The knife glinted savagely in her hands. Flying forward, she tore out a scream of inchoate rage; and aiming for the boy's heart her fist and weapon lashed out with the speed of anger, slicing the air with a searing almost-heard whistle.

Seishirou lunged.

Subaru-kun had stopped in shock but the knife kept on going; he recalled clearly seeing the knife blade millimeters from his eye and being unable to stop it. The blade sliced flesh and

fate

skipped

a beat.

What happened immediately afterwards, Sakurazuka Seishirou was not entirely clear on; Sakurazukamori he might be, but the body he inhabited was only human. The sedatives he received at the hospital wore off only slowly, restoring to him bit by painful bit his senses and thoughts -- though his vision seemed curiously flat and planar. He moved first one hand, then the other when he felt the tug of an IV line, up to his face and tapped gingerly against the gauze wound tightly around his head. So he had lost an eye. Binocular vision had been nice while it lasted, but hardly necessary with onmyoujitsu; far-sight and a shikigami would serve just as well, if he were careful.

It was not important.

What was important, however, was the anniversarial marker that had passed somewhere in between the wrenching sensation that had assaulted Seishirou when he had been stabbed and his awakening at the hospital. A year had passed since he had met Subaru-kun and Hokuto-chan -- re-met Subaru, actually -- and now was the time of reckoning. Had he won the bet or hadn't he?

A disturbing little voice in the back of the predator's head said that he wasn't sure....

That was not important either.

Being an onmyouji as he was, Seishirou was more than ordinarily attuned to the flow of fate and time; and there had been indications, easily missable, of a coming together and clashing of powers some time in the future -- which powers, the Sakurazukamori was not sure, but of one thing he was certain: he would have a far, far better chance of surviving it alone.

Thus, the decision was already made.

Pity. Just as Subaru-kun was getting interesting.

Soft footsteps heralded the arrival of the very person Seishirou had been pondering. A moment later, a head of dark silk hair and a pair of the most brilliant green eyes ever applied to a human being peered uncertainly around the door of the hospital room. "Seishirou-san...?" asked Subaru hesitantly.

"Sei-chan!" squealed his sister Hokuto, bounding out from behind the older twin with a bountiful bundle of flowers in her arms. "How are you feeling?"

"I've been better," said Seishirou, the old cheerful veterinarian mask sliding easily across his demeanor. Hokuto tsk tsked and looked around for someplace to put all the flowers. The bundle was enormous and a riot of color -- almost as many colors, as a matter of fact, as in the outfit she was wearing. She had apparently dressed her brother as well, although Subaru-kun had gotten away with a far less remarkable ensemble.

Subaru came forward, following Hokuto and her insane skirts, with his hat in his delicate gloved hands. "Seishirou-san..." he started, "we just... I thought you might... I...." His eyes fell to the knot his fingers were making around the brim of the hat. Watching Seishirou take a knife for him was something that a person like Subaru could not easily forget; the teenager appeared by all signs to be as deeply shaken as the Sakurazukamori had thought he would be. His sister was taking it more calmly, if no better. Hokuto was his best ally, true -- but sometimes she was oblivious as to just how much of a help she really was.

Seishirou smiled gently, reassuringly. "It's all right, Subaru-kun. I'll survive." You know not how....

"But..." This disturbed the boy. Greatly. Subaru maintained an uncomfortable silence as Hokuto-chan looked back and forth.

"I'll go get us something to drink. Coffee, Sei-chan?"

Seishirou nodded and Hokuto bounced chipperly from the room -- tossing Subaru back a wink that said Go for it, Tiger. Subaru flushed quickly, then fought it back down.

"Seishirou-san, I... thank you. For doing what you did." Subaru glanced up with worried eyes, innocent eyes. Looking at the young man, one could very nearly see through the green like glass to whatever was running inside his head, every thought, every emotion. Subaru himself seemed unaware of the effect and made no attempt to conceal it.

The Sakurazukamori took a breath and steepled his fingers across his chest. It was time for the denouement -- he must go slowly. Very slowly, the better to judge Subaru's reactions. "Subaru-kun," he purred, "do you remember the first time we met?"

The Sumeragi blinked, startled and unsure of where he was going with this. "Of course. The subway station--"

"No," said Seishirou firmly. "The first time."

Subaru gazed at him a moment, puzzled. "I don't understand."

"The sakurazuka. The cherry tree barrow."

Looking lost, Subaru opened his mouth to reply but already he was ensnared in looping bands of Seishirou's onmyoujitsu. His carefully built protections quivered and fell like nothing as the Sakurazukamori raised one hand as if removing a mask from the young man's face. "Remember."

Subaru's eyes drooped tranquilly closed, then his slender body was racked by one sharp, painful breath and his entire being snapped to attention. The emerald eyes opened glitteringly wide as the dream came back to him in full, every move, every thought playing as plainly across his visage as if it were a projected scene.

"Ask yourself, Subaru -- why wear those gloves? Never take them off, even in front of Hokuto-chan. Or me."

Subaru watched in shock at the images that played through his mind, the memories he knew now to be more than merely dim nighttime fantasy.

"As soon as I met you at the subway station, Subaru-kun, I knew. Even your grandmother's spell could not hide the marks from me. They're my marks. You're my prey."

The hat dropped from his hands.

Shock and dismay, even fear, washed over Subaru's face as the vision ended and the room around him returned. He looked down at Seishirou in disbelief, staring desperately, looking to strip away the disguise of the grown man to find the teenager underneath. "Sei-- Seishirou-san...." he choked, his voice breaking in the middle. "You--"

"Subaru-kun," Seishirou said reprovingly, "I thought you would take it better than that. After all, it was only a friendly bet." The cheerful veterinarian grin returned and settled itself nicely across Seishirou's handsome face.

Anger flashed momentarily into Subaru's eyes, and was quickly replaced by desperate confusion. "But... you bet with me...." His words were getting mixed, dazed; Seishirou watched in minor amusement for a moment before rescuing the boy from his own desperation.

"You want to know who won the bet?"

The Sumeragi's eyes shone bright with pain.

"I'm afraid you won't like the answer. I could break your arm," the Sakurazukamori continued, "or a glass cup, and it would mean the same to me. Nothing."

Nothing. Watching the word echo across the Sumeragi's eyes, his whole life turned upside down, his heart shattered, was an extraordinary sight. A beautiful reaction, to say the least -- exactly the one Seishirou had intended. And to deliver the line in the gentle voice and amiable character of the same vet who ran the Sakurazuka Clinic... the lies layered like so many coats of paint, building the image brush stroke by painstaking brush stroke. Raw hurt tore through the rich green of Subaru's irises and spilled out into the beginnings of tears.

"S... Seishirou... san...." he stammered out, then trembling and stuttering in breath, the Sumeragi turned and fled the room.

Seishirou calmly settled back in the hospital bed. Surely Subaru would intercept his sister on her way back up and crack further when he tried to tell her what had happened; for whether the words were literally true or not, each finely crafted sound had rent at Subaru's insular little bubble of trust, tearing it open a bit farther. Teaching Subaru a lesson about life he needed to learn. Pulling him from his safe zone into harsh reality.

Introducing him to the power of a lie.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Subaru was broken.

Hokuto-chan closed his bedroom door behind herself without having spoken to her brother. Not that she hadn't ventured in; she had been sitting at his side for a good half hour now and he hadn't given a single sign he was alive. Not a sound. Not a move. He was barely breathing.

Sakurazuka Seishirou was a bastard.

Hokuto clenched her fists until her nails dug into her skin. How dare he hurt Subaru like that! How dare he lie, how dare he cheat, how dare he take her brother's heart and slice it in two!

She took a deep breath. She herself bore no small burden of guilt for what had happened; maybe if she just hadn't encouraged Subaru quite so much, the aftershock wouldn't have been so devastating. Anyone named Sakurazuka was bound to be trouble for a Sumeragi, she should have watched her brother more closely, separated the two of them early on before Subaru had begun to care so much--

But it was too late far too quickly. Hokuto had ignored her instincts and acquainted herself with Sakurazuka Seishirou, the friendly veterinarian -- she had thought he was a friendly veterinarian -- finding him intelligent, amenable and more than willing to participate in her incessant teasing of Subaru. Somewhere in there the teasing had turned real, for Subaru at least, and though her brother vigorously denied it -- if he could find his tongue when Hokuto mentioned it -- it was obvious that he would do anything for Seishirou. Anything. Whether Subaru liked it or not, he had fallen in love.

In love with a bastard.

She just kept coming back to that, didn't she?

Do something, she had to do something... but what? Hokuto had no magic, or at least none compared to Subaru or Seishirou. And what could she do to the Sakurazukamori that would so much as tickle? If anything happened to her, Subaru would be shocked and horrified...

...Subaru would be shocked and horrified...

...maybe even enough to do something.

