The rest of the trip took place in silence. Subaru was too disturbed to speak to the future murderer of his sister, and Seishirou, too, had for some reason been disinclined to talk. The resulting atmosphere in the van grew tenser with every minute, and the hospital had been a most welcome sight indeed.
Even so, when Subaru exited the van, he couldnít escape Seishirou that easily.
"Subaru-kun." Subaru, already walking away, heard the driverís door shut behind him and froze. Gloved fingers itching for an ofuda, he turned around. Seishirou was looking at him with a concerned expression. "Have I done something offend you?" the man asked.
Subaru blinked. "Uh, no," he said, ignoring the obvious that was obvious to him only.
Seishirou didnít smile. If Subaru didnít know better, he could have sworn that the Sakurazukamori looked anxious.
"I have done something, havenít I," Seishirou said. He took a step towards Subaru; Subaru immediately took a step back and watched the Sakurazukamori bite his lip in an admirable pretense of hurt. "Youíve been acting strangely around me as of late," he continued. "What have I done?"
It took great strength of will for Subaru to keep his composure. "You havenít done anything, Seishirou-san," he forced himself to say.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes." Not yet, anyway.
"Then what is the matter? Wonít you tell me?"
"I can deal with it myself," the boy bit out.
Seishirou wasnít looking too convinced. "Then let me take you out after this."
Subaruís brilliant green eyes flashed. "Do you really think that taking me out on a Ďdateí would magically make everything better?" he snapped. "Things arenít that simple, Sakurazuka Seishirou-san."
The sun was angled so that it reflected off Seishirouís glasses. Subaru couldnít see the manís eyes, but he had the unnerving impression of a great cat circling him, trying to gauge his defenses. He shivered, not sure if the electric thrill running through him was fear or excitement at the new twist in the game. Maybe it was both.
But the hunted wasnít just going to stand there and wait this time. Quickly, before Seishirou could say anything, Subaru turned and began walking away again.
"Iím going to be late," he said, loud enough for Seishirou to not miss a word as the distance between them increased. "You donít have to wait for me, Seishirou-san. Iím sure you have work to do too."
That felt good. Subaru was breathless as he half-ran towards the hospital, a gamblerís adrenalin running through him in having had the last word against the Sakurazukamori and walked away. However, there was something sour about his little immature victory. The way Seishirou had looked at him ...
Subaruís steps slowed to a halt.
What was I thinking?
Subaru stared at the ground, ignoring the minutes ticking away. Or rather, he kept count of them, but not in terms of the most immediate matter at hand. If he could kick himself, he would have. That was stupid. Treating Seishirou-san like that was stupid. Iím supposed to be trying to win the Bet. I have to win. For Hokuto-chan. For me. For Ė
The minutes seemed to be going faster.
How am I going to win the Bet?
Subaruís determination for his decision made under the Sakura slipped as it slowly dawned on him just what kind of task he had set himself.
True feelings. From the Sakurazukamori. There were countless of stories of girls and boys going to extraordinary lengths to attract the eye of their loved one, but to think that those stories could compare to Subaruís situation was ludicrous. This was no high-school soap of flirtations and coquettish behavior. Subaru certainly wasnít any innocent light-hearted student, and Seishirou was no normal feeling person.
How had Seishirou made Subaru love him in that one year? He had treated him kindly, affectionately, and cared for him when he needed comfort. Countless little things that had made Subaru feel special. As false as it had all been, it had worked.
Which means ... I have to do the same.
The very thought made the Sumeragi cringe. As much as he loved Seishirou, it wasnít in his nature to be so open with his feelings. It certainly didnít help that Hokuto would probably tease him to death if he did anything even remotely intimate. The fact that Seishirou had killed Hokuto once and hurt him so deeply didnít make things any easier either.
There was the problem.
To treat the Sakurazukamori as Special ... that would mean forgiving him.
And Subaru wasnít ready to do that. He probably never would be.
