"You never heed my advice."
"Have some more wine." Abe no Seimei pushed the jar of wine toward his guest. "You've scarcely tasted a drop, and that's unlike you." His smile took the implied insult out of his words. He glanced at the sky, where the last colors of sunset were fading. "My, what a beautiful evening, don't you agree?"
Hiromasa waggled his finger at his friend. "I know what you're doing."
"Oh? And what is that?" Seimei cocked his head and waited. Hiromasa would have been reminded of a spaniel, except that Seimei so much more resembled a fox. "No, really, please go on; I'd like to know your thoughts."
"You're trying to distract me from what I was saying." His own candor surprised him.
"Here. I give you my complete attention." Seimei stared at him intently, eyebrows knitted, which made Hiromasa instantly uncomfortable. "Well?"
Hiromasa ignored the stare and pulled himself together. "If you'll remember, I asked you not to enter that accursed shrine. Did you listen? No. And then, then, Seimei, did I not beg you not to take on those three yokai by yourself, to let me help? After all, I do have some experience in fighting." Seimei coughed delicately behind his fan. Hiromasa sniffed. "I told you something bad would happen, and it did. Didn't you worry that you might be killed?"
"That would be a waste of time." Seimei put down the fan and rolled up his sleeve, exposing his bandaged upper arm, which yesterday had been ripped by a monster's fangs. "Why? Is death something that worries you?"
Caught off guard, Hiromasa choked on his wine. "I would face death with bravery, I'm sure."
"And humility as well, I'm certain of it," said Seimei, suppressing a smile. "Minamoto no Hiromasa would be brave and humble until the end."
"Thank you. Er, what?" As usual Hiromasa found himself several steps behind in their conversation. "This isn't about me, it's about you. If you were to die, the entire court would be distraught."
Seimei snorted. "Surely not."
"What do you mean? Your skills are invaluable, and you've saved them time after time, even the Emperor. Of course they'd regret your loss, even those who say horrible things about you." Oh dear, he was being unconscionably rude! He took another mouthful of wine in an attempt to stop talking, but the wine only lubricated his words, which flowed even faster. "I meant, it's just that you insist on facing such monstrous evil alone sometimes, and when I offer to help you prevent me from doing so, when I know I could be of assistance. My sword is ready, you know."
"So I've heard." Seimei raised an eyebrow. "At least that is what is whispered by the ladies of the court."
"Well, that is true, of course." Hiromasa puffed out his chest. "I am quite renowned as a…" He caught himself staring at Seimei's exposed skin, the musculature of his upper arm. "As a..." He turned away, his face blossoming with heat. "Please stop distracting me and listen to what I'm saying, Seimei. You could have been killed."
Seimei shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."
Really, the man could be quite exasperating! Hiromasa put down his wine cup and stood, shaking out his sleeves. It was full dusk now, and the first stars of evening were piercing through the darkening sky. A soft breeze stirred the garden, but Hiromasa felt the beginnings of autumn in the air. "You should go inside, Seimei."
"You've had a fever. In your condition you must be careful not to get a chill."
"'In my condition?'" Eyes crinkling with mirth, Seimei dropped both hands into his lap gracefully. "My dear Hiromasa, you're like a mother to me! Don't worry so much."
"I'm certain I'm not at all like your mother," retorted Hiromasa. "No doubt she had sharper teeth than I." He risked a glance to make sure he hadn't given offense. After all, mentioning that Seimei's mother might have been a kitsune was not a polite thing to do. But Seimei's expression had not changed. "I can't help worrying. Those yokai yesterday had horrible fangs! And deadly poison!"
Seimei regarded him warmly. "Hiromasa. Look," he said, unrolling the bandage from about his arm. His skin was pale and smooth. There was not the slightest scar there, no sign at all of injury. "There. See?"
Hiromasa blinked at the unblemished flesh. It had only been one day! "How did you…?"
"I told you not to worry."
"Well, I'm certainly glad you've healed. Nevertheless, Seimei, you have no idea how disturbing it was to watch you bleed."
"I'm sorry to have distressed you," Seimei's voice was sincere, but his eyes danced with amusement. "I'll try to do better in future." He wound the bandage into a ball and tossed it into the garden. A shikigami materialized out of nowhere in the shape of a bird, caught the bandage in its beak and flew away.
"Hmph," Hiromasa huffed. "I don't believe you take me seriously."
"Of course I do. You are an extremely serious person." The mockery was gentle, but Hiromasa was stung.
"I'm not. You know perfectly well I'm not." Wait— "That is, except when I am," he corrected. "As I am now. Being serious."
Seimei inclined his head. "I beg your pardon."
Hiromasa waved his hands in protest. "Oh, no, I'm not offended in the least—"
"A fortunate outcome, then."
Silence fell. The leaves rustled gently in the wind. "It's almost autumn." Hiromasa said. Something about the change in seasons made him profoundly sad, but he relished the emotion. Autumn stirred more than the leaves.
"Play for me." Seimei gestured for him to sit again. "Some melancholy music will suit the weather."
