‘My hands are of your colour, but I shame,
To wear a heart so white’
Prowling the emptying streets Seishirou saw die-hard clubbers, prostitutes, policemen, the wandering homeless, children playing at being independent, yakuza, but no onmyouji. He had caught the resonance of his brands early on, but whenever he started to close in Subaru would move, not idly as of one unsuspecting, but deliberately, always countering Seishirou’s progress with exact precision so that Seishirou never got any closer to Subaru than the length of a city block. It had long passed the point of amusement or interest – now Seishirou was just irritated. Very much so, in fact.
Seishirou sighed in exasperation, leaning against a wall and lighting a cigarette. They had been playing this cat-and-mouse game for hours now, and Seishirou hadn’t gotten anywhere. It was rather difficult to hunt someone who knew where you were just as you know where they were. How Subaru – correction, his resident spirit – had accomplished that he didn’t know. Then again, Subaru had a lot of potential and talents he never used. Quite pathetic, that waste.
Subaru-kun, Seishirou thought to the Sumeragi silently, you’re really proving to be a nuisance tonight.
There was a group of motorcycle toughs eyeing him; Seishirou ignored them. Perhaps they thought he and his undoubtedly full wallet would provide some entertainment. Children these days, whatever happened to discipline? Besides, the city was a dangerous place at night. These children were urban predators of a sort, but there was always someone bigger . . .
Perhaps, Seishirou thought wryly, even he would meet that bigger predator someday?
One young man, prodded by his friends, approached him. There was a suspicious flick-knife shaped bulge in his jeans pocket. He came up to Seishirou, opened his mouth to speak –
Seishirou gazed implacably from behind his sunglasses. He smiled a little. The would-be tough backed off.
The youth returned to his friends amidst a volley of jeers. A pity, Seishirou was inclined to think. Given his irritated state at the moment, he would have appreciated a chance to let some of it out.
Just where was that Sumeragi?
A sigh. Seishirou pushed off the wall, about to start the chase again. He had barely turned, however, when another signal registered on his magical senses. The sign of one whom, like Subaru, was marked for death. It was coming closer.
Seishirou stood a little straighter and scanned the crowd. There, across the road and walking briskly in his direction, was the Sakurazukamori’s next target. She wore her coppery hair neatly pinned back, a flash of colour against the grey business suit she was wearing. There was a silver pendant around her neck.
Interesting. Seishirou had meant to pay her a call later on in the week, but it seemed that chance had other ideas. Besides, chasing Subaru-kun had left him in a mood for blood tonight.
Keeping an eye on the woman, Seishirou took one last drag on the cigarette. He exhaled the smoke slowly. It swirled in the air in front of him, taking a shape that only he could see. Seishirou held out a hand and the shikigami settled on his wrist. Its insubstantial talons were cold.
The shikigami keened. Smoky wings beat against the air and the spirit-bird took flight, gliding over the heads of the crowd as it trailed its target. Seishirou waited several minutes before following in its wake.
The ghost holding Subaru seemed to think that the Sumeragi was Seishirou’s only victim. Seishirou would show otherwise.
Are you watching me, Subaru-kun?
Whether by feminine instinct or the primitive fear of being hunted, the woman sensed that someone was following her. Through the shikigami’s eyes Seishirou could see how she repeatedly looked back over her shoulder, how her manicured nails fiddled nervously with the silver crucifix around her neck as if for reassurance. Seeking a human stalker, however, she didn’t see the shadowy bird soaring in the night sky above. But she still felt its gaze.
They came to the main road, a dark river with the occasional streak of headlights as cars zoomed past with little heed to anything else. She quickened her pace, heading for the overpass. Very foolish of her, that. Swiftly and silently the Sakurazukamori leapt to the other end of the pass, ascending its stairs with enough time to light a cigarette before the woman arrived. Seeing him waiting there, a shadowy figure with a strangely intense smile, she froze.
Seishirou removed his sunglasses and inclined his head in greeting.
"Good evening, Shimako-san."