The shadows on the path had moved slightly. Subaru blinked as a chilly wind blew through him, and shivered. He had spent too long thinking, and he had a job to do. He could think on this later. Mechanically he made himself begin to walk again, pulling out the case file and forcing his mind to go through the practised exercise of reading. The words were very familiar.
Mitsuki-san ... the girl hiding in her mind from the trauma of rape. The girl from my childhood. The girl who said that she hated me, because I was Ďnot normalí. Again, she has to go through this ordeal.
As far as Mitsuki was concerned, however, it was only the first time. There was some small consolation in that.
Subaru walked past the reception desk and the startled nurse in attendance, heading immediately for room 502. Quietly he opened the door, and just as quietly he shut it, leaning against its hard surface with a sigh. So now what? Do I repeat what I did last time? Or can I work something different and see what happens?
Hesitantly, Subaru crossed the room to the bedside, and stared down at the roomís single occupant. Mitsukiís long black hair was dull, spread all over the pillow in ebony waves. Her cheeks and closed eyes were sunken, the skin had an unhealthy pallid tone. Everything was just as Subaru remembered it
Poor girl ... I donít even remember what happened to her.
Subaru felt a twinge of guilt. He had gone Within her, healed her, consoled her ... and after that, forgotten her. For all he knew she could have married, left the country, had a successful career, or taken any other of the dozens of paths life had laid before her after Subaruís life had touched hers that one afternoon.
Or, perhaps, she had been one of the many, many innocent victims that had fallen during the final year?
He didnít know. He had never cared to find out. Too wrapped up in his Wish, that one thing that had drove him for so many dark years, not caring how it made everyone unhappy ...
Subaru shook his head, instinctively avoiding such thoughts.
It doesnít matter; Iím here now to help you. Again.
Carefully, Subaru set four ofuda at each of the corners of the bed. Then he gently placed his gloved hand on Mitsukiís forehead, closed his eyes, and began to chant. The ofuda began to glow.
"Noubou akyasha ... kyarabaya om arikya Ö"
He felt his body growing heavier as he sank forward to half-lie on the bed, and yet at the same time all sensation was light and weightless as he dived into the infinite space that was Mitsukiís heart. In that place, the physical did not matter ...
" ... aribori sowaka ... "
... all that mattered was the spiritual, the emotional, and every memory and experience that made each person on this earth so special.
" ... kyarabaya ..."
Going Within was something that Subaru had done very rarely. To do so, to go deep within the heart of another person, was to lay yourself open to them as they were open to you. Dangerous, especially since ...
And the last time Subaru had done this ...
" ... noubou akyasha ..."
... he had shown that person something he had never wanted to be reminded of, yet lived with every day of those nine years that were now future.
Where was the boy now?
The darkness around him seemed to warp, twisting into deformed shapes that made up the hospital room Ė Subaru forced himself to focus, lest he lose the spell and leave Mitsuki asleep forever.
Besides, they were nine years in the past again. Kamui would be seven years old. Their paths hadnít crossed yet. They wouldnít, not until the final year with the Final Day Ė if, the Final Day was to happen again.
" ... om arikya ..."
The darkness settled, deepened Ė
" ... aribori sowaka ..."
Ė and he was there.
Subaru opened his eyes. A long white shadow stretched out from his feet on the Ďgroundí that was the depths of Mitsukiís heart, a canvas that could be infinitely altered as the person wished. It was very quiet, but not quite wholly silent. Rather, the quiet was the kind one sensed at night standing under a soaring, cloudless sky. An open quiet, not closed in and heavy. Peaceful. Subaru had expected that.
What he hadnít expected was his image. There was no mirror, of course, but the discomfort that had been at the back of Subaruís mind ever since he woke up aged sixteen again was gone. He reached up with gloveless hands to run his fingers through his closely-cut hair and over his face, no longer childish and rounded, but more angular, mature. But most striking than all of this was his right eye Ė or rather, his lack of one.
I shouldnít be surprised, thought Subaru wryly. He closed his left eye, and his vision went dark. This is my true self, after all.
That was one thing different from last time. With any luck, it should be the only thing.
