As the last of the birds that formed the fluttering bridge that gave wings to her feet disappeared into the horizon, he knew once again the object of his affections had passed beyond his reach.
He followed Seimei back to his home, feet moving as if of their own accord. He couldn't rid himself of the image of her gentle smile as she had cupped his face in her hands and bid him farewell.
Hiromasa played his flute, staring into the garden unseeing, as Seimei and his shikigami prepared the sake.
"You are unsatisfied, Hiromasa?"
From her position among the flowers Mitsumushi repeated Seimei's question, her tone concerned.
Hiromasa shook his head. "Of course not. I am glad to have prevented a great evil from taking over Japan. It is just a pity Toriko could not remain."
"Hiromasa, you are far too quick to lose your heart to princesses," Seimei laughed.
Hiromasa shook his head again, surprised at Seimei's lack of perception. "I admired her greatly, and I am saddened I will no longer be able to hear her sweet voice. But my heart remains whole." And that was where his worry lay.
"Oh?" said Seimei. He raised his eyebrows. "Then perhaps it belongs to another."
Hiromasa laughed. "Seimei, you are ridiculous. Who else could my heart belong to?" He sighed again. "I worry that it has been broken too many times, and that is why I feel only sorrow, not regret. Seimei, you wouldn't really let me become a demon, would you?"
"No, Hiromasa," said Seimei, his intense gaze holding Hiromasa's eyes to his. "I would never let that happen."
The maiden was beautiful, although her gaze passed unseeing over the rest of the people in the square. Her lips were fine and red; her hair long and looked as soft as silk. She walked with elegance and purpose through the crowds. Hiromasa wondered what worry drew her thoughts from the world around her.
As she passed by, Hiromasa's attention was caught by the soft plink of a fastener falling from the maiden's elegant hair.
The maiden continued on her way unknowing, and he was bound to pick it up and hurry after her.
"Excuse me," he said. "You lost this." He held the fastener out to her.
"Oh," she said. She took the fastener from his hand and stared at it as if she didn't recognise it.
"From your hair," he added helpfully.
"Oh," she repeated. She raised her eyes to meet his. "Thank you...?"
"Hiromasa," he told her. "Minamoto no Hiromasa."
"Oh!" she said, her expression turning welcoming. "You are Lord Hiromasa? Is it true that you are a close of friend of Abe no Seimei?"
To his surprise, Hiromasa found himself unbothered by this diversion. But he was proud to be Seimei's friend, after all. "That is true."
She clasped her hands together. "Then... could you come to see me this evening? I cannot talk now, but I would ask you for something."
"By all means, lady."
"My name is Haruka," she said. "You can find my residence opposite the shrine with the fountain."
"I know it," said Hiromasa. "I will find you this evening, my lady."
His curiosity intense, when the appointed hour came Hiromasa presented himself at the front of the residence as requested. As he crossed the threshold, the world grew suddenly colder. He shivered as he recognised the presence of a spirit.
His brief hope that this might be a benevolent spirit vanished as the walls crept inwards and dark tentacles began to rise from the floorboards and reach for him. He yelped and stumbled on bare floor, sharp pain running up his knee as it connected with the floor.
Swallowing pride in favour of safety, Hiromasa picked himself up and fled for the safety of the street.
The world returned to normal, save for his frantically beating heart and the ache from his bruised knee.
"Lord Hiromasa!" cried Haruka, running out of the house. "I am so sorry. I had hoped that since you... But it seems I was wrong. I didn't mean for that to happen."
Hiromasa attempted to recover the shreds of his dignity. "Is that why you asked me to come by?"
Haruka nodded. "It is the same for many who visit me," she said. "They say they are attacked by something evil. I have asked the other onmyouji, but every time they exorcise the spirit, it returns within a month."
The reason for his invitation became clear. "And you wish for me to ask Seimei to come?" he asked eagerly.
She nodded twice and clasped her hands together. "Please. I cannot stand this much longer."
"I can ask, but I cannot guarantee he will agree! Abe no Seimei follows his own schedule." Hiromasa hesitated a moment. "Would you like to come with me to his home, or shall I invite him here?"