The idea hit Hokuto like a train at full speed. If she went to the Sakurazukamori, if she were in danger -- Subaru would sense it, she was sure. And maybe he'd get out of his bed and start living again.

Hokuto swept away from Subaru's door, unknotting her hands out of necessity, and started rummaging through his storage closet. Her brother was so insanely neat -- she had to go through chests and dry cleaning bags left and right before she found his shikifuku. She tore it from the hanger and put it on right there in his living room, kicking off her house slippers carelessly and running out the door with the wooden sandals in her hand.

Seishirou, miserable bastard that broke my brother's heart -- I'm coming for you, and I know just where to find you.

Your precious cherry tree.

Hokuto was the last person Seishirou expected to step out of the cold night and into his barrow.

Well, perhaps not literally the last. She did have some motive, after all. But when he had seen the glint of the white shikifuku, he had thought his visitor to be instead the head of the Sumeragi clan -- until his keen predatory senses had signalled wrong and he realized that there was no bond between himself and the one walking towards him, no faint tug of the Sakurazukamori stars Subaru bore from their first meeting so many years ago. Hokuto barrelled up, eyes blazing and full of rage.

"You miserable son of a--" she started.

"Really, Hokuto-chan," Seishirou interrupted smoothly. "A guest should be more polite to her host." He turned to her and she suppressed a tiny shudder when she saw his eyes -- one the familiar honeyed brown, one milk white and frosted. The Sakurazukamori's direct stare had been disconcerting enough when he'd had a matched set; this was cold and calculating and far worse.

"Host, nothing! You hurt Subaru just to be cruel. I'll never forgive you that."

Seishirou studied her carefully. No geises, no far-sight, barely maintaining the protections the Lady Sumeragi had placed on her so she could accompany her brother in his life. If he chose to kill her now, she would fall in half a breath and he wouldn't even have to lift a finger. "You presume to know my reasons. How quaint. As cruel as it may seem, a bet is a promise, and I never break my promises." A perfect emulation of a satisfied grin crept across his face and Hokuto turned livid.

"You broke his heart!"

"Better than breaking his fate!" he snapped.

Hokuto stopped, stunned, whatever she had been planning to say next throttled before it was begun. Sakurazuka Seishirou did not bite words out in flaming fury; said them in cold anger, yes, but not with passion. It was one of those signs she realized she should have noted down before and warned Subaru, but did not -- sealing his destiny and hers.

"His fate?" she asked, much subdued.

Seishirou's composure came back to him and he seemed to relax. "You don't see it, Hokuto-chan? I suppose you don't -- Subaru-kun seems to have inherited most of the magic talent of the generation."

"See what?" she demanded. If he was lying again... merely playing tricks....

His response was merely to begin weaving a maboroshi, a thing that Hokuto recognized, but too late. She would not have been able to escape without Seishirou's permission anyway. With a sinking heart she realized that whatever she had intended to do when she left the penthouse was probably not going to get done, and moreover she was probably not going to get the chance to return and explain herself.

The creeping dark closed in on Hokuto's body, the only thing seeming to keep it at bay the gleaming white of her brother's shikifuku. She tugged her hands determinedly into the sleeves, hell-bent on giving Seishirou the hardest time possible.

"Cold, Hokuto-chan?" murmured Seishirou idly. In truth, he intended it only to catch her attention, but Hokuto yanked her head sharply up and slitted her emerald eyes.

"See what, Sakurazukamori?" she gritted tightly.

Seishirou's eyes hardened. Eye, anyway. Hokuto shuddered again at the image. "There are signs that can be read by those who know how. Power is building and the final battle is not far away. But before that...."

He held out a hand and the wind that came from nowhere to whip at his coat also took her attention to the flashes of motion, of scenes, unfolding themselves in the seamless dark of the maboroshi. Horrified -- fascinated -- terrified -- Hokuto was transfixed by the blurs of movement, blades, fires, magic, hate, evil, anguish--

She tore her face away and shut her eyes tightly. "But what... does that have to do with... Subaru?" she asked. Something, everything about that had been wrong, very wrong. Illusions were the specialty of the Sakurazukamori, Hokuto well knew, but the sheer overwhelming force of the pictures and the sounds had pushed their way into her mind, nesting there in a little ball of complete horror. Seishirou, too, seemed disturbed.

The Sakurazukamori lowered his hand to match the other and calmly slipped them both into his coat pockets. "As the premiere onmyouji of his generation, Sumeragi Subaru will naturally be chosen to be on one side of the final reckoning. And I...."

"Will be on the other," Hokuto supplied, appalled beyond belief. Abruptly, it was all clear: why Seishirou had called such a sharp end to the wager, why he was letting Subaru rest miserable in his room -- even a hunter should dislike seeing his prey sit listlessly alone -- even why he had taken a knife wound for Subaru's sake.

Suddenly, Seishirou didn't seem like such a bastard after all.

"But... Subaru... why did you have to be so cruel? Couldn't you just have told him you had to leave?"

"Hokuto-chan, would Subaru have fought against me if he loved me? If he thought I loved him?"

"No," Hokuto admitted quietly.

"This battle is kill or be killed. Better if Subaru hates -- no one holds back and destiny is appeased." The inky dark of the maboroshi dissolved around Hokuto, threading off into ghostly ribbons and disintegrating into the night air. "Tell your brother nothing of this." Seishirou said, and turned to leave.

Hokuto stood helplessly with her arms and her fuku drooping sadly around her, listening to the Sakurazukamori walk away. Her brother -- and Seishirou -- against--

"That won't be enough," she said.

The rustle of Seishirou's footsteps stopped.

"Subaru might be hurt, but I know him -- he still couldn't bring himself to kill you. Or anybody. He just can't."

Seishirou pivoted again to face Hokuto. His prey's crazy sister, who was not, at the moment, being so crazy after all.

"If you're truly being honest, Sei-ch-- Seishirou-san, if this is real -- you'll need to take me."

Seishirou studied her intently, in silence, judging how serious she was and how much she understood of what she proposed. The mismatching eyes didn't seem quite as frightening now, Hokuto thought; they were cold now but not overtly threatening. Almost emotive, as a matter of fact. She wondered how far that really went.

"There will be pain," he said flatly.

Hokuto swallowed and nodded, heart fluttering in her throat. "I know," she replied hoarsely. "It's the only way he'll know." And maybe it will wake him up.

Seishirou lifted one foot, began striding swiftly towards Hokuto-chan until they were mere inches apart. He looked down for a long moment, boring into her two Sumeragi green eyes with his one good one. So close she could feel the heat his body gave, she could hear him breathing. "Actors, both of us," he remarked quietly. Giving the lie to the fight.

Hokuto nodded again and closed her eyes, hearing her foe mark distance away from her. Slowly, she raised her arms to shoulder level and gathered what pathetic amount of power she could. Her mouth opened, beginning one of the few spells she knew, ready to defend herself to her certain death.

Before she could even speak, the blast of wind hit out of nowhere, bearing hundreds of thousands of sweet-smelling sakura petals. They swept around her, caressed her skin -- and the edges drew blood. More and more came flying at her until there was nothing to see but pink. Buried in the cloud, each soft petal slashed at her face, at her hands, and seemed to go right through the shikifuku.

Seishirou watched dispassionately as Hokuto was swallowed by the mass of bloody sakura; the fuku shredded and the sleeves fell away in tatters around her. Her hands rose ineffectively to swat at the flower, the bloody flowers, and in her throat built a shrill scream -- it tore free just as her eyes broke from the cloud and Sumeragi Hokuto snapped her gaze right at the Sakurazukamori, sending a quick and altogether out of character stab at his inner self, just before the life flashed out of her eyes and she started to fall very gracefully over.

Without thought, Seishirou lunged over and caught Hokuto's bleeding form before she could hit the ground. He lowered her gently to her rest and as a last courtesy to her, reached out and softly closed her eyes. Seeing a pair of Sumeragi green eyes pain-slicked and glassy was an image that made him uncomfortable in a way he hadn't known he was capable of before he met Subaru.

Standing smoothly, Sakurazuka Seishirou brushed the dust off of his long coat and began to walk away, leaving Hokuto-chan where she would do the most good. He did not activate the binding spell; for some reason, the thought of Hokuto feeding the sakura was most unappealing.

It mattered little. There would be plenty of other victims before he met Subaru again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Power, raw, untamed power crackled through the sky as the Final Day began. Seishirou stayed out of the other fights; Kanoe and her motley band had their own agendas and he left them to it. There was only one conflict he had any interest in whatsoever, and if he'd had a choice, he would have had it indefinitely postponed.

Subaru, however, was not about to let the matter drop.

The instant Seishirou sensed the boy's presence, as soon as he felt him through the marks on the backs of his hands, he turned to see the young man in his shikifuku come striding, angry, through rubble and ruin. A little flag ticked up in his memory banks and instantly he likened the scene to Hokuto-chan and her own petty quibble that many years ago. Feeling the death of his sister had not done the younger Sumeragi any good -- on the contrary, Subaru was somewhat unbalanced as he was. Still salvageable, though, assuming there was any time left in which to salvage him.