Hiromasa sat, flattered by the request, wondering yet again how Seimei seemed to know his thoughts. He withdrew the flute from his sleeve. "One song, and then you must take my advice about the chill."
"Perhaps I shall." Seimei smiled at him benignly. "Or perhaps not."
Hiromasa began to play.
He could barely see a stride ahead of himself.
The snow was not the picturesque kind of snow Hiromasa appreciated, the sort that fell gently like cherry blossoms, that inspired women to embroider winter scenes and men to compose poetry. No, this was an impenetrable blizzard, a thick covering blown sideways by a bitter wind. Hiromasa passed a hand over his face, wiping away the thick flakes that clung to his skin and caked his eyelashes, but it was a futile gesture; in a moment his face was covered again. Had anyone ever seen weather as appalling as this? Surely not. He pulled the makeshift cloak around him – in truth the quilt from his ill-fated carriage – and trudged on, nearly blinded.
The world around him was a uniform white and with a stab of alarm he realized he'd lost his sense of direction. He'd been headed home from a court function (where he'd spent most of the time defending Seimei to another onmyouji, a rotund blowhard named Masahide) when the ox pulling the carriage lost its footing on the icy road. The handlers had been unable to control it. The beast flailed in panic, bellowed loudly and suddenly pulled free, its yoke trailing behind as it ran away at a surprisingly fast pace. Unguided and listing badly, the carriage skidded into a tree, and came to a shuddering halt on its side in a ditch. Shaken but with no bones broken, Hiromasa had managed with some difficulty to climb out of the tangle of ruined screens, shards of wood and broken wheel spokes, and when he'd done so he found his men had disappeared into the obscuring storm after the animal. He'd made himself hoarse calling for them. Well, let those scoundrels just try to reclaim their positions!
But his indignance did nothing to help his situation. Almost immediately the freezing cold began to seep through his court attire, even his thick cloak. He'd lost his hat somewhere, not that it would have given much protection. Hiromasa dragged the quilt from the shattered body of the carriage and wrapped himself in it, and after a painfully indecisive period headed on in the direction he'd been going, though to be honest he really had no idea where he was because he'd been huddled down in his seat, the screens pulled down against the wind.
By now the cold had begun to numb him; he must hurry, for false warmth, lethargy and death from freezing could overtake one suddenly. Determinedly he set his jaw and trudged on, but the hem of his garments dragged in the snow, and his short boots kept filling with icy slush. His feet soon ceased to have any feeling at all. Each stride became more difficult than the last.
A gust of wind blew the snow aside for a moment; he glimpsed a wall ahead to his left, and lurched in that direction until his hand connected with it. A wall meant a building, and a building meant shelter. But it was so cursedly exhausting to keep going! Perhaps he should just sit here by the wall awhile and wait for the storm to pass...
He caught himself drifting dangerously toward sleep. He leaned into the wind, his ungloved hand sliding along the icy wall.
After an incalculable time his hand met nothingness. The wall fell away and Hiromasa tripped and nearly toppled through an open gate. A waft of air filled his nostrils...was that the scent of peonies? Surely none could survive in this weather. Stranger still, though the snow still fell, inside the gate there was no blizzard, but instead the picturesque snowfall of embroidery and poetry. Most unusual of all, a butterfly fluttered past his eyes, pausing as if to stare him in the face. How odd, how very odd, thought Hiromasa, with what remained of his senses. Perhaps he really was dying of the cold. If this was what death was like, warmth and beauty and butterflies, then Death was kind. And yet, he'd died before, or so he'd been told by Seimei, who'd been there, and that time he'd seen nothing at all.
It all really was most curious, and too much for him to bear. Hiromasa's legs gave way and he collapsed onto the soft white ground in a jumble of sodden robes, his thoughts drifting away like the falling snow.
He was still lying down, though the storm had disappeared and he was inside a dimly-lit room. There was a brazier burning nearby but despite it Hiromasa was cold, so very cold. Beneath him was some sort of bedding, but whether it was fabric or fur he could not tell for certain. Sensation eluded him; sometimes it seemed he hovered above the bedding, not touching it at all, and sometimes he thought he was swaddled in it. In the moments in which he achieved consciousness he felt disconnected from himself, noting distantly how his teeth chattered, how from time to time his skin crawled as if caressed by ghostly fingers. Then he'd sink again into blackness and sense nothing for a while.
Was he awake or dreaming? Nearby someone was chanting, but sometimes the words were in his ear in the softest whisper, sometimes buzzing inside his head like a thousand bees. Whatever the words were, he could not understand their meaning. Once he thought he awoke in a circle of blue flames, and once he was covered in folded pieces of paper. Then someone was holding his hand, the one he'd used to guide himself along the icy wall. The hands chafed his cold one slowly until feeling began to return like the stabbing of hot needles.
The needles abated. Hiromasa opened his eyes.
