A Flicker and a Shadow
Lady Sumeragi wasn't one to hate. She had been angry countless times in her life, but she had only truly hated one person – the face of a grotesquely smiling man pinning her favorite child against his god-forsaken tree. Those kinds of smiles were of the eternally damned. Only a handful of individuals possessed such expressions. She had seen it five times, and to live a life such as hers and only see it five times was nothing short of lucky.
The first time she had seen it was as a girl. Her mother had brought home a grey-skinned child from one of the war-ravaged cities. Whether or not the boy was a distant relative, she did not know. For days, they had tended to the boy – his rotting skin filling the house with an acrid odor. She herself had been his regular nurse, shifting him in his bed every few hours, changing his bandages frequently, and feeding him reluctantly. She watched intently every time he gurgled, wondering if he was to die of choking. When he was well enough, he opened his eyes to reveal the strangest set of eyes she had every seen – they were wide, unseeing, and reminded her of starbursts or bombs. Years later, she would realize what cataracts were and the effects radiation wreaked upon a human body.
The point is that he had smiled at her like that. Smiling in ruins – like a rotting vegetable.
The second smile was of the same nature, but more vindictive. Six hours after the birth of Hokuto, she had glimpsed the vision of a tall, gangling man standing outside the hospital. Peering through the shades of the window, she had frowned. He was staring up intently, the falling rain fresh on his high cheekbones. She didn't see his eyes at first, as she was immediately drawn to that wide, poor play of a grin. The eyes hit her next – narrow and vivid green. When she blinked, he was gone. In the background, the mother screamed – Subaru had finally arrived.
The third came to her from a young girl in the marketplace. The girl was bizarre and beautiful, and something in Lady Sumeragi's heart tingled and warned her to keep away. The girl seemed to note the tension, but she just licked the icing from her fingers like a satisfied cat. An unidentifiable fear seized Lady Sumeragi then and she hurried home to check on the twins.
The fourth came from Subaru himself, as she came upon him standing alone in the garden in the dead of the night. He seemed tinier than he actually was, and sicker in the moonlight. He didn't seem to hear her when she called, so she rushed to him, yanking his hands from his sleeves to be sure that his gloves were firmly in place. In his right hand, he clutched a bottle of Hokuto's bath salts. She questioned him about it, and he merely smiled that same parody of life. After she took him back inside and tucked him safely under starched bed sheets, she disposed of the sakura-scented salts.
The fifth smile was the worst of them all. Shaded bangs hid maddeningly gold eyes from her sight, but that smile of his sent a jolt of fear to her heart. And beyond his smile, she saw the crux of her nightmares – her little green-eyed sprite with skin pure as the snow was dying before her eyes. With his arms spread out and eaten by bark, there was blood leaking down his chin and glossy tears in his eyes. The most painful realization was that he was not fighting. And in that single moment, she hated. Even later, when the phone call delivered the news of her granddaughter's death, she never hated as much as she did in that one moment.
These days, the smiles stayed in the back of her mind. There were more important things to dwell on. Matters of the clan had to be attended once more, since the thirteenth was busy in Tokyo. No word had come from the city in a long time, and it was hearsay that the earthquakes were growing ever-violent. She wondered when it would all be over, and after that, what the damages would entail. She focused her attention back to the five children before her.
All of them were unrefined children of modern times. Most of them reminded her of Hokuto – headstrong and rebellious. Yet, they lacked her charismatic tactics of evaporating her grandmother's ire. Perhaps most importantly, they lacked talent. The faint sparks of true onmyoudo spurted every now and then, but what little of it showed up was denied by poor personal discipline. Now, the children were eating rice, valiantly failing at remaining dignified. The youngest kept whining for her mother.
None of them would suffice as a true heir. It was difficult not to think of Subaru when she trained them. She couldn't help but trace their features, mentally comparing them to the astoundingly beautiful child she had taught years ago. Every time one of them managed to complete a spell, she thought of Subaru and how he had mastered them with relative ease.
The second youngest was an impish boy, and he stabbed at his rice impatiently, complaining that chopsticks were an ancient method of eating and he preferred western silverware.
"Stop it, child," she admonished gruffly, silently boiling at the ignorance of her new charges. "Do not stick your chopsticks into you food like that – especially not into your rice."