"Sakurazukamori!" yelled Subaru, spitting the title as if it were an obscenity. "At last, we settle this!"

"Always impatient, Subaru-kun," said Seishirou coolly -- no, coldly. "Just like Hokuto-chan."

"Leave Nee-san out of this," growled the Sumeragi.

"Only," said the Sakurazukamori, "if you do."

Logic never had been Subaru's strong point. The young onmyouji ground his teeth and visibly worked at getting himself under control; it was no more successful than it had been when he was younger.

Hate him. Make him hate you. Otherwise, it will be a stalemate.

Seishirou put on his best hunter's infuriating smile, the cold one, the parody of a friendly greeting. Subaru gave an incoherent scream that was chopped off at the end by his own fading self-control. The Sakurazukamori could feel the boy building his own power, trying to calm himself enough to begin a spell and make it work; Subaru's limit was disappointingly low, or perhaps his tangled emotional state was interfering. Regardless, Subaru-kun was going to have to do better than this if he were going to be the one to survive the battle.

Then the magic started in earnest.

The Sumeragi tossed the first spell. A flock of birds, pure white doves, in the image of his shikigami -- all bounced harmlessly off Seishirou's shields and flittered back into the slips of scorched paper they were.

He is going to have to do better than that.

Seishirou fired off a cloud of the same sakura petals that had killed Hokuto. Subaru recognized them and lost all control -- the spell he tried next unravelled and died an undignified death completely unbefitting the experienced onmyouji he was.

He is not going to survive.

The Sakurazukamori dodged the next wave of shiki merely by moving to the side.

Subaru cannot think this will save his life.

Seishirou summoned his own shikigami, a great dark hawk, and sent the bird screaming at Subaru's astral signature. The beak and claws all tore into the young man, and yet he seemed not to notice in his blind rage.

He thinks himself already dead.

The decision had already been made. Heaving himself up, expression inscrutable behind his darkened glasses, Sakurazuka Seishirou sent power crackling between himself and Subaru when he closed the distance between them. Subaru looked spooked and tried to repel him with another flock of shiki; they were instantly burnt before they flew a foot from him.

"It ends here, Subaru-kun."

Drawing the ambient power from the air, pulling force from the bloody sakura, the Sakurazukamori collected it in one sphere of raw magic around his fist and pushed the hand directly through the body of the Sumeragi.

Subaru stopped, stiffened, kept moving because of momentum. Both gracile arms dropped around Seishirou's neck, but whether from pleading and pain or from simple inertia was impossible to tell.

The young onmyouji tried to draw breath and failed; each strain for air constricted the wound around Seishirou's wrist and each failure relaxed it. The Sakurazukamori took his free hand and supported the dying boy, rocking him in against his chest. No sense in making this any messier than it already was.

"S... s...." Subaru stuttered, the words flecked with blood. The same raw hurting filled his face, as if after all these years he thought it had been some terrible misunderstanding. Seishirou looked down upon the young man, on the green gaze and delicate features, with as much compassion as he was capable of; but Subaru was too far gone. His pain-soaked eyes widened once in desperate questioning and then lost their unearthly radiance in one devastating moment.

Seishirou held the dying onmyouji a moment longer. What had the boy been trying to stumble out? His name? His title? Nothing? A question to be pondered, if there had been any time left for pondering; and time was one thing the world did not have much of.

The Sakurazukamori laid a gentle kiss on Subaru's forehead and laid the body down where it would have fallen had he let it drop, then proceeded to disappear in the peculiarly dark way only he could. This was a private matter, and a private moment, and it was best ended before any of the other dragons could take an interest in it.

It was with great regret Seishirou left the Sumeragi behind. If there was anything Seishirou could truly appreciate, it was beautiful things; and Subaru-kun certainly qualified as a beautiful thing. But, like the sakura blossoms he used so skillfully, it had come time for Subaru to wither and disappear from his sight, leaving behind only the faint impression of his presence and pleasant memories.

And then the Sakurazukamori was gone.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was a very long time before Subaru realized he was seeing something. It was an even longer time before he realized he was looking out over a city. It looked a lot like Tokyo; except for the absence of the Tower, it could have been Tokyo. But that was only the backdrop -- the foreground was what held his attention as all of the stray pieces of it gathered back together.

At first he thought the face he was looking into was his own. Judgement of a sort. But it was not his mirror reflection; the face was animated as he was not. As his peripheral vision came back, Subaru could see more of the person facing him -- bright rose blouse beneath a dark green camisole. With dark green curly-toed slippers. And a flowered -- berosed, actually -- hat on her head, and another plain black one in her hands.

Sumeragi Hokuto.

Subaru was focused so wholly on the figure of his sister, the sister he thought he would never meet again, that he nearly forgot to look at her -- really look. He had thought she would be happy, ecstatic, as he was beginning to feel, but upon closer inspection her appearance suggested something else. She looked... she looked...

She looked appalled.

"Are those the only shoes you own?" Hokuto demanded.

Subaru blinked and tried in vain to process this. He looked down at his own feet, standing on the featureless, pale plane, and saw his battered tennis shoes.

"How could you dress like that, after all the years I invested in you...." Hokuto-chan stopped as if struck by a horrible thought. "You didn't wear those under the shikifuku, did you?"

Subaru transferred his gaze back to Hokuto, still utterly speechless. She walked right up to him, clucking disapprovingly and shaking her head. "Honestly. Well, this will help somewhat." Hokuto took the spare hat and mashed it firmly on the top of Subaru's head. Stunned, Subaru could only raise his own hand and lay it across the rounded crown as Hokuto took him by the elbow and began to lead him away to the distant city.

Suddenly, he stopped. Hokuto turned to see what was the matter, and Subaru pulled her in, crushed her against him. "Hokuto-chan," he whispered hoarsely. "Nee-san...."

Hokuto smiled and nestled warmly in his arms, careful not to knock either of their hats askew. "I was wondering when you were going to wake up."

"I never... I never thought...."

"You'd see me again? A lot of things change when a lifetime ends, Subaru."

Subaru took in a sharp breath. "I'm dead?"

"How could you not be? I was watching, and that was something fairly nasty Sei-chan did... at least it was quick."

Now that she mentioned it, he did remember -- stop. Subaru decided he couldn't handle that right now, and therefore didn't. "Watching?"

"They told me when it was time... someone had to come pick you up." Hokuto pulled away far enough to look her brother in the eye. "I never would have forgiven myself if you had gotten lost."

"They?" asked Subaru. He looked out over the city that was and wasn't Tokyo. "Where am I?"

"You're in Limbo right now," Hokuto explained. "Anyone who dies unresolved comes here. Some go back to Earth as ghosts, some have to finish things with others who have died; only when you're completely resolved can you move on." She gazed levelly across at her brother with a knowing glint to her eye. "I can guess what yours is."

"Are," he corrected absently. Subaru wasn't so far gone as not to recognize all of his problems.

Hokuto shook her head, turning away to loop her arm through his. "Come on. I'm supposed to guide you to the City -- somebody'll notice if I take forever."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It wasn't long before Hokuto was out on the plain again to greet a new arrival. She had been watching the reckoning down below in a peripheral sort of way and was completely flabbergasted at the sheer number of souls coming to and passing through Limbo at the end -- even those in the center of the conflict. Most of them, though, had plenty of family or other loved ones to see them safely through the journey. Seishirou had only herself.

She watched patiently as he faded in and regained his bearings; he took barely half the time of Subaru, but then again, Sei-chan had been expecting this and seen the fatal blow coming. He opened his eyes -- both of them honey brown again, she noticed, and he had simply given up on the glasses -- and took quick, predatory stock of his surroundings, scanning the horizon sharply and coming to an abrupt halt when he saw Hokuto. Both eyes narrowed as he came to the obvious conclusion.

"Hello, Sei-chan," she said simply.

"Hokuto." Seishirou finished his sweep of the muddy pastel plane and the skyline in the distance. "Hardly what I expected of death."

"The end of one life marks the beginning of another."

"Of course," he said equably. "Judging from the otherwise emptiness of the area, the city is our goal."

"There's only one City around here, and that's where everything is. Everyone gets a loved one to guide them in case they manage to get lost between here and there." She smiled up at him, dropping the obvious hint: he must have felt something for her if she were here to guide him. Sei-chan was going to have to get used to that, now that his old life had finished; the spell of the Sakurazukamori had ended with his death and could no longer protect his heart. "C'mon. I'll show you around."

Seishirou walked absently along beside her as she hooked him by the arm. "What -- where is this?"

