"So when you and the police arrived at Nabuo Taki's home, he was already dead?" Seishiro asked.

Subaru nodded.

"Someone had murdered him," he affirmed, "someone who was capable of breaking through his protective kekkai."

"An assassin's life has its inherent dangers," Seishiro pointed out. "His victims would have friends and relatives who might want revenge. Too, his path would cross many shady characters--yakuza, crooked politicians, and that sort. Furthermore, he would no doubt have professional rivals, especially as he was also an onmyouji."

"That's certainly true, Seishiro-san. . ."

"It's such an anticlimax, though!" Hokuto protested, bringing the tea tray out from the kitchen. "No arrests, no police standoff, no magical duels between the hero and the villain. . .If a TV writer tried to get away with an ending like that, the producer would fire him on the spot!"

Hokuto poured the tea, then sat down and picked up her cup.

"This is very good, Hokuto-chan," her brother said, taking a sip.

"Of course! What kind of big sister would greet her brother's triumphant return after finishing a difficult job with poorly-made tea?" She laughed heartily, before her face settled into an angry expression. "It makes my blood boil, to think of that rat Sakamoto, though. To force his attentions on his assistant, of all things! And then, to cover up his stupid and vicious actions, he hires an assassin to kill the girl--not even man enough to do his own dirty work!"

Hokuto scowled.

"Do you really think that the police will be able to hold him for his crime? After all, to say in open court that a criminal defendant hired an onmyouji to kill Mirei-san. . ."

"I expect that they will arrange some kind of plea bargain," suggested Seishiro. He glanced out the window; the sun had set, leaving the night sky the same dark color as his sunglasses. "If it came to a trial, then they could simply lie."

"Lie?" Subaru asked, shocked.

"Of course. The girl was brutally murdered; there is no chance a lawyer could argue it was a natural death, suicide, or accident. Sakamoto-san confessed that he hired Nabuo Taki to kill her. The assassin is conveniently dead, so there is no one to argue on his behalf about how he was able to accomplish the murder. If Sakamoto-san's defense attorneys tried to raise the subject of spells and curses, they would be laughed out of court."

Seishiro folded his hands in his lap.

"Sakamoto-san is three things:" he said, "a criminal, a fool, and a man without connections to help him. Invariably, society finds a way to punish those who fall so far outside its standards. At least in this case, justice cannot help but be served."

"Seishiro-san. . ."

"And all thanks to Subaru," Hokuto crowed. "If you hadn't realized that Sakamoto could walk in and out of his own office without taking any special notice of him, the poor girl's death might have gone unavenged forever!"

"But it was Seishiro-san who actually had the idea. . ."

"Nonsense," the older man said, slipping an arm around the boy's shoulders. "All I did was raise some idle thoughts; it was you who deduced the truth. Besides, Subaru-kun, if it hadn't been for you, no one would have known how Mirei-san was killed. The investigation would never have even gotten started."

Even Subaru couldn't help but smile at the open affirmation he received from the two of them.

"Thank you, both of you."

Subaru's doorbell rang, cutting into the conversation.

"I'll get it," Hokuto said, hopping to her feet. It was good she did, since when she opened the door, Jack Delevant was there, holding flowers.

"Jack!"

"Hello, Hokuto."

"Please come in."

She stood aside and let the American into the apartment.

"Here, these are for you," Jack said, handing her the flowers.

"Thank you, they're really pretty. I love roses! Oh, um, this is my brother Subaru--you've seen him before, of course--and this is our friend, Seishiro Sakurazuka."

"It's nice to meet you, Subaru, Mr. Sakurazuka. I saw you both at the World Pacific International offices, of course, but I'm glad to be formally introduced."

Subaru smiled back.

"I'm glad to meet you too, Delevant-san."

"I'm sorry to disturb you; I tried Hokuto's door first, but when there was no answer, I thought she might be here."

"Good thinking;" agreed Seishiro, "the Sumeragi twins are usually together when Subaru-kun's work isn't separating them.

Jack grinned.

"Well. . ." he said, "if you don't mind, I'd like to separate them for a while." He turned to Hokuto and smiled at her, eyes fervent. His hand gently tipped her chin up so their faces looked full into one another. "I have an interest in getting one of them alone, you see."

Seishiro gave the young foreigner his good-hearted smile.

"A man after my own heart," he said. "I, too, have an interest in separating the twins." He put his other arm around Subaru, embracing him.

