A/N: For the YGO Fanfiction Contest Season 11 Round 2. The pairing: Tieshipping (Honda Hiroto x Nosaka Miho) – but you have to squint for it. Anime-verse crossover with CLAMP's Tokyo Babylon (and, to a lesser extent, its follow-up X/1999). These two were a blessing because their timelines match up so nicely, I didn't even have to mess with them. Well, almost, anyway. So, to clear up the age issue, Season 0 is set in 1996 when the YGO main cast is 14 years old. Duel Monsters is not yet a thing and Yuugi is king of nothing. DM doesn't become a thing until 1998, at which point most everyone is already 16 and Yuugi saves the world several times. (And, oh, one half of a pairing going missing. Isn't that just so... CLAMP? 8D)

And because the Tokyo Babylon fandom is so obscure barely anyone knows about it, here's the main thing(s) you need to know: The Sumeragi clan – the good guys. Magicians who've served the Emperor for centuries, doing away with assorted supernatural creepy-crawlies. The Sakurazukamori – a clan of magical assassins, the opposite of Sumeragi.

I tried to tiptoe around TB/X as best as I could to avoid spoilers, but. I blew it big time. Because the aforementioned spoilers are key factors in this story and there's no way of telling it without that information.

Also, since I mentioned some things from this fic to people and they got confused, a small glossary beforehand to land us all on the same page:

onmyouji – users of onmyoudou a.k.a. supernatural powers. Magician/exorcist/medium kinda guy/girl. Basically, if you've got a supernatural problem, these guys are the ones you'll want to call in to deal with it. (Kind of like Supernatural's Winchester brothers, if they had psychic powers and could shoot mind bullets. The mind bullets part, by the way? Not a joke.)

ofuda – a (generally paper) charm used to attack or defend, land a curse, or cast an illusion. …or get real creative with its usage.

mantra/incantation/spell – word, sound, syllable, or word group in Sanskrit (or another language, depending on country/religion) that's believed to bring spiritual transformation. "Aum/Om" is the one everyone and their mother knows. Unless you're Japanese. Then you know "On".

shikigami – spirit familiars that can be summoned via a ritual/with a sacred scroll/spell. Your handy right-hand …thing that does all your dirty work for you – tracking your enemy, being your attack force, spying on your girlfriend… Erm, I mean. Moving on.

mudra/hand signs – used together with mantra for meditation purposes in real world; for casting spells, activating ofuda, and similarly in the TB/X universe.

Rin mudra – (Rin stands for power) the only one I mention here, as it's the more commonly used in TB. Basically, make a gun with both your hands where the index fingers are the barrel. (If you're familiar with Naruto's ninja hand signs, it's the tiger sign.) The original version of this has the fingers tucked inside instead of touching the back of the hands though.

–points at wordcount– I tried to scale this down. I really, really tried, you guys. D: (1.3k is reference notes, though, but still) –hides under a rock–

Disclaimer: Kazuki Takahashi, CLAMP and all associated companies are the rightful owners of the Yuugiou! and the Tokyo Babylon and X franchise, respectively, and I claim no association with any of them. No copyright infringement intended with this and no money is being made from this. Please support the creator by purchasing the official releases.

Warnings: none? Uh, mentions of death and murder and generally sad things, but no excessive violence. All of the hurt, not so much of the comfort.


If We Ever

"All this time I was finding myself
And I didn't know I was lost
"

- Wake Me Up by Avicii feat. Aloe Blacc


It's been only two years since Miho first met Sumeragi Subaru and already it feels like a lifetime has passed. Sometimes the world doesn't seem real to her and she can barely remember a time when there were no monsters (save for those on the TV screen and on playing cards) and ghosts (save for those in books and old wives' tales, and abundant urban legends). Now she knows they are not mere legends. Now she knows there's a grain of truth in every myth when before she'd only thought it to be a saying. (But as sayings go…)

She checks her appearance in the mirror and blinks at the bright yellow ribbon in her hair that stands out starkly against her otherwise modestly-coloured outfit. She knows something more non-descript would be better for her new profession, but she is loath to leave that ribbon behind. It's an essential part of her which she doesn't want to part with quite yet. If Subaru-san is to be believed, it's going to happen on its own one day. But, for now, it's okay. She's not a born onmyouji; she's not a part of an ancient clan of mediums. She's Nosaka Miho. Ribbon-chan. And she can't see ghosts unless they're being really obvious about it.

She checks the pockets of her dark red jacket for the ofuda Subaru-san has drawn specifically for her. The writing on them is intricate, very unlike the plain slips of paper with only pentagram markers on them he uses himself. (Of course, because she wasn't born into a family of Japan's topmost onmyouji, she hasn't any powers of her own, and she needs the full invocations.)She'd be in a world of trouble if she forgot them at home. She slings the bag where she'd packed some of her homework – the trip to Shirakawa where they're meeting up for a job is two and a half hours long – over her shoulder, slips on her brown shoes, then calls a farewell-be-back-soon greeting to her mother and breezes out the door in a rush to catch the train, hoping it makes it on time for the transfer in Koriyama this time.

(She'd felt like an absolute idiot after the train had arrived late for the transfer the last time and she'd been stuck waiting for more than an hour for the next one. (Even though it hadn't been her fault. The train had experienced an unexpected delay.) She'd called Subaru-san to let him know the moment she'd gotten off the train and seen the connecting one disappear around a bend a few kilometres ahead, and he had proceeded without her, arriving at her destination to pick her up afterwards and take her to a lonely part of the woods surrounding the small town to practice using ofuda magic so that her trip wouldn't be entirely wasted. And then he'd made sure she got back home at a sensible time. She is still underage, after all, and he seems to be a stickler for the rules. Except for the few onmyouji-specific ones.)

Seven minutes after six the train pulls into Shirakawa station – wonderfully on schedule this time – and she walks out of the building, pausing briefly to take a look around, take in the new scenery. She spots him across the street, back turned to her, as he leans against a railing, smoking. His white coat stands out starkly amid the muted twilight colours. She crosses the taxi parking lot in front of the station in a run and stops beside him with a cheerful greeting.

"Good evening, Subaru-san!"

"Good evening." He gives her an once-over, puts out his cigarette and starts walking, gesturing at a street on their left. "This way."

While they walk, Miho chatters about the things she's learned, the things she's looked up, and he listens patiently. (Or maybe he doesn't listen, and that's fine too, Miho decides. She needs to tell all of this new information to someone or else she thinks she's going to burst. Of course, he already knows most of it, having grown up with it, but she can't share this with her friends from school unless she wants to get laughed at.) Subaru doesn't speak much in general.

When she pauses to draw breath, he asks, "Do you remember what I told you about hauntings?"

"Yes!" She beams up at him.

And before she can give him a rundown of his own words to prove it, he says, "I'd like to see you do it today."

Her eyes grow wide and incredulous for a moment before the realisation takes her breath away. "Really?"

He nods solemnly. "It's time to put your knowledge to practical use, if you're still serious about becoming an onmyouji." In reality, it's impossible to become an onmyouji if you aren't born with the powers of one. Even belonging to a clan of onmyouji doesn't guarantee it, as had been the case with his late sister. But there are certain things that can be learned by just about anyone. Drawing ofuda, writing up a curse, performing an exorcism, casting a barrier, sending a wandering ghost onwards to afterlife... Knowing the right spell is all that's needed for that. Of course, it often involves extensive rituals and very long preparation in advance, especially if the unruly entity is a particularly nasty one.

"Miho is always very serious!" she proclaims, bouncing on her heels a little. "You'll see! Miho is very hard-working!"

Subaru allows himself a tiny smile at her enthusiasm. Once upon a time, his sister had been the same. His sister… He sobers up and vows that he won't let anything happen to Miho. His sister had had powers of her own. Miho has nothing but the ofuda he's prepared for her to protect her. She can't even sense ghosts until they choose to lash out at her. And still… Still she insists on learning how to be an onmyouji. Follows him around from that very first encounter when he saved her from a cursed cherry tree and its master, and the certain death she had been facing for witnessing something she shouldn't have and that cuts far too close to home for him to dwell on it.

