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Subject: Application for leave

April 27, 2000
Minister Hori Kosuke
Ministry of Home Affairs
2-1-2 Kasumigaseki Central Common Government Office Building 2

 

Dear Mr. Hori,

please accept my apology for this application at shortest notice in these troubled times.
The planned refurnishing of the facilities at Central Government Office Complex 6-B is progressing as planned and my services as lead onmyoji of the Sumeragi will not be required until its completion scheduled for May 08, 2000.

Since I have personal matters to attend to in Naha, Okinawa, I would like to request vacation leave for May 1 and 2, 2000. I apologize in advance for not being available from April 29 to May 08, 2000.

Sincerely yours,

S. Sumeragi

 


 

Subject: Application for leave

April 28, 2000
Hori Kosuke (Chairman)
National Public Safety Commission
2-1-2 Kasumigaseki Central Common Government Office Building 2

 

Herewith I formally file my vacation leave
from April 29 to May 08, 2000.
You may deduct two (2) leave days from my personnel file.

S. Sakurazuka

 


 

Saturday, April 29, 2000

 

Boarding was a crowded affair. ANA flight 124 from Tokyo Haneda to Naha, Okinawa, was fully booked even in premium class. Seishiro had expected as much, given the amount of persuasion it had taken to acquire the tickets. What he hadn't expected was Subaru's insistence on going through the regular boarding process rather than waving Seishiro's ID and just passing through.

"You insisted that this is a vacation," Subaru had reminded him while placing his carry-on bag on the luggage scale. He waited for the airline employee to attach the tag marking it as within the allowed weight.

"I also plan to realign Kyushu section." Seishiro set his own bag down. The employee frowned at the displayed weight and Seishiro tapped the handle again, activating the fuda wrapped around it. The weight decreased. "A malfunction?" he asked the confused man and smiled when the tag was attached. "Now, where were we?"

"You, planning vacation work," Subaru said dryly, heading down the gangway towards the plane, bag over his shoulder, ticket in hand.

 

Ten minutes later, Seishiro leaned back into his seat and stretched his legs into the bag compartment of the row before them, a row entirely too close for comfort; the seat pressed uncomfortably against his shins, a problem Subaru in the window seat next to him didn't have. Being of average height has advantages when flying commercial. In the front aisle, a flight attendant began the safety instructions. Seishiro glanced at his watch, briefly estimating the time until their arrival at the hotel. A little over two hours flight, deboarding, taxi to the hotel…

Yes, they'd manage in time, he concluded. His ch'i lasted almost five hours now, enough to reach their destination, secure the room from Miyagi’s intrusions, – and be up and about for dinner again. And afterwards… he had every intention of eliminating that weakness before confronting Kyushu’s COO in his den. A spiritually potent source of ch'i – one touched by the Vamachara and Kali herself – conveniently sat beside him, attentively following the safety dance. Amused, Seishiro observed Subaru strapping himself in when it was shown, checking for the life vest under the seat, looking where the oxygen masks would fall from the ceiling if pressure dropped in the cabin. "Is this your first flight?" he asked, running his fingers in a slow languid caress over the protection spells still circling Subaru's wrist in pale golden ink. "You might notice some interesting things it can do to one's libido—"

Subaru snatched his hand away, embarrassed. "It's not my first flight. I'm just more comfortable going by Shinkansen."

"To Okinawa?" Seishiro acted horrified. "Sitting in soaking wet seats wearing diving googles, with a fish in your left shoe and an octopus in your shirt pocket—"

Subaru burst out laughing, earning himself a stern look from the flight attendant.

"Ignore her," Seishiro whispered, taking his hand again, tracing—

Subaru determinedly moved his hand away. "If you don't stop this now, I'm going to ask for a different seat."

"On a fully booked flight?"

"And a second hotel room."

 

Arrival in Naha was smooth and on schedule. They collected their baggage less than fifteen minutes after landing, and headed for the taxi line already forming in front of Gate A. Subaru stopped briefly when the terminal doors opened and Okinawa's hot humidity hit him full force. A young couple behind them also stopped, almost gasping. The air smelled of green leaves, brine, and exhaust fumes.

There were about ten people before them in the line for the taxis, taking on passengers rapidly. More taxis were arriving, a horn blared, more arrived, getting in line to take on passengers. Was Okinawa always this noisy?

Seishiro began searching his pockets. "I think I lost…" He frowned and looked back at the terminal. "Maybe…" He shook his head and smiled at the young couple behind them, indicating the taxi that had just stopped in front of them. "After you."

"What did you lose?" Subaru asked, after the couple had entered the taxi.

"Miyagi's spy," Seishiro replied dryly. "The idiot is now driving besotted newlyweds through Naha instead of reporting on our accommodations."

Subaru set his bag down in the trunk of the next taxi. "What makes you think so?"

"The taxi cut in line the moment our position in the passenger line became clear." He nodded at their driver as they got in. "Crowne Harbor hotel," he told the man. "And don't take the tunnel."

"It would be the fastest route at this time of day, sir," their driver remarked.

"I prefer the view above ground."

"And we don't take the tunnel, because…?" Subaru inquired quietly as their car sped past a long fence with the sign of Naha Airforce Base.

"The Mori missed their chance at the airport. They won't risk facing me in the open, but in the tunnel, they might see an advantage since a decisive response might bring down the ceiling – and the Pacific Ocean above it."

Subaru shook his head. "And you hate wet feet."

"Exactly."

 

Crowne Harbor Hotel
30 minutes later

 

The room was large, almost a suite, kept in dark wood with cream colored ornamentation and a tiny balcony doubling as the window. A small sitting corner was partitioned from the sleeping area by a shoji wall, a wide bathroom was on the other side, separated from the small toilet room. The décor was an understated mix of traditional and Western styles that – for Subaru's eyes – blended surprisingly well. A night's stay here would cost a fortune. Grandmother will cancel my credit card once that bill goes through. They were staying a week, during the main holiday season.

A cool breeze wafted through the room. Seishiro had cranked up the air-conditioning and was shrugging out of his jacket. He looked tired; his shoulders slumped as he hung the jacket in the closet. Subaru knew he was pushing himself. Surely Okinawa was too far away from Tokyo for Seishiro to draw additional power from the Tree. He sighed. "Rest. I'll take care of the wards," he offered.

Seishiro nodded, taking off his tie. "Expect shiki and tracers. Miyagi's been in the business too long to be reckless. He'll play it safe until he's sure what he's up against." He yawned and didn't bother with shirt and pants before lying down. "I'll treat you to dinner later."

 

By the time Seishiro was awake again, it was well after dark. Subaru had thoroughly warded the room and the balcony, though the delicately curled iron grille of the parapet had proven to be a challenge. Now, they could leave the door ajar, allowing the evening air with a multitude of scents into the room after turning off the air-conditioning. He'd also unpacked his suitcase and familiarized himself with the extensive hotel services via the information material provided next to the phone. A phone he had disconnected, just in case.

Subaru had expected them to head up towards the hotel restaurant; instead Seishiro led him out of the hotel through a side entrance, entering a maze of smaller streets lined with small shops and offices that were almost deserted this late on a Saturday night. The area soon became even more industrial, with a fish processing factory taking up half a city block next to a carrier company, its yard filled with trucks parked for the night.

"Are you sure about the direction?" Subaru asked finally, when they left the sidewalk to head diagonally across a wide empty parking lot with only a handful of small cars scattered about it.

Seishiro laughed. "Absolutely." He nodded ahead at a low building occupying a corner of the parking lot. It looked as if somebody had forgotten to tear it down when the lot was paved. A pair of large clay lion-dogs sat on its tiled roof. "We're almost there."

"Here?" Subaru blinked skeptically.

"You don't get the real thing in the tourist districts." After a moment, he added more quietly, "And there won't be any surprises from the local section here or on our way back."

"Too remote?" Subaru guessed.

"Too extraterritorial," Seishiro corrected and held the door for him.

Inside, Subaru found himself in a large, single room restaurant. The heavy roof was supported by black wood pillars partitioning the room in regular intervals. One side held neat rows of traditional low tables on tatami mats, the other showed worn wooden floor boards and tables and benches around the supporting pillars, that – like the floorboards – had seen better days. Most were occupied. The murmur of quiet foreign conversations filled the room. Okinawan? Subaru wondered.

Seishiro, passing him by, headed for an empty bench in the back of the place. "They serve traditional Ryukyuan cooking," he told him. "Do you want anything special?"

Subaru, still trying to figure out the language, shook his head. "Is there anything you would recommend?"

Instead of answering, Seishiro signaled the waitress. "The Royal platter for two, please," he ordered, "and you may serve the original recipe, I've been here before and am familiar with the Ryukyuan royal cuisine."

"Are you celebrating something?" the waitress asked with a smile, taking the order.

"The first vacation in twenty years certainly deserves the royal treatment," Seishiro declared. He looked at Subaru. "What would you like to drink?"

"Iced water and a fruit juice, please," he ordered, remembering Okinawan dishes from the early months of the final year, before most restaurants in Tokyo had been shut down or destroyed. The cooking was rich in pork and sugar, and occasionally spicy, though in Tokyo those dishes had had a warning label attached to them.

Seishiro nodded to the waitress. "And for me the oldest, single-age kusu[1] you have, please."

 

"What did you mean by 'extraterritorial'?" Subaru asked after a large round lacquer tablet filled to the brim with dishes had been deposited before them on the table. It smelled delicious… and potent. He'd have to be careful.

"This is a family business, in operation since the mid-nineteenth century on this very spot," Seishiro explained quietly, helping himself to a generous amount of the braised pork from the center of the tablet, "though it was rebuilt a couple of times as far as I know. Spiritually, it's still part of the Ryukyuan kingdom. We have no authority here, and if the Mori – or I for that matter – strike while we're its guests, it will cause the spiritual equivalent of a diplomatic incident that would expel the Mori from the island."

"Then why do you work on the Ryukyus at all?" Subaru asked, taking himself a small piece of the meat after observing Seishiro closing his eyes in bliss at the first bite.

"Because the annexation[2] gave us the legal authority, just not the spiritual one to go with it." Seishiro sighed, put his chopsticks down and reached for his glass, explaining, "Ryukyu has its own Guardian." He took a deep swig and added, "One who never welcomed the Japanese." Another swig. "Or the Sakura, for that matter."

"Shouldn't the section office be in a place where you have complete authority?" Subaru wondered, after finishing his meat. It was as delicious as it smelled. He took another piece.

Seishiro snorted, swirling his drink. "Kyushu office was in Fukuoka. It relocated to Naha twenty years ago."

"Twenty—" Subaru stopped. "When you became—"

"Exactly." Seishiro drank the last of his awamori, put the glass down and continued eating. "Try the tempura," he told Subaru, "you won't find those in Tokyo either."

Subaru picked one that looked like it contained a prawn, only to find himself biting into sweet potato instead. He blinked. Inside was a piece of purple sweet potato cut to appear like a prawn. Purple potato prawn, he mused and closed his mouth over the undignified giggle at that thought. He reached for his fruit juice, mentally calling himself to order.

"You still have to find someone to represent your people here," Seishiro said quietly after they'd eaten in silence for a while.

"I inquired at the main house, but we have few practitioners working this far south, and the position is…" Subaru searched for a polite term, "…not enticing."

"What about the guy who made these?" Seishiro reached over and traced the line of faded kanji still circling Subaru's wrist.

Subaru thought he should take his hand off the table or tell Seishiro to behave. He did neither. "Ameru-san is estranged from the clan. I never met him at the main house. I think—" He frowned.

Seishiro shrugged. "You need somebody to survive, not to be the most representative." Another trace, this time with power flowing into the symbols. "He might have a chance."

Subaru shivered and looked down at his wrist. The faded kanji of Ameru's protection spells were framed in the cold blue glow of Seishiro's magic. The blue kanji seemed to dance on his skin…."I'll call the main house about his address," he promised and looked from his hand to Seishiro's, lying relaxed on the table. Seishiro, who had finished his meal and supported his chin in his hand, elbow propped on the table… His hands were dark, there was only the faint flicker of the pentacle on their backs… Subaru frowned. That wasn't right. That—Determinedly, he took Seishiro's right and traced the protection spell with a slightly unsteady fingertip in red glowing kanji across Seishiro's wrist. There, that was better, he nodded emphatically at himself, much better.

Seishiro signaled the waitress for the bill.