Haruka shuddered. "Please, ask him here. I would not like to visit an onmyouji's home. It must be a frightening place."
Hiromasa didn't think it so. Elsewhere in the city he might fear spirits and demons, but in Seimei's home he felt safe from all but Seimei's little jokes. Nothing would harm an onymouji's friend in an onmyouji's home.
"I will go to him tomorrow," promised Hiromasa.
"Thank you," she said, bowing. "Thank you."
"And what brings you here, Hiromasa?" Seimei drew a long breath in through his nose. "I sense the blush of a maiden's presence on you. A job, perhaps?"
Hiromasa nodded stiffly. "A haunting, or something of that effect. It attacks any who approach her home."
"And why does she ask you to come to me?"
"She says she has had the spirit exorcised, but it always returns," said Hiromasa. "All the other onmyouji failed. But they aren't as good as you."
Seimei snapped his fan open. "You will get nowhere by appealing to my vanity," said Seimei, smiling behind it. "Simply say you will it, Hiromasa, and I will come."
"I will it," said Hiromasa promptly. "I was frightened to feel its touch on me," he added, although the reason did not feel adequate, even to himself.
"Then I will come with you," said Seimei.
Hiromasa, expecting some protest, started in surprise. "You will?"
"Of course," said Seimei, rising. "Come. Take me to the lady's residence."
They travelled in amiable silence back through the walls of the city.
"You are Abe no Seimei?" asked Haruka, greeting them outside the residence.
Seimei inclined his head in greeting.
Haruka's eyes widened, and she took half a step back. Hiromasa glanced at Seimei, trying to see what Haruka had seen, but he could see nothing that would cause such fear. The familiar face showed nothing but polite interest, although experience told Hiromasa that Seimei noticed her fear and was amused by it.
Perhaps he truly is part fox, thought Hiromasa. The thought made him smile.
"I am called Haruka," babbled Haruka. "Welcome to my home."
"You say it happened as soon as you entered the house?" asked Seimei, turning to Hiromasa.
Hiromasa recomposed himself and nodded. "As soon as I crossed the threshold."
"Then let us enter."
Seimei watched in apparent fascination as the walls writhed and darkness poured from the cracks in the floorboards, then dismissed it with a few whispered words. "A warning. Not an attack."
"Is it gone?" asked Haruka.
Seimei shook his head. "I have frightened it, not defeated it." He glanced over his shoulder to where Haruka was hovering. "Does it attack all who visit you?"
"I don't think so. It hasn't ever attacked Mirai or Orihime, my friends."
"What of visitors to your father?"
Haruka shook her head. "Only... young males."
"Ah," said Seimei, placing a world of meaning into the single syllable. He muttered under his breath for a moment and made a sharp movement with his hand. "What room is towards the back of the house, third from the hallway?"
Haruka thought for a moment. "Why, that would be my bedroom."
"Take me there," said Seimei.
Haruka swallowed whatever objection she might have made under ordinary circumstances and led them through the house to the room Seimei had indicated.
Seimei threw out his arm as he entered the room behind Haruka, and Hiromasa stumbled as he drew to a quick stop to avoid running into it. Seimei's smile grew gentle. "Wait here, Hiromasa."
Haruka gave him a startled glance.
Seimei knelt on the floor in the centre of the room, carefully arranging his robes around him, and whispered to it for a moment. He held his hand over the floorboards and the wood creaked and moaned before it bent up to reach his hand, as no object made of wood should be able to bend, until there was a round hole in the floor.
"There are bones beneath the floor," said Seimei. "And a lost spirit attached to them. It has been here for longer than your life - I imagine the spirit watched you grow up and grew protective of you."
Haruka put a hand to her lips in surprise. "Oh!"
"Dig them from here and give him a proper burial, and he will bother you no more."
Haruka let out a sigh of relief. "Is that all?"
"Thank you," she breathed. "Oh, thank you so much."
Seimei gathered up his robes and led the way out of the house.
Hiromasa joined Seimei in travelling back to Seimei's home. It would be more convenient for him to return to his own home, since they were already within the city walls, but he found himself reluctant to give up Seimei's company so soon. Besides, he thought, it was surely now tradition to reflect on their cases over sake.