"You're in Limbo," she informed him, going briefly through the same explanation she'd given Subaru. Seishirou took it calmly, and thoughtfully, although the pondering in his eyes seemed more melancholy than anything else. Hokuto wondered briefly if he had foreseen this; it seemed to her that an onmyouji should know something about the other plains of existence, if anyone should, but Subaru had been taken by surprise....

Hokuto stopped in the middle of a sentence Seishirou appeared not to be listening to. "Sei-chan, what did you expect to happen when you died?"

Seishirou continued walking, unperturbed. "There were several possibilities, of course. It all depends on who you listen to."

"You expected to go to Hell, didn't you?" she said severely.

He turned toward her. "It was one of the possible outcomes."

"Don't be so sure you haven't. You're in Limbo to wrap up whatever you left unfinished in life, and if you don't, it's going to keep niggling at you for the rest of eternity."

"That would be my burden to bear," Seishirou said solemnly. He glanced up at the shimmering skyline, still in the distance, and deftly changed the subject. "What's in that city?"

"Everything. Most things here are just like Earth, except there's pretty much no money. The buildings and stores are run by simulacra -- I'm not sure, but I think they're souls who haven't been born as humans yet. You can generally tell the difference, who's dead and who's never lived."

"And--" a tiny ironic smile made its appearance-- "living quarters?"

"Pents -- nice ones. As good as or better than the one Subaru and I shared in Tokyo." Hokuto grinned sunnily herself. "Subaru's already holed up in his. I think he's still trying to deal with the death thing."

"Some, I would imagine, handle 'the death thing' better than others."

"You betcha. I didn't have much trouble -- I've been occupied with watching you two, off and on -- but there are some that get hit pretty hard. It's like retirement, only worse -- suddenly there's nothing to do but sit and think."

"Which would naturally disagree with some."

"Suicides are usually plenty surprised." Hokuto sighed and suddenly turned very sober. "Sei-chan, when you fought Subaru, did you really have to kill him?"

"It was a battle of antipodes. Only one of us could come out of it alive. Subaru was defending himself poorly; deep down, I do not think he expected to survive."

"Obviously you lived. Who'd you finally lose to?"

"I thought you were watching."

"I was busy trying to level out my brother. C'mon, who?"

Seishirou pulled a face. "Shirou Kamui."

"Hah! I'll bet that hurt."

"Indeed it did," Seishirou responded, somewhat nettled. "But it was inevitable; it was obvious early in the battle which side would tip the scales. I am merely regretful that the irresponsible brat was the one to head the effort."

"Subaru-kun was that age once," reminded Hokuto. "He acted like he was immortal too."

The older man fixed her with a cool stare. "Subaru-kun never behaved like that."

Hokuto merely giggled and gave a motherish cluck of her tongue, falling silent for some moments more. "Sei-chan... the way you killed Subaru... isn't going to make this any easier."

"I wasn't worried about making this easier." And, after a pause: "I never pretended to be easy to forgive."

She turned her face up and caught him with sparkling eyes. "I forgive you, Seishirou-san."

"Thank you, Hokuto-chan."

"I think Subaru will too, once he forgives himself."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sumeragi Subaru sat with his graceful body curled up into an impossibly small knot in a very large and very forgiving wingback chair, staring out his window at the view. The skyline sparkled; it glittered with lights and with the peculiar vivaciousness given to it by lives, souls, collections of energy going about their business. It was something he had first learned to sense and then to effectively shut out as the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi clan. He needed to see it to know what he was protecting; he needed to distance himself from it so he could do his job. Like all of onmyoujitsu, it was a double edged sword which would bounce back and slice off his hand as soon as his enemy's. His magic still worked here -- felt like it would still work, anyway; he hadn't tried it -- but Subaru was loathe to work any more of his enchantments. Being Sumeragi had brought him enough trouble in life, he wasn't about to invite more of it in death. If he hadn't been Sumeragi, he would never have gone to exorcise the sakura, and would not have entered into a bet that he didn't ask for, didn't comprehend and couldn't win. Which, of course, had destroyed his life and wasn't making his afterlife any more of a peach.

Subaru scratched idly at the back of one hand -- gloveless hand -- and leaned his head back against the chair cushion. Brooding was getting him nowhere, but at least he didn't have to worry about it interfering with his work anymore. He was quite finished with the end of the world, thank you, and he wasn't going to dwell on it any longer. He doubted any of his fellow seals had survived anyway; the only one who looked as if he might live through the calamity was Kamui, and Kamui probably didn't want to. Regardless of that, whatever other ones who had died unresolved would probably know better than to look him up in Limbo. Dead or alive, Sumeragi Subaru was not predisposed to be social.

His morbid train of thought was put on hold by a sharp, chipper knock on the door. Subaru had only known a few people who could be dead and that happy, and Sorata would be busy chasing after Arashi for several lifetimes yet.

"Come in, Nee-san."

Hokuto swung open his door -- nothing really locked here, and nothing really needed to -- and kicked off her checkered slippers in his entryway. She was dressed in chessboard squares today, a dress that nearly made his eyes swim; but it made her happy, and Subaru himself had managed to escape a similar fate. Hokuto had conspired to fill his closet with crisply pressed button-down shirts -- if he were going to dress so plainly, she insisted, he was at least going to look ironed and classy -- but nothing so vibrant as she used to put on him. It appeared his days as her dress-up doll were, for the most part, over.

Except for the hats. Hokuto never gave up on the hats.

"Konbanwa, Subaru-kun. Did you even think to make yourself dinner?"

Subaru rose slightly to peer around the side of the chair. "Not really."

"Don't you try to tell me you're not hungry. Some things don't quit even when you're dead."

"So I gathered," her brother responded dryly. "One of them being you. Where did you go, anyway?"

Hokuto walked into Subaru's kitchen, opened the cabinets, made a face, and started pulling things out. "Out to the Plain. I had to guide someone else."

"Oh? Who?" asked Subaru without thinking.

Hokuto paused. Subaru heard clinking and clanging as she went through his cookware. "Sei-chan."

Subaru slumped back into his chair, silent. Seishirou-san was dead. By whose hand? he wondered. Somehow it had never occurred to him that Seishirou would ever fall to someone else. Either he succeeded in his quest for vengeance or... or he didn't know what else. Or Seishirou was officially declared immortal, he supposed. He simply hadn't thought that far.

The Sakurazukamori was dead. He felt... how did he feel? Guilt for not being the one to kill him, in some part; satisfaction that the murderous life had finally ended. But aside from that, Subaru felt a curious pang inside, a measured sadness at the end of Sakurazuka Seishirou, if only for the gentle veterinarian he had thought he knew. That there would be no more of that man on Earth, even if he was just a character to be played.

But of course, Subaru was dead as well. This put a new spin on things.

Hokuto had gone out to guide Seishirou into the City; this meant he had also landed in Limbo. What had Seishirou to reconcile? Uncountable murders? His own heartless existence? The corporeal destruction of one Sumeragi and the psychological destruction of another? The thousands of lives lost to his perversion of the ancient tenets of onmyoudo? It wasn't a certainty in Subaru's mind that the Sakurazukamori was even capable of repentance, much less resolution enough to progress onto the plane of what he supposed was Paradise, or near enough. After so many years of hunting and being hunted by the man, he thought he knew Seishirou as well as anyone else ever had, and what he knew was cruelty.

And yet.

There was that small voice in the back of his head, quiet but still audible, that was saying in a wistful tone maybe it can be different now. Subaru tried to brush it away but the more he tried to eradicate it the harder it got to ignore -- the idea refused to die a dignified death, or even a clean one; instead it trailed off in a desperate, helpless whimper that struck even closer to home than the tiny little murmuring had. A dying squeak clutching to its shred of hope with despairing fingernails as it fell into the dark.

Subaru shook his head, reached down to scratch the back of his hand again -- and stopped himself. It wasn't itching, it was warm... and when he looked down, knowing what he now did, his inner sight showed him the Sakurazukamori stars clearly outlined across his pale skin, bearing a peculiar glimmer that only those trained in onmyoudo could "see". Disgustedly, he looked out the window again and tossed his hands back into his lap as if he could throw them away.

"Subaru?" Hokuto looked around from the kitchen and whatever she was doing therein when she heard her brother's frustrated sigh.

"Hn?"

"Is there something the matter?"

Subaru gritted his teeth and sighed again. "No."

"Yes," she insisted. "It has something to do with Sei-chan, doesn't it?"

Subaru half-rose and leaned over the back of the chair to face her. "How can you call him that?" he wondered out loud. "How can you still use that name?"

"What, Sei-chan?" Hokuto pulled a spoon out of the pot and tasted the soup. She made a face and grabbed hastily for a jar of something or other, dumping a generous amount into their dinner.

"He killed you, Hokuto! He killed you! How can you still treat him as a friend?"

"You don't know everything about it, Subaru."

"I know enough. Hokuto, he ruined my life--"

"By taking me? You could have survived that. You did."

"But... he...." Subaru broke off, mouth open but nothing coming out.