Already more at ease in this older body, Subaru waited. No oneís heart, not even that of a person comatose, reminded quiet for long.
He was not disappointed.
It wasnít much at first, just a silver of light on the horizon of black and black. Like a raft on a silent dark sea, it floated towards him until it was visible. This, also, was exactly as Subaru remembered. A huge board, filled with so many circles Ė yin-yang, radial half-suns, stylized planets Ė that the straight lines seemed to barely hold them down. Within these larger shapes were many more designs, too small and intricate to see clearly, worlds within worlds. It seemed to Subaru a representation of the universe as people would like to have it; structured and logical. Which of course, it wasnít.
As if the board were nothing more than a giant sandbox, there were two children playing. Their laughter echoed in the darkness. Subaru smiled a little bitterly and stepped onto the board where he saw himself, a child of six or seven, playing with another little girl. Mitsuki. She was smiling. So different to the haggard young woman lying unconscious in a hospital bed.
Poor girl ... but we all lose our innocence eventually.
Subaru turned his attention to himself, or rather, this self that Mitsuki remembered. Wearing shorts and a shirt, one would never have thought that this smiling little boy and the silent young man watching from off-side were one and the same.
Was I really that innocent? Six years old, sixteen years old, it didnít matter, I was such a child.
Hesitantly, Subaru took one step towards the children Ė
Ė and the board disappeared. It winked out of sight with the silvery echo of childrenís laughter. Subaru looked from side to side, trying to find Mitsuki, trying to find himself.
Where did she go?
"Mitsuki ..." Subaru called out softly. He didnít have the time to be chasing dreams, not when he himself had so little time left Ė
There was a flicker at the corner of his seeing eye. Subaru whipped his head around as Mitsuki, still a child and carrying an umbrella half her size, skipped away from him. The darkness swirled at her feet as her consciousness brought to life yet another memory.
Subaru stopped and watched himself again. He watched as he held a little puppy close, not saying anything, defying three faceless bullies with his eyes. He watched as they punched him, pulled his hair, kicked and stepped on him. He watched himself let them beat him up and watched himself smile as the puppy, safe and sound, licked his face.
Such passive resistance. Always, such a martyr.
It was so strange to see himself like this, the way people look at baby photos of murderers and wonder what had happened. Not just himself, but Mitsuki too. They had both grown up so much Ė or she had at least. The harsh reality of the world had come to her in a car with a gang of three one afternoon like every other afternoon, and after that nothing had been the same.
So it had been with Subaru, eventually, in that hospital room long ago and now due to come again.
Would he be ready for it?
He followed Mitsuki silently through her mind, watching this little montage of scenes in thoughtful silence. He saw himself surrounded by birds, showing them to Mitsuki whose dark eyes lighted up with delight. Another time the two of them crouched over a single flower in the grass, staring with wide eyes as a delicate butterfly stretched its wings to fly, Mitsukiís umbrella their only shade. The memories went on and on. Most of them were new to Subaru.
I forgot so much. All I remembered was the incident with the puppy, and that last time I saw her.
I only remembered getting hurt.
Unable to take it anymore, the next time Mitsuki skipped away to another memory of them, Subaru made chase. He thought that his longer legs would quickly catch up with her, but somehow she always managed to remain just one step in front of him, skipping through the darkness with her umbrella as if she were in a field of flowers and sunlight.
Mitsuki turned back to laugh at him. Her brief pause allowed Subaru to close the distance between them and grab the edge of her umbrella. She provided no resistance, but rather, faced him with an almost delirious expression of delight.
"I hate you, Subaru-kun!" she cried. "Because, youíre not normal!"
Subaru flinched a little; even though he knew she did not mean it, the words themselves still hurt. "Mitsuki!" he shouted, trying to get her to look at him.
The large dark eyes seemed to swim for a moment, then focused. The girl blinked at Subaru in confusion. "Who are you?" she asked.
Subaru bent down on one knee to face her eye to eye. "Itís me, Mitsuki," he said quietly. "Sumeragi Subaru."