He was lying naked but for his loincloth. His robes – even his under robe – had disappeared, but despite an innate respect for propriety, despite the unseemliness of nudity, in his altered state Hiromasa felt no embarrassment. His skin had a bluish cast to it and there were symbols and characters written across his chest in delicate black brush strokes. He still heard words being chanted, and another blink of his heavy lids revealed that the hands holding his were long and graceful, and were connected to sinewy arms beneath rolled up sleeves. The sleeves in question belonged to a person carelessly dressed only in an under-robe, outer layers draped over his shoulders. Long hair fell over the person's face as he continued to intone strange words, but what Hiromasa could see of that face was lined with concentration. A very familiar face, it was, if only he could connect a name to it—
The mists cleared. Of course. Hiromasa would know that face anywhere, even if he were frozen stiff or already dead. "Seimei," he tried to say, but his lips would not obey.
"Hiromasa." Seimei shook his head so his hair fell into place over one shoulder. "How nice of you to drop in. And on such an inauspicious day for travel." His words were light, but there was a heaviness about him.
"Quiet, Hiromasa." Seimei dropped his hand. His mouth was taut, his expression perplexed. "My spells are… not behaving properly. You are still in danger." He stared for a moment at Hiromasa shivering beside him, his eyes fixing on the place over Hiromasa's heart. Suddenly he shrugged his outer gowns off onto the floor and moved, one thigh sliding over Hiromasa's until he braced him on both sides. The sash of Seimei's remaining garment untied itself, leaving the slender lines of his body exposed as he reached out with a hand and made a sign. A quilt that had been folded at the end of the sleeping mat flew into the air to blanket them both as he reclined on top of the startled Hiromasa, covering him top to toe with his own body. His discarded robes followed, slithering up from the floor one by one to pile on top of them.
Hiromasa's sluggish brain struggled to make sense of what was happening. He'd never before been this close to Seimei, whose face now hovered but inches from his. Warmth radiated from the body above into Hiromasa's icy flesh, and though he was still confused by this turn of events, a lassitude was overtaking him, like that he'd felt in the courtyard. "Am I dying?" he wondered aloud.
"I won't allow it," Seimei murmured, tangling their legs to bring them closer together. He put a hand over Hiromasa's heart. "Sleep."
"All right." Hiromasa yawned. Seimei's incantations began again. Hiromasa thought he heard Seimei say "release him!" but lulled by the heat growing in his chest, he fell asleep.
His body was tingling. No, more than that, there was a definite sensation radiating from the center of his being. Very pleasant, that was.
The blanket covering him was surprisingly heavy. Then the blanket shifted and warm breath brushed his cheek. "Hiromasa," whispered the blanket.
Oh yes, of course, how foolish, not a blanket, but Seimei.
Hiromasa opened his eyes. Hair scented with perfume fanned out to cover his neck and chest, and arms cradled his torso. Further down, legs touched his and in the center of his being— yes, there it was again, that jolt of desire.
"I think…I'm beginning to feel something."
Seimei chuckled softly, raising the fine hairs on Hiromasa's neck. "That's encouraging."
"Was I dead?"
Hiromasa wriggled his body, relishing the return of feeling. The wriggling did something more; his manhood came in contact with something both smooth and hard, that for a moment wriggled back before stopping abruptly.
Apparently sometime during his sleep Hiromasa had managed to lose his undergarments…
…and so had Seimei.
…and so had Seimei.
What did it mean?
"Oh," Hiromasa gasped, as he felt himself swell in response to the contact. His face colored with embarrassment. "Seimei, I do apologize, but I must warn you that if you continue—"
"Hiromasa," interrupted Seimei. "don't concern yourself." He started to rise. And then quite suddenly he paused, as if coming to a decision. He slid slowly back between Hiromasa's legs, stoking another flare of desire in Hiromasa's loins. To his surprise and pleasure Seimei began anew to rub their lower bodies together. As Hiromasa's excitement grew, his own thrashing became wilder, which only served to increase the friction of skin against skin. The result was predictable and of embarrassingly short duration. It took but a few more strokes before Hiromasa gasped and spent himself.
He lay there, stunned by what had occurred, only partially aware of Seimei standing up and quickly donning his robe. Seimei's face was unreadable, though he looked tired, and he regarded Hiromasa, weighing his words. "I apologize," he said at last, "for my forwardness." His lips closed. He tightened the tie of his robe, but not before Hiromasa caught a glimpse that told him Seimei was still aroused.
That would not do; as exhausted as he was himself, Hiromasa was more considerate than to leave a bed partner unfulfilled. "Seimei, come back. Come here."
"No. Rest now."
There must have been a spell in those words, because Hiromasa sank back against the silk and fell asleep immediately.
He awoke feeling refreshed, quite warm in the tangle of quilts and robes under which he lay. He stretched, feeling soreness in his limbs, and turned to reach for Seimei, but found himself alone. The winter sun was wan, but bright enough for him to witness his damaged clothes hanging in the air as invisible hands sewed them up with needle and thread.
The wall hangings were familiar; he was indeed in Seimei's chambers. So what had occurred in the night had been real. Or had it? Was it just his own wishes that had fashioned themselves into a vivid dream?