So he still can't admit that, even to me. "He broke your heart?"

"No," said Subaru stubbornly.

"Then what would you call it?"

"He violated a friendship," Subaru said, defensively. "He lied to us, Nee-san."

"Of course he did. If you knew he was the Sakurazukamori, you wouldn't have even given him the time of day, would you?"

"That doesn't excuse it!"

"No, it doesn't. But everyone makes mistakes, Subaru, even you -- what counts is whether you regret them or not and what you do to fix them."

"What has he ever done? I don't think he can regret."

"You would be surprised, Touto-chan," said Hokuto diffidently. She dragged a pair of bowls from the cabinet shelf and began to shuffle around, looking for a ladle. "How often did you stop to look at him after I died?"

"Stop to...? Hokuto, every time I saw him, he was trying to kill me."

"No he wasn't. You thought he was."

"What does that have to do with anything? I didn't need to look, I couldn't forget his face if I tried." A momentary image of Seishirou's face, complete with that cold, infuriating, predatory smile, appeared before his eyes, and Subaru shuddered.

"Are you sure? What if I told you there was more to him than the Sakurazukamori? Would the face look the same?"

Subaru shook his head, puzzled at his sister. "Nee-san, what are you talking about?"

"Do you know exactly what happened in the sakurazuka?"

Subaru bristled. "You died a horrible death you didn't deserve. Seishirou killed you in cold blood, just like he killed all of his other vict--"

"I asked him to."

The rest of the statement subsided in Subaru's throat. His eyes dropped to the table a moment, resting on whatever was handy while he tried to reconcile that with his version of the facts. "You what?"

"I asked him to kill me. For your sake."

Now he was lost. "Nee-san?"

Hokuto took both full soup bowls, one in each hand, and calmly set them down on the table. "Seishirou saw this coming. Kamui, Fuuma, all of it. And he knew that the two of you would be asked to join opposite sides. I went after him, Subaru, I wanted to tear him limb from bleeding limb for what he did to you -- and he explained it to me. He was just going to leave, he knew you would never fight him if you thought you were still friends, but I knew you better. There was no way that both of you could have survived that battle; so to give you the best chance you could have of living the longest, I told him to take my life...." She smiled thinly. "It was the best motivation I could think of. I'm sorry, Subaru."

Sumeragi Subaru stared at his sibling in complete, paralyzing shock. Was it possible that the Sakurazukamori, the man who had been groomed from birth to be a heartless, conscienceless killer, had really thought to give his opposite a fair chance? Could his intentions actually have been the best? And Hokuto, had she really asked him to take her life? The thought of the Sakurazukamori really doing this -- or anything else -- for Subaru's sake was just incredible....

She was manipulated, said the injured part of him. The part that was inherently mistrustful of people now, and the Sakurazukamori in particular. He tricked your own sister into giving her life just to hurt you. He used Hokuto and tossed her away when he was finished -- more lies.

"More lies," Subaru repeated out loud. "How could you believe him? I suppose it's possible he saw the end of the world coming, but would you really put it past him to twist the story around however it suited him best? How do you know that if you hadn't died both of us might have stayed out of the conflict?"

"I don't," Hokuto said. "But I believed him at the time and I still believe him. Come eat your soup."

Obediently, Subaru left his sheltering chair and went to sit at the table. "I don't know, Hokuto. But I suppose I have to find out sooner or later, now that he's here." Subaru looked down at his hands, lying limply on his thighs. Hokuto made an inquisitive noise and leaned over the table to look. "I can feel him, Nee-san." The Sumeragi brought his hands up and laid them palm down across the table. "The marks he left -- they're burning. Not much, but some." Subaru shuddered, remembering how the Sakurazukamori had marked him in the first place -- Seishirou ever touched him like that again, he'd hit him.

Maybe.

Hokuto opened her hands and set them gently over his. "Just stop worrying about that for a while," she said, "and eat your dinner."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"Just look around you, Subaru-kun -- isn't it beautiful?" Hokuto spun around in one vibrant motion, sweeping one arm in a circle to indicate all the flowering cherry trees, using the other one to keep her patently ridiculous hat firmly attached to her head.

Subaru struggled to keep the ache out of his eyes. "I lost my taste for sakura a while ago."

His sister studied him momentarily. "Please don't be like that, Subaru. It's over and done with."

Subaru took one of his hands in the other and rubbed the back, as if it could obliterate the prickling sensation coming through, just dimly, from he who held the leash. "It's never over and done with. He destroyed me. I just hope I can show him what it's like."

Sumeragi Hokuto gazed, very sadly, at her twin, with nothing to say for a moment or two. This walk in the park was not turning out to be a walk in the park.... "Look deep inside your heart, Subaru-kun. Is that really what you want?"

Subaru shot her a fierce glare, as if daring her to say anything more about it. It was so different, so much more angry, than he had ever directed at her in life that Hokuto had to pause and reassess. And that wasn't even in jest, either.

"That's all I've ever wanted, ever since you died," said Subaru tightly. "The chance to walk up to the Sakurazukamori and take his life in my hands as payment for yours."

"Why don't you try it now?" asked Hokuto, gazing into the moderate distance.

"What?" He swung around to see his sister pointing casually off to her right with one opera gloved hand. Focusing farther, Subaru picked out a tall man, all in black, standing among the sakura, hands in pockets. He moved not at all, not even to brush the dark hair from his face where the wind tossed it; the crisp combination of impeccable suit and tie and dark, sweeping trench coat fit only one person Subaru knew to be dead -- not that he needed the help to identify his antipode. Suddenly the burning tingle that limned the Sakurazukamori stars on his hands flared outrageously, and he clenched his fine fingers into fists.

"Seishirou-san." Even in rage, Subaru couldn't bring himself to leave off the honorific -- although, he did leave off any pretense of friendship. Leaving his sister behind where she stood, the Sumeragi crossed the distance between them with long, angry strides, his slender legs carrying him quickly along the grass of the City park. He brought himself a meter away from Seishirou, perhaps less, and stopped.

"Sakurazukamori."

A thin stream of cigarette smoke spiralled away on the breeze; Seishirou did not turn around. "Subaru-kun."

Subaru's breath stuttered a moment as he tried desperately to arrange his storming emotions into something resembling words. "I hate you," he forced out, strangling the words but still making himself heard. "I hate you. You destroyed everything I held dear, you left me nothing -- nothing! You took my trust, you took my sister, and then you took me!" Subaru raised his trembling hands, unknotting them as if to strike at the Sakurazukamori, but did not; his fingers twitched and gnarled and still could not do anything useful.

Seishirou remained impassive. "I give you no excuses, Subaru-kun."

"What about reasons? Or was it reason enough just to torment me?"

Sakurazuka Seishirou said nothing. One strong hand lowered and flicked at the filter end of his cigarette, then returned to where it had been.

"We are Sumeragi and Sakurazuka. You had reason enough to kill before you met me -- you could have just used that if you wanted me dead. But no. You made a bet. With a child, who could hardly have understood what he was doing! And then you came to me, toyed with me, toyed with my sister -- why? Why bother? Answer me!" snapped the Sumeragi, lunging out to wrench at his enemy's arm.

Seishirou turned more from lack of resistance than from any force slender Subaru could have applied to his massive frame. A minor amount of surprise showed in his newly-restored eyes, but other than that he wore precisely the passionless mask Subaru recalled. "Answer you, Subaru-kun? I could say any one of a hundred things, but you're hardly likely to believe me now, are you?"

Subaru dropped his hand. "No," he said with a bitter laugh. "No, I wouldn't. But at least I'd know what not to believe."

The Sakurazukamori took the cigarette from his lips and exhaled smoothly. "I can't answer your questions, Subaru-kun," he said turning away on one heel. "You're not asking the right ones."

The younger man stood, trembling, rooted to the spot as Seishirou began to walk calmly away. The look of pure rage flooding his brilliantly green eyes had been supplanted by slow burning fire and a dose of panic -- this was not how the Sakurazukamori was supposed to react to his ranting. "Seishirou! I want answers!" he yelled helplessly into the widening distance between them.

"Then ask your sister," Seishirou called back, slipping into the gap between two aged cherry trees and disappearing entirely.

"That was mean, Sei-chan," said Hokuto severely, popping out from behind a sakuragi. Having been dead quite a while longer than Seishirou had, Hokuto had a bit more practice to master being not-quite corporeal than he had; she made more than enough noise for the Sakurazukamori to hear her approach, but she was impressively perceptive enough to figure where he would exeunt the scene.

He took another drag off his cigarette. "Not as cruel as it could be."

"You're not supposed to be cruel at all!"

"Hokuto-chan," began Seishirou, "you're getting impatient. Whether Subaru ultimately comes to terms with me through forgiveness or vengeance, it will not be instantaneous."

"It won't be vengeance."

"He seems to think it will."

"He's lying to himself."