He had known her name, of course, but it made little difference to him. It did, however, manage to shake his victim further. Perhaps she thought he was some psychotic serial killer like in those American movies?
Whatever possibilities her mind was thinking up, she knew what Seishirou represented.
When confronted by the Sakurazukamori, people either begged for mercy, tried to bargain, or fought. This woman fled. She dropped her bag as she ran back the way she had come. Seishirou’s shikigami dove to cut her off. It tore at her hair and face; she screamed as she tried to fend it off. The one car that passed far below them didn’t pause, and eventually she tripped over her high heels and fell to the ground.
Seishirou smiled, crushing his cigarette butt under his heel. Sakura petals melted out of the night. The woman stared at them for a moment uncomprehending, until one of them touched her skin and drew blood. Panic-stricken, she tried to cringe away, but there was nowhere for her to go. She screamed, high and loud, unnoticed. The expression on her face was truly beautiful in this moment, this moment when she knew that now, finally, her end had come. And he was the one to give it to her.
As Sakurazukamori, Seishirou had the right to do that.
Suddenly, the sakura were tossed away as if on a violent gust of wind. Except, there was no wind.
Subaru alighted soundlessly onto the ground in front of him. He wore his coat over his bandaged chest and shoulder, and a Sumeragi ceremonial dagger was in his hand. The blade shone as if in victory for dispelling Seishirou’s sakura storm. Behind him, the woman stared wildly at her unexpected rescuer. Subaru didn’t seem to see her.
It was a long time before Seishirou spoke.
"To stand between the Sakurazukamori and his victim, shiko, you are either very brave or very stupid," he said coldly. Subaru didn’t answer. Seishirou frowned. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be amused, irritated, or something else. "In any case, you can’t save her. Her death belongs to me."
There was a desperate cry from the woman. "Please, whoever you are, help me!"
Subaru didn’t look as if he had heard them. The city lights threw shadows across his face. Staring into those shadows trying to read that face, remembering the way he had seen that face last, Seishirou felt a sudden twinge of – what?
Suddenly, there was a sound. The last sound Seishirou had ever expected to hear from his prey’s lips.
Subaru was laughing.
"Who said I wanted to save her?" he asked softly.
Offside, the woman gave a choked cry. The cry turned into a desperate scream as Subaru turned towards her. She scrambled to her feet and lashed out at him wildly. Subaru easily avoided her blows. As Seishirou watched in almost stunned disbelief, the Sumeragi darted behind her. He held his free hand like a knife and slammed it into the back of the woman’s neck. She dropped immediately, unconscious. Swiftly Subaru grabbed a handful of the woman’s coppery hair, and, kneeling down, pulled her head roughly back. The ceremonial dagger flashed as he brought it up against her throat.
The Sumeragi’s face was almost mad. "What are you going to do, Sakurazukamori?" he shouted. "What are you going to do? Just one stroke and her death is mine. I can take something from you that you can never get back, what are you going to do?!"
The scream rose high over the roar of the cars passing far below, a sound that was strangely distant to Seishirou’s ears. Disbelieving, he took one step towards Subaru and his victim; immediately the knife jerked, nicking the skin behind the woman’s ear. Blood welled up, falling to be caught in a coppery net of hair. Seishirou froze and stared.
Subaru smiled maliciously and pressed the blade closer.
"Well, Sakurazukamori?" he challenged.
Seishirou, mismatched eyes narrowed behind his sunglasses, didn’t answer.
He was trying to understand. There was a something in this moment, something sharp, almost breathlessly acute that Seishirou wanted so badly to comprehend, to name . . . he was seeing Subaru-kun poised to kill someone marked like him to die, he was standing outside and watching a death handing in a balance that would shatter at his touch –
Seeing Subaru-kun poised to kill . . .
"Why are you doing this?" Seishirou asked finally.
The knife trembled, so tightly was it held. "Because the one way to hurt you is to take your victim’s death from you."
"You kill her, and that makes both of us murderers," Seishirou replied, trying his best to keep his voice under control. "I’m sure you don’t mind, being dead already, but Subaru-kun might not take well to the idea that you’ve stained his hands with blood."