He turned away from the sun-splashed window, toward the opposite corner of the room. Seimei was seated there by the brazier, reading a scroll, fully dressed with his hair neatly arranged in its usual topknot.
"Good, er…" He found himself blushing again. Damn his unruly countenance. It was not his way to be embarrassed the morning after a liaison, but this was not a liaison. It was…it had been…what was it?
"Er," he stammered again. "Um."
"It wasn't just the storm," Seimei said, completely ignoring his discomfiture. "It was a demon that made the storm so violent. The squall was only around you."
"Just around me? Good heavens, why?"
"I don't suppose you've slept with a snow goddess?"
"Seimei, are there such things?"
"Insulted a waterfall? Cursed the wind?"
"Everyone curses the wind."
"Hm. And when you were at court, you didn't happen to run afoul of Masahide, did you?"
Hiromasa huffed. "That pompous ass. He was full of insults about you, and I gave him a piece of my mind. I told him he was nothing but a talentless blob of fat!" At Seimei's raised eyebrows, he added, "Well, he deserved it!"
"No doubt he did. And no doubt it was he who sent that squall after you in the shape of a demon. He is a fatuous fool, but his particular strength is influencing the weather. No doubt he attacked you as a warning to me."
"To you? I was the one he tried to kill."
"Don't be disingenuous, Hiromasa. It doesn't suit you."
Hiromasa shook his head, unclear of what Seimei meant. "Well, Masahide may be strong, but you defeated him."
"Not easily. His demon was persistent."
"Come now. You are a far greater yin-yang master than he."
Seimei peered at the scroll as if it were the most fascinating document ever written. He didn't answer for what seemed an eternity. Hiromasa could stand it no longer. "Seimei?"
Still looking at the scroll, Seimei answered. "I may have been…distracted somewhat."
"Distracted? You, Seimei? But you are never distracted! Why—"
"Hiromasa." Seimei sighed. "Let us just agree that I was distracted. In the end I was successful, even if I had to resort to more direct means to save your life."
Hiromasa was silent for quite a while. "And the rest of it," he said," after your spells and chanting – what happened then, what we did then, was that just part of the 'direct means?' Was that necessary to save me?" The thought that that was all it had been was somehow disheartening.
Seimei did nothing to dispel his dismay. "Everything is necessary, for one reason or another. Leave it at that. Stay in bed a while longer." He rose effortlessly to his feet. "I'll have your morning rice sent to you." And with that he departed, nearly silent but for the soft whisper of his robes.
In the afternoon two shikigami appeared and bathed Hiromasa, then dressed him in tasteful but simple clothes, for there was no reason to wear his court attire in Seimei's rather unusual household. He regarded himself favorably in a mirror and went to seek his host. But he was informed the onmyouji had gone out to attend to business.
Disappointed, Hiromasa decided to see for himself what Seimei's garden looked like with its winter coating. But magic thwarted his attempts to go out into the winter air or even to breathe it; window shades rolled down and would not rise, and every time he approached a door the house seemed to reconfigure itself, leaving Hiromasa facing nothing but a blank wall. It was perplexing and frustrating. So in the end he returned to the sleeping chamber and sat playing his flute. He'd assumed it was lost forever in the snow, but it was returned to him by the fairest, most ethereal of Seimei's shikigami, who smiled as she knelt to hand it to him. Her mission complete, she turned into a fan and tumbled to the floor. Hiromasa contemplated opening the fan to see if he could summon the maiden, but he was wary of interfering with magic.
He managed to pull aside one of the window screens a sliver and saw that flowers still bloomed in Seimei's snow-covered garden. The vivid colors against the bright white moved him to play a new tune, one he invented on the spot. One tune led to another, and in this way he passed the rest of the day, dozing from time to time as sunlight turned to dusk.
Evening came, and so did the evening rice, but still there was no sign of Seimei. Hiromasa became bored, despite the remarkable antics of Seimei's magical retainers, who appeared now and then to tidy the room, or comb out his hair, or dance as he played the flute. Finally in the late hours of the day Seimei returned.
"I trust you had a restful day, Hiromasa." He lowered himself to sit on a small cushion.
Hiromasa, feeling strangely put out, said tersely, "I hope your business was successful." He was aware of the petulant note in his voice.
"Very. I've spoken with Masahide. He sends his apologies for any inconvenience he caused you." A slight emphasis on "spoken" implied that more than words had been exchanged by the two onmyouji.
The emphasis was lost on Hiromasa. "Hmph. As if freezing to death were merely an inconvenience."
"You weren't dead."
"Still, you had to use extreme measures."
"I believe I said they were direct measures."
"Very direct. In fact, Seimei—" Hiromasa turned to face him squarely, "I don't believe they were part of a life-saving charm."
Seimei flicked open his fan. "Some cases require special attention."
"Please stop, Seimei. You say things but you don't answer me." Hiromasa knelt before him and put a hand over the one with which Seimei held the fan. Slowly he pushed it down, until all of Seimei's face was revealed. "What was that you did last night?"
"I had to wrestle the demon away from your chest, Hiromasa."