 

It was raining when they left the restaurant. Subaru stumbled and almost fell. Seishiro caught him with an arm around the back and whirled him around in a wide arc to absorb the impact, laughing. Subaru blinked. Had that step been there before? A lion roared. Were there lions in Okinawa? A large tan animal darted over the parking lot to their side, disappearing into the falling drops before he could see it clearly.

 

Sunday, April 30, 2000

 

Subaru woke slowly in a wide, unfamiliar bed. Cream-colored satin sheets had slipped down, exposing one of his shoulders to a cool waft that carried the smell of ocean and green leaves. He blinked. This was…

The Crowne Harbor hotel – in Naha, his mind provided reluctantly. They'd arrived yesterday afternoon, just in time for a rich dinner after rest and— Subaru groaned. Rafute[3]. He'd underestimated the local delicacy, both in deliciousness and – at least in the version Seishiro had ordered – in alcohol content. And the effect of that content on Seishiro…

…and on himself. Had he really used his gift frivolously in public? He wasn't sure, but he definitely had had his hand down Seishiro's pants when the elevator opened to admit an elderly couple. A hard hand on his shoulder had turned him barely in time to block the other guests' view. The couple had left the elevator two floors below theirs, and Seishiro had retaliated the moment the door closed behind them. They'd barely made it up to their room and the bed after that.

He hadn't known Seishiro could kiss like that, leaving him dizzy and wanting, even when he'd been too worn to move in the end. Even now, his body was heated and sore. His throat felt hoarse, raw even. He knew he had screamed at some time. Or times? He wasn't sure, but he knew that Seishiro had forgone release to collect ch'i. He on the other hand—

The sheet underneath him was wet in places and the thought of what the hotel personnel might find – and think – when they came to replace the bed clothes later was uncomfortable at best, but he just couldn't bring himself to move right now. The space beside him was empty, but the satin there was still warm to the touch. Another gush of cool air flowed over his bare shoulder. The balcony door stood open. Floor-long gauze curtains, pushed aside, moved in the breeze.

Seishiro was outside, one hand on the balcony parapet, looking out over Naha under the rising sun. Smoke from the cigarette in his free hand curled up beside him. The thin cloth of his shirt and pants moved in the breeze when he turned to the side and stretched out his arm. The burning tip of the cigarette, suddenly exposed to the breeze, flared up and Seishiro's fierce shikigami alighted easily on the offered wrist. Seishiro locked eyes with the avian spirit before releasing it into the wind.

He stubbed the cigarette in the ashtray on the balcony table and came back inside. "Good morning. I'm sorry if I woke you." In the dimmer light inside, a pale red line around his wrist became visible, slightly crooked kanji lit with Subaru's gift.

Subaru groaned. He hadn't dreamed that misdeed, either.

"Don't worry. You've been nothing but adorable." Seishiro sat down on the bed and patted the cover. "But you better reduce the glow. I ordered breakfast and I don't like people asking where I accessorize."

 

Breakfast arrived a few minutes later. Seishiro left the cart by the door and took two plates over to the bed. He handed the fuller one to Subaru, who reluctantly pushed himself up into a sitting position. "Here. You'll need it."

They ate in silence. Subaru quietly observed Seishiro's movements, their speed and increased vigor. Finally, he asked, "How long do you have now?"

"About eight hours. Take it slow today."

Subaru put his plate down and caught Seishiro's hand. "Next time, ask." He ran his fingertips along the veins of Seishiro's hand, feeling him shiver at the unexpected caress. "Ch'i given willingly is so much more powerful."

Seishiro broke contact and stood. "Ch'i being denied is no power at all."

"I wouldn't deny you."

 

I wouldn't deny you. Subaru's quiet voice kept churning in the back of Seishiro's mind as he headed down to the pool. This early, the hotel was still quiet. Apparently, most of the other guests were either sleeping in or used the cool morning hours for sightseeing. He took the lounger farthest from the entrance and adjusted the sunshade to cover it completely. Having been on Okinawa before, he knew not to underestimate even its morning sun. It wouldn't do to get sunburn on the first day…

…of work. Sunday or not, he wouldn't have to wait long for a visit from the local section. Figuring out Subaru's cryptic comment would have to wait. He sat down, put his feet up without slipping out of the pool sandals provided by the hotel, and signaled the steward for the Ryukyu Shinpo Sunday edition and a tall glass of ice-cooled melon mint cocktail. There was no reason not to enjoy his stay while he could.

He had barely reached the headlines in the business section on page two, when his wait was already over. Heels clacked on the polished stone tiles, approaching rapidly. He turned the page and had a look at the arrival. A woman in a bright summer dress – white, crimson hibiscus design – nice legs. A new one. Seishiro judged her to be in her late twenties. The reddish brown of her hair was either an excellent dye job or she had Okinawa's recent history in her genes. Probably both. Marking her progress by ear, he pointedly returned his eyes to the newspaper.

"Sakurazuka Seishiro-san?"

He looked over the edge of the newspaper. "Who wants to know that?"

"I'm Shang Namie. Miyagi-san sends—"

Seishiro snapped the paper back into place. "I'm on vacation."

"Nice to meet you, On-san," she retorted dryly. "Still, Miyagi—"

Mildly amused, he interrupted her, indicating one of the articles. "Did you know that the profits of security companies in 1999 were highest since 1949?"

"Given last year's events that's hardly surprising, isn't it? Even here, there were related incidents."

"There were?" Seishiro asked, for once interested.

"In March," Shang confirmed. "A house in Tsuboya burned to the ground. That doesn’t compare to what happened in Shinjuku or Shibuya later, but the spiritual shock wave went off the scale."

"One house is easier cleaned up than a bunch of tumbled skyscrapers." Seishiro reached for his cocktail, dismissing her. "Or the end of the world to begin with."

She snorted. "That was over last November, leaving us to clean up the here and now. Namely, your—"

"Do you have any scrap of self-preservation?" Seishiro asked around his drinking straw. "I lived in Shinjuku," he reminded her mildly, putting the half-empty glass down. "I participated in Shibuya. It's nice you admire my handiwork, but still—" He picked up his paper again. "I'm on vacation."

"Sakurazuka-san!" Her hand crumpled his paper down into his lap. Definitely no self-preservation whatsoever. "I've been warned that you're difficult to deal with," she stated briskly, "but Miyagi-san insists that I learn the reason for your stay on Okinawa, and—"

"He sent you, because he doesn't want to die for disturbing my vacation," Seishiro cut her off coldly, folding the crumpled paper. "Which is your problem, not mine." He lowered his glasses to look at her. "Have a nice day, Shang-san."

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

Subaru turned off the shower and reached for the towel, drying himself off languidly. Taking it slow was easy. He didn't have plans for today, or even their stay here. There just hadn't been time to make any after Seishiro had interrupted him on Thursday with the tickets, triggering a rush of preparations with the office of home affairs, the carpenters, and not least of all, the Sumeragi and his grandmother. And yes, he hoped that Okinawa was far enough from Kyoto that they wouldn't hear about yesterday's indulgence.

Seishiro's spontaneity might border on the erratic, but yesterday… writing spells in the open, making out in the elevator… that hadn't been Seishiro, that had been himself – and he refused to be sorry for it.

"You know this is twisted, don't you?" Kamui had told him, after accusing him that he wanted to live with Seishiro. Subaru gave himself a self-deprecating smile in the mirror. Twisted was probably an understatement.

He left the wet towel on the bathroom floor and pulled on light linen pants and a burgundy polo shirt. If somebody noticed the faded kanji on his skin, so be it. Seishiro's power wasn't outlining them any longer. He folded a set of emergency ofuda into the polo shirt's chest pocket, picked a remaining breakfast bun from the cart still standing by the door, and left the room in search of Seishiro.

 

Subaru reached the lobby three minutes later, relieved that he hadn't found any cameras in the lift. The wide hall was lined with sand colored marble and thickly upholstered leather chairs among potted palms. Now, where is—? He focused on the faint tingle from his marks to get a direction and froze at the sensation of a furry head rubbing catlike over his bare arm.

An intense halo of spiritual power surrounded the golden statue of an openmouthed lion-dog sitting next to the elevator. The spirit in the figure raised its head again, its mane brushing against Subaru's skin. What looked like cold metal connected as warm, dusty fur. The true shisa blinked one-eyed – no, winked – at him, flashing its fangs. Was it laughing at him? About him? Belatedly, Subaru remembered his manners and gave a respectful bow to the Ryukyuan guardian spirit, who'd appointed itself to watch over their hotel. "Thank you for guarding my sleep," he told it. "Please watch over Seishiro's as well."

A round paw patted the stele on which the shisa was sitting, and the regal nod of its head could be a confirmation. Or a sneeze. Shisa differed from other protective spirits. People might put clay and bronze figurines onto their roofs and into their houses asking for protection, but a true shisa decided for itself what – and who – it would guard. Subaru knew he could ask but certainly not command. He bowed again—

"Are you assisting a Kaminchu[4]?" the receptionist asked beside him.

Assis—? The shisa beside him was just a statue again. "I'm on vacation," Subaru deflected. "Do you happen to know where I may find Sakurazuka-san of room 904?"

"He occupied one of the pool loungers a few minutes ago. If you head through these doors and turn left—"

 

The pool area was less crowded than Subaru had expected. A few swimmers were in the water, some of the nearer loungers were occupied and stewards brought towels and drinks to the waiting guests. Subaru spotted Seishiro on the far side of the rectangular pool. His lounger was shaded equally by a wide sunshade and a thick bougainvillea growing over the high, white-washed wall that protected the pool guests from onlookers. Seishiro was looking over the edge of his newspaper at a young woman, who talked animatedly with him. He reached for his drink, asking her something. Subaru's steps slowed. Seishiro, who nipped flirtatiously at a colorful drink, smiled, then raised his newspaper—

—which she, obviously irate, crushed down. Subaru was too far away to catch the angry exchange that followed, but he caught a whiff of floral perfume as she brushed past him with swishing skirts when storming off. No sakura, but hibiscus and bougainvillea might mask that scent.

Seishiro was drinking the rest of his cocktail when Subaru reached him. Given the events of the previous night, Subaru hoped it was non-alcoholic. "Who was that?"

"The reception committee of the local section." Seishiro shrugged. "A little late, but certainly an improvement over Miyagi in person." He signaled a steward and indicated his empty glass with two raised fingers. "Want one, too?"

"What's in it?" Subaru asked warily.

"Melon pieces, melon juice, peppermint," Seishiro listed, "give or take some ice and a mint leaf. Why do you ask?"

"Because I suspect ulterior motives."

"We are no longer guests of Ryukyu and the section made contact. Alcohol-fogged perception isn't an acceptable risk anymore," Seishiro said, adding with a wistful smile, "Sadly."

Subaru pulled a chair over to sit down, sharing the shade of the bougainvillea, when their drinks were brought. Insects buzzed in the heavy blossoms above them. "Isn't your tree jealous?" he asked with a glance up at the canopy of bright purple flowers overhead.

"My tree is in Tokyo."

"And I might tattle."

"I think I'm going to have tea with your grandmother again—"

"Ask her for Ameru's address, I didn't call her yet."

 

"Do you have plans for this afternoon?" Subaru asked as they headed back up to their room when the pool area became crowded. "Aside from the obvious?"

Seishiro shook his head. "Not today. We're going to confront the Mori tomorrow. I don't want to give them an opportunity before that." He entered the keycard and pushed the door open for Subaru to enter. "Besides, the midday sun is murderous." He put the card into the indoor slot to power up the air-conditioning as he followed him in. "I'd rather—"

A red-golden shadow stormed past them; broad clawed paws dug into the sheets as the lion-dog leaped onto the bed. Screeching, a dark brown bird with red legs fled from behind the bedside lamp. With a deep roar, the shisa gave chase.

"Shiki!" Seishiro, black fuda drawn, barked from the door. "Catch—"

Subaru's fuda hit the balcony door the moment after the bird passed through the glass. "The wards on the parapet will stop—" The bird pecked frantically at the invisible barrier, long toes scratching, tiny wings beating up a cloud of dust. Subaru pushed open the balcony door and almost fell, when the shisa darted past his legs, outstretched claws slashing at the frightened bird—

—which squeezed itself through the grille of the parapet. Subaru reached the railing just in time to see it land with wildly flapping wings on the sidewalk. The disheveled ball of feathers immediately bounced up and flitted out of sight around the corner, its red legs racing as if on fire.

"That was—" Subaru froze, when the shisa determinedly rubbed against his legs, leaving a trail of golden hairs on the khaki linen. It sniffed at Seishiro who'd come up beside him, sneezed, and disappeared with a satisfied puff.