"Why do you care?!" the ghost shouted. "You who cannot lose anything, why do you care?!"
Slowly, Seishirou lifted his hand in the two-finger focus of onmyoujitsu. "Why?" he asked softly. He was no longer smiling. "I can’t tell you."
The wind howled, whipping Seishirou’s coat about him. Subaru snarled, recognising the workings of a spell. He lifted the knife high; before he could stab downwards into the woman’s neck a blizzard of sakura petals blew into his face. He slashed through them and they exploded too close to his eyes. Blinded, Subaru staggered to his feet. Flicking a handful of ofuda into his hand, he cast them wildly. Seishirou ignored them. Lunging past the unconscious woman, he struck Subaru across the face. The Sumeragi recovered quickly, trying to trip Seishirou. When Seishirou dodged he lashed out with the dagger, slicing the Sakurazukamori just below his blind eye. Seishirou touched his cheek and his fingers came away bloody.
Warily, they watched each other. Subaru gripped the knife tightly, poised for attack or defense. Seishirou eyed the dagger, one advantage Subaru had over him, not that it mattered too greatly. The Sakurazukamori didn’t need to be armed to be deadly. He could use magic – that was always an option.
Too tense to be patient, Subaru attacked. He darted forward, ceremonial dagger raised. Seishirou dodged a blow to his head and as the Sumeragi passed, grabbed his wrist and jerked him forward. Pulled off balance Subaru stumbled, choking as Seishirou punched his wounded shoulder. Seishirou wrestled the dagger out of the other’s hand, throwing Subaru to the ground. When Subaru tried to get up he brutally slammed him back. He knelt beside the stunned Sumeragi and held the knife to his throat. The hilt resonated in his hand – magic.
Emerald eyes stared up at him. They were wild, almost desperate. "So you’ll kill me again."
"Again?" Seishirou lifted an eyebrow. "You killed yourself."
"Because you killed someone I loved! You hurt me so badly . . . you killed him . . ." The ghost swallowed, trembling beneath his hand. "When this boy came hurting as badly as me but with the power to kill you, I thought I could get revenge. This boy couldn’t kill you even though he wanted to; I would hurt you as you hurt us, and he wouldn’t have to do it. He gave into me so easily, I thought I would succeed . . . But you . . . damned Sakurazukamori . . ." With a start, Seishirou realised the possessed Sumeragi was crying. "I failed, you have nothing to lose, you cannot be hurt!"
Tears . . . for a moment Seishirou thought he could see a girl’s face, so determined to hurt him, someone with passion and strength to rival that of the twins he had lived with so long ago and destroyed, crying for love lost and for failure . . .
Subaru really was beautiful when he wept.
But this wasn’t Subaru.
And now it was time for this to end.
"You did well," he found himself saying. He lifted the dagger away from the other’s neck, trailing it over the bandaged chest. "But I cannot let you make Subaru-kun kill."
The ghost snarled. "Why does it matter?"
"I don’t want Subaru-kun to be a murderer yet." Seishirou smiled and gripped the dagger tightly, hand and blade poised above Subaru’s gut like a bird of prey. "And now," he added without remorse. "I want him back."
He stabbed down.
Subaru choked, stiffening against him – Seishirou twisted the knife, feeling the soft flesh give all-too-easily under the blade’s keen edge and Subaru screamed in agony, a raw, tattered sound that held yet another, a high-pitched, feminine echo as the magic in the knife stabbed spirit as well as body –
– blood, dark and warm, spread rapidly beneath them –
– and a dim radiance formed in the air above.
Seishirou looked up sharply. A glowing face framed by flowing hair stared down at him, filled with hatred and yet, also relieved. Liberated. The girl’s spirit that had caused him so much trouble that long night reached out towards him, then, as if thinking the better of it, halted. She was still crying, Seishirou noted, as she faded out of sight.
But Seishirou had no time to think about that.
