’s mind!"
"A girl’s mind?" There was a genuine laugh. "That’s new!"
Subaru lagged even more as Hokuto scolded Seishirou. His slow speed was partly because he was still wary of the Sakurazukamori, even though he was certain the assassin didn’t remember the last/future nine years, partly because he was still thinking, and partly because he knew what they were about to pass.
The Sakura was easy to spot, for it stood alone, aloof from all the rest of the trees, which surrounded it almost like subjects before a king. It wasn’t only its size that seized the eye, but also the fact that unlike the rest of the sakura in the Park, its heavy knurled branches were covered in delicate pink blossoms. At this time of the year, it was a strangely beautiful sight to see. Subaru thought that perhaps he could walk straight past the Tree, as that was what the other two seemed to be doing, but he had forgotten how captivating the silent siren’s call of death and suffering emanating from the wood was. It held as much fascination as it had when he had first come across it as a child, and as a boy – but this time there was a great deal of revulsion mixed with the feeling as well.
The Sumeragi onmyouji passed under the shade of the Sakura – and stopped. Lifting his face, he gazed above into the mass of glorious flowers.
He stood there for a long moment before he spoke, unaware that the other two had walked ahead. He spoke softly, wind carrying his voice up into the branches.
"I wonder if you remember."
The Tree didn’t reply. Subaru hadn’t expected it to.
"You probably don’t remember." Subaru smiled humorlessly. "If you did, you’d have probably told Seishirou-san."
I wonder why he doesn’t remember.
He didn’t bother spending more time on why. The question was only one of the many that had dominated his mind on the walk here, and, considering the lack of data and information he had, was pretty much impossible to answer. It was hard enough trying to figure out how this time travel had happened in the first place, let alone all the variances. It was more practical to think about what the entire situation meant.
If Seishirou didn’t remember, then as far as the Sakurazukamori knew, the bet was still taking place. The question was now – what was Subaru going to do about it?
The wind blew slightly, making the Sakura’s branches rustle. Subaru’s green eyes narrowed. He remembered, all too well, what happened here at the end of their Bet.
Darkness, and sakura blowing all around in a hollow wind as his world shattered.
"For me . . . breaking your arm is like breaking glass . . ."
– pain, all the more sharper for the wound it inflicted on his heart –
" . . . I feel nothing."
A smile. Still so tender, like the ones given to him so lovingly . . .
"I don’t hate you – but I don’t love you either."
. . . and yet the eye – one now, the other covered in white gauze, lost for him – looked at him so coldly. Contemptuously.
Seishirou-san . . .
Subaru held up a hand and caught one of the passing blossoms on his gloved palm. He stared at the flower a moment, a splash of rose pink against the ebony cloth.
I didn’t mean anything to you, did I, Seishirou-san, he thought bitterly. I wasn’t even worth killing. If we hadn’t been on opposite sides for the Final Day, you probably wouldn’t have even bothered with me after you killed Nee-san.
Even the ones you killed were more important to you than I was.
Viciously, he squeezed his hand shut, crushing the fragile sakura blossom.
Even Hokuto . . .
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.
"So . . . I want you to kill me."
Blood, so red on white and black and palest pink. Her blood.
"Subaru . . ."
It should have been his.
Nee-san . . .
If I had won, you wouldn’t have come here to confront him and die for me.
But that was then.
Slowly, Subaru opened his clenched fist and smiled darkly at the pitiful remains of the flower.
This is now.
I have you again, and I won’t let that happen this time.
This time. This second chance.
He would protect his sister. That was unquestionable.
But . . .
Subaru stared at the crushed sakura blossom. The determination with which he had destroyed it had faded almost instantly, and all that was left was discomfort.
What do I do about Seishirou-san?
He let his hand drop, and watched the stained petals fly away on the slight breeze. They were soon lost to sight amongst the others.
The Bet still goes on in this time, thought Subaru uneasily. Considering what had happened the last time, the logical thing to do would be to take Hokuto and flee Tokyo, or perhaps even Japan itself. But Subaru knew the workings of the ‘shadow assassins’ – no matter where he went, Seishirou would pursue him. The ones marked for death by the Sakurazukamori never escaped. And with the brands on his hands, inevitably, Seishirou would find him. Unconsciously, Subaru eased an itch on the back of his left hand. Whether the irritation was due to the gloves or his near proximity to the Sakura Barrow he wasn’t sure.
Running away was impossible. And if Subaru wanted to be brutally honest with himself, he didn’t want to run. Besides, he could never abandon his duties as the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan. All those people who needed his help . . .
Subaru, although he was older today, still had his heart. Actually, despite the cruelties his life had dealt him, he had always had it.
So I stay . . . but Sei – the Sakurazukamori . . .
The Sakura before him looked no different to when it had been the backdrop to his sister’s murder.
You killed her. You killed me.
Perhaps this time I should kill you first.
It would be so easy to kill Seishirou. With his greater knowledge of onmyoujitsu and none of the childish squeamishness his younger self had had, Subaru could do it. Seishirou would probably never expect his seemingly innocent and docile plaything to turn around and stab him in the back.
But even before he finished the thought, Subaru knew it would never happen. To kill Seishirou, today, for something that he would do in the future, to kill a person in cold blood –
– like an assassin –
– no, Subaru was incapable of doing that.
And Subaru had never really wanted to kill Seishirou. Even after the end of the bet . . .
I wanted you to kill me. To be more than a ‘thing’ in your eyes.