Seishirou dropped the cigarette butt and ground it out. "Really," he remarked, giving Hokuto a glance that was significant to at least four decimal places.

"Don't you give me that," she snipped. "I refuse to even consider that Subaru might really hate you, and a reconciliation based on mutual hurt is at the bottom of the list."

"Your list." Seishirou gazed into the clear blue sky for a moment -- the clear, crisp sky, clearer than that over Tokyo -- and then brought his line of sight down to Hokuto again. His eyes held more nebulous thought, more fuzzy logic, as it were, than she had ever seen them keep, even when he was playing the cheerful veterinarian; paradoxically enough, she reflected, death had been good for him.

"No, Hokuto-chan," he continued, turning to disappear again, "Subaru will render his own decision in his own time."

Hokuto knew that, she wanted to scream that she knew that -- but Seishirou had gone again and there was no one to scream it at, except perhaps Subaru, and he would think her crazy. With a sigh that threatened to wilt her completely, she pivoted on her heel and went to find her brother. Man, was he going to need some counseling over this.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"I hate him," said Subaru.

"You do not," argued Hokuto. "You hate that he killed me. Well, and that he killed you -- but you don't hate him! Please, Subaru, give him a level chance."

Sumeragi Subaru stared across the room at his sister. Oh, Hokuto- chan... what has he done to you? "Are you certain you want to do this?"

"Please, Subaru-kun?"

This is going to end in violence. "All right."

Hokuto grabbed at his hand and Subaru barely had time to cram his feet into his tennis shoes before she dragged him out the door. One thing he had insisted on was keeping his old battered sneakers; there were some things that were simply beyond the older Sumeragi's ability to change.

She's taking me back to the park. The sakura....

Hokuto had thought to pin her hat to her head this time, so both hands were free to yank her brother merrily through storms of breeze-blown sakura petals. Subaru followed with a great deal less enthusiasm; Hokuto had been slightly loopy in the past, but he'd never really known her to be quite this insistent on being eccentric.

"I don't think this is wise...." he murmured, softer, he thought, than she could hear. Subaru had underestimated the volume; Hokuto jerked to a stop and he put on the brakes to match her.

"Subaru, how many people do you know that are up here with you?"

Subaru started. "I -- I don't know. A dozen."

"And if you found them, how many would be friendly?"

The onmyouji shrugged. "Most, I guess."

"How many people do you suppose Seishirou has?" Hokuto paused for an answer Subaru wasn't going to give. He wasn't even sure he knew what it was. "Only us," she finished.

Subaru started to work up a righteous reply -- if Seishirou had no one, it was only because he'd never been kind to anyone in life, that this was exactly what he deserved.... It never came. In between every perfectly good reason Subaru could think up to refuse to take another step towards his opposite and opposing, sounded that tiny little voice. Maybe she's right, it said. Maybe it's different. Maybe...

Maybe we can redeem him.

Shut up, he ordered it, and it spiralled painfully into the void. But still the tiny whine persisted.

"Sei-chan!" called Hokuto. Subaru nearly slapped a hand to his ear. He loved his sister dearly, but sometimes she could be shrill.

The man in black turned around amidst a thin helix of smoke. Seeing Hokuto triggered no reaction in particular (he must think she's no threat, Subaru thought); but the sight of the younger man swept a mask, a guard, across his face and mahogany eyes that closed away anything he may have been thinking.

Hokuto kept going this time and drew Subaru up to within an arm's length of Seishirou. "Subaru-kun, Seishirou-san, together again! Just like old times, hm?" She looked each of them pointedly in the eye, then took one of Subaru's delicate hands and set it into Seishirou's.

The two men eyed each other warily, Sumeragi green to honeyed brown. Subaru could barely contain the tension that pulled at his slender body almost to the point of trembling; here he was, barely a foot from Sakurazuka Seishirou, the man who had killed his sister and ruined his life, and they were holding hands.

Hokuto, he thought, this really is too much.

Seishirou's hand was relaxed beneath his; a slight, ironic smile played across his handsome face. This was amusing him. Seishirou was going to play along.

"That's the spirit!" Hokuto beamed -- with a tint of threat behind it.

Subaru looked at his sister in utter shock. Utter, complete, thorough shock. His face, his wide green eyes -- everything an all encompassing blank. This was just beyond belief.

He heard light baritone chuckling from over his shoulder. Subaru whipped his head around, flushing deeply, and favored Seishirou with a look so startled and guilty it was comical. Suddenly he remembered where his hand was and snatched it back before anyone could say anything about it.

This was Hokuto's idea. He loved Hokuto. He would do anything for his sister.

He was going to humor Hokuto. Really, he was.

Really.

Subaru squared his shoulders and let a deep breath hiss out through his teeth. It's not so bad, he told himself.

Yes. Yes it is.

Do it for Hokuto's sake.

Maybe.

Do it for Seishirou's sake. She said he doesn't have anyone else.

He shouldn't have anyone else. Not after his life.

Do it for yourself.

Sumeragi Subaru stopped. Where had that come from?

How many times did you think about seeing Seishirou?

I don't know....

How many times did you think about standing this close?

I don't know that either.

How many times did you think about holding his hand?

That's not important!

How many times did you think....

"Come on, Subaru," teased Hokuto. "If you're that nervous now, how's it going to be on your wedding day?"

Subaru jumped, stricken, in perfect imitation of his every reaction so many years ago. How could she even think...? Seishirou threw his head back and laughed, as if he really enjoyed watching Hokuto needle her brother. While Subaru scrambled to extricate himself from the situation he'd accidentally gotten himself into, the eerie mirror reflection of every outing to Ueno Park he'd ever been on, the Sakurazukamori leaned smoothly against the cherry tree at the Sumeragi's back and smiled disarmingly.

"Come, now, Hokuto-chan. You know perfectly well I, a poor veterinarian, haven't a chance with a wealthy bishounen like Subaru."

It was a joke. It was a joke that didn't even have a reference point anymore -- what did money mean to the dead? -- but it shoved Subaru kicking and screaming to the edge of his tolerance. This was a mockery of everything he felt for Sei -- everything he had felt for Seishirou, everything that had ever happened between the two of them, everything he had ever said or done or thought or asked -- there were too many masks. Hokuto was wearing her old chipper mask, Seishirou was wearing his old cheerful guise, even Subaru was bearing his mask of tolerance, of acceptance.

It was time for the masks to come off. Subaru didn't know whether he was going to attack Seishirou, dig his fingernails into flesh, hit him, shove him away, lunge for freedom, anything -- but whatever it was, it was going to happen now.

Subaru dug his nails into the tree at his back and released the catch on his emotions, already boiling over. Everything at once rippled across -- tore across -- his glimmering green eyes, the stars on his hands were burning, fiercely, he raised his head to meet the Sakurazukamori's glinting honeyed eyes--

And kissed him.

Well, that certainly wasn't what he had been expecting.

Seishirou was surprised, very surprised -- but that was only momentary. Almost as soon as Subaru's soft lips touched his, he caught them and held them skillfully; from somewhere outside the kiss, Hokuto squeaked first astonishment, then giggles. All at once, trembling in body and spirit, emotions Subaru had deliberately buried years ago flowered to the surface of his heart....

Seishirou-san keep me hold me stay with me I need you Seishirou-san I can help you I can save you I need you I want --

I want?

Subaru, what do you want?

Sakurazukamori?

Dark onmyouji?

Killer?

What are you thinking, Subaru?

Abruptly, Subaru pushed himself away from Seishirou. The older man let him go. Lowering his head until the hat brim covered his face and nothing could be seen of his breaking eyes, the Sumeragi launched himself from the tree and fled, not running, but determinedly fast, disappearing into the sakura as fast as he could.

Hokuto took away the hands she had clapped over her mouth. "You see that, Seishirou? He doesn't hate you!"

Sakurazuka Seishirou leaned idly back against the sakura and crossed his arms. "No, I suppose not," he agreed absently. Seishirou looked pleased.

She set her hands on her slim hips, into the beginning of her skirt's flounce, and mock-glared at him. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"

Seishirou gave her a cool, mild glance. "Your brother is a very beautiful young man. It would be criminal not to take advantage of such an opportunity."

"You did, all right. I think he was having fun too, until he let himself think. The only problem is getting him to stop remembering." Hokuto set one fine hand against her mouth, leaning the elbow on her other palm. She set her mind to work on the problem, and it showed; her eyes were half- lidded and focused out in space and one foot tapped unconsciously against the grassy ground.

Seishirou stood up and took notice. Hokuto was plotting, and that was enough to make even the Sakurazukamori nervous, on occasion. Even when she was plotting on his behalf. Maybe especially then.

"Hokuto-chan," he put in gently. "I think the only one who can do that is Subaru himself."

Sumeragi Hokuto drooped a bit. "I suppose you're right...." She looked thoughtfully over her shoulder in the direction her brother had taken, a slow, almost hunter-like grin spreading across her face. "But there's nothing that says I can't give him a little help."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Hokuto was driving him crazy.