"Subaru-kun!" Pulling the dagger out of the Sumeragi’s body, Seishirou tossed it aside and bent over his prey’s face. The skin was unearthly pale, the eyes closed. Immediately Seishirou pressed a hand against the stab-wound, pressing down in an attempt to stem the flow. Still blood leaked out from between his fingers. With a hiss of urgency Seishirou pressed his other hand there, closing his eyes and reaching for the power of the Sakura Barrow. He tapped that power, tamed it to his will, and, drawing it back to where he and Subaru lay on the overpass, wove it to heal. Under his hands flesh made itself whole again – but it wasn’t enough.
The girl’s ghost had possessed Subaru because he had no will to live. Seishirou, in his determination to exorcise the ghost, had stabbed too deeply.
Subaru was dying.
How could he just give up like that?
"He doesn’t want to return. There’s nothing for him here. Not even you."
"Subaru-kun." Gently, Seishirou lifted the Sumeragi into his arms. He trailed bloodstained fingers over the too-pale face. "Subaru-kun. Come back."
No answer. Seishirou wondered if the ghost was still present, and if she was, was she laughing at him?
"This boy has nothing to live for, except you."
Is that true, Subaru-kun? Is that the only reason you endured?
Well. I’m still here.
And until I leave this place, you must stay too.
Ignoring the blood beneath them, Seishirou bent down and pressed his lips to Subaru’s. They were cold.
Come back, Subaru-kun.
For a heartbeat, maybe three, there was no response. Then, Seishirou felt a hand weakly reach up to touch his face. He deepened the kiss, and the mouth beneath his trembled, parting for him like a flower to sunlight, soft and warm, answering to his.
Seishirou closed his eyes.
Finally, he drew away. Subaru stared up at him, his emerald eyes dazed and confused. Did he think that he was dreaming?
"Seishirou-san . . ."
Seishirou smiled. "Welcome back."
Subaru gazed at him uncomprehendingly. Then, weak with blood loss, he drifted away into unconsciousness. His pulse beat steadily against Seishirou’s hand.
Cradling the Sumeragi against him, Seishirou stood up. Far, far away, the horizon was lightening.
It had been a long night.
Belatedly, he realised that they were alone. The woman whose death they had fought over was gone. Obviously she had regained consciousness whilst Seishirou was fighting Subaru, and taken the opportunity to escape. Let her run. He would get back to her very, very soon.
In his arms Subaru lay limply, clothes and bandages covered in his own blood. Seishirou carried him down the stairs of the overpass. There was a public phone nearby. Seishirou carefully set the Sumeragi down beside it, and draped his black trench-coat over him. Then he picked up the phone, inserted the requisite coins, and calmly called an ambulance.
Perched on the roof on a building across the road, Seishirou lifted a cigarette to his lips. He watched the red emergency lights flash off the walls as the unconscious Subaru was lifted into the ambulance. He wondered what Subaru would tell the authorities when he woke up. Would he remember anything of the night at all?
Seishirou didn’t know. He doubted he’d be able to find out.
His cigarette died. Seishirou dropped it and watched it fall until the psychic cry of his shikigami rang in his mind. He had found his target again. She wasn’t far away. Looking through the eyes of the spirit-bird, Seishirou saw her running heedlessly down a street, stockinged feet bruised and coppery hair loose. Her face held an expression of wild hope, of desperate relief.
It was short-lived as Seishirou, leaping from building to building, alighted in front of her. She froze immediately.
"Now. Where were we?"
How many people had he killed now? he thought distantly as the woman turned and ran. Too many to count, too many to remember them all. Some stood out in his memory, of course, he amended as he sent a whirlwind of sakura petals out, some like Hokuto-chan, whom he had shared a year of his life with and who had given her life willingly to save her brother. But the one victim Seishirou remembered most clearly and perhaps, with something resembling affection, was his first.
The woman screamed as the sakura caught her.
His mother hadn’t screamed at all.
She was his first, and for that, she would always be special.
If you kill anyone, Subaru-kun, let it be me. Give me that ‘special place’ in your heart that no one can ever take away. I will hold it forever.
The sakura disappeared. They left behind a bloodied, lifeless thing. Seishirou turned and walked away.
Let me be your first.
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