The last time we played this game . . . why couldn’t I make you feel anything for me? Was it because I was too much of a child, stupid and naïve, who made everyone’s pain his because he had no pain of his own?
If couldn’t even make you see me as a person, how was I to make you love me?
Subaru closed his eyes.
Poor, foolish Subaru.
He still loved Seishirou. He still wanted Seishirou to love him, for the three of them, him, Seishirou and Hokuto to be together, forever, like it should have been.
Should have . . .
It’s another time. And I’m not a child anymore, am I.
Perhaps . . . it can be different now?
Immediately, Subaru squashed that idea. Hope was a dangerous thing; he had found that out too many times to let hope get the better of him now. Stupid fool. Why do you keep deluding yourself with fantasies?
And you know what will happen in the end . . .
Subaru glanced back at the Tree, the seemingly normal tree, ordinary except for its spectacular beauty.
Beauty that originated from pain and blood.
His pain, and her blood.
Subaru’s hands clenched into small, tight fists.
No. I will not go through to that future again.
And yet, what else could he do? He could not run from Seishirou, he could not kill him. He had to stay, here in the city of Tokyo where everything had begun and ended, with his sister, where death would be with them everyday.
He had to stay –
– you want to stay –
– but to even think that he could play the game again, his and Seishirou’s oh-so-intimate game of love and death, especially when he knew what the outcome would be . . .
Would be . . . or could be.
If one had already walked a bridge and fallen, then wouldn’t one know which steps to avoid and cross the bridge in safety?
After all, the future didn’t exist until he made a choice. And this time, he would know what choices to make.
But Seishirou-san is the Sakurazukamori, said a part of Subaru. It was the part of him that always held back, inherently suspicious of everything and everyone, especially those things connected with the Sakurazukamori. The part of him that didn’t want to be hurt anymore. You can’t make a cold-hearted assassin feel anything. The Bet was – is, impossible to win.
"I don’t hate you – but I don’t love you either."
To be worth something to such a man . . .
To awaken interest in an empty heart . . .
To make the Sakurazukamori love him . . .
Was it even possible?
"What are you looking at, Subaru-kun?"
At the sound of the voice at his ear, Subaru immediately tensed. He had been so lost in his scrutiny of the Sakura, and all that it meant for him, that he hadn’t even heard Seishirou’s quiet approach. The man stood just behind him, a dark presence that had always been there in Subaru’s heart, a presence he could lose himself in . . . still, he could not help but jump slightly as Seishirou laid a hand, seemingly casually, on his left shoulder. The youth forced his heart to slow its rapid pulse. What could he say to the Sakurazukamori? The assassin may not have yet done what he had done, or have any memory of the future – but it did not change the fact that he could do it.
Did you even give me a chance to win, Seishirou-san? Were you already sure that you would not feel anything for me?
Yet . . . why did you take that chance in the first place?
"This tree . . ." said Subaru slowly, not turning around, "it’s seen so much . . ."
So much death, he silently added. Behind him, Seishirou was silent. He wondered what the man was thinking, watching Subaru watching the Tree.
"I mean, it’s seen so many people," the boy who was no longer a boy continued. "You and I, and everyone else over the years . . . we all live and it feels like an entire lifetime to us. But this tree, it’s so old . . ."
"Two thousand years," murmured Seishirou, more to himself than to anyone else. Subaru felt his chest constrict at the thought of just how many people must lie entwined in the Sakura’s roots.
"Or more." He took a deep breath and went on. "It’s seen so many people come and admire it. I wonder . . . does this Sakura Tree feel anything for all those people it has watched live and die?"
"Even a heart as cold as this tree would come to feel something for someone he has watched for so long."
Subaru started. Seishirou’s words, spoken almost hesitantly, as if from another place . . .
. . . another time . . .
. . . they struck the way a single raindrop breaks the surface of a lake.
A gentle breeze, and sakura whirling all around; Subaru watched the scene, breathless with sudden remembering –
"Can you still say that you feel nothing?"
" . . . yes."
– realisation –
"For you . . . it is what a child feels for a favorite toy he cannot live without."
– and hope.
"You answered the question."
Even the smallest chance was still a chance.
Last time it took me so long to understand what I felt for you, Seishirou-san, and by that time, it was too late.
But here, in this time, with this second chance . . . I already know what I feel.
Subaru relaxed ever so slightly into the weight of the hand on his shoulder.
I do love you. I don’t have to hide from that anymore.
And I know, that last time, that last day . . . you did feel something for me.
Can I give you that, here and now?
Can it be possible, that this time . . . I can win?
One long second, that was all it took, for Subaru to see every memory of what would – no, could happen. Seishirou, holding him, hurting him. Hokuto with her sunny smiles, teasing him, protecting him. And people, all those people he had met over time and helped, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
But none of these had happened yet.
Can I change the future?
The young boy brought his mind back to the present. Calmly, he straightened and turned to look at his companion with clear green eyes. And smiled.
"Hokuto-chan’s probably eating all our picnic," Subaru said. "We’d better hurry back."
Deliberately, Subaru reached up to take hold of Seishirou’s hand still hovering lightly at his back. He took a step, gently pulling Seishirou with him. There was a flash of startlement in the amber-gold eyes, and Subaru took note of that, even as he wondered at his forwardness and the heady delight he took in such an action. Firmly, he led Seishirou away from the Sakura Tree to where Hokuto was waiting for them.
I will play the game again.
And this time, I play to win.
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