Seishiro folded his fuda away. "For a moment I thought you'd packed the cat."

"It's the hotel shisa," Subaru told him. "It welcomed me in the lobby this morning."

"A powerful friend for somebody here the first time." Seishiro studied the again rumpled bed; the shisa's claws had torn the cover. "Are you sure you don't have links to the island?"

"None that I know of." Subaru spotted a few scattered olive-brown feathers this side of the parapet and knelt to examine them before they'd evaporate when the shiki was dispelled by its owner. "What kind of bird was that?"

"An Okinawa rail," Seishiro answered. "Flies like a brick. I assume your wards—"

"—were set for airborne shiki." Subaru sighed. "I didn't—"

"—expect a bird to peck and scratch its way in to sit beside the bed watching you sleep?" Seishiro asked ironically.

Subaru felt his face growing hot. "Do you think it was here last night?"

Seishiro burst out laughing. "No. As much as I'd like to have given its owner a show for the effort, I'd have noticed. It definitely came in after I left for the pool. Likely even after you left." He sobered and a dangerous glitter appeared in his eyes. "But I think I know who sent it. And if I'm right—" He shook his head, picked up the phone, noticed the disconnected line, and plugged it back in. "Concierge? This is Sakurazuka from 904. Please arrange for a rental car, full-size, and a beach kit. When will it be ready?" He listened for a moment. "In fifteen minutes? Good. Thank you."

"Didn't you want to deny the Mori any opportunities until tomorrow?" Subaru asked after Seishiro had hung up.

Seishiro sighed. "I've got to make a diplomatic visit. You've been acknowledged by local authorities, which until now decidedly ignored me. The Ryukyuan Guardian is a power to be reckoned with. I have to prevent any misunderstandings that may arise if Miyagi's people force us to act." He looked pointedly at the gold glitter the shisa had left on Subaru's pants, then glanced at his watch. "I've got about five hours left, that should be enough."

Knowing Seishiro, 'should be enough' was code for 'one-way trip at best'. "I'm coming along," Subaru decided. They'd cut it too close too often recently.

"I can't take you into the meeting itself," Seishiro warned him, "and we'll need swim briefs."

"For a diplomatic visit?" Subaru asked incredulously.

"Normally, I wouldn't mind swimming commando." Seishiro shrugged. "But it's close to jellyfish season."

"Jellyfish are a point I'd like to know more about. And sharks for that matter."

"Worry more about the surf. We're talking about the east coast." He fetched two large towels and their sun lotion from the bath and headed for the door. "So, do you need briefs," he asked looking back, adding with a suggestive smile, "or do you want to risk it?"

Well, two could play that game. "Unnecessary," Subaru said, following him out of the room. "I'm wearing fundoshi."

Seishiro before him missed a step.

 

Okinawa North East coast
two and a half hours later

 

Seishiro timed his approach to the rock face with the ebbing of a wave and hurried to find secure holds for his hands and feet before the next one arrived; even so the unbroken Pacific tide threatened to scrape him over the sharp stone.

He used the rising of the next wave to get a higher hold and pulled himself out of the surf's reach before another wave branded against the rock. The cliff was steep; almost fifteen meters of sheer rock, slick from seaweed – he hoped of the non-stinging variety – near the waterline, followed by sharp-edged, crumbling rock to a treacherously overgrown top, hiding the ancient power within.

The Sakura grew in a public park. The Pine was not nearly so accommodating.

He chose his next grip carefully, wished there'd been a way to bring chalk to keep his hands dry, but swimming out to Luchu Rock against the waves rolling in from the open Pacific had been a challenge even without additional baggage. Subaru had looked at the surf and preferred to stay on the beach rather than follow him out to the reef's edge and the outlying sea rock in front of it, shielding Okinawa from the infelicitous north-east, from the mainland, from…

…the Sakura, which he represented. At least, there wasn't an overhang this side of the rock. He should be grateful for that. In the realm of the Pine, all he could do was approach like a normal human being.

Gulls screamed. A large shadow brushed past him with the flap of heavy wings. The thought of Nandaro to protect his open back came instantaneously and was equally fast dismissed. Calling his shiki now would thwart any chance for diplomatic relations right from the start. Seishiro ground his teeth and pushed on. The sun burned hot on his back, but the overhang on the shadowed side had made that route impossible.

The dark, almost metallic rustle of pine needles moving in the sea breeze above increased as he pushed himself onto the top of Luchu Rock. Or what he had thought was the top of Luchu Rock and instead was—

—the Ryukyuan Pine[5] itself. He'd vastly underestimated its size. The tree wasn't growing on top of Luchu Rock, it was the top of Luchu Rock. The overgrown top of the windswept cliff wasn't cliff at all, but ancient wood and wind-formed pine crown. Two lion-sized shisa lay stretched out on its gnarled roots, raising their heads at his arrival. Their off-white coats almost glowed in the deep shadow of the Pine; vermillion colored eyes stared at him as if aflame. The female growled, a low rumble that vibrated in his bones.

He immediately knelt, giving deserved respect. The male shisa rose, padded towards him, circled him, sniffed. His nerves screamed at the sensation of hot breath in his nape, the knowledge of deadly fangs and claws within a mere twitch of muscle from his skin. He reminded himself that the shisa weren't the power here, were merely testing him for—

:::What do you want, Sakurazukamori?:::

Razor-sharp pine needles as long as his outstretched hand hissed in an unfelt breeze above his neck. A branch shook and three of them stuck embedded in the rock-hard wood in front of him.

:::What does your master want?:::

"I have no master!" he flared and met rustling mirth from the Pine and a warning growl from the female shisa. Clearly, she would not have his insolence.

:::Delusion. Or decadence of a power too close to humanity::: The Pine seemed to flow in the breeze. :::Why are you here?:::

"I've come to assure the truce," he said, forcing himself to stay on his knees, "to assure that my presence—my stay in your realm is solely intended to police my own faction."

:::People of Ryukyuan mabui[6] are working for you. Why should I allow you to endanger them in order to clean your own house?:::

He finally raised his head, stared at the thicket of deadly needles directed at his eyes and throat less than a needle length away. "Because you will suffer – your realm will suffer – when I can't force them to accept the Dao. The inability to police them—" A gnarled, deeply furrowed branch closed around his throat, two more wreathed around his arms. Black needles with a strangely metallic luster scraped over his cheek, past his eyes, his brow. Two pierced his temple, drawing blood—

—and a flood of images from his past, his present, from the Final Year, the Final Battle, the decagram of his and Subaru's powers forming around their feet, the dragons of Dao racing past, unfolding the kekkai of a city almost in ruins, changing destiny—

—the needles were pulled out of his skin. The branches holding him remained.

:::The Sakura is either very foolish or very desperate to send you to me like this, Sakurazukamori::: The Pine rustled above his head. :::So far away, even Tsukiyomi's full light would be insufficient to protect you – and Amaterasu's brother isn't even up in the sky tonight::: The female shisa yawned, showing an impressive set of immaculate fangs. It flopped down on to the Pine's roots again. :::I will grant it::: The shisa began to languorously lick the mane of its mate. :::Like the Sakura, I stand between. Like the Sakura I guard the dead from the living. And the living from the dead. This once you may operate here unchecked. Only this once::: The warning was unmistakable. :::I will keep the jellyfish again from you and your mate on your way back to the beach. Go now::: A swish embedded two more needles in front of him, completing the pentagram from his view, or the pentacle from the Pine's. The branch around his left arm brushed over his pulse. :::You certainly do not deserve that he cares about you. Do not return uncalled:::

A sharp twist of the branch around his throat sent him over the edge.

 

Seishiro came to, lying outstretched on one of their beach towels. The sun was already low in the sky; the trees framing the narrow beach threw long shadows across the sand into the shallow water. Subaru, still in fundoshi – a red fundoshi, he'd missed that – sat beside him in the sand, arms resting on drawn up knees. He looked out across the water towards Luchu Rock, towards the Pine and the never-ending roar of the Pacific surf. Subaru had draped the second towel around his shoulders and still seemed cold. Beyond him, white ofuda glowed faintly in the sand. Seishiro spotted two without moving his head; he was sure three more completed the circle behind him. Outside, wide paws paced the sand. A white lioness of a shisa circled them with a low rumble. The Pine's guard—

"I asked for protection," Subaru said in a flat voice without looking at him. "It would have been easier had I known whom I was asking." And, "Pulling you out of the surf wasn't easy."

Seishiro sat up, felt the stiffness of exertion in his limbs and the uncomfortable heat of sunburn on his back; the results of his climb onto Luchu Rock in the midday sun. His mouth was kiln dry. He must have swallowed seawater—

"Here." Subaru held out the bottle of Evian that had been included in their beach kit. It was half-empty. Subaru had drunk himself. "I take it that your 'diplomatic visit' did not go well," he said while Seishiro rinsed his mouth, then drank slowly.

"It went perfectly fine." Seishiro capped the bottled after a last swag.

"Did it?" Subaru glanced at him. "Your points of memory and compliance are pierced."

Seishiro touched his temple and found two small adhesive bandages. "I never said the diplomatic relations were good to begin with."

The shisa lioness outside the circle snorted as if laughing.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

It was close to midnight when they arrived back at the hotel. The drive back had been much slower than their initial trip north, with Seishiro being atypically silent behind the wheel. Subaru had said nothing, suspecting that he was either worn out or in pain and didn't want to risk driving near the speed limit in his condition.

They returned the car keys to the night concierge and took the lift upstairs, where Seishiro immediately vanished into the bath. The sound of running water followed. Subaru left the bag with the sandy towels and the remnants of their beach kit next to the bathroom door on the floor and followed him inside. Clothes lay in a tangled heap outside the tiled shower and bath unit. No steam obscured the clear glass of the sliding door; the water flowing over Seishiro's angrily reddened shoulders and back had to be relatively cold. He stood with his forearms rested against the wall, making sure the prattle didn't hit the burns directly. Apparently, there was a reason behind his complaining about Okinawa's murderous sun, despite sunscreen and all, Subaru concluded. Driving back had to have been painful.

"Are you going to stand there all night or are you going to come in?" Seishiro asked without turning.

"I didn't think you'd be that sensitive to the sun."

Seishiro snorted and turned off the water. "Nocturnal lifestyle. And the Pine doesn't offer the same service as the Sakura." He used one of the fluffy towels to dab rather than rub the water off his skin.

"It doesn't look like it's going to blister," Subaru told him when he came out of the bath. "There's cold cream in the beach kit," he offered. "Lie down. I'll apply it."

 

Subaru covered his hands with a thick film of cold cream and began spreading it across Seishiro's burnt skin. Starting with the upper arms, he slowly worked his way up towards the back. Seishiro, lying face-down, his right cheek resting on his clasped hands, tensed at the contact. If it was from the pain or from being touched in the first place, Subaru didn't know, but he would try his best to avoid anything that might feel like a hold, even if that meant not working symmetrically.

"Relax," he said quietly, "I'll be careful." He ran his slick hands over Seishiro's shoulder blades and back up towards his nape, massaging the cream in. The tension slowly ebbed away as the cream took effect. Seishiro's eyes drooped.

Subaru's hands trembled slightly when he covered the ragged scar running over Seishiro's left shoulder like an angry dragon. There was another scar, tiny, inconspicuous, nothing more than a slim silver line in the middle of the back, barely visible against the sunburn. It had almost taken Seishiro from him, but the skin he touched was warm, alive. He'd clung to these shoulders last night and now felt even, measured breaths under his splayed hands. Seishiro's eyes had fully closed. Sleeping? Careful not to wake him, Subaru spread fresh cream on his fingers and worked his way from the nape down along the spine—

Seishiro shivered, pressing himself down. Subaru froze. Did he hurt him? Caused a memory—He continued cautiously. Seishiro sucked in a breath, and semi-consciously rubbed himself against the cover. Not pain. On the contrary. Another touch. A moan. And—

"You better be prepared to finish what you started, Subaru-kun."

 

Monday, May 1, 2000

 

Naha's nightlights kept the darkness from being absolute. A light breeze from the East China Sea had brought fresh air and cooled the cup of coffee Seishiro had put down on the balcony floor beside him. He'd probably slept two hours after the application of cold cream had some… rather desirable side-effects. His ch'i lasted almost nine hours now, improving rapidly now he had a chance to sleep whenever his body demanded it, but the condition still prevented any semblance of a reasonable sleep schedule. It was four in the morning and he was wide awake, even though he hadn't tapped into Subaru's ch'i again.