"Su Ö baru Ö?"
Subaru forced himself to be patient. "Yes. Youíve been asleep for four months, Mitsuki. You have to wake up, otherwise your body will die Ė"
"Youíre not Subaru-kun." Mitsuki said this with all the seriousness a child of six could muster. "Your face is sad. Subaru-kun is happy. And you donít have his pretty eyes."
"I am Subaru," Subaru insisted. "Even though Iíve changed, Iím still Ė"
"Liar!" Mitsuki threw the word into his face like vitriol. "Youíre not Subaru-kun! Subaru-kun is here!" She pointed to the smiling specter that appeared beside her, the specter with Subaruís face of so many years ago.
Subaru tried to keep himself calm; after all, this was just like last time. But even now, I donít remember how exactly this ended Ė "No, thatís not right, Mitsuki, that is Ė"
Mitsukiís scream echoed throughout the dreamscape and Subaruís mind. In response, the surface beneath Subaruís feet roiled and rose up in anger. He had been expecting that, and he leapt away. The dreamscape reached out with jets of what looked like dark water, liquid ropes shooting towards him, some coming so close that he could smell Ė
Ė Subaru viciously shoved the memory away as another twisting gout lashed out; any mental weakness could spell his doom. He ducked and felt the attack fly past him Ė "Mitsuki!"
Far away the girl was smiling, pointing at the little figures that appeared around her, dozens of little smiling Subarus. "Subaru-kun is here! Here!"
An attack came from his blind side and Subaru twisted too late to avoid it. It struck him across the face making him fall heavily. Immediately the ground reared up above him and his hands were bound together by whirling streams of dark blood. Others followed, twining about his arms, his legs Ė Subaru fought wildly against them to no avail, not daring to do anything more aggressive lest he damage the mind he was in Ė "Stop it!"
The girl smiled back at him with tears in her eyes that she didnít seem to notice. "Why canít I live in my dream? Is it so bad, even though I like it here? Even though itís better than the world outside?"
The suffocating cascade of blood surged as Subaruís own memories leaked into the open.
"You can hear my voice right?"
Subaru wrenched his thoughts back from the mire of his memories and reached out desperately. "Mitsuki!"
The girl didnít hear him. The umbrella dropped to the ground as she placed small hands over her face and wept. "Why me? Why am I tormented?"
He was being pulled down, he was sinking into darkness and the blood, writhing like a living thing, was curling about his throat. Subaru clawed at it desperately, fighting for air. How, how, how did I free myself before, how did I help her Ö his vision was going blurry like he was drowning in water, in blood Ė
The sound of wings, and piercing battle-cry.
Subaru threw his head up wildly. The familiar shape of a magnificent eagle-shikigami soared high above him, the grey bands of its feathers starkly visible against the darkness. His eyes widened as it swooped past him and shot towards Mitsuki, talons raised.
Mitsuki screamed, high and loud. Subaru could only watch in horror as the shikigami smashed the little girl into a thousand pieces.
Shards of shattered black mirror, pieces of Mitsukiís face, fell like snow. The shikigami screeched in triumph. Subaru wrenched at his bonds and they gave way, melting into the ground as if they had never existed. Immediately Subaru folded his fingers into formation, not even thinking about the words he was speaking.
You hurt someone, you killed again, from you I should have expected nothing else!
The spell rolled off his tongue as he poured all of his anger into the working. If he cast a killing blow at the shikigami, he would kill its master like he should have doneĖ
The desperate cry jerked Subaru away from his working. He spun around to look. In the midst of a field of broken mirrors, a little girl knelt crying beside a fallen umbrella. Crying, but otherwise unhurt. Flashes in the darkness around them; a car, laughing faces, fumbling hands Ö
"Ö stop it, please Ö"
Subaru fell silent, the thread of magic he had been conjuring disappearing like mist. A touch of feathers brushed his head; he lifted his wrist and stared as the shikigami settled there, talons gently gripping his skin. Subaruís eyes, one green, one white, grew large.