"No, after that. When I woke up. Were you still saving my life or were you sharing your bed with me? Was it the act of a yin-yang master or of a lover?"
"Perhaps one. Perhaps the other." Seimei said.
Seimei's lips turned up slightly.
Hiromasa straightened to his full height, took a breath and jumped in before he could think better of it. "In that case, will you come to bed, Seimei? You pleasured me, but you— oh, just come to bed, Seimei! Let me return the favor."
"You needn't feel obligated."
"Obligated! How can you think—! It would be my pleasure, too!"
"Hiromasa," sighed Seimei, looking up at him, "is this how you woo your women? If so, let me tell you, it's very awkward."
"You're not one of my women."
"No," said Seimei. "I am not." He stood, facing Hiromasa nearly nose to nose. His voice dropped to a throaty whisper. "Take care, Hiromasa. Expending all your yang energy in masculine posturing— you may find yourself out of balance. Unless, of course, you are corrected." He dropped his eyes, and then looked up at Hiromasa through his lashes, a gesture so boldly seductive that Hiromasa's mouth dropped open.
"Are you…"His voice caught in his throat so he cleared it and tried again, this time with more strength. "Are you suggesting you can correct me?"
Seimei's lips quirked into a grin, one that was sly and dangerous and utterly feral. "What do you think?"
"Yes, Seimei," he managed faintly. "I think yes."
The fox, thought Hiromasa with a thrill of alarm, as Seimei put out a hand and led him back to the sleeping mat, I'm to be devoured by the fox. This was not at all what he had imagined when he thought about taking Seimei to bed. No, indeed – he'd thought of the taking, not of being taken. The idea did not concern him as much as he thought it should.
If devoured he was to be, it was a most pleasant way to be consumed. What followed were bursts of sensation that dazzled him. Rubbing and sliding – oh yes, that had been pleasant indeed, but this time there was the heat of a hand upon him which was – oh my heavens! – so much better! Perhaps it should not have surprised him that Seimei possessed the skills of a talented courtesan; Hiromasa rose again and again to the verge of completion, only to be brought back to earth, desperate for more.
His eyes were clenched shut much of the time, but when he managed to open them he would catch glimpses of things that were quite fantastical and even more arousing: Seimei, indecently naked, kneeling before him…Seimei's lips grinning at him from around his erection… Seimei pushing aside Hiromasa's legs, his head disappearing beneath the many layers of silk, followed by the staggering sensation of a hot tongue at his entrance. He wanted to cry, No, no, surely not there! but it was hard to keep his wits, and Seimei did not seem put off in the least.
And then, then, there was the shocking but not unpleasant intrusion of a slippery digit into his entrance, as once again Seimei's mouth sank upon his erection. The finger moved slowly at first, then thrust faster, and then it was in concert with the movement of Seimei's lips. Hiromasa groaned and thrashed. That breaching finger moved again and this time brushed something so exquisitely sensitive that Hiromasa could no longer contain himself, but shouted and released.
When at last he returned to himself, he found Seimei licking the corners of his mouth, that same vulpine expression on his sharp-angled face.
Time passed in a delightful blur; whether it was but a few moments or a matter of hours, he could not say. At length Seimei pulled Hiromasa to him, until they rested back to front. Hiromasa sucked in his breath as Seimei's erection nudged his entrance. He was not used to being in this position, but Seimei's voice was liquid silk in his ear. "You said you wished to return the favor – may I take it now?" In reply he could only nod. "I will be gentle with you, Hiromasa."
How quickly he revived! Seimei pressed inside slowly, which wrenched a groan from Hiromasa's lips. It hurt, but it was a delicious ache, the more so as they continued. Seimei's lovemaking was both vigorous and considerate, and Hiromasa's desire crested anew under the skill of Seimei's hands and body. Had he been more in his wits he might have noticed how the two of them rose from the bedding, hovering above the ground as they neared climax. He came, stronger than before, just as Seimei tensed and gave a muffled cry into his neck. Only then did they fall softly down to the disarrayed quilts, as gently as snow fell on the cherry trees in Seimei's garden.
Later, much later, there was wine.
Hiromasa stayed three days, during which they scarcely left the sleeping chamber.
They fell into a routine not unlike their previous friendship, but with the added pleasures of the bed chamber. Just as had been done in the past, Seimei invited him along on his exorcisms and Hiromasa tried to help. When not on a case Seimei came to court as little as possible, and when he did so he continued on his own path, never caring if he bruised the sensibilities of those nobles he found ridiculous. Hiromasa as always was slightly shocked at Seimei's outré behavior, but now he felt even more obligated to defend his friend's reputation. He had a certain pride in knowing that Seimei was his, and his alone.
They did not discuss the change that had occurred between them.
The court, however, took notice. While Seimei was absolutely unreadable on matters of the heart, discretion was hardly one of Hiromasa's strongest suits. Seimei did not demand that he stop seeing women, and in public he continued to lavish attention upon the young (and not so young) ladies of the court. But as time went by his flirtations became perfunctory. The court gossiped and speculated about this, drawing the correct conclusion about the two men. The ladies, sighing over Hiromasa, were caught between disappointment and titillation.