Seishiro took up his cup and had a long sip of his coffee, looking back into their dark room where his prey was sleeping soundly. Su-chan, the Sakura had called him. Your mate had been the Pine's description. I claim your life… and I wouldn't deny you. Was that related? Did claiming a life involve maintaining that life?

He had another sip and found his cup empty.

This once you may operate here unchecked, the Pine had stated, obviously meaning much more than merely not intervening if he had to remove Miyagi from office. Now, the Sakura whispered again at the back of his mind. A whisper that held a definite note of relief…

Seishiro realized he needed more coffee.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

"Do you really plan to go into the office like this?" Subaru gave Seishiro a once-over. The combination of a loose long-sleeved linen shirt and off-white pants combined with sock-free canvas shoes was… Subaru shook his head. "You look like one of the drug dealers from Maiamivaisu[7], Crocky Sonnett."

"Sonny Crockett." Seishiro corrected, laughing. "And he was one of the police detectives, if I recall correctly. Don't worry, my pet alligator stayed in Tokyo."

"Your pet tree, that is," Subaru murmured and checked the ofuda in his inner pocket. "And that purple shirt is still positively glowing."

"Good. Reduces the risk of being knocked down by inattentive drivers."

"Did you call for a taxi?"

"No. With the shortcut it's only five minutes from here." Seishiro smirked. "That's the second reason why I usually book the Crowne Harbor when staying in Naha."

"What's the first?"

"Busting Miyagi's budget."

 

They really reached the Mori offices on foot in a little over five minutes, though Subaru preferred not to contemplate the amount of trespassing they'd done on the way. Seishiro's 'shortcut' was almost a beeline from the hotel to the prefectural office complex, which took them diagonally across the hotel's delivery line, over half a dozen yards, a back alley, and the ground floor of Naha police headquarters; the latter was only possible, because Seishiro waved his NPSC badge at the security post in passing. In the prefectural office, they took the lift down from the lobby.

The reception area of Sakura Enterprises, Kyushu Section, was very similar to the one Subaru had seen in Tokyo: grey carpet, whitewashed walls, a wide polished black desk opposite glass double doors engraved with the stylized sakura-and-swords logo, two unmarked corridors going off left and right to the desk. The only notable difference – aside from the location on the third basement level underneath the Okinawa prefectural office complex – was a large Monstera plant under a growth light in the corner that held the coat stand in Tokyo.

"Yes, your outfit is truly conservative here," Subaru commented at the sight of the male receptionist in a dark blue Kariyushi shirt with yellow and coral-pink hibiscus flowers printed all over his broad chest.

"Told you." Seishiro strolled past him towards the receptionist… guard… serial killer? – No, Subaru decided, he would not ask – who suddenly appeared decidedly panicked. "We're here to speak with Miyagi. He made an appointment yesterday."

 

Miyagi's office, just like Seishiro's in Tokyo, was down the left corridor, but that was where the similarities ended. They had to cross a wide hall with rows of supports for the building overhead. Work desks filled the spaces between pillars, some occupied, some not. The whitewashed walls were adorned with protection spells painted in reddish-brown lacquer. At least, Subaru hoped it was paint and not blood lacquered over. He was glad when the door closed behind them, cutting off the sound of computers, keyboards and telephones reverberating between the oppressive walls. The office itself wasn't much smaller than Seishiro's, but – being underground – it lacked the panoramic windows and view, instead it sported two more support pillars for the building above them, making it appear smaller than it really was.

A plain work desk of wood darkened from age and use occupied the biggest free space opposite and to the right of the door. It could have stood in any military or police office long due for an overhaul. A row of deep file cabinets covered the wall between the door and the desk on the right; a front of grey painted metal doors with padlocks and aggressive protection spells that scraped over Subaru's shields even at the two meters distance that he could give them here. The padlocks were pure show. Anyone touching these cabinets unprepared would go up in flames – Subaru glanced at the low ceiling dotted with fire sprinklers in regular intervals – and probably douse the premises in the process. He suppressed a wry smile, remembering a flooded basement in the Diet. Seishiro would need an umbrella here. And gumboots.

"Sakurazukamori-san and his… guest?" someone said from the far end of the office to the left.

"Business associate," Seishiro corrected smoothly. "May I introduce? Sumeragi Subaru, Miyagi Mitsuru, chief of operations, Kyushu section."

"Miyagi-san." Subaru hid his astonishment as he answered the polite bow. The man standing next to a segment of three tatami mats was probably eighty years old, or older. This grandfather directed a Mori section? This Mori section?

"May I offer you tea?" Miyagi indicated a low tea table and sitting cushions laid out on the tatami. A vase with a single Monstera leaf stood under a scroll hanging on the wall above the tatami. Instead of a waka, it displayed the first line of Kajii's Under the Cherry Blossoms[8].

Subaru doubted it was respect for age that made Seishiro wait for Miyagi to sit first. The old man rang a small golden stand-up bell after they'd all settled, its clear, pristine sound a stark contrast to the industrial office noise filling the room when the door opened.

The woman from the day before brought a steaming water kettle made of wrought iron. She elegantly knelt beside the tatami, offering the pair of wooden tongues holding the kettle to Miyagi.

"My assistant, Shang Namie," Miyagi introduced her as he received the kettle.

"I already made her acquaintance. She expressed your disbelief of my vocational vacation quite thoroughly. – Please, stay," Seishiro ordered sharply when Shang was about to leave.

"You must understand an old man's worry regarding his performance these days," Miyagi said demurely while stirring the tea. "Especially given that we currently do not have any cases warranting your personal attendance."

"Must I?" Seishiro arched a brow at him. "It's Golden Week and Okinawa is a prime holiday spot, as I told your assistant yesterday. Is it so unbelievable for me to take a vacation here while the Tokyo offices are closed for refurbishing?"

"The Sakura, descending from the gods, does not care about human calendars and office decorations," Miyagi returned. "And isn't it the Sakura you serve?" He offered the first earthenware bowl of tea to Seishiro in perfect form.

"Do the Mori not?" Seishiro returned with a smile, accepting the tiny bowl without touching its contents.

Miyagi acknowledged the point with a nod. "Yet, the two most powerful spiritual sources of Japan – besides the esteemed son of Amaterasu of course," he added when he gave Subaru the second bowl, "—taking a vacation together seems rather unusual."

"As is an Okinawan shiki in my bedroom." Miyagi, preparing his own cup, stilled when Seishiro's smile vanished. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that?"

Subaru noticed that the young woman at the door also had frozen, but her eyes were trained on Miyagi. Miyagi, who was observing him. The tea bowl in Subaru's hand grew hot against his fingertips. Subaru put it down on the tray in front of him without taking the ritual sip. It was impolite, an offense even, but the faded spells on his skin tingled. He would not touch anything offered here.

"How should I?" The old man protested, returning his attention to Seishiro. "I merely sent my assistant to—"

"—interrupt my vacation. I get it." Seishiro dropped any pretense of politeness. His bowl ended up on the tatami, also untouched. "Since you insist, show us the plans for the local onmyo-ryo. Now."

"We have yet to finalize them," Miyagi returned, exasperated. "Until the Sumeragi provide us with the number of personnel to accommodate—"

"The Dao demands symmetry," Subaru said calmly, speaking for the first time. "We will provide as many people as needed. However, the locations have to be inspected. The differences between your and our brand of magic and the synergy effects arising from them are not to be underestimated."

Miyagi waved that aside. "We took that into account. My assistant will show you everything."

"If you would follow me." Shang politely indicated the door. "We prepared two rooms here and also arranged for more spacious accommodations a short drive from here in downtown. As you will see—" She headed diagonally across the hall with the desks and down a narrow, whitewashed corridor with safety directions in fluorescent paint on the walls. "—we did our best to provide spiritually untainted locations."

She pushed open the door at the end and stepped aside to let them enter. With an ironic gesture, Seishiro ordered her to go first. Shang shook her head and complied, turning back for them from the middle of a room otherwise stacked to the low ceiling with large crates and… cots? Subaru took a cautious step inside. Seishiro remained in the doorway, keeping the automatic door from closing.

"These rooms are and always have been used to store the first aid supplies, emergency rations, and cots for the shelter." Shang explained. "None of our normal activities took place here. As Sumeragi-san said, any combination of powers capable of changing destiny is not to be taken lightly, and these are the most spiritually propitious rooms we have." She smiled. "We will move the supplies tomorrow and also will install anti-slip protection and safeguards for the self-closing doors."

"Shelter?" Subaru inquired, ignoring the last comment.

"The section office doubles as an emergency shelter for up to 250 people from the government complex above," Seishiro provided from the door. "We are required to store cots and provisions for a minimum of four days."

"Earthquakes?" Subaru guessed with a glance at the ceiling that he knew was still two floors underground.

"Mostly typhoons." Seishiro shrugged.

"The entrances can be sealed," Shang told him. "There's also an emergency exit to the first floor of the building above, and enough pump capacity to deal with any storm surge that might temporary inundate the two basement levels above us."

"And you'd want good earmuffs when they come on, because the storm outside is definitely quieter," Seishiro commented dryly.

Subaru ignored him. "You also mentioned an offsite location?" he asked directed at Shang.

"Yes," she nodded. "Miyagi-san managed to acquire office space at the Nanden. Forty jo, fully accessible and within five minutes response range of an emergency medical center in case—"

Subaru had heard enough. "Practicing white onmyojutsu is not a disability. Stop treating it as one! Besides, ferrying all case files including evidence back and forth between here and a place that once was the very heart of the Ryukyuan kingdom is just asking for trouble. In case you forgot, the onmyo-ryo will assess all cases, not just the ones for the Sumeragi!"

"With all due respect, Sumeragi-san. We have no experience with your brand of magic. You can't expect us to know its details. We certainly didn't intend to—"

"Since when does intention matter in dark onmyojutsu?" Subaru cut her off. "You claim no knowledge of my art, yet you abide by its precepts instead of your own?"

"We meant no disrespect," Shang protested. "We—"

Seishiro, still standing in the doorway, laughed out loud. "Oh, you crossed that line about fifteen minutes ago. Subaru just bore it fifteen minutes longer than I'd have."

"Miyagi-san can't possibly—"

"—know that the Dao demands symmetry in its sources?" Seishiro's question had a distinct edge as he made a step forward, allowing the door to close behind him. "I doubt that. Which means that by implying Subaru's weakness, he implied mine. Something I won't allow to stand. So, now you have to make a choice: do you work for Miyagi—"

She paled. "I can't possibly—"

"—or us?" Seishiro, hands carelessly in his pant pockets, was a picture of relaxed lassitude. "Think carefully about your answer," he advised her with an intimate smile towards Subaru. "The last person threatening me didn't die by my hand."

She swallowed. "I work for the Sakurazukamori," she stated defiantly, "but I won't survive a confrontation with Miyagi."

"Confronting him isn't your job," Seishiro said dryly. "Getting the onmyo-ryo off the ground however…" He let the sentence trail off.

She gathered herself up and gave them both a respectful bow, repeating it towards Subaru. "I apologize for my earlier behavior, Sumeragi-sama. I followed my supervisor's suggestions and should have known better." She swallowed. "What do you need for the onmyo-ryo?"

"Office space at the front," Subaru told her. "I concur that these rooms here are spiritually healthy, but case assessment this far back from the entrance just doesn't make sense. You'd have to bring all the evidence – and possible witnesses – past everybody else working here."

"Witnesses?" she asked, perplexed.

"All cases are to be assessed," Subaru explained patiently. "We won't know who will have to answer them beforehand, from my side that can mean witnesses or worried relatives—"

"—and for us full records, including top-secret files, criminal reports, and samples best left contained if not needed," Seishiro finished. "Or do you use the coffee kitchen for testing spiritual threats on Okinawa?"

"Of course not, but… may I suggest rooms not directly connected to the lobby in that case? The lifts could become inaccessible in case of an incident."

"Your suggestion?"

"The library next to the meeting room is only one door further down the corridor from the reception and has an anteroom to provide for quietness and…" She glanced warily at Subaru. "…to prevent escapes."

"People or ghosts?" Subaru asked Seishiro.

"Ghosts." Seishiro snorted. "Even this far south our modus operandi doesn't include prisoners." He turned to Shang. "Show us, then contact the building administration. We also need representation at the reception desk upstairs. I don't want all and sundry with a sundae traipse down here to report their kids' goth doodles. If Miyagi complains, refer him to me."

 

Crowne Harbor Hotel
4 hours later

 

"You think we can trust her?" Subaru asked once the door to their warded room closed behind them.