"You ..." he whispered.
The shikigami looked at him with an unblinking golden stare. Subaru couldnít move. Those eyes seemed vaguely Ö startled?
Subaru held its gaze for a long, breathless second. Then, suddenly, the shikigami gave a keening call. It lifted its wings and between one heartbeat and the next, disappeared in a glowing white light, leaving only a wisp of cigarette smoke behind.
Subaru closed his eyes as the smoke wafted against his face like a caress.
Off-side, there was a broken, frightened sob. Subaru reluctantly turned away from the incorporeal touch, back to the matter at hand. Like a tiny candle flame in a large dark room, a girl crouched on the ground shaking uncontrollably.
A girl who, like him, had had something precious stripped away from her
" Ö help me Ö"
Mitsuki tried to hide her face from the memories washing around her like water from a broken dam. As they did so, slowly the little girlís form began to change. The chubby limbs grew longer, lengthening into slender shapes as the yellow sun-dress she wore melted into a mockery of a proper high-school uniform. The pleated skirt was torn, the blouse ripped open and sliding down soft rounded shoulders. Mitsuki made no attempt to pull it over her modesty. The only thing that did not change was her hair, still the long straight black tresses that fell in tangles over her face as she wept.
"Laughing Ö they were all laughing, not one of them was serious Ö Ďsince you played so well, letís play this game again some other timeí, they said, I wanted to die Ö"
This, Subaru remembered. It was no less painful than the first time he had watched it. Quietly he walked over to the weeping young woman and knelt beside her. She didnít notice his approach, cradling herself in her arms. Subaru watched her for a moment. Then he reached out and gently put his arms around her, drawing her close. Mitsuki turned her face into his shirt and sobbed, a white shadow stretching out from their feet.
Subaru simply held her. He let her cry herself out for the first time since one afternoon long ago.
Sometimes you have to hurt in order to heal.
"Itís alright, Mitsuki," he murmured. "Itíll be okay now." Subaru closed his eyes, remembering what she had spoken that first time. "Itís true, no one should have the right to destroy the happiness of others, and it is also true that in reality itís a natural thing.
"I understand that now. Too well."
Crying, still crying Ö how many tears could one person hold? Distantly Subaru wondered why he had hardly ever let himself cry after that day when he had been broken. Only twice, he remembered, once for her, and once for him. He hadnít had anyone to hold him then.
Subaru pulled Mitsuki closer. "I know that no words can ever make it go away," he murmured softly, "but please, wake up, wake up and have a second chance. Like I did."
Gradually, Mitsukiís crying lessened and Subaru felt her sag, exhausted. Suddenly realising that she wasnít alone, she stiffened and pulled away, staring at Subaru with a frightened expression.
"Who Ė who are you?"
Subaru smiled. "Itís me, Mitsuki. Sumeragi Subaru."
His identification didnít have the reaction he expected. "It canít be," said Mitsuki, clutching her clothes about herself. "I remember Subaru-kun from elementary school; he was always happy. You are not."
Subaru lowered his eyes. "Many things have happened to the Subaru you remember, Mitsuki," he said softly. "But it is still me. You called out for me, remember?" Mitsuki nodded once, still staring in disbelief. Subaru removed his coat and placed it about her shoulders, speaking gently. "I know you havenít told anyone what happened to you. I know that your mother will be upset when she learns about it. But Ö she will be even more upset if you never wake up, Mitsuki."
Is this how you felt, Hokuto-chan? thought Subaru silently. Were you hurt more because I retreated into myself rather than the fact that Seishirou-san had hurt me so badly? Was it better for you to have a brother who was broken but could heal instead of a brother who was dead to the world?
Itís because I didnít wake up that you took my shikifuku and went after him, isnít it.
"Please, Mitsuki Ö for the people who are waiting for you, you have to wake up."
Slowly, hesitantly, Mitsuki reached up to touch the skin below his blind eye. "It is you," she breathed. "But Ö you have been hurt too."