For once in his life Hiromasa had no interest in what they thought of him, nor had he much desire to spend time among his fellow nobles, and went to court only long enough to perform his required duties. As winter gave way to spring, he and Seimei spent most evenings on the veranda in pleasant, slightly inebriated companionship, listening to the soft spring rain or Hiromasa's flute, or discussing the colors in the garden or Mitsumushi's antics or their latest adventures with demons and yokai. After a time Seimei would close his fan, and offer his hand, and Hiromasa would put down his flute or bowl of wine and follow Seimei to the privacy of his chambers.
The unspoken nature of the arrangements stood in sharp contrast to their lovemaking. Seimei was all fierceness and abandon, unfettered from the distant formality he observed elsewhere. Hiromasa met Seimei's eagerness with enthusiasm of his own, either offering his own body or taking pleasure in Seimei's in a direct and unabashed manner. Whichever of them submitted to the other mattered not at all, and whatever they were up to, the sounds emanating from the chamber would have made any normal retainers blush. Fortunately Seimei's shikigami had no sensibilities to offend.
But on some occasions Seimei would ignore his wilder nature and lie silently, his hair unbound and splayed over the silk of the bedding, the ties to his clothing loosened, one knee bent in invitation. No words were needed then either, as Hiromasa claimed his lover's body face to face. He would try at first to be gentle, though his passion eventually swept up both of them until Seimei threw his head back, the cords of his neck tensing, and sweat ran freely down Hiromasa's sides. He liked looking into Seimei's face when it was suffused with passion, when Seimei looked at him with human eyes, rather than those of a magical being. Those were the times Hiromasa liked best, because they seemed less like sex and more like—
No. He never said the word, and tried to put it from his mind. Hiromasa had never prided himself on his wits, but he knew enough to see the bond between them, seemingly strong, was fragile, too, and might easily be broken if he spoke of love.
"Why are you so reticent?" They were on the veranda again, well into a jar of wine. Hiromasa felt the romance of the evening fill his breast. "You won't let me write poetry to you, or compose a song in your honor. Why not?"
Seimei fanned himself lazily. "Poetry is an affectation. Music should be free of connection to an individual."
"But I want you to know how I feel about—"
The fan snapped shut. "Don't."
"Why not?" He knew he must appear like a begging lapdog.
"Hiromasa," Seimei sighed, a long-suffering look on his face. "I am far older than you."
"What does that have to do with anything? If it doesn't bother me, it shouldn't bother you. So you've taken a younger lover. That's nothing to fret about." He grinned. "I think you are to be congratulated."
"I think you have a high opinion of yourself."
"Perhaps," Hiromasa said, perfectly mimicking Seimei's intonation. "Perhaps not."
"And perhaps I'll send some yokai after you. Look at the clouds over the moon," Seimei said distinctly, changing the subject. "We'll have rain tomorrow."
Hiromasa gave up. There was no use pressing Seimei further.
It happened so suddenly that Hiromasa hadn't time to think about it.
All he knew was that that when the ghostly archer appeared, it pulled back the arrow in its bow and turned toward Seimei, who knelt with his eyes closed within the circle of candles, whispering an incantation.
Hiromasa opened his mouth to shout a warning, but instead of doing so he leapt forward just as the archer released the arrow. Hiromasa felt a searing burn across his ribs. He heard Seimei stop mid chant and shout something, and then came a flash of fire that took the archer away in a bolt of lightning. Hiromasa fell heavily as a blur of color moved beside him. He landed hard, just missing Seimei's arms.
"Thoughtless!" Seimei roared, gathering him close. "Thoughtless, Hiromasa!" His robes were stained with blood, and it took Hiromasa a moment to realize it was his blood, not Seimei's. He thought the angry rebuke unduly sharp under the circumstances, but the moment Seimei pressed down on his side where the arrow had gouged him he fainted dead away.
He was not senseless for long. Before they even set out for home his ribs had been bandaged and he'd been given a special tea to begin the healing. All things considered, Hiromasa didn't feel terrible; in fact, he felt heroic. After all, he'd saved Seimei from certain death.
He reclined in the ox-cart, his head in Seimei's lap. Above him Seimei's face was unreadable, or maybe it was just the angle at which he lay. He made several attempts to start a conversation, but between the ache in his side and Seimei's stony countenance, they rode mostly in silence. He nodded off for a time; when he was awakened, it was by his own retainers. He had been brought to his home, not Seimei's.
Seimei himself had left, presumably for his own residence. Hiromasa could not make sense of this development; perhaps Seimei had felt Hiromasa's retainers could provide better care, but that was patently ridiculous! Besides, he wasn't that injured. He'd recover in no time.
And so he did. A day later Hiromasa felt well enough to sit in his garden, where he waited for Seimei to visit him. When he had not arrived by evening, he took brush to paper (his best lavender-scented paper) and wrote,
Spring, summer, autumn, winter,
Your sun shines warmly—
Ugh. Terrible. He crumpled the expensive paper, thought a moment, and began again:
A man with one shoe
Lacks the other—
No. What was he thinking? Shoes? Besides, Seimei did not want poetry.