"Why?" he drawled tiredly.
"Only at funerals are chopsticks plunged into rice so openly, and that rice is placed on the altar."
"Ew," he whined. "I don't want this anymore." He passed his rice to the younger girl next to him, his chopsticks knocking clumsily against hers as he transferred the food.
Lady Sumeragi sighed. Uncivilized children.
"Only at funerals are things passed directly from chopstick to chopstick."
"What's that?" one of the older children asked.
"The bones of the cremated body," she murmured quietly, calling on old memories with a disturbing expression.
The children quieted at her words, and for the rest of the day, they stared at her in fear. Dimly, she wondered when the next funeral would take place, and whose cremation rites she would have to oversee. She often dreamt of osenko these days – of lighting the incense sticks and watching them flicker in the overbearing darkness.
The messenger came shortly after the arrival of the New Year. She was sitting demurely in her wheel chair, fanning herself as she glued her eyes on the fizzling crackle of the television. The hurried, almost clumsy way the man threw himself in the room reminded her of the time she had been informed about the pregnancy so long ago. He nearly tripped over his robes as he rushed to bow.
"Any news?" she asked slowly, keeping her emotions in check. The messenger shifted uncomfortably, picking tensely at his sleeves.
"You are needed in Tokyo, Sumeragi-sama," he murmured, regaining his composure immediately.
"Tokyo is still dangerous, even if it's all over now," she replied, not taking her eyes from the television.
"My lady, we won't be taking you into the heart of the city," he said more quietly, averting his eyes. "But you are needed."
"What is this about?" she said sharply, cutting to the case. "I may be a doddery old woman, Tanaka-san, but I have known you since you were a boy, and you were never one to keep things from me."
Tanaka's tongue darted out to lick at his lips and he replied, "They wouldn't let me see exactly what it was, Sumeragi-sama, and what conclusions they have drawn may be misguided."
The truth that Tanaka did not believe their conclusions hung in the air between them. He had always been a proud, upright boy, and whenever rumors arose about those he respected, he was the first to refute them. Lady Sumeragi saw identical children in her mind – two of them spinning in the finest of robes.
"Take me to Tokyo."
The house was dark, hidden in old pines and dead cherries. A small group of white-robed onmyouji stood around the door, wringing their hands and rocking on their heels. Tanaka opened the car door and she was gently lowered to her wheel chair. The murmuring near the doors got louder, but when she glanced up to stare at them with hard eyes, they silenced immediately.
One brave man tried to stop her from entering. She grabbed his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip.
"Lady, you need not enter alone," he pleaded. "It's too danger – "
"I will see what has you all frightened for myself, thank you," she replied warningly.
Really, this whole ordeal was making her sick to her stomach. As she was wheeled through the doorway, the sea of white parting before here like waves, she noticed the shoes by the door. Two pairs. The larger pair was black and polished, but the second was smaller, a familiar picture of old unlaced boots. She gripped her armrests angrily.
"Sumeragi-sama?" Tanaka whispered questioningly.
"Let us continue," she rasped. She cast one glance at the crowd of onmyouji outside and pursed her lips.
Tanaka was interrupted by the brave man holding a candlestick.
"Let me guide you, please. None of the lights work," he said confidently. "Earthquakes did a number on the electricity."
"Whatever happened to flashlights?" Tanaka grumbled, falling into step behind the man as he pushed Lady Sumeragi forward.
The hallway echoed eerily as they walked, magnifying each creak of footsteps and wheels. It was too quiet. The man holding the candle trembled more and more, the closer to destination they grew. Finally, they arrived at a door.
The man fumbled for a moment, sliding it open as delicately as he could. Tanaka had instinctively moved in front of Lady Sumeragi, as if afraid some wild animal with razor teeth might lunge from the room. Nothing happened.
"Give me that," Lady Sumeragi whispered, reaching for the candle. The guide had lost his nerve, it seemed. She fumbled with her hold for a moment, and Tanaka began to push at her chair. The room glowed before her.
Two shadows lay in the center of the room. She had never wished for the use of her legs more.
"Forward," she gasped, clutching the light tightly.