"But how did the spirit come to be buried under the house in the first place?" asked Hiromasa. "Why was it haunting Lady Haruka?"
Seimei shrugged. "It was an old spirit, but not ancient. Not the fault of any of the current residents of the house."
"But doesn't the spirit deserve justice?"
"Now? When there is none left to mourn him, nor none left to take the blame? There is only pain to be found down that route. Some mysteries are best left unsolved."
"Also, why wouldn't you let me enter the room after you?" asked Hiromasa, abandoning that line of questioning.
Seimei poured sake and offered it to Hiromasa with a steady hand. "There was the risk that the spirit would become angry and attack you," said Seimei. "You would not be able to defend yourself."
"But you were there," said Hiromasa. "You would protect me."
"Hm," said Seimei.
Silence reigned for a moment.
"I would rather you were not put in danger," said Seimei, at last.
"I don't mind," said Hiromasa promptly.
"Are you not frightened, Hiromasa?" asked Seimei, with a teasing smile.
"Well, yes, but..." How to explain what he was only just now coming to realise himself? "I would rather enjoy the victory than never take the risk." Watching Seimei at work was better than any sport.
"Is that so?" said Seimei, his smile turning secretive.
"Minamoto no Hiromasa?" asked the boy, bowing. Hiromasa returned the greeting sleepily. "I come from Lady Haruka. She asks you to come see her today. She said." The boy hesitated, a little uncertainly. "She said the spirits won't let them dig."
Hiromasa drew in a sharp breath, suddenly wide awake. "Send word to Abe no Seimei," he told the boy. "Tell him what you have just told me."
"The onmyouji?" said the boy, taking a step back.
"That will not be necessary, Hiromasa," came a familiar voice. Seimei smiled at the boy in greeting as he strode into the room.
"Seimei," breathed Hiromasa. "How did you—" He bit off the question, unfinished. "Never mind. Seimei is Seimei. But why did you come here first?"
"Are you not my partner?" asked Seimei, his eyes twinkling. "Come, Hiromasa."
Hiromasa felt joy uncurl deep within him, and he despaired of what the expression on his face must be like. Grinning like an idiot, he felt, could not be the most flattering look.
For his part, Seimei appeared to take no notice, which Hiromasa felt showed uncharacteristic restraint.
When they reached her residence, Haruka led them through the house to her room. "When my father tried to dig, he was flung backwards, away from the hole. When I tried, it took the spade right from my hands and threw it right through the wall."
"Oh?" said Seimei.
"We didn't like to try again after that," said Haruka. "Please, do something about this spirit. It's never attacked anybody like that before."
"It's defending itself," Hiromasa realised. "For a long, long time it has been here... it doesn't want to move on." He shook his head. "That is a sad story."
"Wait," said Seimei, as they reached the entrance to Haruka's room. Seimei drew back his sleeves and examined the hole in the paper thoughtfully. "I will enter alone. Hiromasa, if you would play your flute for me?"
Hiromasa retrieved his flute and brought it to his lips.
"What should I do?" asked Haruka.
"Wait here," said Seimei. He drew back the door and entered the room.
This time, the reaction was immediate. It seemed as if Seimei became entirely enveloped in darkness so thick and swift Hiromasa couldn't even see him.
The spirit was silent in its attacks, which somehow made the battle all the more frightening. Hiromasa's playing was all he could hear beyond the sound of Seimei's chanting, growing louder every moment that passed.
Seimei was flung from the darkness, stumbling to his knees onto the floorboards. He didn't even look at Hiromasa, placing a slip of paper on the floorboard where he knelt and throwing himself back into the swirling cloud of black.
Seimei repeated this action four times. By now, Hiromasa could recognise Seimei's five-pointed star in the pattern of his movements. He deeply admired the simple grace of Seimei's form - for all that this was a battle, he could have been dancing.
The black mist was starting to shift in form. It wavered between being nothing more than a wisp of smoke and a human figure.
Landing lightly on one foot, Seimei emerged from the dark cloud one final time. He breathed over his index finger, uttered a single word, and the cloud vanished.