He picked up a third page and wrote simply,
Recoiling at the desperation those two words bore, Hiromasa nevertheless tied up the paper before he could change his mind. He gave it to a messenger and proceeded to fall into a blue funk that lasted throughout the night.
The next morning his torso was still stiff, but he felt well. The summer sun improved his mood, as did a hearty morning meal. Surely Seimei would come visit him today…and who knew? Perhaps a gentle bout of lovemaking would ensue. They had never made love in Hiromasa's house, and the thought of scandalizing his servants was quite titillating. In fact—
"My lord, there is a letter for you." His messenger bowed and handed him a beautifully folded paper, pale ivory and expensively thick. He dismissed the man and slowly opened Seimei's message. A small charm fell into his hand.
My dear Hiromasa, the letter said,
You are a good man and a brave one.
Please accept my admiration
and this charm, which will aid your recovery.
Hiromasa blinked. That was it? He turned the paper over, but that was all Seimei had written. He opened his hand and saw in it a fox's head, forged of silver.
He looked again at the paper, and before his eyes another line of careful brushstrokes appeared on the page:
Endings are always difficult.
Abe no Seimei
The air rushed out of the room.
Hiromasa stood up, tottered, and fell back down to his knees. He felt dizzy, and his mouth went completely dry.
What had he missed? Why had this happened? Desperately he cast his mind back to the last time they had been intimate – nothing had been different; if anything, their bodies had been more in tune than ever. Afterwards they'd lain there for some time, Seimei stroking Hiromasa's hair. It had felt particularly romantic. And from their disordered bed they'd gone forth in response to the noble's request to exorcise a demon, and found instead that phantom archer, whose nefarious plans he, Hiromasa, had thwarted.
Hiromasa shook his head, trying to think of anything, anything, that would have prompted such a response from Seimei, but nothing came to mind. He summoned his servant and dressed, aware of the ache in his side and the ache in his heart. He tucked the charm into his sash, over his wound.
He was too impatient to wait for the ox-cart, and so he took a horse, against his man-servant's worried advice that it would be too rough for a man in his condition.
In his condition…he had a flash, a memory of Seimei mockingly repeating those words a day after being attacked by yokai. My dear friend, you're like a mother to me. Don't worry.
I don't want to be your mother, Seimei, Hiromasa thought bitterly. And I won't be just another memory for you, either.
He climbed painfully astride the horse and galloped in the direction of Seimei's house. Every hoof beat on the uneven terrain resonated in his injured side, and he ignored the warm ooze of blood that began to seep through his bandages. He had but one goal in mind as he sped out of the city gates, and nothing would stand in his way.
Seimei's gate as always stood open, and his unkempt courtyard bloomed with a multitude of flowers, each dispersing its singular perfume. The air seemed thick; at least Hiromasa found it hard to breathe as he slid off his horse and clung for a moment to the saddle. He left the animal without bothering to tie it up.
Hiromasa shuffled down the winding path and worked his way through the tangle of flowers and bushes to the house. He did not bother with protocol, waving away the shikigami and staggering mutely through the shaded rooms until he reached the veranda that looked out on the garden. And there he saw the familiar white-clad figure reclining – Seimei, in his usual place, his favorite fan in one hand, a cup of wine in the other. Seimei, as he always was, and always had been. With heavy steps Hiromasa crossed the veranda and stood swaying.
Seimei looked up, expressionless.
"You didn't come," Hiromasa said miserably. "You didn't come, Seimei."
"Sit down, Hiromasa." Seimei's voice also held no expression, which only served to anger Hiromasa.
"I don't want to sit."
"Sit. You're bleeding."
"I don't care." And he didn't; he didn't care if all his life's blood rushed out to leave a Hiromasa-shaped stain on Seimei's porch. In fact, maybe that would be a good idea, something for Seimei to see every day, something he couldn't avoid—
"Hiromasa," Seimei said, his voice gentling. "Please sit down, before you fall over."
Hiromasa could see the wisdom in that, as his head was buzzing and he heard a rush like a waterfall in his ears. He sat. "Seimei," he said. "Why?"
"All things end." Seimei studied his garden with a distant stare. "All things, Hiromasa."
"But why? Why now? What did I do?" He turned toward Seimei. He felt very tired and still very angry, but most of all he felt desperately, horribly afraid. "Tell me what I did and I'll fix it!"
Seimei dropped his head so Hiromasa could no longer see his eyes. "You've done nothing. Nothing but be who you are."
He grabbed a fistful of Seimei's robes and hung on. "Then I'll change! I'll be different! I can do that! Just tell me what you want!"
Seimei's head came up, his eyes piercing. "Can you stop being human, Hiromasa?"
"I don't—what do you mean?" The air was very thick now, and he gulped down a heaving breath. "How do I stop being human?"