"Yes," Seishiro nodded, tossing his jacket onto the bed. "At least up to a point. She works for the Mori and chose survival. I wouldn't trust her in a fight, but she will have the library emptied out, the grimoires sealed and stored, and the painters ready to go once the purification is done." He shrugged. "Clean office furniture might be a stretch, though. People here also go on vacation."

Subaru sighed, dropping into one of the delicate woven armchairs. "Purifying those rooms will be tough. And keeping them pure…" He shook his head. "Local sensibilities will also have to be addressed, in case Ryukyuan people or spirits are involved."

Seishiro nodded. "And don't forget the COO's office. At least one of your people has to share it, or operations will just be run around you."

"I don't share your office, either," Subaru reminded him. "And Miyagi's office is a minefield."

Seishiro laughed. "I'm CEO. Yours is the COO office. That constellation is unique to the Tokyo section. – And Miyagi is the minefield, not just his office."

"I expected a spell under his tatami," Subaru remarked sourly. "And those file cabinets of his are positively asinine. I'd prefer having my people at least on a different floor from those."

"Too obvious, but I wouldn't vouch for those tea bowls. You can put anything under that kind of patina." Seishiro took a seat in the second chair, resting his elbows on the table. "The cabinets will have to go, along with the rest of his furniture, if your representative is to have a chance at survival. But a different floor—" He shook his head. "Office space is at a premium here and we don't own the building. The ministry will make sure that the OMR gets that space at the reception desk in the lobby, but aside from that we'll have to make do with what we have, meaning Miyagi's people have to share."

"Miyagi's people?" Subaru inquired warily. "What about Miyagi?"

"I don't expect him to remain in the office," Seishiro replied wryly. "But in case he does, the purification should be done with your representative present and moving in." He yawned. "Otherwise we'd have to guard those rooms 24/7."

"Reminds me, I still have to call the main estate for Ameru's contact details." Subaru sighed. "And I'd better do that exorcism myself. Who knows what else the old man put into that room and the hall in front of it."

 

Tuesday, May 2, 2000

 

It was early; the sun was just crawling over the horizon, bathing Naha in an orange glow that still bordered on pink. Subaru plugged the phone in and slowly dialed the number for the Sumeragi estate, hesitating before the last digit. He hadn't made that call yesterday. Privately, he admitted that he'd developed an aversion to calling the main house. He wasn't sure if it was because of the litany of inquiries about his spiritual health preceding each conversation, or the feeling that whoever took his call these days was expected to perform harae immediately afterwards. He wouldn't put that past the elders. And it would explain a lot of the delays…

=Sumeragi Estate, public relations office. How may we help you?=

"Yimura-san?" Subaru was relieved that his call hadn't been answered by one of his older relatives sometimes staffing the office. "This is Sumeragi Subaru. I'd like to speak with Shiro Ameru, please."

= I'm sorry, but Ameru-san returned home last week.=

"Can you get me his contact details? It's important."

=They will be in the registry. I'll go and look them up immediately. May I call you back?=

"Yes, of course." He gave her the number of the hotel. "The extension is 904. If I'm not there, please leave a message at the reception. Thank you." He hung up. It would take a while for Yimura to get back to him. The registry was deep in the main house, holding meticulously thick, hand-sewn tomes with all the information to be had about his clan. Unfortunately, thick tomes preserved for eternity weren't as searchable as a rolodex. He looked contemplatively over to the bed, where Seishiro was still sleeping, lying face-down huddled into the pillow, avoiding morning light and sounds alike. The burns on his back didn't look like another trip to the beach or out onto the water would be a good idea for him today – or tomorrow.

But this was the first time ever that Subaru actually was on vacation. At least, somewhat on vacation, though without Seishiro insisting on taking on the local Mori office, Subaru knew he wouldn't be even that. There had to be something that both of them could enjoy. But after that 'diplomatic visit', he doubted that a sightseeing trip to Shuri castle was a good idea; the often-cited local authorities might object. For the same reason, Yanbaru with its subtropical rainforests was out of the question. And one of the tropical gardens… no, a garden wasn't a place he'd visit with the Sakurazukamori, even if his Tree was in Tokyo!

Venturing out on to the balcony, Subaru realized that vacation activities with Seishiro were… a challenge. He leaned against the railing and mentally went over his list of requirements: no direct sun light, no gardens, no Ryukyuan cultural heritage sites; determinedly he also excluded nightlife and shopping – it wasn't as if Tokyo lacked in both – and war memorials; they'd both handled enough death for a lifetime! He'd spotted an offered tour to an awamori distillery, including the famed storage facilities underground, but the subsequent taste-test— Subaru shook his head. No. He'd like to see the whale sharks in the aquarium, but at this time of the year, they'd see more people than fish. Way more people. No. He sighed. Their clans had protected Japan since the sixth century. There wasn't much that wouldn't involve business for at least one of them—

The phone rang and Subaru went back inside. The bed was empty. The sound of running water came from the bath. He picked up the phone on the third ring, already looking for a pad to jot down the address and pager number Yimura would give him.

 

"You won't believe this," Subaru said when Seishiro came out of the bath, hair still wet and a towel slung haphazardly around his hips. "Ameru-san's here."

Seishiro halted abruptly, almost losing his towel. "On Okinawa?"

"In Naha. He's running a bookstore in Makishi."

"That's a shotengai in Tsuboya." Seishiro frowned. "Shang mentioned a spiritual conflagration there last spring."

"In the shotengai?"

"In Tsuboya. Apparently, it was the only major event here during the Final Year."

"Kamui's place," Subaru concluded. "He and his mother hid on Okinawa before the Final Year." He hesitated. "She died here."

"When did he arrive?"

"Kamui was nine—"

"Ameru," Seishiro corrected impatiently. "When did he come back to Okinawa?"

"Last week, why—?"

"Before or after I bought the tickets on Thursday?"

"I don't kn—"

Seishiro was on the phone before Subaru finished speaking, rapidly dialing a long number from memory. The call was picked up on the second ring. Whatever was said on the other end was cut short. "I need the travel data for one Shiro Ameru to Naha, Okinawa. Flight taken, date and time of arrival, including time of booking, ASAP. He likely started from Kyoto sometime last week. – Yes, I'm waiting."

"Why are you investigating him?" Subaru asked sharply.

Seishiro covered the transmitter. "If he booked after I bought the flights, I consider him a spy for your elders, and he won't get anywhere near the section office. If not— Yes, I'm listening." He frowned briefly, then cut the line with a brief, "Yes, that will be all," before disconnecting the phone. "He's off the hook," he told Subaru while taking underwear, a loose white shirt, and pants out of the wardrobe. "Flew on Wednesday, ordered the ticket on Tuesday morning by phone. That's two days before I was sure we could leave the Tokyo office to their own devices."

"You are paranoid," Subaru told him, shamelessly watching him dress.

"Just because your relatives are less literal than mine with the backstabbing doesn't mean they aren't effective antagonists." Seishiro zipped up and closed his belt. "So, do you want to try that pager, or shall we pay him a surprise visit after breakfast?"

 

Makishi shotengai, Naha
Shiro bookstore
late morning

 

Makishi turned out to be a low to medium income shopping district; meticulously clean, but the curved Perspex roof shielding it from the midday sun and Okinawa's tropical downpours had seen better days. There were places where a pane was cracked or even missing, and entrepreneurial inhabitants had turned these daylight islands into indoor gardens with potted palms, some of which almost reached the ceiling by now, turning decay into design.

The shops themselves were small and diverse, catering to locals rather than tourists like the glitzier locations in downtown Naha. A small food court sold something called Taco rice next to a shop holding cheap, hand-made jewelry. They found Shiro bookstore wedged between a narrow shop for colorful women's clothing on the right and a place that seemed to alter clothing and sell electronics and handbags on the left. Its sign was hand drawn with white paint, showing a plump owl with rectangular reading glasses that somehow reminded Subaru of Ameru's.

The shop itself was narrow and crammed with dark brown bookshelves that created a labyrinth lit by frosted bulbs hanging in regular intervals from the ceiling. Several book boxes with colorful picture books for children and a shelf on rolls holding an eclectic mix of manga and artbooks almost hid the desk by the door. A blackboard hanging from the ceiling above it announced a discount for second-hand middle school books, and that 'occult literature was available on request'. A set of two pottery shisa with bright vermillion manes sat left and right of the cash register.

Strong wards prickled against Seishiro's shields when they entered the shop. The male shisa's head flew up, staring at them. Ameru was nowhere to be seen. Faint voices came from behind the high shelves. "…yes, I can hold the book for you, but we're closed for the rest of the week. You can fetch it next Monday. I'll just make a note that—" He stopped dead at the sight of Subaru.

"We aren't ghosts, if that's what you fear," Seishiro quipped lightly into the ensuing silence.

"O—of course not." Belatedly, Ameru dropped into a respectful bow. "Subaru-sama. Sakurazuka-san. Please excuse my surprise. I wasn't—"

"Shiro-san?" An older man inquired from behind him. "Is everything alright?"

Ameru straightened. "Excuse me. – Yes, Ishigo-san. Just an unexpected family visit. I take it you'll collect your book on Monday?"

"Yes, that would be very nice. Thank you. Have a nice day." With that he trundled out down the shotengai, lingering in front of the electronics-and-handbags store next door.

"The gentleman doesn't look like a typical customer of your neighboring business," Seishiro said quietly.

"Ishigo-san is a regular," Ameru said, placing the worn book beside the cash register and rapidly scribbled a note holding the name and the expected date of purchase, which he stuck between its pages. "And very engaged in the neighborhood community. He's been buying my books for years." He fetched a sign 'back in a few minutes' from behind the desk and hung it on the blackboard. "May I offer you tea upstairs?"

"You don't fear theft when you leave your store unattended?" Seishiro asked amused.

"There are a lot of Ishigo-sans in this neighborhood," Ameru replied dryly, leading them up a narrow staircase in the back of the store. "They're a more effective theft-prevention than any locking system would be."

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

"You want me to—?" Ameru, sitting in front of cooling tea, stared at them dumbfounded.

"—lead the local office of the onmyo-ryo, yes," Subaru confirmed. He sat next to Seishiro on the opposite site of Ameru's low table. Both held their teacups but had taken only the sip necessary for politeness.

"I'm certain the main house will send someone—"

"They want to send Susumi-san," Subaru sighed. "She's a very talented onmyoji, who manages a high case load, but—"

"—the local Mori section would have her for breakfast," Seishiro completed dryly. At Subaru's and Ameru's surprised looks, he shrugged. "We were officially enemies in the last millennium. Did you expect my side to not keep tabs?"

"Her shikigami is a sparrow," Subaru explained. "She's skilled, but here that's just not enough."

"Subaru-sama," Ameru swallowed, clearly discomfited. "I haven't worked as an onmyoji in years. I merely sell books about it these days, making sure that nothing dangerous gets disseminated. I'm sorry, but I can't possibly—"

"Ameru-san." Seishiro put his cup down. "Kyushu office doesn't need the most skilled onmyoji. It needs somebody able to stay alive long enough for the changed situation to show its worth. Whoever is going to represent the Sumeragi here must know very well how to look after himself. And those protection spells you cast about Subaru – and your room in Kyoto – are among the best I've seen in the business." Ameru opened his mouth to say something, but Seishiro didn't give him the chance. "Moreover, our file on you is empty. Somehow, you flew completely under the radar. Something I'd consider mildly irritating if we were still at war, but as things are—" He smiled with a distinct edge. "I take it as a welcome advantage."

"And we need this venture to succeed," Subaru added quietly, glancing over at Seishiro. "There is no choice. The Dao has taken hold. At the moment, the spiritual changes are still small, but their intensity is increasing. Right now, the elders even object to joint case assessment, but sooner or later, I expect that we will have to address cases together to succeed. This isn't about what we—what I want, it's about what is necessary to ensure spiritual stability for Japan."

"The elders are still unconvinced?" Ameru asked incredulously. "Despite the emperor's endorsement?"

"Normally, I'd be flattered that my involvement is seen as more important than the Tenno's," Seishiro said dryly, "but they're wasting time."

"Time, we don't have," Subaru confirmed.

"Right now, I have a blade at my people's throat," Seishiro explained, "but it's getting duller by the minute. We have to have the OMR up and showing its worth by the time they decide they can ignore it."

Ameru looked down at his hands in front of him on the table, the knuckles white under his skin, almost shaking. "Before we continue this," he said quietly without looking at them, "you have to know that before I left the clan twenty years ago, I had a solid claim to Subaru-sama's position. After the two of you left Kyoto two weeks ago, the elders tried to reinstate me as head in his stead." He finally met Subaru's eyes. "I refused."