In its place hung the spirit. Hiromasa blinked in surprise. Where he'd been imagining a grown man, the spirit instead resembled a young boy. The boy's gaze was fixed firmly on Haruka.
Haruka gasped and pushed past Hiromasa into the room. He stuttered in his playing. "Wait! Stop! I know him."
Seimei raised his eyebrows, but he didn't seem worried at the interruption. Hiromasa slowly brought down his flute.
Haruka walked slowly towards the spirit. She held out her palm in wonder. "When I was a child, I was often left alone. I had a friend - a friend nobody else could see. He looked like that." She held her palm up to the ghost and they touched fingers gently. "I thought he disappeared when I grew up."
"Children can often see spirits that adults can not," said Seimei. "Lady Haruka, please leave the room again."
"You can't kill him," she said, whirling to face Seimei. "You can't. Not now that I've found him again."
"He is already dead," said Seimei. "It is time for him to move on, before he becomes a demon. His anger and jealousy consumes him more the further you grow apart from him."
"Then I will stay with him," said Haruka firmly. "I will never leave this room again if it will keep him from turning into a demon."
"If you let him go, he will be at peace," said Seimei. "It would be a kindness."
"No!" cried Haruka. "If he leaves, then... I'll be alone again." A single tear rolled down her cheek.
Glancing at Seimei for permission first, Hiromasa stepped into the room. "Lady Haruka," he said gently. "You have friends now. You're not alone anymore."
"But I am," she protested. "They say I am cold... distant..."
"You won't need to fear your friends being attacked any more," Hiromasa continued, approaching her slowly. "If you let him stay, he would make you more alone. He would keep you only to himself."
Haruka shook her head desperately, but she let Hiromasa lead her from the room. He settled her in the receiving room and managed to attract the attention of the bravest of the servants to send for Haruka's friends.
It was several moments before Seimei rejoined them.
"It is finished," said Seimei. "He can be buried now and he will be at peace."
Haruka nodded in understanding, her hands clasped so tightly together her knuckles were white. "I want you to leave now."
Seimei bowed. "Very well."
Hiromasa followed Seimei out of Haruka's house and set out with him in the direction of home.
"You aren't staying with your lady?" asked Seimei. "She seemed like she would like for you to comfort her."
Hiromasa shook his head. "No. Although I am sorry to have caused her pain, her only interest in me was as a way to reach you. There is no connection between us." The truth of it startled him. He had felt no desire for the lady ever since Seimei's name first passed her lips.
They travelled in silence for a moment.
"Seimei," said Hiromasa. "She won't become a demon, will she?" Haruka's cry of despair haunted him still.
"Who can say? The human heart is fickle." Seimei shrugged.
"Was there nothing else we could do for her?"
"They were of two different worlds," said Seimei. "A romance between the living and the dead is a half-life for both. All we could do was ease his passage to the next world."
"Still..." said Hiromasa. "I wish I could have helped her more."
"Poor Hiromasa. I apologise for coming between you and Lady Haruka," said Seimei, gently teasing.
"Don't," said Hiromasa. "I am happy to be your friend." The words hung in the air for a moment, and he wondered if he had chosen them badly. His poet's mind niggled at the sentence, sure that one of the words was wrong.
"Then we will drink to another day when Hiromasa's heart remains whole," laughed Seimei.
The summer was at last drawing to a close; the cicadas growing silent and the trees starting to whisper of the approach of autumn. Hiromasa watched Mitsumushi in the garden, flitting between the flowers in a way that should provide the clue as to her nature to any who watched.
"And what brings Hiromasa to me this time?" asked Seimei, pouring sake.
"Nothing," said Hiromasa, turning away from the garden. It wasn't Mitsumushi he had come to see, but he found his gaze drawn to distractions. His heart clamoured for his attention and his breath caught in his throat, but he could only utter meaningless pleasantries.
"Oh?" said Seimei, raising his eyebrows. "I find that hard to believe."
"That is, I have no job for you," Hiromasa clarified hastily.
"Then you come simply for my company?" suggested Seimei.
"Yes," said Hiromasa. He placed his hands flat on his knees and willed them not to shake.