Subaru stomped up the stairs to the rooftop of the apartment building one by one. His sister and her matchmaking were beginning to puzzle him -- well, they had always puzzled him -- and grate on his every nerve. Plus he needed a cigarette. You were right, Nee-chan. There are some things that don't stop even when you're dead. This is another one.

The Sumeragi reached the top of the last flight and swung open the door. He could remember doing this while he lived -- finding the tallest place possible and sitting up there to stare out at the city. Except this wasn't the city, it was the City; but Tokyo or not, it was something to focus on piece by piece as he tried to ponder out himself and Hokuto and Seishirou-san and what the hell he was going to do for the rest of forever.

What the hell was he going to do for the rest of forever?

Sumeragi Subaru reached inside his coat for the pack of cigarettes that was always there. He fished one out, taking an absent-minded scratch across the back of his hand, and flipped it between his lips, patting himself down for a book of matches. Sweeping the back of his left hand against the wool fabric across his side, he--

He froze. Subaru's fingers twitched; he deliberately tuned back in to his "other" sense, the remnants of onmyoudo he couldn't get rid of if he tried.

Subaru abruptly chopped one foot in back of the other and turned fluidly through a semi-circle.

Seishirou-san was calm, completely stationary, leaning both hands before him on the rounded railing on top of the retaining wall. He made no move to turn to Subaru, as if the younger onmyouji wasn't even present -- Damn it, he knows I'm here -- but merely stood firmly against the sweeping wind that took his long coat and tossed it into the wings of a singularly dark butterfly.

Subaru remained where he was in numb silence, staring emptily at Seishirou's back.

A long time passed in soundless waiting.

"Are you still looking for your matches, Subaru-kun?" asked Seishirou at last. Subaru started viciously. "Smoking's a deplorable habit, you know."

Subaru glanced back at the cigarette dangling from his fingers now; snorting something indeterminate, he pulled the pack back out and chucked it back in. "You should talk."

The Sakurazukamori laughed shortly. "Hardly anything it can do to us now, is there?"

"I suppose it might have eventually killed me," responded Subaru evenly, "if you'd given it the chance."

"I suppose you also picked up the habit from me," Seishirou said, voice full of some perversely flat amusement.

Subaru was silent for a moment. "It's the least of the evils you've dealt me."

"Sometimes, Subaru-kun, evil is necessary to avoid evil."

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked the young man sharply.

The Sakurazukamori's pause was thoughtful. "You wouldn't listen if I told you."

"Probably not. You betrayed my trust once, I don't feel like letting you do it another time." Subaru looked down at his hands, cradled one in the other. Emotion -- Seishirou's emotion? Doubtful; more likely Subaru's -- sent pure fire pulsing through each of the stars on his hands, so searing they glowed to his intuitive sense of onmyoujitsu. Suddenly, he wanted his gloves back.

"Never again, Subaru-kun."

Subaru looked up in shock.

"Whether you believe me or not," continued Seishirou. "Never again."

Never...? Now what did that mean? Subaru shook his head in resigned confusion. "Why don't you ever speak plainly?"

"Must I spell it out? I lied to you once; I won't again. You wanted truth. You're getting it."

"Only because you think it'll hurt me," Subaru said tightly.

"It may. Nothing is without its own share of pain."

"Some things are all pain." Subaru knotted one long hand in his hair, frustrated-- "Why did you kill her?"

"She asked me to," Seishirou replied, unruffled.

Subaru let out a pent-up breath. Was it really... possible? Could Seishirou be telling him the truth?

"How did you manipulate her? Did you tell her you would take her life in exchange for mine?"

"No. I sent her home, Subaru-kun. She refused to go."

No, this could not be... but what if it was? If Nee-san had....

"I don't believe you," he said, but without conviction.

"That's your prerogative."

"Why did you kill me?"

"Destiny," said Seishirou succinctly, "demanded it."

"Aren't you leaving something out?" Subaru asked, nettled. So his personal feud with the Sakurazukamori wasn't even important enough to be mentioned?

"The bet had nothing to do with it," said the Sakurazukamori.

"Then why did you want me dead?" yelled Subaru in a sudden fit of fury.

"I didn't," Seishirou answered, deftly withdrawing his own pack of cigarettes from a pocket somewhere. He produced a match from the same place and struck it into faintly hissing light. "A most regrettable set of circumstances."

He's not telling the truth. Just tormenting me again... letting me think that I... that he... that it was possible we....

Make him say the words.

Subaru took a deep and shaky breath, rearranging his thoughts into something more sensible. "Then... if we hadn't been Chosen... you...?" Well, it was slightly more sensible, anyway.

"Perhaps," responded Seishirou-san evenly. "On the other hand, our clans have been at war for centuries. It is too late now to find out what might have happened had you and I been living different lives."

Subaru wrung his hands together, twining the long fingers into knots -- stop BURNING! -- shaking, head spinning. Seishirou was not... admitting... what he thought Seishirou was admitting... was he? It wasn't possible.

But if it were possible... persisted that tiny voice, hiding mournfully behind his other thoughts. If it were -- would you take the risk?

Subaru stopped himself thinking before he could answer yes.

"Hokuto is insane, isn't she?" he asked, turning those beautiful green eyes up to Seishirou. The look in them was achingly like his wounded one, glimmering and threatening to spill over to run down his cheeks; but where the terrible, world-tearing hurt had been was something altogether different and almost as heart-breaking: hope. He was trying hard to hide it -- since he had been sixteen, Subaru had put a prodigious amount of time and effort into closing the window into his soul those enormous eyes provided -- but nothing he did could quite conceal the sheer enormity of the feeling they contained. It was one of his most appealing features, and also the most dangerous; a combination of dire innocence and a beautiful face left one open to so many, many kinds of pain. If Seishirou hadn't broken his heart, someone else would have -- but perhaps Subaru-kun would have had a little more time to live before it happened.

"Hokuto," said Seishirou carefully, "understands more of this than either of us."

Subaru met Seishirou's eyes, finally, and suddenly memory tossed back at him the image of the kiss... why had he done that? He'd been enraged, infuriated, frustrated... why?

I want--

What do I want?

I want--

I hate him.

No. I want... I want....

I don't.

I want.

I can't.

What can't you?

Want to... want to...

I want to be with him.

This broke through into Subaru's thoughts like a sudden blooming flower; it was lurking fuzzily, hiding in back one moment, and the next it was a fully formed need, standing starkly away from all the other futile, tail-biting notions swimming in his head.

I want to be with him.

He took a lingering look at the man in black -- black had always suited him -- leaning almost over the edge of the building, coat flapping, feet set softly but militarily together. The figure seemed tense -- and oddly graceful. Carelessly, mindlessly, Subaru turned away and, shaking, put his hand back into his coat to look for the cigarettes. If he hadn't needed one before, he certainly did now. He fumbled for and found the matches this time, bending two before one lit -- he touched it disjointedly to the tip of the cigarette and put the filter end to his mouth.

There were footsteps behind him. Subaru ignored them. He also ignored the door opening, shoe noises on the steps, the door closing again. And the empty wind -- he especially ignored that.

Why is it, he reflected tangentially, one of us always runs away?

It was true. There hadn't been a single exchange of words between them yet where one or the other hadn't walked off into oblivion afterwards. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Seemed to Subaru that it always kicked in too late to keep everything from falling to pieces first.

I want to be with him -- where had that come from? Subaru sent a cloud of smoke spiralling away into the greying sky; perhaps it would rain later.... He closed his eyes to the wind, tried to settle himself by finding his center, something he had learned long ago at the hand of his grandmother, the Lady Sumeragi, and something he had used far too rarely these past years.

Step through this, Subaru, he thought.

Do you hate Seishirou-san?

No. Subaru was mildly surprised by that; and yet it was not a total shock. Hokuto's vehement insistence -- and, he admitted, in part Seishirou's corroboration -- had seen to that.

How do you feel?

Uneasy. Confused... afraid.

Afraid of what?

Of...

Him? What's there to be afraid of? he answered himself. We're both already dead.

But he can still hurt me.

Can he?

This gave Subaru pause. Seishirou had already torn him asunder once -- what was to stop him from doing it again? But this time, Subaru would see warning. He would expect it. But if it didn't happen, if this friendship lived--

Stop it, Subaru. You're lying to yourself.

Subaru set his hand on the railing and curled his slim fingers around it so tightly his knuckles turned white.

Hokuto is right. Call it what it was -- what it is. You love him.

Love him.

Get used to it.

Subaru took the cigarette right down to the filter and flipped the butt onto the surface of the roof, ground it out. He stared out a moment more over the City, at the brilliant sky blotted out by grey clouds above and the milling streets down below and the stepped skyline, faintly shimmering, between the two.