"Why?" Seishiro inquired.

"Because I should have refused them when they forced me to leave my family twenty years ago. I should have questioned the prophecy that had them send me away to father a child out of wedlock. Instead I obeyed." An angry huff. "I'm done obeying them." There was dead silence, until Ameru sighed and continued quietly, "My abilities are on par with my mother's and rank second only to yours, Subaru-sama, though – as Sakurazuka-san stated correctly – they are more defensive in nature and I haven't worked on any cases in years. However, placing me in the onmyo-ryo will throw the clan into utter turmoil. I don't need a gecko shiki spying on the council to know that."

"Speaking of which," Seishiro asked, "your real shikigami isn't a gecko, is it?"

"No, it's a grey heron."

Subaru froze. That couldn't be—Impossible. "Who is your mother?" he heard himself saying.

There was pain in Ameru's eyes when he answered, "Your grandmother."

"Sumeragi-san?" Seishiro asked, mild interest in his voice.

Ameru shook his head, breaking the painful spell. "I lost that name when I was sent away to father a Kamui. I will not reclaim it."

 

Shiro. Kamui. The pieces in Subaru's mind fell into place. Kamui's father. His f— "You were a non-topic," he said, his voice shaking. He wasn't looking up. Not yet.

"Kamui doesn't know me," Ameru said calmly. "For his own protection. And Tohru's."

"In Kyoto," Subaru specified. "Hokuto-chan—used to tell me stories about our parents, but I knew she made them up for my sake. And grandmother…" His voice trailed off.

"We won't be speaking of that," Ameru quoted sadly. "I know."

Subaru sucked in a breath. "She didn't even tell me I was fighting beside my half-brother." That above all felt like betrayal, utmost betrayal of him and Kamui.

"Would have been awkward without admitting your father's existence, wouldn't it?" Seishiro beside him, unperturbed drank from his tea. "It's not as if the Magami spent their summer vacations in Kyoto to explain the mechanics."

"The secrecy was meant to protect Kamui," Ameru repeated. "The less he knew and the less was known about him, the less could be used against him in the Final Year. I don't disagree with that." The blunt statement was strangely comforting. "But you and your sister were another matter. The main house separated us long before they sent me to the Magami and there was never a reason given for it, save your gift."

"Your shikigami," Subaru said quietly. "When it was time for me to call mine, I got endless admonitions not to call a large heron like my father. It's the only thing grandmother ever told me about you—" He stopped, frowned. "—about our parents in general."

"Yet she used a night heron to track us down when they abducted you to Kyoto," Seishiro reminded him. "Talk about hypocrisy."

Ameru snorted. "My mother's night heron is a small bird, catching fish and the occasional frog. A grey heron takes on other birds up to rails and ducks and even the occasional mammal. They couldn't construe it as a white animal."

"Which brings us back to you being the perfect choice for the local OMR," Seishiro cut in. "Miyagi presents an osprey. Your heron wouldn't be threatened by it. And tactically, it's perfect. By placing you in the OMR, we deprive your elders of their Plan B, namely replacing Subaru with somebody compliant. – That's Sun Tzu[9] to a T."

 

Crowne Harbor Hotel
several hours later

 

Subaru was not in their room when Seishiro woke up. The balcony was also empty. The dimming light told him that night was approaching rapidly. Cursing his still limited ch'i, he got up, shrugged into a fresh shirt – the pants would do again – and tracked his prey through the marks up to the rooftop café. The café was comparatively quiet given the busy season. Dusk was falling fast now, and waiters were placing lanterns made of colored glass on each of the tables; their flickering light not strong enough to dim the colors of the setting sun wandering up the high-rises of downtown Naha, fighting with the neon lights filling the streets between them. Seishiro stopped one of the waiters to order an iced macadamia cream coffee and headed over to the table at the far end of the roof where his prey sat with his back to the roof.

"I didn't expect my father…" Subaru said quietly, when Seishiro pulled out the other chair to sit down beside him. He nursed a large cup of plain coffee, likely to keep his hands from shaking. "I mean, I knew his shikigami was a heron, but I always believed that to have been an honest mistake. They look like cranes when called young and those are very respectable shikigami in my family. But he accepted it on purpose."

"Ameru-san has a rebellious streak," Seishiro concurred, "but it's mild. Yours however—"

"I'm not rebell—" Subaru began.

"Oh yes, you are. Your father defied his elders in the small things but obeyed them even in their most outrageous demands. You on the other hand—" He smirked at Subaru's baffled expression. "You followed in all their petty mannerisms, worked yourself to the bone, and then you left to sleep with the enemy. What would you call that?"

Subaru looked at him over his shoulder. "Effective."

Seishiro burst out laughing, but Subaru stayed solemn. He drank the last of his coffee. A waiter came and brought Seishiro's order. A tall glass filled halfway with black coffee and crushed ice, topped with frozen cream and nut splinters. A long silver spoon stood in it.

"I want to give you ch'i tonight," he said when they were alone again, stopping Seishiro from licking the cream off the spoon. "I'm worried about the exorcism and the purification tomorrow. I can do that without full strength, it requires concentration and focus much more than power to unravel such spells, but I'm afraid your people will confront me – and they already do overestimate me."

"Your first visit to the Tokyo offices complicates matters," Seishiro agreed. He put the spoon down and lifted the glass for a first sip. "Though it might make them more cautious."

"Or more devious," Subaru said quietly. "Ameru's protective spells are flawless, but if anything skips past me during purification, it will undermine their foundation and leave him defenseless. If they come at me while working at it—" He shook his head. "That's why I want you at full strength. You know them better and they won't expect that. Not… so soon after they ran a knife into your back."

Seishiro studied him warily. "You've done a transfer of your own ch'i before?"

"Yes." Subaru swallowed. "And I know how to limit it, but… the intimacy will be a challenge."

"It doesn't have to be intimate," Seishiro reminded him.

Subaru put his cup down. "It will be intimate," he insisted, showing the pentagram on the back of his hand. "It can't be anything else."

"Because your marks will affect it?"

"Because it's you."

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

Subaru closed the bathroom door behind him, leaving Seishiro to check on their wards and prepare the bed. He swallowed as he put his worn clothes into the laundry bag provided by the hotel. Ameru's spells on his skin were all but gone by now, visible only in ghostly lines where clothing had protected them from the elements. And even those were more memory than reality. Ameru. Subaru's thoughts were swirling. His father. What would his father think about what he was going to do? But Ameru had been in Kyoto, even if he didn't remember seeing him among the assembly. He knew that he slept with Seishiro. And supported him anyway. And Kamui—His brother—half-brother—Did that matter?

This was no longer twisted. This had moved well past that by now.

And it would probably become worse. He shook his head.

It was all too much. Drawing a deep breath, he focused on what was immediately necessary. He put a clean towel on the shelf and stepped into the shower, closing the glass doors behind him. Okinawa's cold water wasn't as cold as Tokyo's, but spiritually it should suffice. He knelt in the shower, cleared his mind and rinsed himself three times, before reciting the norito. He clapped his hands and stood up, slipping on the wet tiles when he reached for the towel. He barely caught himself in time to keep from falling.

Heart racing, he left the shower and toweled himself down, then realized he didn't have a shikifuku to put on. The one he'd packed out of habit would be needed for the purification tomorrow. He met his own eyes in the mirror. His nakedness shouldn't make a difference; there were no physical secrets left between him and Seishiro. And he'd transferred ch'i before, his own as well as from donors, knew what to do, but this—

It doesn't have to be intimate. He'd almost laughed out loud at the naïveté of that statement.

It shouldn't make a difference. It did. Looking at himself in the mirror, Subaru realized he had to make it more like the normal ritual, or he'd never dare going through with it. He picked up Seishiro's shirt from this morning and shrugged into the white linen. It wasn't a shikifuku but left unbuttoned it felt close enough. He didn't have skin ink or auspicious oil, but given Seishiro's sensitivity to Amaterasu's light, their sunscreen was probably a good replacement.

 

It was almost midnight, when Subaru finally left the bathroom. Seishiro, sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for him, merely arched a brow at his attire. He hadn't undressed, hadn't even removed his shirt.

Doesn't he know how it's done? Subaru frowned. Was giving ch'i one of the few techniques without equivalent in dark onmyojutsu, like marking people didn't exist in white? But then, he knew that the Tree could heal, so maybe it hadn't been necessary… "Is giving ch'i part of your practice?" he asked bluntly.

"No." Equally blunt. "We take. There's an option for an inverted taking if necessary, but it's wasteful."

Subaru nodded. "Giving ch'i isn't wasteful, but compared to a taking, the flow of given ch'i is a lot faster and bidirectional."

Seishiro frowned. "Why bidirectional?"

"To ensure nothing is wasted." Subaru explained. "Transferred ch'i can be lost if it's not properly merged with your own, that's why taking it loses so much. The bidirectionality ensures that the combined ch'i is homogeneous on both sides." He thought about the explanation. "Maybe giving ch'i isn't a good description. It's really more of a sharing, and it can't be forced. If you don't want to accept it, you won't receive it."

"What's required for it?"

"Synchronicity in the tanden. And alignment of the meridians." He indicated Seishiro's pants. "These have to go. I will have to touch your lower tanden eventually." He swallowed and admitted, "and with you I can't keep that impersonal."

"That explains the unbuttoned shirt."

Subaru laughed, self-conscious. "Actually, I need the feeling of cloth to remind me what this is all about." His fingertips ghosted over Seishiro's arm. "To distract me from your distraction."

"I distract you?" A question over the shoulder while a pair of pants ended up on the foot of the bed.

Subaru licked his lips. "Yes." He put the sunscreen on the bedside table and hid his hands in the opposite sleeves. "But not today." He just hoped that wasn't a lie. "The ritual is defined by the persons participating in the exchange," he explained. "Between us, it can't possibly be—"

"—harmless?" Seishiro provided, tossing his shirt over the discarded pants.

"We are a lot of things," Subaru concurred, indicating him to sit on the edge of the bed again. "Indifferent is not one of them."

"Un-indifferent is one way to put it," Seishiro quipped, sitting down.

Instead of answering, Subaru dipped his fingers into the sunscreen and drew the first character on Seishiro's forehead: Kham[10]. Seishiro jerked back, but three swift, intricate strokes linked their spiritual centers for the ritual.

"I can't force you," Subaru reiterated. Feel me, he added through the link. This went farther than he had ever gone, but trust was an issue here. He couldn't give Seishiro control. Not yet. Not that early in the process, but the ability to strike—

He drew a relieved breath, when the response came, a mere brush, ensuring that the link was there, was indeed bidirectional. Beginning with the upper tanden directly associated with Amaterasu was a risk, but he knew there would be no spiritual dissonance between them, not with the Dao binding them, while middle and lower tanden would be a challenge. He had no idea what to expect in Seishiro's emotional center, and no illusions regarding his ability to control a carnal link. He would need Seishiro for that.

"I won't hold you," he promised, pouring sunscreen into his hand and kneeling between Seishiro's legs. Looking up at him, he prayed to get this right, prayed to have earned enough trust. "And I want—need you to control the carnal link once I formed it. Just… don't let go at the end."

He pressed his sunscreen-covered hand against Seishiro's chest. This time Seishiro tensed under his touch but otherwise didn't move. The heartbeat against his palm was rapid. He drew the second mantra into the thick layer of white cream: Ram.

He'd expected a void, or chillingly coldness, but Seishiro's emotional center was… balanced? And guarded. Yang was pervasive, though, expected of a hunter, and—

Seishiro caught his gaze, daring him to look closer. Subaru refused. Synchronicity was required; his curiosity didn't justify prying. Linen cloth whispered over his skin, reminding him of the ritual, of what had to come. He drew a deep breath and reached for the lower tanden—

Subaru drew the last character in power not sunscreen, completing the link. Lam. The skin under his palm was hot, tense. °°°On abokya beiroshanou—°°° Seishiro's involuntary response prodded his wrist. °°°—makabodara mani handoma—°°° Panic threatened. He focused on the mantra to remain calm. °°°—mani handoma jimbara—°°° He rose up on his knees, pressed himself against Seishiro, seeking the physical reassurance of someone who could—would stop him. °°°—harabaritaya un.°°°[11] Amaterasu's fire raced through his veins, pushing a wave of ch'i down the meridians. Giving himself to the sensation, Subaru directed the ch'i towards Seishiro—

Seishiro, who pulled him up onto the bed, spreading him. The shirt was pushed down his shoulders, immobilizing his arms, as Seishiro took over the kiss—and everything else. Thick white cream was pushed into him, followed by— The bed beneath him was soft, the body above him anything but. A hand closed around him, forcing him to spill between their bodies just as Seishiro came deep inside him—

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

Seishiro gasped. The power flooding him was hot, searing, almost consuming in its intensity.