His hands tightened a little. "Yes, I have," Subaru whispered. "But I have a second chance to mend it. You too, will have a second chance if you wake up."
"Subaru-kun Ö" Suddenly Mitsuki was crying again, this time in relief. "I never stopped calling you, you know, I always called you to save me. But then I remembered that I had hurt you, telling you something I didnít mean just so youíd look at me, and Iíd think you wouldnít come, but still I kept hoping Ö" She sniffled and took a deep breath. "Iím sorry. Iím sorry for hurting you. Can you forgive me?"
Subaru took her hand. "I did that a long time ago."
He saw a smile then, one on the edge of tears, but a smile nonetheless. Mitsukiís Dreamscape wavered around them.
"Ö Thank you."
It was the crick in his neck that Subaru was first aware of when he regained consciousness. He had fallen forward so that he was half-lying on the hospital bed, half-sitting on the stool. Most uncomfortable. He sat up, rubbing his temples with one gloved hand Ė his head was throbbing, and he knew that he was going to pay for this spell soon.
Had it been worth it?
Gazing down at the still-sleeping Mitsuki, Subaru held his breath. Almost imperceptibly her eyelids shivered, the fingers of the arm in which the IV was fed trembling slightly. Finally, like the first flowers of spring, her eyes opened. After a moment as her sight adjusted to the light, she turned and smiled at him.
"Good morning, Subaru-kun."
"Good morning, Mitsuki."
Mitsuki giggled lightly, the happy sound ringing with the joy of simply being alive. Suddenly, she blinked. Sitting up in her bed, she stared at him.
"Subaru-kun?" She sounded confused. "You Ö you look Ö different."
Startled, Subaruís eyes widened. Both his eyes. Hastily he touched his hair, his face Ė he glanced at the window beside him, and saw his sixteen-year old reflection in the glass.
Mitsuki was still staring. Embarrassed, Subaru blushed. "But itís still me, right?"
He flinched as Mitsuki reached out to towards his face. Her fingers were hesitant as she looked directly into his eyes, as if she could see something she wasnít sure she wanted to touch
"Subaru-kun," she said softly, "what hurt you?"
Silence. Subaru couldnít speak. Suddenly noise rushed into the room as the doors were thrown open. Mitsuki and Subaru both looked up, startled, as a dark-haired, tired woman ran into the room, accompanied by two nurses and a doctor. The woman let out a little cry as she saw Mitsuki sitting up in bed.
The look that spread over Mitsukiís face lit Subaruís heart.
Quietly, Subaru retrieved his things and disengaged himself from the scene as Mitsukiís mother ran to her daughter and embraced her tightly. Mitsuki buried her face in her motherís shoulder. The two nurses checked the diagnostics and called out the results to the doctor with joy. The doctor himself thanked the young onmyouji and shook his hand, staring at him in disbelieving wonderment.
Subaru looked back once at the relieved, happy ending to smile, then left the hospital.
It was drawing to late afternoon outside. The sun was low, tinting the sky orange. It was quiet, and rather cold. Subaru ran quickly to the car-park, almost holding his breath. He had told Seishirou not to wait for him, yes, but maybe, just maybe Ö
That bird Ö that first time Ö I know where the shikigami came from now. You were watching over me then, and you continue to do so now. You wonít let me be hurt.
There was someone waiting for him.
You said that for one year you would stay with me, watch over me, protect me. You wouldnít hurt me. And despite what you are, what you do, I know that you keep your word.
Subaru slowed as he approached the van. The man leaning against it looked at him almost hesitantly. There was a cigarette butt by his feet.
They stared at each other quietly, Sumeragi to Sakurazukamori, just them and no one else. Then the Sumeragi stepped closer, much closer, and stared calmly up into the Sakurazukamoriís startled face.
After our Bet, after our time has run out, things will change.
But until then, I have nothing to fear from you.
"Thank you," said Subaru softly, never taking his eyes away from the otherís face.
Seishirou looked wary. "What for?"
Subaru smiled at him. "You waited for me."
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