Seimei poured more sake.
"Seimei," said Hiromasa. "You told me I felt no regret for Toriko's departure because my heart belonged to another."
"That is so," said Seimei.
"And when Lady Haruka came to me and asked about only you, I was not bothered by it. I was happy to represent you."
"Is that so?"
"Seimei. I think..." He took a deep breath. "I think it is you my heart belongs to."
Hiromasa gaped at him. "You - you know?" He glared at Seimei. "How can you have known? If you knew, why did you let me make a fool of myself just now?"
"A confession has no power if it is not freely given by the owner," said Seimei, laughing.
"Then... a confession is another kind of spell?" asked Hiromasa, diverted in spite of himself.
Seimei grew serious. "As are all romantic notions," said Seimei. "One that binds the speaker - and the spoken to, if he lets it. One of the most dangerous."
Hiromasa put his sake aside. "How is it dangerous?" he demanded.
"Say... if the confession is rejected. The negative energy can drive humans to extremes. Jealousy, anger, possessiveness, obsession... a rejected confession is very dangerous."
"And if it is reciprocated?" asked Hiromasa.
"Well," said Seimei. "Love is a powerful spell indeed. All power has danger associated with it."
"But then it isn't inherently dangerous," said Hiromasa triumphantly. "No more so than any other aspect of life. The human heart makes its own choices in so many things, you cannot condemn one thing over all others."
Seimei inclined his head.
Hiromasa folded his hands in his lap. "Will you answer me, Seimei?"
"Do you not already know the answer, Hiromasa?" asked Seimei. "It would be careless to give up a confession without thinking through the possible response."
Hiromasa leaned back and cast his eyes towards the roof. He thought of Seimei's laughter at their first meeting and flushed with the recollection. Then, other thoughts drifted forward. You were the only one I didn't want to lose, and those had been tears, hadn't they? And what business is it of mine, Seimei always said, but he would always come when Hiromasa asked.
"So long, Seimei?" said Hiromasa in wonder. He shook himself. "But I would hear it from you, all the same."
Seimei reached over to gently palm Hiromasa's cheek, and Hiromasa wondered when they had drawn so close together. Hiromasa's breath caught in his chest. "You are the most important person to me," he said, at last.
A faint blush on his cheeks told Hiromasa that Seimei was as uncomfortable as Hiromasa himself. Why was it, Hiromasa wondered, that it was easier to express your feelings for another when they were not present?
The moment stretched into an eternity. Hiromasa could feel Seimei's breath on his cheek, and not for the first time that he reflected on how wrong were the courtiers who muttered of Abe no Seimei's chilly demeanour.
Seimei drew back and resettled himself, pouring more sake for them both. "So, Minamoto no Hiromasa has determined the direction of his heart, and all the princesses in Heiankyo will mourn the loss of his attentions," murmured Seimei.
"Seimei!" Hiromasa squawked.
In the garden, Mitsumushi broke into giggles. "The princesses will be sad," she repeated, grinning widely.
Hiromasa started and blushed fiercely.
"Mitsumushi," said Seimei, holding a finger to his lips. The blue butterfly fluttered through the garden and disappeared around the back of the house. He drew his fan and snapped it open, murmuring words behind it, and to Hiromasa's great surprise an umbrella, one of the slippers and a teacup lifted themselves up and floated from the room.
And now we are truly alone, thought Hiromasa. He swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Seimei," he said. "What happens now? This isn't like falling in love with a princess." With a princess he would start with courting her, but with Seimei he felt like that stage had already passed.
Seimei rose to his feet, and held out his hand for Hiromasa to do the same, not relinquishing Hiromasa's hand even after Hiromasa joined him. "Hiromasa, you are a poet. You already know that the effects of this spell are better discovered gradually." He cocked his head to the side.
His fingers still tangled in Seimei's, Seimei lifted his hand to brush Hiromasa's cheek, running his thumb over Hiromasa's lower lip and making Hiromasa shiver. Sudden heat flushed his cheeks.
"Is this a spell too?" he whispered, knowing even as he asked that everything was a spell to Seimei, and even more that it didn't matter.