Ch'i given willingly is so much more powerful. That, Subaru-kun, was an understatement.

He nearly missed the second gift in the wave of their combined ch'i rolling back and forth between them, felt the Sakura's sudden attention in the back of his mind. Blocking the Tree's inquisitive probe decisively, he breathed the spell of transmutation against Subaru's brow, and took the transformed second wave head on, its force tumbling them into darkness.

 

Wednesday, May 3, 2000

 

First morning light crept through the gauze curtains when Seishiro propped himself up on one elbow and studied Subaru, sleeping exhausted curled into his side. Briefly, he wondered if and how the mix of Sakura and Sumeragi ch'i in their veins would affect their powers. And – given that he was still out like a light – if Subaru had really kept enough for himself. The exorcism of the section office would be critical, and Miyagi was not to be underestimated. The man had been one of his teachers, and in the thirty years he'd known him, he'd made but one mistake: classifying Nandaro as a mere hawk. Still…

Subaru would need all the help he could get. Seishiro studied the delicate letters still visible in palest gold on Subaru's light skin where the sun hadn't touched it, and began tracing them, filling in the spots where the spells had faded completely, taking care that the power didn't show. He was tempted to trace in ink with the ballpoint pen on the nightstand, but Subaru would object to that, so he traced in power. The magic lay in the symbols, but the symbols didn't have to be visible…

He thought of the Dao, and the heady combination of ch'i filling his veins, and added a second layer, framing each tanden with a decagram tied into the spells. A shisa manifested at the end of the bed when he completed the third decagram. A deep growl filled the air. Seishiro folded his shields around him and his prey, called his shikigami while he tucked Subaru closer. Mine, he challenged. To his surprise, the guardian spirit nodded and disappeared in a puff that left scattered gold dust on Seishiro's clothes still thrown haphazardly over the foot of their bed.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

It was late morning when Subaru finally stirred, stretched and tentatively tested the responses of his limbs. He frowned and sat up. "You returned some of the ch'i, didn't you?"

"No." Seishiro settled comfortably back onto the pillows thrown against the headboard. "But our… un-indifference created a lot of jing[12]. And transmuting jing is part of my practice."

Subaru stared at him. "There couldn't be jing. We are not male and female."

"But the gods are," Seishiro said softly.

Subaru froze. "Your kami is…"

"Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto[13], yes."

"But you never worship—"

Seishiro arched a brow at him. "What do you think the Sakura is? I serve his direct descendant, for Tsukiyomi that's enough." He stretched languorously. "Celestial jing. One can get drunk on it. And on the ch'i made from it."

"Did you do that… before?"

"This was the first time you used your gift on me in bed," Seishiro reminded him. He ran a hand down Subaru's bare back. "I was as surprised as you."

Subaru groaned and yet leaned into the caress. "Amaterasu will never forgive me."

"Don't you think, she would have stopped you if she didn't approve?" Seishiro asked him. "She's a goddess. The Sakura is descended from a god and you may recall has no qualms doing so." He pulled him closer and Subaru placed a hand on his shoulder to support himself—

—and slipped off a splat of sunscreen. "We made such a mess," he sighed, flopping down beside him.

Seishiro shrugged. "Sex is messy. That's life."

"But we aren't at home. We—"

"Which means we don't have to do the laundry," Seishiro interrupted him.

"Aren't you worried what the staff will think about us?"

"This is a five-star hotel." Seishiro laughed out loud. "They've seen a lot worse than sunscreen and semen."

Subaru raised his head, frowning. "Do you mean a few things a lot worse, or many things slightly worse?"

"Yes." Seishiro smirked.

Subaru flung a pillow with a thick sunscreen smear at him and pushed himself out of bed. "You get the second shower for that," he declared.

 

Okinawa Prefectural Office Complex – 3rd basement level
Offices of Sakura Enterprises, Inc.
two hours later

 

"I disapprove of the Sumeragi performing rituals in our rooms," Miyagi stated firmly when Seishiro, holding a paper mug with coffee from the freshly purified – and warded – coffee machine, entered his office.

"Noted." Seishiro shrugged. "But of no concern."

"They may learn—"

"Did you set up something educational?" Seishiro asked, pushing Miyagi's office utensils aside to sit on the edge of the old man's desk. "Otherwise, all he will learn is the effectiveness of our cleaning staff. Something I consider advantageous for our company's reputation."

Miyagi, occupying a sitting cushion on the tatami at the other side of the office, hmphed. "The Sumeragi may claim to have ended the feud unilaterally, but—"

"Not unilaterally," Seishiro corrected, "and in my presence." Taking a sip from his coffee provided the time for that to sink in. "And with full disclosure to the Tenno." He rested his mug on his knee. "It is ended." He fixed Miyagi squarely. "So, did you set up—"

An explosion rocked the building. A brief flicker of awareness in the marks told Seishiro that Subaru had successfully contained whatever Kyushu's volatile COO had come up with. He shielded his paper mug from the plaster crumbs that rained down from the ceiling and arched a brow at Miyagi. "I take that as a Yes."

 

"We have to redo the plaster on the northern wall," Subaru said when he entered Miyagi's office a few minutes later, white shikifuku and red prayer beads still immaculate. "Someone bound a yanamun nurikabe[14] to the undercoat, making your library a rather immersive experience. I couldn't determine the depth reliably, so I removed all of it."

Seishiro nodded. "Would you like some coffee?" he offered. "I warded the coffee machine, so it's definitely safe."

"Thank you." Subaru smiled. "But Ameru-san will arrive soon, and I'd like to have this room done by then."

Miyagi stiffened. "You will not touch anything in this office!"

"Of course not." Seishiro put his paper mug down on Miyagi's desk pad. "The porters will remove the cabinets once it's safe for them to do so."

"The secrets of the Sakura are not for you to divulge," Miyagi told him icily.

"I beg to differ," Seishiro said mildly, pushing himself to his feet. The temperature in the room seemed to drop at his next words. "As does the Sakura. And its secrets certainly do not belong in file cabinets lining an office in the realm of another Guardian."

"An arrangement that protects the Sakura's most loyal servants and their secrets from its blasphemous Sakurazukamori," Miyagi huffed, and addressed Subaru. "I'm sorry, but you cannot continue in here. The integrity of the section office has to be maintained."

"An integrity that has to involve the Sumeragi from now on," Seishiro reminded him. "Which means half of this office goes to them – and those cabinets will either be disarmed or removed. Your choice."

The old man sighed. "Proceed, then." He indicated the cabinets lining the wall. "Though you may want to wait for your representative to arrive and set his own protections alongside yours."

"How considerate," Seishiro mocked, sitting down again.

"I wouldn't want to be accused of malfeasance in case something goes wrong with the Sumeragi's spells." Miyagi huffed. "Shall I get up so that you can check under the tatami as well?"

"Mitsuru—" Seishiro warned.

"I prefer to start with the cabinets, thank you," Subaru said politely, already focusing on the offending cabinets.

Apparently, they truly disquieted him. Seishiro observed the fuda in Subaru's hand glowing white and the black-inked spell on it had a halo of red power that he felt as a tantalizing vibration in his marks. Still—

A knock on the door. "Sakurazuka-sama, Miyagi-san." Shang bowed politely. "The representative of the Sumeragi has arrived." She stepped aside to let Ameru enter. Non-descript business slacks, a brown leather case that had seen better days. In Tokyo, Subaru's father would look like any other salaryman without career options; in Naha…

"Welcome to Kyushu section," Seishiro greeted him. "I'm glad you found it."

"It was helpful for you to have Shang-san wait for me upstairs." Ameru replied. "I don't think searching in the third basement would have occurred to me."

"Up until now being easily found wasn't high on our list of priorities," Seishiro concurred, "for obvious reasons." Sipping the rest of his by-now cooled coffee, he kept an eye on Miyagi. He wouldn't put it past the old man to have a shield spell attached to the tatami. He tensed when Ameru crossed his line of sight, but Miyagi didn't move. A faint rustle of paper being moved over metal edges came from the file cabinets, Subaru was testing the locks and doors.

"This is the first time, I see Subaru-sama performing his arts," Ameru said quietly as he put his briefcase down beside the desk. "He hadn't been inaugurated when I left. His control is impressive."

Seishiro nodded and tossed the empty paper mug into the waste basket. "Would you like a coffee? Subaru should be done soon—"

A flash of light erupted. The file cabinets exploded silently, engulfing Subaru in an eerie ball of flames and whirling metal shrapnel. Seishiro caught Ameru in an immobilizing spell to keep him from leaping into the flames. He shielded his eyes with his hand and went closer to study the raging flames behind an invisible wall. "Nicely contained," he remarked casually towards Miyagi. "Didn't even trigger the sprinkler system. But really, Mitsuru. Semtex? Isn't that a tad profane?"

"It's effective against people searching for spells." Miyagi got up from the tatami. "And it ensures that the secrets remain secure." He came forward to stand beside Seishiro. "And as you see, we still exist with one source of the Dao eliminated—"

The flames inside the containment area flickered out of existence. Shrapnel rained to the ground around Subaru's feet. His shikifuku was shredded and singed, showing a lot of bare skin. Unharmed bare skin with delicate spells flaring in brilliant Sumeragi red and Sakurazuka blue on it. His lips moved, casting a spell they were unable to hear. The containment collapsed.

"You wrote spells on me last night," he said accusingly to Seishiro, brushing flakes of burnt shikifuku off his arms, "without telling me."

"Consider them revenge for the bracelet," Seishiro returned with a smile and drove his left hand through Miyagi's thorax. Blood poured out around his wrist protruding from the old man's back. "Adjournment voided," he said calmly, waiting for the final convulsion.

"You cannot…" Blood bubbled on Miyagi's lips with the words. "…strike…Ryuk… expel……"

"Not your problem." Seishiro let the corpse slide off his arm. It landed with a wet sound in front of Ameru, splattering him with crimson drops.

Power erupted. Two white lion-sized shisa, vermillion eyes aflame, manifested in the room. The male roared, finger-long fangs flashed. Seishiro, bright red blood dripping from his left hand onto the floor, stood utterly still beside the corpse. The agitated shisa prowled towards him. "Sanctioned kill," was all he said as the male prepared to leap, and the shisa pounced—

—to close his fangs around the throat of the corpse, separating Miyagi's head clean from his body. Ryukyuan mabui for the Pine. The female trotted to Shang, standing transfixed at the door, and rubbed like a large cat against her legs before heading over to Subaru to do the same to him. Amused, Seishiro noted that pieces of singed shikifuku remained stuck to the shisa's white coat. She didn't seem to mind as she leaped smoothly across the headless corpse to the still immobilized Ameru, circling him as well, then turned to Seishiro. Surprised, he also received a light dusting of fur along his right side, before she disappeared in a puff of golden sparkles. The male with Miyagi's head in his fangs followed.

Subaru, in his tattered shikifuku in front of him, exhaled deeply. Seishiro casually removed the binding spell from Ameru, who immediately rushed forward. "Are you unhurt?" he demanded to know. "You—"

"I assume you no longer need to purify the cabinets," Seishiro remarked casually, interrupting them.

Subaru shook his head. "I wouldn't know how to find them in this. Ameru-san and I will wait in the library while you take care of the… rest."

"I'll see what I can do about those cabinets." Seishiro shrugged. He watched Subaru leading his father out of the room. The two of them gave Miyagi's mutilated body a wide berth. Shang held the door for them, then darted outside, leaving Seishiro alone with what Subaru had so delicately called 'the rest'. He snorted. Corpse, cabinets and paperwork weren't his favorites. Glancing across the office, he wondered if he could convince the Sakura to take care of the latter as well, though the NPSC would likely object to a form filled out in the ancient Chinese characters the Tree seemed to favor. Maybe—

"Miyagi always said you wouldn't be able to strike on Okinawa," Shang said into his thoughts, offering washcloth, towel, and a basin with cold water for him to clean his arm. Looking at the mutilated corpse of her mentor at his feet, she added, "He was certain of it."