"S-Seishiro-san. . ." stammered the young onmyouji, embarassed.

"Well, then, we're in complete agreement, Mr. Sakurazuka," Delevant said, returning Seishiro's grin. "Oh, by the way, Subaru, congratulations on solving Mirei's murder. Everyone at the office is much happier now, knowing that Sakamoto will get what he deserves."

"That--it was nothing special," Subaru replied graciously. Delevant wasted no further time on conversation, but swept Hokuto out of Subaru's apartment and across the hall to hers.

"So," Seishiro murmured, his smile changing from friendly to intense almost instantaneously, "we're finally alone, Subaru-kun." His lips were close to Subaru's ear, almost touching, and the young man could feel the warm breath tickling his skin.

Subaru blushed, but only faintly. He turned his head, until he looked directly into his lover's face. It was strange, he reflected, seeing Seishiro with sunglasses hiding his eyes. He was used to seeing the intensity of Seishiro's expression mirrored in his gaze, but the dark lenses sealed everything off, like a wall raised between them. Yet, despite that, Subaru could feel the emotional force emanating from the older man.

"Seishiro-san. . ."

"I've wanted this for a long time, Subaru-kun. . .For nearly one year, I've tried to convince you that I loved you, to try to awaken the same feelings in you." His lips brushed Subaru's forehead. "Even though your sister supported me, you always resisted. Only with the shock of me losing this eye, did you come to return my feelings openly. Yet, even so, until this moment, we've never been able to express that love. Your pure heart would never allow you to spend time on your own relationships while others were depending on you. Now. . .your work complete. . .your sister busy with her own romance. . ."

Subaru tilted his face up, and Seishiro kissed him gently on the lips.

"Seishiro-san. . ."

Seishiro looked over the top of his glasses at the young man, and gently stroked Subaru's temple. Subaru's consciousness swam, and his eyes fluttered shut. Seishiro gently laid him back onto the couch.

"It's too bad, really, that I haven't the time now, but. . ."

He rose to his feet.

". . .your sister's new love reminds me too much of myself. . ."

Seishiro turned back, and gazed down at the sleeping young man, a smile playing about his lips.

"Subaru-kun. . ."

-X X X-

Hokuto finally settled for putting the roses into a fairly tall teapot full of water.

"Between myself and my brother, if we keep dating, I'm going to have to buy a vase or two!"

Jack chuckled.

"Oh, don't worry, Hokuto; I plan to drown you in flowers." He rested his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him with light pressure. "Do you know," he said softly, "I don't think I've ever seen eyes like yours before. Green eyes, full of mystery, and in a Japanese face, too. The contrast is amazing; it makes your face look twice as beautiful."

Hokuto smiled.

"You really think I'm beautiful, Jack?"

"Of course."

"Then, why don't you show me?"

"Show you?" he asked.

"Like this." Hokuto wound her arms around his neck and pulled him down for a long, warm kiss. When she finally broke it off, Delevant smiled wickedly at her.

"I doubt that would have been your brother's approach."

"I may be his twin, but I'm not Subaru."

"Well, it's obvious that I have the pick of the two."

He kissed her back, long and hard and deep. His mouth devoured hers, consuming her senses. It should have sent fire through her, yet for some reason Jack's lips seemed cold, almost like ice. . .a cold that, somehow, seemed to be flowing into Hokuto's body, numbing her limbs, enclosing her heart in a frozen grip.

"Do you know, Hokuto," he said softly, "I think I will actually regret this. I truly do care for you...but I need your life energy more than I need your love. Your death will mean another year of life for me."

"So why," Seishiro asked conversationally, "didn't the assassin you killed today provide the energy you needed?"

Delevant spun, surprised, letting the senseless form of the girl drop from his arms.

Seishiro flicked his lighter, igniting a cigarette, seemingly unconcerned as he waited for his answer.

Delevant chuckled softly.

"Professional curiosity?" he asked.

"If you like," Seishiro replied, shrugging.

"The lives of sorcerers past a certain level of ability are shielded by their own inherent magic. I can drain the power of their spells and turn it against them, but I can't touch their life itself. So, I have to drain minor magicians like Hokuto to survive."

"A curious restriction. I'm not sure if I've ever encountered a creature live you before."

The American shrugged.