And he doesn't know where on Earth his mind was the moment he agreed (caved in, really, because she knows how to haggle and nag and is a surprisingly formidable force at that, and a lot less bothered by the supernatural than she should be) to oversee her studies even though she's more likely to be a liability. At first, he reasoned with himself that he would only be keeping an eye on her; keeping her safe from the Sakurazukamori just in case he decides to finish what he started. Subaru doesn't tell her how lucky she is, having gotten away from her encounter with the murderer with only a scare, a few cuts and bruises, and a sprained ankle, and without being marked as his prey. (But he is certain that she knows it anyway; now she knows, even if she didn't back then. He isn't one of the best onmyouji in Japan for nothing and his sixth sense is rarely, if ever, wrong. And that's another thing he doesn't particularly like to dwell on.)

There's a bounce in her steps and a smile so bright on her face that nobody would believe she'd faced death incarnate during her first summer trip to Tokyo two years ago. That she'd jumped at the tiniest sound for days afterwards, twisting her head this way and that to make sure nobody was lurking in the shadows. That she'd slept with lights on for the first few months until she had finally allowed herself to believe in Subaru and his protective spells and wrangled from him a promise to teach her a handful of spells to defend and to attack just in case she would come to need them in the future. (And somewhere along the line earning money with that knowledge was one of her motivators, but that charm faded soon enough. Already she's seen far too many people, far too many broken lives to spare the money a second thought, and with each passing day she realises more starkly that there will come more people of the same kind. There is always more. More than Subaru and others like him can save.

There isn't a set fee for their services. People pay them what people think they're worth. Subaru splits the earnings evenly, even though he doesn't have to. He's the one who does all the hard work while Miho observes from the sidelines and learns by imitation.)

Onmyouji don't have apprentices. And yet here they are. He even brought her before his grandmother, Lady Sumeragi, the 12th head of the Sumeragi clan on the Lady's insistence. He doesn't know what they talked about behind closed doors, and he's not going to ask either one. But after that conversation, his grandmother has raised no further objections to involving an inexperienced 12-year-old girl with no magical powers into the world which he'd been raised to deal with since early childhood. Barely 20 years old, he became a teacher, and that has turned out better than he'd initially believed capable. Two years down that road brings them here, to Miho's first real test. In actuality, she ought to have undergone the standard extensive Sumeragi training before being allowed to take on her first task, but she isn't a Sumeragi and she doesn't have the affinity to become an onmyouji, therefore he has elected to forego that part. She'll only ever need the basics, he reasons with himself. (And he knows he's probably wrong about that because there's a Sakurazukamori somewhere in Japan. And a Sakurazukamori never leaves witnesses. Which is why Subaru swears to himself that he'll find him before any more people have to die. And that may very well be futile; he knows this too. He can't save everyone. He can't save the world. But maybe just a few people along the way.)

Subaru makes her do a rundown of what she needs to do to locate the cause of the disturbance that has been plaguing their client, the Mizuno family. He makes her do it twice, emphasising that he isn't going to step in unless she is in actual danger.

She huffs and proclaims that she can handle herself. "Just you wait and watch, Subaru-san!"

"It only takes one small mistake," he reminds her, utterly nonplussed by her annoyance. He's twenty-two. She's fourteen. He's seen a lot more of the world than she has. "Civilians…"

"…should vacate the premises," she cuts him off. She knows this one by heart and she feels insulted that he seems to think she's so hopeless she needs a constant reminder of the general rules of conduct where onmyoudou is involved. "So that they don't get hurt if things go wrong and the malicious spirit-entity-thing decides to attack and picks the one that's unarmed with magic." Like herself. (But then, she at least has a handful of ofuda tucked away in her coat.)

He nods, oddly proud of her. She's shaping up to become a responsible medium. And some of their clients find her to be a more comforting conversation partner than him, even though she's so young. She's gentler and softer, and she has kind words and a lovely smile for everyone. But mostly, she looks too innocent for this job and that usually stuns people. He's been there. He knows what that's like. (And he hasn't been able to smile since the death of his twin sister.)

It takes them an hour to reach the home of Mizuno family. As soon as they arrive, they are shown to the room that is the epicentre of the paranormal activity, and as they stand before the open door, the lady of the house recounts the events leading up to the call she'd made to the Sumeragi estate. The scratching, the clanging, the items shifting places on their own, the feeling of being strangled all guests staying overnight in that room experienced.

Subaru nods to it all, scanning the room and tapping into the spiritual residue that is thick inside it. With his gaze, he locates the one item housing the unruly spirit, but doesn't say a word. This is Miho's battleground. She has to work this one out on her own. As soon as he thanks the lady of the house and she leaves them alone in the hallway, he leans back against the wall opposite the door, giving Miho free reign. She has gone slightly pale in the face, but her shoulders are squared and her back is straight. She takes a step forward to stand just beyond the doorway, scans the room and takes out an ofuda from the inside of her jacket. (She has a system of how and where she keeps them on her, so that she wouldn't accidentally grab one meant for attack when she needs to defend – a lesson sorely learned a little over a year ago.)

She clasps the slip of paper between her palms as if in prayer. The flowing lines in Sanskrit on it seem to warm her hands. She clears her mind of all thought, focusing on the incantation, and closes her eyes, shutting off every sense but the one that will guide her to the one possessing this room. She reaches for that space right above her head, the open consciousness of it, and activates the spell with a quiet, "On."

She listens carefully to the room. She listens to the ofuda with her entire body, and the heat between her hands slowly builds up, reacting to the hostile spirit that's taken up residence in... in… And then it pulls her to the left. She turns with the faint momentum of the spell and sends the ofuda flying on feeling alone. She opens her eyes to watch it strike a small cabinet. A shockwave reverberates through the room when the incantation expels the spirit from whatever item it had been clinging to inside that piece of furniture. It's a twisted thing, and now it's pissed off for being forced out into the open. There are horns on his face – his, she can tell it clearly now – where horns shouldn't be and his fingers are gnarly and twisted with nails far too long and far too sharp-looking. (She'd like to freeze up in fear at the sight of him. She'd really like to. But instead…)

Her hands lift in front of her face, forming the Rin sign as she intones, "On Bazara Darma Kiri Sowaka. On Bazara Darma Kiri Sowaka. On Bazara…" She jumps to the side to avoid the monster lashing out at her, even though it's unnecessary, but survival instincts still prevail. She hasn't yet gotten to the point of stone-cold calm Subaru has when facing these things. Because the monster can't touch her for as long as the spell is active. She hits the wall with her shoulder and winces, but doesn't stop the chant. If she stops and retreats now, the protection the words are weaving over her will disappear and the monster will tear into her with those ugly claws. She closes her eyes to keep her focus, straightens up against the wall and puts herself back on track while the monster gradually slows down, the incantation finally beginning to take some marginal effect. "On Bazara Darma…"

Subaru watches the progress of the exorcism. It's slow. Slower than if he'd done it, but he has his psychic abilities. She only has the spells and the magic locked within the words she's speaking. He reflects how this is the first time he's seen the process from the side and in slow motion.

"On Bazara…"

The horned face is cracking. The ugly features are morphing into something more human-like. The mask of torment that has been his only expression up until now is slipping and the first traces of what he used to look like at the time of his death start to show. Young. Slightly chubby. Sleek shoulder-length hair curling in all directions at the ends. He looks relieved. He hovers above Miho and the air around him begins to glow, permeating him and making him light up inside.

"…Darma Kiri Sowaka," Miho finishes and opens her eyes, feeling the light caress her face, feeling it press through her eyelids. It's almost blinding. Amid it all, the young man smiles at her, a happy, relieved smile that makes her respond to it in earnest as she disentangles her fingers and lowers her hands.

"Thank you," the soul whispers. She can't hear the words, but she can read his lips. There is a flash of white light, a ripple effect that moves the air and shifts her hair and clothes, and then there is nothing.

She walks up to the cabinet as if in a daze, slides open the middle drawer and takes out a pair of aviator's goggles.