Her heart came bubbling up in her throat as she peered past the shrouds of darkness. On the futon in the floor were two people wearing white yukata, limbs intertwined intimately. One slept peacefully, a soiled bandaged wrapped round his eyes like a blinder. The spot over his right eye was stained red. The other looked merely content, his arms wrapped lovingly around the first man, hands rhythmically combing through his hair. Every now and this, his fingers brushed over the dirty bandage, tenderness glowing brightly in his eyes.
Lady Sumeragi held the light forward, making out the outline of a thick book open on the floor as well as a scattering of burnt-out candles. A rusty dagger lay not too far from the futon. Her throat closed up, like the bad allergic reaction she had experienced once as a child. Snarling, her eyes flew hotly to the sleeping figure – to the blissful smile stretched out across his face.
"Get out of here, Tanaka," she grit out.
He looked confused at her request.
"I'm going to fix this. Just get out."
Tanaka cast one last terrified glance at the face of the man caressing the sleeping one and fled, the swooshing of his robes audible as he ran down the hallway. She turned back to the pair before her, mouth drawn like a hungry wolf's.
In her mind's eye, she saw him – twisting her grandson's arm until is snapped like a tree limb – ripping the legs from her shikigami and mangling her own – plunging his hand through her granddaughter's chest. She opened her eyes and saw him before her, the rise and fall of his chest peaceful and undisturbed. The desire to still that breathing rose up in her heart like a clawing demon.
She eased out of her wheelchair, set the candle on the floor, and grabbed the hilt of the bloody dagger. Dragging her body closer, she leaned over that vile body – stared hard at his blinded face. Her eyes roamed over that disgusting smile before fastening on the center of his chest. She wanted to draw the name Sumeragi there. Revenge.
A hand fell over her own, light and cold but flawless. She gasped loudly and raised her eyes to meet the owner. One gold eye and one green eye looked at her blankly.
"What?" she coughed, trying to free her hand to no avail. "S-Subaru-san! Stop it!"
He shook his head slowly, eyes glimmering in the candlelight. She let her eyes settle on his flawless body with dread.
"You're dead," she whispered softly. "Let me free you from him."
She had to do it. Subaru had to understand.
She flinched, falling back on her rear. His eyes were spilling tears, and they splashed on the face of the other man. The man roused sluggishly, feeling blindly for Subaru and grinning when he found him. He yanked Subaru closer to him and buried his face in his neck, inhaling deeply.
Subaru's eyes stared at her over his head, pleading silently.
Her heart throbbed in agony.
The Sakurazukamori murmured words that were too low to be heard properly before nibbling clumsily on the side of her Subaru's face and embracing him fully. At the beautiful expression on her grandson's face, she scrambled backwards, bumping the candle in the process. Afterward, she somehow managed to pull her tired body back into the wheelchair.
For a moment, she feared that her loudness would alert the Sakurazukamori to her presence, but he was too wrapped up in Subaru to notice anything else. Wheeling herself quickly to the door, she fought one last war inside her heart. Before she took her leave, she cast one last glance to Subaru, hoping to lock eyes with him for the last time.
He was smiling that same smile – eyes glued to the face of his lover.
She choked on her breath and slid the door shut behind her, the tinkling of bells ringing in her ears. The others asked her many things when she arrived outside – what had happened to the candle – why she carried a bloody dagger. She told them, simply, that she had finished an exorcism.
They gathered for a prayer that lasted no more than ten minutes before it happened. There was the unmistakable, strangled scream of a man – faint and only audible to her ears.
"What's going on?" she demanded, staring at the house and drawing everyone's eyes.
"What do you mean?" they asked her, searching for signs of a problem.
"I heard him."
And then the truth became clear. The first of the flames appeared in the hallway, and she remembered bumping the candle.
"Oh, no," she whispered. What have I done?
She watched in morbid fascination as the flames grew to a raging inferno, the wooden frame of the house falling down piece by piece. The house burned long into the afternoon, battling the sunset for vibrancy. Most of the other onmyouji left, casting the events of the day into the recesses of their minds. She stayed deep into the night, and after the last of the ashes had settled, she journeyed into the recesses of the estate – to the sight of the futon.
Tanaka had retrieved an urn for her earlier in the evening.
They would be buried together, she decided, as she gently swept the ashes inside.
Thank you for reading.