So... what will you do about it, Subaru?

Quietly, Sumeragi Subaru pivoted away from the roof railing, moving with a lightness, a serenity that surprised even himself. He went through the doors, the stairs, without seeing them at all, following the trace heat that filtered through the marks on his hands with his far-sight, his onmyoudo. His long delicate fingers traced the inverted star on first one hand, then the other; unconsciously, he amplified the link between himself and his hunter until even an inattentive Seishirou could not have helped but sense it.

Indeed, the Sakurazukamori hadn't missed it at all. He was waiting patiently outside the door to his own chambers, cool and collected as always -- but perhaps not quite as collected as he looked, if the sudden quickening that shot through Subaru's hands, palms, even through his wrists, was any indication.

"Seishirou-san," said Subaru softly.

The reply came back equally level. "Subaru-kun." Still in the familiar. Subaru decided he didn't hate it as much as he once did.

"I want to talk to you."

Sakurazuka Seishirou regarded him in soundless evaluation. He knew precisely what Subaru meant, almost better than Subaru himself. "If you walk into this apartment, Subaru-kun," he said, turning away to put one hand on the door knob, "you might not be leaving for a long time."

"Where else would I go?" asked Subaru. Barely a whisper. And a little louder, as Seishirou showed every sign of leaving him alone in the hallway: "Seishirou-san -- ai shimasu."

Seishirou stopped, turning back to look over his shoulder; the Sumeragi turned his head desperately up, trying dearly to catch the other onmyouji with only his eyes -- he knew well how mercilessly honest his glance could be, let it once, just once, work to his advantage. Seishirou gazed back at him with something warm and completely alien written on his face; Subaru remembered vividly his first glimpse of the Sakurazukamori with one eye rich brown and the other opal white, and even that choke of ultimate guilt was nothing compared to the fear and tremulous want he felt now.

"Come in," said Seishirou at last.

The apartment was something very much like Subaru expected of one whose life was spent hunting. Few walls, fewer doors, but many mirrors set in the frames normally used for soji screens lining the walls -- with, interestingly enough, several feathery plants lending the room a crisp atmosphere. Open space to move in, reflections of reflections to confuse, but always a wall at Seishirou's back.

And Seishirou at Subaru's back. Subaru jumped slightly as the dark frame suddenly appeared behind his reflection in one of the mirror-screens; he had heard nothing of Seishirou-san's movements, but fine lines of heat began to slice at his hands again. Proximity did something; emotion did more.

"So you think you love me," Seishirou said, meeting Subaru's verdant green eyes in the silvered glass. "May I ask when you decided this?"

"A long time ago," answered Subaru, allowing everything to spill out freely through his eyes. While he had become aware that his eyes were a dead giveaway to just about everything happening in his heart, Subaru did not generally stare into a mirror during a crisis -- perhaps he had not before properly appreciated just how stunning the effect could be. "I just didn't understand it."

Seishirou let that sit for a moment, studying the young man before him through the good graces of the looking glass. The Sumeragi must have had the longest, most gracefully turned legs that had ever been granted a human being; and the same proportions that leant his sister a charmingly feminine look gave Subaru a fragile appearance that could be likened to a sapling or a young willow. Bendable with the slightest of pressures -- but strong enough to return to its former, elegant arc as soon as it was released.

"Are you certain?" Seishirou asked, dropping partway into his predator guise. His hands snaked around Subaru's thin shoulders. "I don't make you... nervous?"

Subaru took in a quiet breath as Seishirou's hands came around, crossed under his chin, settled fingertip by fingertip against his pale throat -- and calmed as quickly as he had started. An instant later he met his own eyes in the glass and smiled to see himself looking so amazingly unconcerned, so comfortable, in an embrace that only a short while ago would have had him screaming death and destruction. He stretched upwards, a shiver sweeping through him, allowing Seishirou's palms to lay flat against each pulse beat at the sides of his neck, and leaned his weight back against the solid man behind him.

"No," he said.

Sudden raw fire seared the image of the Sakurazukamori star on his hands, before his eyes, and Subaru gasped.

"Subaru-kun...?"

In answer, the Sumeragi only raised one hand and pressed the back of it slantwise against Seishirou's cheek; Seishirou closed his eyes and hummed slightly in comprehension.

"I cannot remove them," he said, putting up his own hand to trace delicate lines across Subaru's palm.

"I don't want you to," said Subaru firmly. He shook himself gently out from under Seishirou's hands, turning around to face the Sakurazukamori with a fierce glint in his eye. A star remained briefly drawn in silver on Seishirou's face; this one was transferred from Subaru's upheld hand and so appeared ironically the right way up. The balanced way up. "Seishirou-san," he whispered, emphasis heavy. "Ai shimasu."

Seishirou was startled, perhaps, that Subaru could have such a swift change of heart, to say that to his face; but nevertheless seemed possessed by a curious calm as he listened again. "Boku mo," he murmured.

Subaru reached up, tangled fingers in his hair, tugged him down for a repeat performance of the scene under the sakura -- he was slightly more adept than before, but honestly could not say this was something he'd learned much about in life; but it really didn't matter, did it? He had the rest of forever to figure it out....

Sakurazuka Seishirou, however, had more experience than Subaru had ever dreamed to give him credit for. When the younger man finally came up for air, lips parted slightly for breath, Seishirou captured him with another hungry kiss. One hand rose to trace as softly as a tear down the side of Subaru's face, the stately throat, along his side and landing across the small of his back to pull the two of them together, displaying the dark sensuality that had admittedly been a great part of the Sakurazukamori's appeal. Seishirou felt Subaru shudder, and then--

The Sumeragi broke away again, breathing almost hard enough to be panting. He very nearly could not believe this was happening. To be... to be touched... like this... from love, not lies, not torment, not complicated psychological games... by Seishirou.... Incredible. Suddenly every half-formed thought and dream exploded into a vivid vision of the future -- forever with Seishirou and Hokuto, as it should have been from the very first.

He raised his shining eyes to truly see for the first time in a very long time the man that used to be the Sakurazukamori. Seishirou bent to dance a feline touch of the lips across his cheek, falling to his jaw for the next.

Is there anything left to remember? Subaru didn't think so. He knew what had happened, yes; but it all seemed so far away now it was hardly worth pondering. It had been, literally, in a different lifetime. What had happened had happened, and not all of it for reasons Subaru understood -- but Seishirou had had his reasons, and Hokuto seemed to know what was going on, so that was all right....

Is there anything left to tie me to that life?

Seishirou's warm breath stirred the dark silk hair at the nape of his neck. Reflexively, Subaru tugged his hands up around the other, pulling him closer to feel his heart beat.

Nothing at all, he thought. Nothing at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"What strange things your mind creates," commented Hokuto-chan, picking up one of Subaru's various and sundry pieces of bric-a-brac. His pent had been furnished mostly from his own thoughts close to his time of death; although those had considerably lightened since then, and thus so had the apartment. The thing Hokuto had picked up was a small statuette of a man, unremarkable save that he was winged, and the wings didn't match.

"I'm inclined to agree." Subaru took the figurine from her and traced the lines of the wings with one finger, the feathered first and then the leathery one. "Still. Kamui is really the only one I left behind on Earth that I'd be at all worried about." He took a moment to reflect. "He helped me more than I think he knows."

"Quit reminiscing and start packing or we'll never get you moved into Seishirou's place."

Subaru regarded his sister mildly. "No need for that. We do have forever, you know."

"Next time you die, I'm not going to explain things so well. You're starting to get downright comfortable with this."

Subaru smiled. "I think I am." He stowed the statuette in one of the dozens of boxes scattered around the living room -- all marked in Nee-san's perfectly lovely handwriting that would force him to open them all to identify them when he got them shifted -- and sat back on his knees.

"There's just one thing that bothers me," began Subaru.

"Oh, what now?" Hokuto said in mock exasperation. "Do you have to make amends with someone else I managed to miss completely?"

"No," her brother continued doggedly. "But you said something about moving on once I'd made my resolution. It's done; what now?" He gestured around at the cardboard jungle surrounding. "Will I stay here long enough to appreciate any of this?"

Hokuto looked curiously amused. "I don't think you quite got that. Subaru-kun, are you happy?"

Subaru looked off into space for a moment, a soaring-bordering-on- silly smile slowly spreading across his face. "Yes. Completely."

Hokuto's lips quirked with his. "Then you're already there."

The Sumeragi's mouth opened as if to reply, but he found he had nothing to say. With a delighted laugh -- it had been such a long time since he'd laughed -- he lunged over one of the unsealed boxes to enfold his older sister in both arms. Subaru managed to knock her hat off, sending it tumbling across the rug; she seemed not to mind and only hugged him fiercely in return. Truth be told, she had missed him, too, while they were separated.

"I have everything," he murmured, almost disbelieving, into the fringe of hair at her forehead.

"I know," she whispered back. "And it's about time, too."