"He really liked these," she says absently and, not even knowing why she does this, takes them with her when they go find the lady of the house to tell her that the room has been purified and the haunting will not repeat.

Miho gently places the goggles on the table in front of Mrs. Mizuno. "These kept your nephew rooted in this world." She doesn't know how she knows that the young man had been her nephew. (She doesn't know how she knows half of the things anymore.) Their client didn't have even the slightest inkling as to who or what was haunting this place.

Mrs. Mizuno stares at the goggles for a while, tears prickling at her eyes that seem to gaze at something only she can see. She speaks in a low voice, as if to herself, "My brother, Kadota's father, was a pilot. He often took the boy on test flights. These were his lucky goggles; he kept repeating that. He died in a car crash when Kadota was ten years old. The goggles really were lucky. They survived the crash without even a scratch. He was really taken with planes, Kadota. He went on to study aviation just like his father and the first time he piloted a training plane, it malfunctioned. The goggles survived again. Ah…"

"They would want you to be happy," Miho says in a soft voice when the elderly lady finally quiets down. The floods of recollections are a commonplace thing for quite a few of their customers. (The other part either stares at them oddly, as if trying to make up their mind on whether to shun them or revere them, scoffs at their profession, or backs away from them the moment they see that there's actual magic involved. And yet others line up to get a solution for their worldly problems, a frightening sort of hunger alight in their eyes.) She clasps her hands together in front of her. Mostly because she doesn't know what else to do with them. This is the hardest part. No matter how many times she sees this, she doesn't think she'll ever get used to the grief and the pain, and the amount of broken, breaking people. "Your brother and your nephew. They would like to see you smile again."

The elderly woman chokes slightly at that and hastily pushes an envelope filled with money across the table towards her. Their payment. Their signal to leave. Miho picks it up, fighting back a sigh, and bows respectfully. This part never gets easier either. They excuse themselves, leaving the grieving woman slumped in the kitchen chair.

She wanders down the street after Subaru, her mind eons away, the envelope still clutched in her hand. She only comes back to her senses after he holds out his arm to stop her from wandering onto the crossroads where a car veers around the bend and speeds past them. She blinks, surprised and startled that she hasn't heard the engine roaring. She's also dropped the envelope. She crouches down to pick it up and it seems to burn her hand.

"Ah," she starts, hesitant, "We should split this."

Subaru shakes his head and resumes walking. "Keep it. It's yours."

"But…" For the first time in her life, she doesn't want the money she's earned. It's weird. It's wrong. The entire situation feels wrong, though she can't quite put her finger on why.

"You did all the work. You earned it."

"Before, Subaru-san did all the work and yet always shared with Miho," she argues, slipping back into her habit of using third person to refer to herself.

"This is your first one. You always keep your first."

"Oh."

But it doesn't help. He knows this best. After all, he still remembers his first.

She stares at his retreating back for a moment, then tucks the envelope inside her coat and quickens her pace to walk beside him again. (There's a lesson in there somewhere, she's sure of it. There's some deeper wisdom of life that she's supposed to take away from this. She just can't figure out what it is that he wants her to learn.)


On the Sunday when the Premium D-Shock watch collection goes on limited sale, Subaru has arranged a job for Miho in Domino. It's supposed to be an easy one, and very close to her home, even if it is quite early in the morning. He's done this so she can avoid meeting people who might know her, as she has mentioned quite a few times that she doesn't want her friends to know about her job. (Really, she misses the time she worked at Burger World and the gyuudon shop, the name of which she no longer even remembers.) She can't really argue against it because it's Subaru-san and he refuses to change the time of the arrangement. He reminds her time and time again about the importance of honouring contracts and promises. About being reliable. She can't argue with that. She's training to be an onmyouji too and there is a certain reputation to upkeep that's associated with the name and the position.

So she asks Honda to stand in line for her while she rushes to the harbour where one dock appears to be haunted. The dock workers are not impressed with her when she arrives at the scene. Subaru has informed them that he's sending someone else qualified for the job in his stead, but they haven't expected a teenage girl. The whispering stops when she gets down to business though.

"Please, show me the place that is haunted."

It's very early in the morning and the harbour is still mostly empty. On top of that, everyone seems to avoid the haunted dock, so she has a lot of free space around her and she doesn't have to ask everyone to clear the premises. The air is still fresh and crisp, not yet polluted with the exhaust gas and factory smoke. The sun is rising steadily higher, the dispersed clouds shifting further away towards the horizon, promising a wonderful day. She sighs, closing her eyes and wiping her mind of all thoughts, and raises her hands up in front of her face in the Rin sign.

"On Maitareiya Sohaka. On Maitareiya Sohaka. On Maitareiya Sohaka. On Maitareiya Sohaka."

Nothing happens for quite a while. Only the light morning breeze caresses the hair around her face.

"On Maitareiya Sohaka. On Maitareiya…"

There is a slight shift in the empty space near one of the yellow-and-black painted concrete borders at the edge of the dock.

"…Sohaka. On…"

A small cloud of dust gathers, crawling along the ground. It slowly builds itself into a whirlwind.

"…Maitareiya…"

The form of a human grows in the middle of it, becoming more pronounced, gaining more features, more detail.

"…Sohaka."

A less careful glance would trick one into believing it being corporeal, but a closer inspection reveals that he's quite transparent. The sea, the horizon, the clouds can be seen right through him. The distant waves shimmer through his dark green work overalls.

"On…"

He takes a wavering step towards Miho, then another one that's more firm, his expression clearing.

"…Maitareiya…"

Light gathers around him, surrounding his form and lighting it up from the inside. Miho feels the change in him before the light radiating from him touches her and colours the darkness behind her eyelids a bright red.

"…Sohaka."

She lowers her hands and opens her eyes. She meets the man's gaze, takes in his serene smile. This time, she hears the soft "thank you" and smiles, silently whispering a safe journey wish in return. And just like that, he's gone, leaving a crack in the concrete bar beside which he'd died when a container had fallen on top of him.

She doesn't accept the money the board of directors offer her, telling them to give it to the man's widow instead. She has two children to raise and her salary is barely enough to get them by. It's Kaneyama-san's final wish. She bows to them respectfully, excuses herself and departs, leaving a group of speechless grown-up men behind.

(Because she'd told them things she shouldn't know. Couldn't have known, as there had been no media coverage on that accident. Things had been swept under a rug. The man's name forgotten. They'd paid the widow consolation money just to get rid of her; just to make sure she wouldn't cause them any trouble. Half of the workers present had even managed to forget the event altogether. It wasn't, after all, the first. And wouldn't be the last.)

Feeling very confused and not comfortable in his own skin for some reason, the brigadier goes to his cabin to look up the contact information of Kaneyama's widow. The money they'd planned on giving the onmyouji and which she so easily forwarded to Kaneyama's family members is burning his fingers. At the same time, he doesn't want to let go of it. Can't let go. He doesn't think he'll find peace with himself if he doesn't do as the young medium has wished.

Miho meets up with her friends, receives the D-Shock watch and doesn't mind lending it for the day one bit. And when Honda is the one who wins rock-paper-scissors, she beams at him as she hands it over. He did stand in line in her stead after all.

The day flies by really fast at the arcade and she almost loses the track of time. Almost. Startled, she checks the time and makes up a hasty lie about an early curfew. She doesn't have a curfew. But she does have a train to catch to Miharu where Subaru-san is waiting for her. They're investigating a cursed construction site tonight and she needs some practice in finding curses and disabling them. It's rare enough to find a trace of them because most curses are personal. Placed on humans and therefore undetectable in any other way but accidentally, they tend to fly under the radar in nine cases out of ten. The only small consolation (though it's really, really not) is that the curse always returns to the caster. Most people don't have the knowledge or the wits to research them and their effects and after-effects more in-depth and therefore never discover that there's a way to defend against a rebounding curse. (But Miho knows. Miho could curse someone. Anyone, really. If she wished to. If she needed to. And she would know how to avoid being hit by the ricochet.)

