Home Front

By Sophia Prester

Warnings: Assume spoilers through X 18

Disclaimer and Author's Notes: These characters are not mine, and I'm not making any profit from this. Comments and criticism are very, very welcome. By the way, the presence and absence of various honorifics is deliberate.

Lady Sumeragi wasn't sure if it was an actual noise or an intrusion on her spiritual senses that woke her, but once awake, she could hear the faint creak and rustle of someone walking across the tatami mats of her study.

Whoever it was, he or she felt both familiar and foreign. At first she thought it have been one of the younger clan members, someone who didn't know enough not to disturb her afternoon nap, but then a strange hope caught at her heart.

Rather than call for assistance, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and hauled herself into her wheelchair. After taking a few seconds to catch her breath and wait for the trembling in her arms to subside, she wheeled herself over and slid open the door between her bedroom and the study.

"Subaru-san," she whispered, for a moment uncertain if this wasn't just a vision after all.

Her grandson stood with his back to her, but she knew at once that it was him. He was perusing the shelves, head cocked slightly to the side, so focused on his search that he hadn't heard her enter.

She swallowed hard, but even so, her voice trembled when she spoke up.

"You need a haircut."

Such a silly thing to say under the circumstances, but it was one of the first things she noticed when she saw him.

He turned, and right then she would have given anything to have the use of her legs back so she could run up to him and take him in her arms the way she did when he was a child.

"Oh, Subaru-san..."

It was a good thing she had first seen him from the back. Otherwise, she might not have recognized him.

Just the other day she had heard that he had defeated the Sakurazukamori. She had heard that he had survived.

She was beginning to wonder if she had heard wrong.

Subaru had always tended to be a little underweight, but now he was thin to the point of being gaunt. His hair was not only too long, but hung limply across his forehead, as if it hadn't been washed in days. She had, of course, heard of the injury to his right eye, but it still hurt to see it for herself. What hurt even more was seeing that his left eye looked just as dull and lifeless.

And his coat...

"I'm sorry, obaa-san. I didn't mean to disturb you."

She didn't have to ask what the rusty brown stains on his white trench coat were; she could smell the metallic tang of blood from across the room.

"I wasn't sure you would want to see me like this," he said softly.

She could not speak. She could only stare at the wreckage of the loving, sweet, and awkward boy she once knew. That Subaru would have babbled and blushed, flustered at having disturbed his grandmother. This Subaru spoke with a quiet, painful precision that underscored the deadness in his voice and in his eyes.

As she watched him, she remembered what it was like to be a child who was only peripherally aware of the great war that threatened everything she knew and loved. For some reason, Kyoto had been spared the carpet bombing that had devastated so many other Japanese cities. Her mother had always shooed her from the room when the adults gathered around the radio to listen to the news, but she had always snuck back, kneeling quietly next to the door, holding her breath and clutching her doll as she listened to tales of the firestorms that raged through Tokyo and the false suns that had set on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Then, as now, the war that would decide humanity's fate seemed unbelievably remote, like something out of legend or saga. There was fear and loss, of course. Her father and her oldest brother had both been claimed by the war. Rumor had it that her father had freely given of his life to cast the spell that spared Tokyo the fate of Hiroshima, while her brother had chosen suicide over capture after the battle of Okinawa.

Neither of these things had ever seemed real to her. True, her father and brother had never returned home and her life and her mother's were never the same, but their fates were only stories, like things that had happened far away and long ago, or like the prophecies of war and destruction that would rain down on Tokyo in 1999. She had, of course, known about the End of Days ever since she began training as an onmyouji, but she had also known that it was unlikely that she would be the one called to be one of the Dragons of Heaven.

Then, as now, it was only when the war was over that it finally became real to her. As time went on, she met many, many survivors of various bombings and fires. There were some who seemed able to pick up their lives and move on, but there were also those who had seen far too much, who had lost too much to ever recover fully. It was then that war had stopped being merely a story. She had been nauseated by the scars left behind by flame and radiation, but it was the look in the survivors' eyes that had she had seen over and over in her nightmares for decades afterwards.

It was the same blank hopelessness that she now saw on her grandson's face and heard in his voice, boiled down and distilled into its purest form.

She also remembered veterans, good men whose souls had been shattered by things they had done or seen, things that others had deemed right and honorable, but were no less horrible for that. As a young woman, she had to come to terms with the fact that in many ways she was grateful that her brother had chosen death over survival. She wouldn't want him back only to find that he no longer knew how to laugh, or that he had been stripped of his kindness and of all the things that had made him her beloved brother.

She watched as Subaru pulled a book down from the top shelf, and leafed slowly through its pages. It was like watching a stranger. How much of her darling grandson truly survived in this haggard, ragged young man? How long before she thought it would have been better if he hadn't survived?

Subaru sighed, and tipped the book back up onto its shelf. She had been sitting there, watching him for nearly ten minutes, and she still had no idea what had brought him back to Kyoto.

Unless, of course, he simply wanted to come home. But that didn't make any sense. Kyoto hadn't been Subaru's home for years. Besides, there were still things to be done and battles to be fought, including the last one. Surely Subaru would be needed for that, wouldn't he?

"Subaru-san, while I understand that you defeated the Sa--"

He held up one hand, cutting her off sharply. "Stop. Don't ask me about that. Don't say anything about it! Ever."

The sudden harshness in his voice came almost as a relief, so much so that she decided not to press him on the matter just yet.

"All right," she said, softly, as if trying to avoid spooking a nervous horse. "What I don't understand is why you left Tokyo. Things aren't finished there, are they?"