"Merely the price of power. As a teenager, I saw my parets murdered by magic. I sought a way to get revenge. I studied books, trained, and finally found a way to overcome the spells my enemy used. . .only, because I was just an amateur then, I made mistakes in using what I had learned."

"Ahh, I see; you absorbed the countermagic within your own life force, and so you are forced to feed it or it will consume your own life."

Jack nodded.

"It's the old story; the desire for revenge exacting an ironic price. It's almost a cliche."

"So why did you kill Nabuo Taki, then?"

"Mirei Kigai was a nice girl; I liked her. I didn't trust the government to make sure that Taki paid for killing her. So, while the detectives were arranging the proper warrants, I went to his house first and dealt with him. Besides. . .I was hoping that I could feed off him rather than Hokuto. . ."

"I wish that you had; it would have spared us the trouble of this confrontation."

"You are going to try to protect Hokuto?"

Seishiro reached up and slipped off his glasses, tucking them into his pocket.

"If his sister died, it would hurt Subaru. . .and I play out my bets until the end."

He gestured, and the two men were suddenly plunged into a world of absolute blackness.

"Illusion. . ." Delevant sensed immediately. "Impressive. You realize, of course, that even as we speak, I'm eating away at the substance of your magic, and in a few minutes this will all break down." There was no fear in his voice, only abstract contemplation.

"Then, it would seem to be a matter of using sufficient force to overload your defenses before you can drain away mine," Seishiro's voice seemed to echo from everywhere around Delevant, before huge chunks of the darkness broke away like boulders and hurled themselves at the American.

-X X X-

Pain.

It exploded through Subaru, shocking him out of unconciousness. He had no idea what had happened, or why he was alone, but those questions were irrelevant next to the vision that had burned itself into his mind.

"Seishiro-san!" he screamed.

Seishiro, his body bleeding. . .hurled across Hokuto's apartment.

Subaru did not stop to consider whether the vision was real, a portent of the future, an impression of the present, or a trap sent by some enemy. He only jumped to his feet and ran at full speed across the hall, throwing open Hokuto's door.

The vision was real.

Seishiro lay crumpled next to the door, his face smeared with blood. Hokuto was there too, lying on her back in the doorway to the kitchen. Jack Delevant stood in the center of the hall, breathing heavily, his beautiful face bruised, sweat standing out on his skin.

"Seishiro-san! Hokuto-chan!"

Delevant grinned wryly.

"You, too. Well, I was expecting that, sooner or later." He beckoned to the young onmyouji. "Come on. Let's see what you have to offer."

Subaru snatched to ofuda from his coat pocket and hurled the slips of paper at Delevant. The charms glowed incandescently, transforming themselves into two lithe falcons that dove at the American, talons outstretched, but before they could strike, they faded, melting away until they were only paper once again. Jack smiled wolfishly.

"You'll have to do better than that," he said, and began to advance on Subaru, his deadly hands outstretched. He lunged; Subaru ducked out of the way and began to prepare another spell, then reconsidered and broke it off. Instead, he dashed forward, under Delevant's arms, and slashed the edge of his hand against the blond man's neck. All Jack's power of countermagic was utterly useless against the purely physical attack; he crumpled unconcious to the floor.

-X X X-

Seishiro's good eye fluttered open. His head, he realized, was cradled in Subaru's lap.

"Subaru-kun?"

"Seishiro-san! Don't talk; the ambulance is on its way."

"Don't worry, Subaru-kun; it's only my eye--and after all, it was already blind; there wasn't much more that he could do to it. I expect the doctors at the hospital will be getting tired of bandaging it up for me. Is Hokuto-chan. . ."

"She's fine," Subaru told him, tears of relief filling his eyes as he heard Seishiro's voice. "She's a little weak, but she'll be her old self again by tomorrow."

Seishiro smiled faintly.

"That's good. What about the American?"

"Once he was unconcious, I was able to unbind the power that he had absorbed into his soul, because it was not natural to him. He's not a threat any more, although he'll still have to answer for his crimes."

"If I were him, I'd be more worried about answering to Hokuto-chan..." Seishiro said, then closed his eyes. His breathing became even and regular, as he appeared to lapse into sleep. Subaru's gloved hand gently stroked his hair.

Tomorrow, Seishiro thought, our one year is up, Subaru-kun.

"I'll come visit you tomorrow," Subaru told him softly, "so you don't get lonely staying at the hospital."