Something snaps inside of her when it turns out that Honda has lost the watch. She doesn't know what. She can't explain the flurry of emotions that wash over her, that compel her to swing out her arm and slap him across the face. She runs from the arcade, tears streaming down her face and angry words tumbling from her lips, but she doesn't know why. What's so important about Honda losing her watch? What's so important about it?

She huddles in a corner seat on the train and tries not to cry, but the tears are still spilling. Having only barely remembered to grab the bag she'd packed beforehand and left in a storage box at the station, she hugs it close to her chest and tries to feign sleep to avoid being bothered, but there's barely anyone on the train. Luckily, the Ban-etsu-East Line that serves this route is a direct one, so she doesn't have to be worried about missing a transfer point. The train ride is almost an hour and a half long, but most of it passes in a daze. It's weird, she thinks, how she hasn't cried in… months? Or is that years already? She's watched people break, she's seen so much death, and she's felt a lump in her throat so many times that she's lost all count, and on occasion she's felt tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. But she can't remember when she'd actually bawled like a lost little child. She draws in a shaky breath. How strange that she would break down over something as small as a lost watch. She'll probably have some sort of a life-changing revelation about it, come morning. She sputters with shocked laughter at that thought, yanking up the bag to bury her face in it, suddenly very glad that she's currently the only one in the car. Then the tears start flowing again.

She manages to get herself under control somewhere between Sugaya and Ogoe when there's less than half an hour left to travel. Her eyes are still red and puffy when she gets off the train in Miharu where Subaru is waiting for her across from the train station, smoking. It's getting dark already and she identifies him by the glowing end of his cigarette before everything else. She walks up to him, trying to put the usual bounce in her steps, and she smiles at him brightly, offering her usual cheerful greeting, eyes narrowed in feigned happiness to a point where she should just close them. He sees right through her. He studies her face carefully and she feels her smile crack. Somehow she manages to keep it in place even though she has no idea how awful it looks.

He doesn't ask her if she's okay and she's grateful for that. He puts out his cigarette and gestures back towards the train station and the buildings behind it.

"It's that way. There's some distance to walk from here."

Miho doesn't dare fill the silence with her usual chatter. She doesn't trust her own voice tonight.

They spend several hours on the construction site, trying to locate and disable the curses placed on different parts of it. They find none on the site itself, but five in the surrounding area. (Well, Miho does, because Subaru has already located them all when he visited the site during the day and met with the heads of the construction department. He's just left them where they are until she could get here. He shows her what to look for, then steps back and lets her work on her own.)

"Somebody is trying to chase these people out of their homes," Miho says in a low voice, holding out her hand over a plaque with the family name Fukui that has drawn her attention. She feels the tremor in the tips of her fingers which she has come to associate with a cursed object and, when she speaks the dispelling incantation, sure enough, a slip of paper submerges from the plaque, resisting her spell all the way as if alive. When the last phrase breaks the curse written on it, it drifts to the ground. She picks it up to study the writing. Each one they've discovered so far has been structured differently, but the message they carry is the same.

"Could be someone in charge of the construction," she continues, rubbing the spot between her eyebrows with her knuckle. There's a headache slowly building up and she finds it harder and harder to concentrate with each curse she discovers. "They're the ones who would get most profit out of it." What a terrible thing to say, she realizes, but she's seen more terrible things in action. And she's so tired. Tired of it all.

"It could be," Subaru neither agrees, nor disagrees. "You need some rest. You have an early train to catch tomorrow."

She nods wordlessly and follows him. (She'd told her mother she would stay at Anzu's place overnight, finishing an assignment they're supposed to work on together. She wonders absently when she'd gotten so good at lying to her parents.)

He's booked a room at Wakamatsuya Ryokan and it's a beautiful place, but Miho is too exhausted to notice much of it; appreciate it – even less. He leaves her there and heads back out into the nightly town again. He hesitates outside the room for a moment, then draws a protective shield on the door even though he doubts anyone would disturb her. His feet take him to the outskirts of the town where Takizakura grows ancient and strong on a hillside. It's too late for it to bloom, but he can feel the tree's strength and resilience even as it is so deceptively dormant. It has stood there for over thousand years. Quite like a certain demonic sakura tree that he knows all too well.

He spends the night sitting under its low-hanging branches and smoking. His thoughts wander.

He's back at the ryokan on time to rouse Miho and take her to the station for the morning train at 5:42. She should be back in Domino on time for school. She'll even have enough time to change into her school uniform.

She naps on the train and, once back in her hometown, steps into the train station's bathroom to change into her uniform, wash her face, fix her hair, and practice to fake a smile. She doesn't feel like smiling this morning. She'll have to apologise to Honda too, for hitting him. Because the stupid watch, she has decided in the moments between wakefulness and sleep on the train, doesn't even matter. But first she needs to grab something to eat from the closest convenience store.

Before heading out of the bathroom, she pulls out her tiny notebook where she's written down everything supernatural they've planned to investigate this week. No trips outside of Domino, this time, but several places to check out during the week. Nothing major; nothing that could land her in the eyes of the broader public. Subaru agrees with her keeping a low profile the way she wanted it in the beginning until she graduates high school, knowing what it feels like when everybody knows what you are. Knows that you're different. This notion keeps her mouth firmly shut about the paranormal matters that have become a considerable part of her life whenever she finds herself overcome with the urge to tell someone, anyone. She has two lives and sometimes she's afraid of what might happen when they finally clash.

When she leaves the station and stops at a crossing to wait for the green light, a bright advertisement across the street catches her eyes. Emperor department store is holding its Sunday special sales and among the discount items is Mambo Line perfume. They're very expensive and she's been saving for one in particular for months now, still missing a few hundred yen, but now she can afford it! And even have some money left over for something else. Her heart speeds up in excitement… and drops rapidly. There's a purification ritual scheduled for the new metro construction site in West Domino for this Sunday. She can't cancel that one. She can't reschedule it for a later time on that same day. She has to choose one or the other. She pointedly turns her face away from the advertisement, trying to pretend that she hasn't seen it.

When she arrives at Domino High after a sad convenience store breakfast in the park, she is feeling quite glum. She can't even muster up enough energy to fake her token smile. She slips into her seat and avoids her friends for the entire day. After the classes are over, they finally corner her in the homeroom after everyone else has already left. Suppressing a sigh, she supposes an apology is expected of her, but before she can get it out, Honda presents her with the watch and the most erratic litany of "I'm so sorry" she's ever heard from anyone that it leaves her speechless. After she's regained her ability to form words and has apologised for hitting him, she pushes her luck and brings up the Emperor department store Sunday sale and the perfume she's been after for months. Honda steps up to the task without a second thought and Anzu aims a snide comment at her, but she lets it sail right over her head. It's better that way. It's better, she tells herself.

She gets that perfume and purifies the training grounds, and has an entire week afterwards for which there is nothing planned. When Saturday rolls around, it finds Miho in the kitchen, piecing together a monster-size bentou for Honda with only his favourite food. It's really overdue, considering everything he's done for her. She has just tossed sliced vegetables onto a pan to fry them golden-brown when the phone rings. She closes her eyes for a moment, chases all thoughts out of her mind, and steps away from the stove. She hesitates just a moment, then wipes her hands clean on the kitchen towel draped over the back of a chair nearby and rushes to answer it.

She thinks she'll be able to recognise Subaru-san's voice anywhere, even through a flaky connection. It's an emergency up in Aomori and he's all the way down in Kirishima, which means Miho is the one closest. He gives her an address, a timetable, all the important names to know, and he's even arranged for plane tickets to and from – she just needs to show up in the airport with her passport on hand and tell them that she's there on behalf of the Sumeragi clan. And he wouldn't normally be doing this, but the situation in Aomori is threatening to turn dangerous any moment and before even more people get hurt… Can she take this job?