"You don't." Seimei put his hands over his, gently extricating his robe from Hiromasa's white-knuckled grip. "You don't. You're human, and you get hurt, and you bleed." He reached over to touch the bloody patch over Hiromasa's wound. "You bleed so easily."
"What are you talking about? You bleed too, Seimei. You've nearly died. I've been there to see it."
"Humans are so fragile. They grow old. They die."
"Age, again?" Hiromasa flailed his arms in frustration. "You're not immortal, Seimei. You know that!"
"No, but I'm not the same as you. Remember the yokai, the poison? Can you tell me you'd survive it without a scratch?" He shoved up his sleeve to show his upper arm. "Remember? If that yokai had bitten you instead, Hiromasa, do you think you'd have lived more than a few moments?"
"You're being ridiculous. And as for this – it is just a scratch. It'll heal. I'm scarcely hurt at all."
"Because I was there to save you."
"Save me? I saved you, Seimei!"
"Oh, Hiromasa. You're being foolish." He looked up and smiled sadly. "Foolish, brave, good Hiromasa. One of these times you will die, and if it's because you threw yourself in front of me—"
"You're the foolish one, Seimei!" Hiromasa shouted. "I've already died, Seimei, twice, in fact, and you brought me back both times."
"And I could barely do it last time, Hiromasa!" Seimei unfolded himself and stood, turning away to lean against a pole. "You were dying and I couldn't cast the demon out because I was so distracted by the fear that you would no longer be in this world."
Hiromasa stared, remembering, My spells didn't work and I was distracted, and his own inability to understand. "That was why. You were afraid…to lose me."
Seimei nodded. "And when you survived, I was so happy, I made an error. I knew it was a mistake to take things further, but..."
"But I'm irresistible?"
At that, Seimei snorted a laugh. "And modest."
Hiromasa grunted as painfully, inelegantly, he swayed upright. "You know what I think, Seimei? You're not afraid for me, you're afraid for yourself. It's you you're protecting, not me."
"You're wrong. I can't be responsible—"
"Who asked you to be responsible?" Hiromasa heard the roaring in his ears again, but even stronger was the roaring inside his heart. He lurched forward, grabbing Seimei and turning him to face him. "Seimei. I know you think I am ridiculous, and thick—"
"You needn't protest, I know it's true. I am a foolish man, and sometimes I don't understand what's going on. But I can tell you here and now that I have never been as stupid as you are being now."
"You are a great man, Abe no Seimei, and your talents are many. You can kill demons and tell the future, and for all I know you can read my mind. But you can't read what's in your own heart, and what's there, inside your heart, is what you fear." It was a great many words for Hiromasa to string together in his current state; any minute now he might waver and fall, so onward he rushed. "You are…you are Seimei, and you may die or live or turn into a fox, for all I know. I'm only human, and I may bleed and even die. Or maybe we'll both live forever. Who can say?"
"Who can say." Seimei echoed faintly. "You mustn't believe in a fantasy. I look into the future, Hiromasa, and even I don't know what's true."
"We are true, Seimei. You and I. What else do we need?"
"What else?" Seimei drew in a sharp breath that caught in his throat like a sob. He covered his mouth and sagged against the post. "I am...more afraid than I have ever been in my life, Hiromasa. I don't know what to do."
"Oh, Seimei." Hiromasa embraced him. He could feel the rapid beating of Seimei's heart against his own, both thundering together. "Shall I tell you a secret? I never know what to do, and I'm always afraid. Everyone is! It's the way we are. It's human. You're just being human."
Seimei laughed softly in his ear, but his hands tightened in Hiromasa's robes. "I'm not sure that's a compliment."
"No, for you, I'm sure it's not." Hiromasa smiled against Seimei's cheek. "If it's of any comfort, I can tell you our future."
"Can you, Hiromasa?"
"Certainly." He released his hold, stepping back but still clinging to Seimei's shoulders. "First of all, I see us lying down, because I am feeling decidedly dizzy. Secondly, we will drink wine. Third, we will lie together – carefully – and enjoy each other. And finally, I see that I shall never let you go. You are mine, Seimei, and you will remain mine, whether you like it or not."
Seimei put back his head and laughed for some time. When the laughter stilled he looked at Hiromasa with such affection it took Hiromasa's remaining breath away. "So fierce! How can I fight against such a strong opponent?" He lifted a hand to touch Hiromasa's cheek. "All right. You win, Hiromasa. For now. As for tomorrow..." His eyes went distant, but only for a moment. "Never mind. Come," Seimei said, "we'll go inside."
Hiromasa sighed in relief. "Finally."
Seimei smiled and tilted his head to study Hiromasa appraisingly. "I knew from the first you were a good man, Minamoto no Hiromasa. But I see I must learn to be more wary of you. You have always had the eagerness of a puppy— now I see you've grown into a wolf."
Hiromasa inclined his head, absurdly pleased by the compliment. "And in the end, Seimei, the wolf always catches the fox."
"Does he?" Seimei smiled slyly and offered his hand to Hiromasa. "Perhaps. Perhaps he will."