He turned to look at her again, and any sign of life she thought she'd seen in his outburst were gone. "No, they're not finished," he said, "but I am. The simple truth of the matter is that I'm no longer a Dragon of Heaven. I can no longer raise a kekkai, and I'm fairly certain that most spells would probably be beyond me right now."

That would explain why his presence had felt both familiar and strange. His power wasn't gone. It was simply unanchored and waiting to be redirected. But to where? And to what purpose?

She hadn't been this scared for him since she had found him in Ueno Park, lost and confused, and crying to her that his hands hurt.

"Subaru, please. Stay here for a while, for a few days at least. You need some time to rest. I'll have someone prepare a bath for you. You can have dinner with me afterwards. Please."

Please come home. Please stay here where you can be safe, where you can heal and learn to be whole again. Please.

Subaru simply stared at her for a second or two as if he had no idea who she was or why she was talking to him.

Then, Subaru took a deep breath and closed his eyes. When he spoke again, she could once again hear some twist of feeling in his voice, something that if let free would turn into a howl of anguish.

"There's part of me... some part of me that remembers what it was like... that just wants come back home again and have everything be the way it used to be."

Once more, she wished she could stand up, go to him and pull him into her arms the way she did when he was small and she was healthy--when they were both whole.

"Everything used to be so simple," he said, the studied deadness falling away from him with frightening speed.

He snarled in frustration, and paced across the room, his hands slicing the air, adding bitter emphasis to his words. "I used to be simple. I used to be able to trust people. I never had to worry that people weren't who they said they were, and that it wasn't all just some stupid act to string me along, or that other people would keep on trying to push me around and make me into something I wasn't, or that they'd go and do things for my own good or try to make me happy without even asking me what I wanted, and leaving me so god-damned fucking alone..."

He stopped mid-stride, as if shocked into silence by his own anger.

"No," he whispered. He seemed completely unaware of where he was or who was with him. "I don't want to think that about them. I don't want to remember them like that."

She wasn't entirely certain who these people were who had hurt Subaru, but she had her suspicions, suspicions she'd rather not examine too closely.

"Subaru, I don't know what to say other than to tell you can come home. You can stay here. You are my grandson, and nothing and no one can ever change that, not even you. You can always come home, please believe me when I tell you that."

She would not insult him by telling him that everything would be all right again, or anything close to all right. All she could do was help him find what little peace he could.

He shuddered, and she could practically see the rage and confusion draining from his body. And when finally he looked at her, it was as if he was finally seeing her for the first time since he'd arrived.

"You were the only one who never betrayed me. You didn't lie to me," he said wonderingly. "You may have been harsh sometimes, and you weren't able to protect me, but you were always honest with me, weren't you?"

"How can you say that! Of course I lied to you. I never told you exactly what those marks were on your hands. I never told you just how much danger you were in."

He shook his head wearily. "You tried to tell me, I know that now. And on some level, I think I always knew what the marks were. I also know you would have told me if I had asked, wouldn't you? You told me everything else you knew about the Sakurazukamori, after all."

She nodded. "I knew the two of you would face each other, and I wanted you to be ready, but I... I didn't want you to worry," she said, cringing at the stupidity of it all.

"But there were so many things I never told you," he said, almost dreamily, "even when you asked, or when I knew I should have said something. If I had been honest with you, would things have been different?"

With the thumb of his right hand, he traced the inverted pentagram on the back of his left hand. It was a surprisingly tender gesture. Startled, Lady Sumeragi looked up at Subaru's face and had to bite back a cry of despair.

Ever since Subaru had turned to greet her, Lady Sumeragi had ached to see some sign of the loving boy she once knew, but now? Like this? To see such sweet anguish and longing on his face as he caressed the mark left by his mortal enemy? It lasted only a second, but it was something she desperately wished she hadn't seen, both because she knew she had just seen something intensely private and because so many things she'd wondered about over the years were now horribly, terribly clear.

She should have been disgusted by this revelation.

She should have been furious at his stupidity and at his deception.

But when she looked at him, she didn't feel any of this. She didn't see the gaunt stranger with the dead eyes and blood-stained coat. All she saw was a child with sparkling green eyes running down the hall to greet her when she returned from work. She would always bend down to greet him, scooping him up in her arms as he gleefully cried out, Obaa-chan! You're home! You're home!

All she could do now was hold out her arms to him, hoping that he would once again come to her. "Subaru. Please stay."

He didn't move. He just shook his head, dismissing her plea as if she had done no more than offer him a glass of water.

"I just came here to find information on the Sakurazukamori's ancestral home. I was hoping you might have something that would tell me where it was or how to find out where it might be."

She was about to tell him that she didn't know of anything that could help him, but then she remembered the one thing Subaru had clung to, the one thing that might one day bring him back to her: You didn't lie to me.

"There's..." She looked away, not wanting to see his face when she told him. "On the third shelf down, on the far left. There's a scroll tied with a black and red ribbon. You'll recognize the seal."

He should. It was the same mark that had defiled his hands and his heart.

"It won't tell you exactly what you need to know, but it should lead you in the right direction."

Subaru found the scroll after only a minute's searching. He pulled it down and unrolled it a few inches. Then, he cradled the scroll to his chest as if he were protecting a wounded animal.

"What are you hoping to find?"

Subaru refused to answer, and that, it seemed, was answer enough for both of them.

"I hope that whatever you do find there, it brings you some measure of peace."

Still hugging the scroll to his chest, Subaru finally walked over to her and kissed her gently on the forehead. It was the lightest of touches, but it startled her with its coldness.

After that, Subaru left with no more fanfare than when he arrived.

And so Lady Sumeragi went back to waiting, just as she had for the past several months, wondering when she would hear news of her grandson, hoping against hope that the news would be good.

Sometimes, she could even believe that she was not hoping to hear news of his death.