She jots down the details, asks how and what she should pack because it's obvious from the get-go that it's a two-day deal, and writes down a phone number where she can contact him if she needs advice on anything. When she returns to the kitchen, the vegetables in the pan are smoking, almost burnt to a black crisp. There are only a few that still partially retain some semblance of their colour. She sighs at the stench, turns off the stove, walks over to the window to slide it open, then returns to empty the contents of the pan into the trashcan under the sink. She plugs the sink, puts the pan into it, and turns on the hot water before facing the already made and the almost-done food laid out on the kitchen table. For a moment she considers packing some of it into her own lunchbox and taking it with her, but decides against it. And so everything from the table joins the burnt vegetables in the trash. Her mother is in Yokohama at her grandmother's – whose health has taken a turn for the worse – place until Tuesday when her sister, Miho's aunt, can take over, and her father is abroad on a business trip in China until the end of the next week. There's no one to even leave a note for.

She leans on the edge of the sink, watching it fill up with water, and for a moment just breathes. Pulling herself together, she turns off the tap before walking over to the window to close it. She leaves the pan as it is, steps into her bedroom to retrieve the bag from the deepest corner of her closet which she always keeps packed for emergency cases these days, then does a trip through the apartment, making sure all electric appliances are disconnected. She picks up her keys, slips into her shoes, grabs her jacket, slings the bag over her shoulder and walks outside, with her fingers drawing a protective seal across the door on top of locking it. The bus turns around the corner the moment she walks out onto the street and she races to the stop, barely making it on time.

She gets off at the airport, takes her place in the nearest queue, and when her turn comes up, presents the lady behind the desk with her papers. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees only a few heads turn at the mention of the name "Sumeragi". In contrast, every single head behind the check-in desks turns her way. All formalities cleared in record time, she is given her tickets and respectfully, almost reverently, guided towards the boarding lines.

While she waits for her turn to board the plane, she studies the printout of her flight schedule. Three-hour layover in Sapporo on the way there, but only thirty-five minutes on the returning flight. Five hours ten minutes on the way there, two hours forty-five minutes back. Three hours in Sapporo is good, she decides. She'll have time to eat something and sort through her ofuda and spells. She'll have some time to adjust to her second life. (Adjust. Ha, ha, Miho. You are so funny, she mocks herself bitterly.)

Her turn arrives and she smiles brightly at the lady beside the door. She's on a job. She might as well start acting professional about it.


As the school year progresses, she finds both her lives clashing more and more. One morning, she arrives in Domino late, courtesy of a connecting train which had not connected because of technical difficulties and she'd had to spend two hours stuck in a tiny village, waiting. She somehow weasels her way out of it by claiming she'd lost track of time caring for her Digital Pet and, surprisingly, everyone believes her. And then she stockpiles half-truths on top of that, showing off the poster which she pulled off a board in the train station while nobody was watching. A Digital Pet contest with prizes for the winner. A trip to Australia. A trip she would like to win. A trip for a pair. And, oh, Honda jumps to the chance of caring for her pet, and, for a moment, her world stops tilting. She knows who she is. She knows where she is. They still believe her. And she plays to the tune of their expectations.

She feels only slightly guilty about that and wonders what that says about her.

The second time Miho attempts to cook for Honda, she doesn't even get past the stage of cutting the vegetables when Subaru-san calls her. He sounds so tired that she drops everything she's doing and rushes out the door, though not before fetching some ofuda from her room and letting her parents know that she's going to meet with friends and will probably be back late. (They're going to watch a ghost movie, so maybe they'll want to wait till it gets dark to make it scarier.) Without needing to check for directions, she walks around her apartment block and takes a shortcut through back alleys and across train tracks to catch a bus that'll take her to the outskirts of the city where a woman seems to be possessed by something. Just yesterday she'd been normal, but this morning she had attacked her family members. Her husband had been barely able to subdue and restrain her.

As Miho stands in the bus stop, waiting for the transport, she contemplates how she doesn't even need to check the routes beforehand to know which bus will take her where. It's a feat she wouldn't have believed in being possible two years ago. But then – she hadn't known that actual magic existed two years ago. She'd lived a happy teenage life, marred only by homework and the occasional bad grade, not getting a desired item of clothing or accessory, fights with friends, and things so mundane that it all seems mostly unreal now. She is still trying to keep that old self in the forefront, but being an onmyouji-in-training is slowly becoming quite incompatible with her definition of normal. And this latter one isn't something she can just quit. The knowledge she's gained won't disappear if she withdraws from the onmyouji duties and stops using spells and ofuda and turns a blind eye to all the wandering ghosts and cursed objects that come in her path. Not now, when she already finds herself avoiding pawn shops because the negative energy clinging to some of the items there makes her skin crawl. Museums are also becoming places to avoid, as, more often than not, she finds herself wandering towards artefacts that are rumoured to be cursed or haunted. And sometimes ones that aren't rumoured, but she can feel that there's something off about them. For as long as those ghosts and curses remain dormant, she has no business there. The last thing she needs is getting caught on a security camera while performing an exorcism.

Having witnesses is also the reason why she doesn't lash out against Warashibe for hurting her friends, for endangering their lives. It's really hard for her to not cast a curse on him. She almost slips up when she all but demands Yuugi to take her to his place, for a while blinded by her fury and spurred on by the knowledge she possesses. She walks, seething all the way there and going through all the spells and incantations she knows. She can't make up her mind on anything specific, and the few really useful ofuda she could use here have been left at home. And perhaps it's just as well because no self-respecting onmyouji would use his or her powers on people without magic abilities unless their life depended on it. And maybe she's not a trueborn onmyouji, and maybe she'll never become one, not in the sense Subaru is, but she's as close to it as a person without any paranormal affinity can hope to ever get. (And just imagining the look Subaru-san and Lady Sumeragi would give her when they learned of it…) It's more than enough to stop her.

More importantly, though, something is wrong with Yuugi. She can feel an odd sort of presence about him, though she can't pinpoint what exactly it is. Just that it's wrong. She'd like to ask Subaru to take a look at him, but a part of her (a terrible, horrible part of her) doesn't want him to ruin the veil of normalcy she still somehow retains with her friends. But she knows that, in that one instant between the support beam cracking and falling down on their heads and passing out from the impact, something has shifted about her friend. She keeps a close eye on him afterwards – as close as schoolgirl Miho can afford on a normal day – but nothing happens. There's just an odd sort of feeling around him, though it always remains on the fringes of her consciousness.

And then she gets blindsided by Bakura. She runs into him and stops dead in her tracks. She is so stunned and overwhelmed that the wrongness about Yuugi – who stands right there – fades. For a moment the naive schoolgirl Miho merges with the exorcist Miho, both being incredibly drawn to the young man because he is exactly the schoolgirl's type. The exorcist sorts out her feelings faster than the schoolgirl though. He feels wrong. Whenever she gets near him, she feels the same tingling that she's come to associate with cursed objects, though he doesn't quite act the part of a person possessed.

Between beauty contests and Death-T (and during the latter she has to suppress her urge to throw spells everywhere) where the proverbial cat gets out of the bag and she finally learns – they all learn – that something is very wrong with Yuugi (And she can't pinpoint if the energy exuding from him every now and then is malevolent or beneficial. She also hopes she won't have to be the one to deal with him when everything finally comes to a head and the "other Yuugi" decides to take full use of his new human body.), she attempts to cook meals for Honda a few more times. But it seems like some higher power is intent on making her fail each and every one of those. The last one is shortly before they go to visit Bakura who hasn't been coming to school lately, when her mother calls from the house of her grandmother to inform her that she has passed away. Miho puts down the receiver and stands by the phone, trying to understand if the lack of tears at these news is a good thing or a bad thing, or just a delayed reaction and they'll spill during the funeral. She stands there, trying to force out a single tear just to prove to herself that she's still normal, that she's still human, until she chokes on the smoke that's filling the kitchen from the meat and vegetables being charred to black crumbs on the frying pan, and then the tears do well up in her eyes. She rushes to turn off the stove and yank open all windows, for the moment forgetting that she is supposed to be mourning.

As she walks with her friends to Bakura's apartment, she can't shake the feeling that this has "Bad Idea" written all over it in capital letters. And then it turns out she's right, except by that time she's trapped in the body of a tiny wooden figurine and has been rendered almost powerless because her ofuda is back at home and she can't come up with a single spell that could reverse this entire mess. (And she's not even sure where the fairy merchant's powers end and her onmyouji abilities begin. Or whether any of the spells she knows will work.) She swallows the insult to her exorcist pride because this isn't the time; this isn't the right situation to go, "Oh, by the way, I'm a medium-in-training." She'd be dead before she could blink. For as long as Bakura hasn't noticed the faint imprint magic has left on her, she's safe. (As safe as a tiny figurine can be on a battlefield facing off against an overpowered monster.) She resents the fact that she's not a born onmyouji, that she doesn't have any psychic powers that could have whispered to her what she was getting herself into. She has spells and ofuda and everything she's learned through careful observation. Except, when she's Miho the Schoolgirl, she doesn't really observe. It doesn't suit her character. (And is the game already affecting her so much that she's starting to think of herself in terms of characters?)

She glares up at Bakura, trying to think of a way to reverse her situation, to help her friends, but nothing she currently has at her disposal is usable. (Tiny and puny as the things surrounding them on the game board are; pointless as all their attempts are because – and she realises this far too late – they're also caught in a powerful binding spell.) She's never heard about anyone like Bakura, about somebody who feels like him and she intends to ask Subaru-san about it. Once more she regrets not involving him sooner; normal, non-magic-filled life be damned. (Except that she knows. She remembers. She remembers getting lost in a park. She remembers a cherry tree blooming out of season. She remembers its branches dripping blood and twining around her, suffocating her with their dizzying scent while her feet tangle in gnarled roots, slippery with freshly spilt blood. And there's a young man walking towards her, a terrible, terrible smile on his face, so inhumanly kind, and there's the cold touch of a knife, a pinprick of pain on the side of her neck, and the world explodes white. When her vision clears, a different young man is leaning over her, asking her if she's alright. She is. She isn't. She never will be. She's cursed from that very moment.)

She casts one more glance at Bakura, contemplating something this time. When they get out of here, she's going to find Subaru-san and ask him about the Sakurazukamori; a subject she's never touched after that first time and the vague and very generalised explanation she'd been given (Sakurazukamori. Onmyouji. Murderer.) because she'd been afraid of those memories. She wants to know everything. She wants to know how many there are. She wants to know if Bakura could be one of them because… Because he feels exactly like Sakurazuka Seishirou.

She looks at her friends, struggling beside her. She looks at them, slumped on the table where the other Yuugi sits, playing for their lives. With their lives. When this is all over…

She makes a decision.

She disappears.

Subaru comes to Domino to pick her up in person. It is the second time he meets her parents, the first one being two years ago in Tokyo when he returned the lost little girl to them. Two years and she's already grown so much he can barely recognise that frightened teenager in the one standing before him now. Only the yellow ribbon is unchanging. (In reality, it has already been replaced by a new one, identical in colour and width because the fabric tends to fray and tear, and the colour tends to fade.)

She introduces them, properly this time and they thank him for saving their daughters life, and then every semblance of normalcy she has hoped to retain shatters when she tells her parents what she's been doing all those times when she'd gone to supposedly meet her friends, when she'd supposedly stayed overnight at Anzu's place, and what she's planning to do from now on. Drop out of school, move to Tokyo, become an onmyouji. Simple, easy, straightforward.

Impossible.

Her parents look at her as if she's one of the monsters she has battled during this year. Her father in particular has a very colourful view on things. His gaze shifts between his daughter and Subaru. Back and forth, back and forth, eventually stopping on Miho.

"Whore," he spits, colour rising to his cheeks as he searches for words in his anger. "Under my roof! Lied to us! You and that- that-"

Miho feels Subaru stiffen beside her because he knows just how this looks from the side, has always known, electing to ignore it because he has no physical interest in her. But Miho is still too young and inexperienced to realise it. To look at it from the point of view of a grown up person. To her, things are simple and clear-cut. She frowns at the horrified expression on her mother's face, caused more by her father's words, rather than what she has just learned about her daughter's secret activities.

"We're helping people," she says, stricken at the reception, at the fact that they don't seem to understand. She turns to the parent that hasn't yet said a thing. "Mom, we're…"

"Out!" her father snarls, pointing at the door and glaring at Subaru. "Out of my house, you-"

"Dad!" Miho shrieks, terrified at how wrong this is going. Her father is advancing on Subaru, about to throw him out himself because the young man hasn't yielded an inch, and her world is tilting.

"Quiet, you whore!" He changes direction halfway and raises his arm to strike her, guided by raw anger. "Is this how we raised you? Is this how-"

He doesn't get to finish because she lashes out without thinking. It's a defensive ofuda, but it has enough power to throw him back across the room. He makes an odd squawking sound as his feet lose contact with the floor and his eyes widen almost comically when he lifts up and slams against the wall between the windows, then falls down, knocking over the TV and breaking it. She would laugh if his words hadn't just shattered her world. Her mother backs away from her, terrified. Miho is about to follow up the first ofuda with another one, but Subaru lays his hand on her shoulder.

"Don't." His voice is low, his tone – nondescript. It's hard to tell what he's thinking.

Miho straightens her back, squares her shoulders and announces to the room that has grown deathly silent, "I'm leaving." She avoids looking at her parents as she crosses the living room to retrieve the bags she's packed beforehand.

Her stoic façade lasts all the way to the train station. It's only when they sit down to wait for the train that it breaks and she throws herself against him, dissolving in tears. After a moment's hesitation, he puts an arm around her shoulders and figures that his coat needed to be washed anyway. He feels an overwhelming urge for a smoke, but he abstains for her sake. They've left her home earlier than she had planned and they have to spend almost an hour waiting for the train. She calms down soon enough, but doesn't pull away, content to hide from the world in his coat. She's not yet strong enough to face the reality. He doesn't object.

When the train rolls in, she moves away from him and stands up without being prompted. "Sorry," she whispers, her voice scratchy from the tears. She keeps her head ducked low to avoid showing her blotchy face to other passengers.

"It's alright," Subaru says, taking off his coat, folding it up neatly and draping it over his arm. He picks up her heavier bags to carry them onto the train.

"Thank you," she says in a voice slightly louder, but still as raw.

They locate their seats and she slips into hers by the window, keeping her gaze on the scenery rushing by for the entire duration of the trip. During their transfer in Ueno, Miho's stomach growls and she blushes a bright red, sneaking a look to see if he heard that. He did. She'd planned on them having a nice, early dinner with her parents before they left, but with the way that conversation ended… That thought makes her stomach clench for an entirely different reason.

"There's an udon shop down the street where I live."

She nods, ducking her head again, suddenly worried about how her life is going to turn out, now that she is fairly certain that she'll never be able to return home. The tears threaten to well up again, but the trip into Tokyo takes only a few minutes and they're already getting off the train, and she has to stick close to Subaru, lest she gets swept away by the river of humans. He catches her arm and pulls her back just as they are getting pulled apart and she feels dizzy and lost. Tokyo is as much of a bright, colourful chaos as she remembers from her last visit. Even more so now. Fear creeps up her spine because somewhere in this city is a park where a sakura blooms out of season and kind smiles cut like razors. She doesn't even notice how she's clinging to his arm, but he doesn't mind and he doesn't object. It's safer that way.

His bare-bones apartment is somewhat of a letdown. Miho doesn't know what she expected, but the Spartan furniture and lack of anything even remotely resembling housekeeping are surprisingly mundane. If the slight rise of his eyebrows is an indication of anything, he appears to be amused at the look of disappointment on her face. While he sets her suitcases down in the hallway and hangs his coat up, she measures the hallway with her gaze, then takes a few tentative steps forwards to peek through the open door that leads to kitchen, leaving footprints in the layer of dust on the floor. He can tell there's dust because the underside of her white socks is no longer white. He frowns at that a little and shows her to the room at the end of the corridor – his late sister's room. The traces of a hasty and messy cleanup are the most prominent here. This room has more furniture, though it's all bare of personal details. She wonders which ones of her personal details she wants to put on display. Which ones won't make her remember the horrible fallout with her family? Which ones won't make her sob herself to sleep every night for however long it takes her to work up a shell of indifference? And she'd never managed to cook Honda a meal in the end for all his trouble.

"It's not much," he apologises without sounding apologetic.

She decides she needs to learn that tone of voice too. "It's perfect," she lies. A little white lie which he can see right through anyway. They call it common courtesy. She sets her bag down on the floor and turns on her heel, attempting her usual cheerful smile, complete with her head tilted to one side in a way she used to think made her look cute. She doesn't know what it makes her look like now. Her smile is a little too flat and her cheer quite subdued, and the way she's straining to feign happiness makes her look like the most desperate person in the world, but she's not an actress. She's not getting a prize for her performance. "That udon shop you mentioned?"

He nods, turning back to apartment door. He puts on a dark jacket that hasn't been touched since summer and relocates the contents of his white coat's pockets to the pockets of the jacket. It'll suffice, he decides. It's warm outside.

The nightlife is just picking up and the streets are full of teenagers and adults alike. For convenience's sake, he lets Miho hold on to his arm as they walk. Her gaze is racing all over the place, trying to take in all the details, all the lights and she several times almost runs headlong into people. His battle-trained reflexes save her from all the collisions before they can happen.

It's a short walk, not even ten minutes, but Miho already feels lost. And the old, lurking dread is back again. She feels it breathing behind her back like a monster. But no matter how many times she turns to glance over her shoulder, pretending that she's just studying one bright neon sign or another, she can't see anything other than a sea of people. She finds that even more terrifying for some reason. (But deep down she knows. In that sea, there is someone who has his eye on her. And now she's come to the place where it all began. What was she thinking? What was she…)

On their way back, she strolls beside Subaru in a more considerate manner. After her first taste of Tokyo – literal and metaphorical – she still doesn't feel at ease, but she's already met people who have treated her kindly. People who seem to know Subaru quite well. And she realises that they would. He's a regular there. And he seems to read her mind, in a very odd way.

"I'll show you around the district tomorrow."

"We'll have to pick up some groceries too, won't we?" she makes an educated guess at the contents of his fridge and pantry.

"Probably."

There's a silence for a full minute before she gathers the courage. Fishes it out of the depths of wherever it's been hiding, pulls it out by the ears and puts it all into one question. "Subaru-san?"

"Hm?"

That's all the acknowledgement she's going to get from him, so she quickly moves in front of him, forcing him to stop. And then, before the courage flees again, finishes it, "I'd like to complete the Sumeragi clan training program."

He just stands there, looking at her with an unreadable gaze, made even more obscured by the darkness and the shifting multi-coloured lights on the advertisement boards overhead. Time seems to slow down and stretch out between them and she can feel her courage slipping away with each second that takes two-three beats to pass.

Eventually, he nods. "Very well. We'll start in two weeks."

She soars at his words. Her face lights up and it's not just the gleam of the advertisements. She manages a whispered, "Thank you," even though she feels like singing loudly on the inside.

They're doing it backwards, he thinks. She's already fulfilled her first onmyouji mission and she's done so on limited knowledge and with limited abilities. He doesn't know what good undergoing the training will do for her; he needs to take her to Kyoto, to his grandmother, so she can assess her capabilities. She is, after all, more experienced in this. And she'll probably give him an earful for dragging the girl into a world which, originally, had no place for her. There's an almost-smile on his lips at this thought. He glances at Miho who walks beside him, keeping her back straight and her steps light, and at that yellow ribbon, colouring soon blue, soon pink under the neon lights, and he thinks that backwards might just work for her perfectly.


Lady Sumeragi passes away a few weeks after Miho's twenty-fifth birthday. Her burial ceremony is the first time she's seen Subaru in years. Ever since he won the battle against the only Sakurazukamori heir, in fact. That makes it… six years. (That long, really?) He's kept in touch, calling her once or twice a year, letting her know that he's still alive. He's exchanged his white coat for an all-black ensemble and he looks at her with mismatched eyes. One, the green-grey, is his own. The other, the brown one, is Sakurazuka Seishirou's. She doesn't ask why, though she would very much like to. She knows it's not her place.

After the burial is done, they find themselves alone in the Sumeragi estate. (Alone with all the ghosts, real and imaginary, that roam the vacant rooms.) They've exchanged the cursory greetings; he's congratulated her on her status as the 14th Sumeragi clan leader. (Not that there's much of a clan left to lead. Lady Sumeragi, the last living member, officially adopted her into the family and with no one else left to take the position of the leader...)

They sit in the garden, watching how the twilight slowly thickens, hiding details and obscuring shapes. Subaru is smoking, considerately sitting a good distance away from her, so that the light evening wind blows the smoke away from her. There's a stone ashtray shaped like a frog next to him, but he hasn't used it once. One would think that they would have plenty to talk about, so much to catch up with, but silence sits heavy between them like a predator, leering at them, daring them to break it.

She's grown. Nobody knows it better than Subaru does. After all, once she left Domino behind for good, she underwent extensive training that he oversaw and that changed her. He watched hew grow as an onmyouji, watched her abilities develop. (Watched her walk through the park where she'd almost died, choosing it as her first true onmyouji mission even though she'd already passed it more than a year ago, in a terribly twisted mimicry of Subaru's own first mission. But she gets it backwards, too. Unlike his case, hers doesn't lead to her getting almost killed. It's getting almost killed that leads her to her first mission. Ho wonders if there's a more roundabout way to go about it and suspects that there is. Life, fate, or destiny has a twisted sense of humour, he's come to find.) Watched the way his grandmother observed them together; saw the silent hope in her eyes and hadn't the heart to tell her what she already knew. What she suspected. Her silent hope wasn't meant to be.

He's grown distant. He's never been entirely there in the sense that he's never looked like he belonged anywhere. Regret clings to him like dust to a traveller's boots.

"Remember when I just started out?" Miho asks, breaking the silence because it feels like he's slipping away even when he's not moving. She doesn't specify whether that is supposed to refer to the first time she performed an exorcism, or the time when she started training under his guidance after leaving Domino for good. "My spellwork was so clumsy."

Smoke curls up lazily from the cigarette he hasn't lifted to his lips in a while.

"Proportionate to your knowledge at the time."

"I'm lucky you had enough patience to put up with me."

"You were a clever student."

"No, you were a great teacher."

And that ends that subject. There's nothing more to add.

He put her through the same year-long routine he underwent under his grandmother's watchful eye at the age of nine. He knows that, after he left her in the Sumeragi estate in Kyoto at the beginning of 1999 to keep her safe and out of all the Tokyo battles, his grandmother continued to teach her. It's quite clear how high of an opinion she had of Miho, to officially adopt her and give her their family name. (Or maybe she'd just foreseen the future and wanted someone to continue the Sumeragi line, even if that someone didn't have the Sumeragi blood.)

"That boy you had a crush on. Honda," he says at length in a voice stripped of all emotion.

Oh, so he did listen to her back then. She meets his gaze and doesn't turn away. She knows what he's asking. Knows why. She's heard the tale of Sumeragi and Sakurazukamori through the ages. She's heard the heavily edited tale of Subaru and Seishirou and she's read far too much in-between the lines. She knows she's not getting the full story. She knows why. She still hasn't mastered the tone of voice he uses, but she's getting closer to it every day. And so she says, finding the words far too easy to slip off her tongue, "It was in another life."

He studies her for a moment. She's pale. Her eyes are still an intense dark violet, almost black, though there's less emotion in them these days. Dark, traditional mourning robes. She's not as bright and cheerful as she used to be, not that it would befit a day such as this. A day meant for mourning. Only the yellow ribbon in her hair remains unchanging. Defying everything. Defying her new status. Their new status.

"It was," he agrees. States a fact that can't be changed. A clump of burning ash falls from the end of his cigarette and he absent-mindedly stomps on it even though the ground is damp and there's nothing that could catch on fire nearby.

"I'll vacate the house tomorrow." She changes subject, wishing she could read his mind. This age-old mansion is his. He's still the rightful heir, no matter what anyone or their dying will says.

He replies without much thinking, "Don't. It's yours." Emphasises that she's the heir of the estate and the name. By design, not by birth, and that's just as well. There's no one else to carry on the legacy since he doesn't qualify anymore.

She nods, feeling a surprising twinge of relief. And maybe because of her new status, or maybe the late Lady Sumeragi has passed her onmyouji powers on to her with her last breath, but she suddenly has a startlingly clear image in her head of a future unknown years ahead. Of the house dark and decrepit, and of Subaru sitting in the cobweb- and dust-filled room that used to be his own when he was a child. Sitting on a half-rotten mattress, a lit cigarette in hand and the smoke curling up while burning ash drifts down. Alone. Desolate. She has to keep the house alive for him. She has to. She can hear a disembodied girl's laughter in the air as she thinks that. Maybe it's in her head because Subaru doesn't react to it. She knows the Sumeragi estate has its ghosts. One ghost. Par for the course, really, Miho thinks snidely and doesn't regret the tone of her thoughts. After all, she's an onmyouji now. Of course it makes perfect sense for ghosts to flock to her. (And, yes, perhaps she should be more wary of her own thoughts now. There's no saying what they might accidentally do – if she really has inherited even the tiniest fraction of Lady Sumeragi's powers.)

Subaru gets up and turns to leave and just because it feels like something should be said here, she does. And wants to smack herself before the words are even properly out of her mouth.

"Don't be a stranger."

Because, really, Miho? Really? She scowls at herself in her mind. She's late. Years too late because he already is. He's become his own worst enemy. A Sakurazukamori. A murderer. And she's a Sumeragi heir now. They're enemies by nature and history, and tradition, and a hundred other notions in-between. And at the same time they're not. Because he's the Sumeragi heir and she's nobody. He saved her life from his predecessor once upon a time that, too, feels like it belongs in a different lifetime. Precedent dictates that it's her duty to hunt him down and kill him, but she looks at him and knows that she can't. Not now. Not yet. Maybe sometime in the future. Maybe never. God, she hopes it's never.

He doesn't respond. He pauses in his steps to look at her in that unreadable way he has. Then he leaves without a promise to ever return.

A part of her has hoped he would reply with something mocking. She really deserves it for that stupid parting remark. What was I thinking? She scowls at herself in her mind, then turns and walks into the room to handle the post-funeral cleanup. Her room is the last one she enters. Subconsciously she has been putting it off. It's full of ghosts of her own which she can't banish. They follow her no matter where she goes. They haunt her and amid all the spells she has learned over the years, there isn't one that could exorcise them.

There's a picture frame sitting beside the mirror on her small dresser. She stops beside it, caressing it with her gaze before reaching out to trace a line along Honda's jaw with her fingertip. Then she slowly, quietly, as if afraid to disturb a precious memory, turns the frame face down so he can't look at her. The gesture is light. Definite. Finite. Usually reserved for closing the eyes of a deceased person. (She has lost the count of times she's done that already.) That photo belongs in a different life. It belongs to a bright and cheerful girl with a yellow ribbon in her hair who thought the world was a wonderful place and having a boy with a crush on you was troublesome when that boy wasn't the one she had a crush on. (The ribbon they still have in common.)

The ghost of Sumeragi Hokuto gently rests her hand on her shoulder to tell her that it's going to be all right. Probably. Maybe. Miho raises her own hand to cover hers and looks at both their reflections in the mirror. She smiles and it's sad and apologetic, and Hokuto nods at her and returns the smile. It's the final acknowledgement. The last one. Her time is long since over and her precious twin brother has gone far beyond her reach already. Perhaps he's been unreachable since the first time he met Seishirou.

"Kai," Miho says, holding up two fingers, and the image in the mirror shatters.

(And oh, if only it would be as easy to release the past and the memories that lurk in her mind and torment her when she least wants it!) Once the white light has faded and she can see her own reflection again, she looks herself in the eyes and tries to tell herself that it's all going to be okay. The morning will come, and somebody will need an exorcist or a medium, or a curse to be broken. There's a new day waiting for her up ahead; new ghosts whispering at her from the corners. New souls needing saviour. (But in the end, who will save her? Who will release her soul because it already feels too heavy to be able to move on to the afterlife and she's not even thirty yet. She wonders what it must feel like for Subaru, then, who is eight years ahead of her and with a luggage greater than hers.)

She is Sumeragi Miho. Onmyouji. And somewhere in that stream of upcoming days there is a Sakurazukamori waiting for her to catch up.


So, the reference notes. (Uhhhh, I hope I don't have to explain bento, udon and gyuudon. xD)

- Every location, train station, flight, trip duration mentioned here exists exactly as described. Of course, they don't actually start in Domino City. Which… where exactly is Domino, right? Well, it took us a decade, but YGO 5D's actually tossed us a bone, hinting at where (Neo) Domino MIGHT be located. One (not 100% accurate) map, courtesy of Sherry LeBlanc, and we finally get to pinpoint a place that vaguely coincides with… Iwaki, Fukushima (courtesy of a livejournal member killyoudead; the post is here: playthedamncard-livejournal-com/1726148-html (replace all the dashes with dots), read it for the reasoning behind it/some additional details, which I won't quote here because this thing is way too long as it is without adding more to it). And that's where all the train rides start. The plane ride, however, starts in Fukushima, as Iwaki doesn't have an airport of its own. And… Subaru would actually be "closer" to Aomori, time-wise, because a flight from Kirishima (well, Kagoshima airport, actually) to Aomori takes 4 h 30 m because there's only a 1h 50m layover in Osaka. This flight would cost approximately $200 more though.

- Takizakura or Miharu Takizakura is a weeping higan/rosebud cherry in Japan. It's over 1000 years old, considered a national treasure, and is the most popular.

(Curiously enough, I chose Miharu as the destination because of the trip length and only when I went to check if there'd be an inn for them to stay the night did I learn the rest. I do so like the places TB/X fandom takes me. xD Kinda helps that it's seat in real-time Japan.)

- And now for the mantras used by Miho. Courtesy of another livejournal member jjblue1 who has compiled a Tokyo Babylon/X glossary, and a separate one for the spells used here: jjblue1-livejournal-com/269050-html. (replace dashes with dots) Everything is in Sanskrit unless otherwise stated.

On – the Japanese way of saying/transcribing the Sanskrit "Aum/Om" mantra. Used as an activation/focusing spell.

On Bazara Darma Kiri Sowaka – "Heart of the Great Compassion Mantra", to Bodhisattva Kannon, Goddess of Mercy. In Tokyo Babylon it is used to summon or seal away a spirit. This is the very first spell used in manga. It actually introduces Subaru.

On Maitareiya Sohaka – a prayer to Miroku Bosatsu/Maitreya Bodhisattva, the buddha who saves the world of the future. Subaru uses it to exorcise a spirit in Tokyo Babylon OAV1, so I jumped on that train too.

kai – release command, "解". Literally, "unravel/undo" in Japanese. The mentioned "raises two fingers" is the Pran mudra, which is supposed to be an, uh, a cure-all. xD You probably know this one by looks if you've seen any anime where something is being summoned: index and middle finger up, ring and little finger bent with thumb either folded over them or touching their tips. (Touching the tips ought to be the right way, btw.) Miho used this same mudra to cast a seal over the door of her apartment earlier in the story. (It's also listed as Kapitham/Kapitdham – a Hasta Mudra in Kathakali dance performance where the thumb folds over the ring and little finger. But there are only a few sources listing it as such and googling of it brings up images of a different mudra altogether. It's either India just being India with its abundant regional differences, or Internet being Internet with its contradicting information. Possibly a combination of both. Or maybe I just experienced a bad case of the Internet version of a leshii. Who, in Russian folklore, is a forest deity known for leading people astray.)

- The mentioned-in-passing construction site for the new West Domino metro is a vague prod at 5D's because they have a West Domino metro station in Satellite. Which, y'know, is an island post-Zero Reverse and had to be a coastal part of Domino prior to that - since Domino is a coastal city on the east side of the Honshu island. I take that to mean the city expanded and a new West Domino station was build deeper inland with the old one scaled down in importance and probably closed off eventually.

- Frankly, there were a lot more hidden hints and courtesy nods, but I lost track of them. And, I reckon, at this point you've had just about all the reading you can handle.