"He never appreciated how far I am willing to go to achieve my objective," Seishiro told her, bemusedly accepting the washcloth to haphazardly wipe his hand. His tone sharpened when he continued, "Even down on to my knees in front of a foreign Guardian to beg for permission. Keep that in mind when working for me." He dropped the bloodied cloth into the bowl with a splash and finally called the Sakura. A whirl of petals erupted around his hand, removing even the tiniest speck of blood and tissue from his skin and his clothes before encircling the rest of Miyagi's corpse and scouring the destroyed cabinets. Shang stared, wide-eyed.

"He was born and raised in Fukuoka, " Seishiro informed her, "but painted himself a subject of Okinawa. The Ryukyuan mabui he absorbed for that belongs to the Pine, but the rest of him is the Sakura's."

By the time Seishiro sat down at the ramshackle desk to fill out the execution form for Kyushu's former COO, the Sakura hadn't left a hint of Miyagi's existence on the floor. "Have the tatami removed," he ordered Shang without looking up, "and check them for traps first. He challenged us to remove them, that's a good enough reason to consider them suspicious."

Seishiro, rapidly filling out the form, kept her in sight while she did as he told her. Cautiously approaching the corner with the three tatami, the sitting cushions and scroll on the wall, she crouched down with some distance to it, retrieved a set of index cards and a ballpoint pen from her pocket, and prepared A7 cardboard fuda. A moment later, she called a delicate white seagull to her hand. The shikigami picked up the first card and waddled rapidly across the first tatami, back and forth, back and forth, before placing the card down in the far corner. Benign. It returned and picked up the next card, repeating the pattern on the second tatami. Also, clean. The third—

The gull stopped, dug in its feet, then hopped back, shaking the card. Seishiro smiled. He had both his answers.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

Subaru's shikifuku showed way more skin than he was comfortable with and his silken prayer beads were either burned or scattered all over Kyushu section's COO office. He wondered if it was bad form to hope that the Sakura taking Miyagi's essence would result in a purified – and mopped – office. Probably, still…

"How can you be so calm?" Ameru asked him, calling him back to the here and now, into the presence of his father who sat in blood-sprinkled clothes on the single chair in Sakura Enterprise's recently purified former library. "They tried to kill you. Your… partner kept me from helping, even commented on the quality of the attack—"

"Seishiro knew I wasn't harmed," Subaru said with a sigh. "He'd notice a single scratch through the marks. And he put power into those spells. A lot of power." He looked, embarrassed, at the intricate letters still glowing bright on his skin. "I should have noticed."

"The spells I wrote can only protect against spiritual energy and its manifestations." Ameru shook his head. "They wouldn't stop a material weapon, much less explosives."

"They don't," Subaru said quietly, "but he added a second layer for that drawn solely with his gift."

Ameru's eyes widened at the implication of the power behind that. "What on Earth gave him the idea for protection spells without ink to anchor them?"

Subaru felt his face growing warm. "That may have been me," he admitted. "I—misbehaved."

"With a murderer," Ameru said bitterly. Subaru noted that he painstakingly avoided looking at the blood on his clothes. "He killed right in front of us."

"There was a valid execution order for Miyagi," Subaru told him. "I was there when it was issued, and when it was adjourned on the condition of full cooperation with the Onmyo-ryo." He lowered his head tiredly. "Before your arrival, I had to exorcise a malevolent nurikabe from this room. The spirit definitely wasn't here when Seishiro and I inspected it on Monday, and it would have trapped and famished everybody coming here unprepared." He sighed. "That alone forfeited Miyagi's adjournment. And as for me…

"I saw countless deaths last year. The Final Year didn't end in October. It lasted to the very end of December. I saw Tokyo flooded and in ruins, felt countless people dying when the evacuation plans couldn't cope, a million spirits screaming, begging for release, far too many to help them all on. When we called the Dao, all that was reverted to the moment when Seishiro acted to thwart the Final Battle." He raised his head, met his father's eyes squarely. "You think it doesn't affect me? It does. But I know the alternative. I know what the old man risked reinstating with his actions against us. And Seishiro killing him means I won't have to."

"You accept his actions too easily," Ameru protested. "You—"

"No." Subaru shook his head. "But I accept that the Sakurazuka are necessary, for the state and for us. His service is the reason that we can back down from an exorcism, can say 'it's too dangerous to continue', and go home. Did you never wonder what happens then? Or in case the people creating a spiritual disturbance don't accept their responsibility and continue with it? Do you really think the state can afford to just let them be? For over a thousand years, we had the luxury of hating the Sakurazukamori for what they do, because they did their job."

 

Ameru was still reeling from Subaru's outburst when the door to the anteroom opened and Seishiro, followed by Shang Namie, joined them. "Sorry to have kept you waiting," he said with a self-deprecating smile at Subaru, "I had to fill out the paperwork first."

"Paperwork?" Ameru gaped.

"Of course. The NPSC insists on immediate reporting. Valid order or not, I have to hand in proper documentation or I'm in trouble."

"I believe Miyagi's case was straightforward," Subaru said dryly.

"Allowed for a one-liner in the justification." Seishiro shrugged. "The office is clean. I removed the cabinets during the relocation of Miyagi's essence and Shang-san took care of the tatami."

"Were they innocuous?" Subaru inquired.

"No. Timed spell, though. Would have activated sometime next week. And we still have to account for those tea bowls."

"I will verify that."

"The tea bowls?"

Subaru snorted. "The office."

"We should find a coat for you first," Seishiro commented dryly. "Dress code is lax on Okinawa, but even here your attire will raise brows away from a beach."

"You should have bespelled the shikifuku, too," Subaru said, embarrassed.

"I didn't want to get up to get it – for obvious reasons."

"Don't you dare—" He stopped himself, shook his head. "This is not happening," he declared. "We are so not having this conversation in front of Ameru-san."

"There ought to be coveralls in the shelter supplies, Sumeragi-sama," Shang offered. "I'm certain we have some in your size, and—" She looked over to Ameru. "—and in yours, Shiro-san, in case you didn't bring a replacement suit."

Ameru swallowed, giving her a wan smile. "No, I don't have one. It's exceedingly rare for my books to bleed on me."

She nodded. "I'll fetch them.

 

The emergency coveralls Shang brought a few minutes later were bright orange, designed to be easily cleaned – and very visible. She offered them reluctantly. "I never saw spells capable of countering one of Miyagi's traps," she said quietly as she handed one to Subaru. "I didn't believe even the Sakurazukamori to have that kind of power and skill."

"I didn't devise those spells," Seishiro corrected her. "They're Ameru-san's work. I merely added some fuel."

Subaru bit back a laugh at that description. "Ameru-san is a specialist in protective spells," he added, playing along. "Given Kyushu section's reputation he's the natural choice for this position."

Ameru, having divested his blood-splattered jacket to put on his coverall, shook his head. "Don't be fooled, Shang-san," he said dryly. "I'm here because I was closest of our practitioners."

She blinked. "You are from Okinawa?"

"No, but I've been here for six years."

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Shang-san," Ameru said quietly, closing the coverall over his clothes. "We may be colleagues from now on, but please accept that you will have to gain my trust before I give you vital information about me." He awkwardly began folding his jacket so that the blood stains wouldn't be visible. "For now, know that I'm selling used books in Tsuboya."

"With spells like these?" she asked doubtfully, vaguely indicating Subaru.

"Let's say book thieves were never a problem of mine." He put the folded jacket on top of his worn briefcase and turned for Subaru. "Ready to face that dreadful office again?" he asked.

Seishiro sighed. "The only thing dreadful remaining there is that desk, but feel free to check for spiritual stains I may have missed." He indicated the door.

"What's with the desk?" Subaru asked as they headed over to the office.

"I think I got a splinter from sitting on it."

 

Subaru noticed Ameru's surprise when they found the office pristine, neither blood nor death leaving any stains, spiritual or otherwise. "Did you learn what was in the cabinets?" he asked, eyeing the now empty floor space that had held them before.

"No, but given Miyagi's disposition, I wouldn't be surprised if they had been empty and used as a decoy to weed out invasive practitioners."

"Possible." Subaru agreed. "Accessing anything in them would have taken hours, even for the one who placed the spells."

"The booby traps aren't usual office fare, either."

"You don't put something like that in your desk drawers?"

"And risk staining the carpet?"

"So, your containments are lacking?"

"You plan to test them?"

"I plan to test your inattention spells," Subaru returned. "This coverall is almost worse than the torn shikifuku. If you can hide an atrocity like that—"

Seishiro eyed him dubiously. "It might be easier to hide the holes in your other garments," he concurred, "also gives me a nicer view, but I'm afraid it'll have to wait until we're done here. Your representative is present, but I have yet to install mine."

"And we still need a local liaison," Subaru reminded him.

"Maybe we can resolve both issues at once." He waved Shang over to them. "I require a new chief of operations, Shang-san," he told her briskly. "Present your shikigami."

She blanched. "I'm not qualified for that position. I only assisted M—"

"—which means you know the current operations and the local pitfalls," Seishiro cut her off. "Aside from that, I expect cooperation with the OMR, and you proved efficient in that regard."

"The operatives would never follow my orders. I—"

"Put a copy of the execution form on the info board. Miyagi's cronies will think twice about confronting you after I named you his successor." Seishiro's smile had a distinct edge as he repeated, "Present your shikigami." A small white gull manifested on her shoulder at his command. "As it is, Shang-san!"

She swallowed. Green light enveloped the tiny gull, leaving a ruffled dark brown rail in its place. "What gave me away?" she asked quietly, running a fingertip over the unruly plumage of the Ryukyuan helper spirit.

"Its behavior," Seishiro told her. "A gull spreads its wings on an unstable perch, flightless birds dig in their toes. " At her perplexed look, he smiled. "I am a certified veterinarian, Shang-san. That's just not a cover." He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “If you excuse us now, I'm still on vacation.”

"I beg to differ," Subaru said firmly. "We are still on vacation. And I plan to make the most of what's left." He looked at Shang. "Please get me a contact with a representative from the prefectural office."

 

Thursday, May 4, 2000

 

"Representative Matsuda is already waiting for us." Subaru indicated a group of three people waiting next to a dark limousine on the VIP parking lot of Okinawa World, about the only place of the large theme park not crowded with buses and tourists.

A bald, rotund gentleman in – for Okinawa – rather somber clothing, and two men in cave gear – Scientists? – came forward when Seishiro turned the car into the slot next to them and stopped the engine. "Sumeragi-sama?" the representative inquired when Subaru got out of the car. All three of them bowed respectfully. "It is an honor to meet you. I’m very relieved that you could address the spiritual disturbance on such a short notice. These are Inoue-sensei and Kamiya-san, speleologists from Ryudai[15]." He indicated the two men waiting a respectful step behind him. "They will help you and your assistant reach your destination without harm to yourself or the cave system." Seishiro arched a brow at 'assistant' but said nothing. "I'll leave you in their care now and will await your return in the VIP lounge."

"Thank you." Subaru bowed politely and turned his attention to the speleologists. "Inoue-sensei, please accept that we cannot take you near the site. It may endanger you and us, if the suspected spiritual disturbance proves true."

"We understand," the older of the two answered. "However, if it is possible, we would like to bring you to the deepest point of the guided tour about 900 meters in. That way we can make sure that you know how to use the equipment and what to look out for. From there, you will proceed on your own. Is that acceptable, Sumeragi-sama?"

Subaru nodded. "Yes, thank you."

"However, safety regulations require that we send in a search team if you are overdue. Normally, that would be within three hours, since walky-talkies and phones don't work through the stone."

"Make that five, please." At their unease, Subaru added with a look at Seishiro, "We are a team of two and both of us have experience with underground work. We will be fine."

"May I ask the type of underground?"

"Mostly the Tokyo subway tunnels," Subaru admitted, "but also Shizushi cave in Kyoto."

The professor appeared relieved. "Shizushi has similar stone and footing, but it's shallower and vertical. Here you'll have to pass through the streams to reach your destination." He looked at Seishiro. "And you?"

"The Kasukabe cisterns[16] and the underground drainage system under construction, sometimes right after flooding, so streaming water and muddy ground are familiar to me; the subway tunnels – same as Subaru-kun—," Seishiro shrugged, "and my basement."

"The latter is a public health emergency," Subaru commented dryly. "Please lead the way."

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

They were given white caving clothes with attached water boots rather than the red sets of coveralls and water shoes for the tourists, before being directed to the employee facilities. The speleologists checked the fit of their gear thoroughly, reminding them repeatedly to avoid loud noises or stirring up the sediment in the cave, before they descended a steep staircase covered in baked stone tiles and, bypassing several guided tours, proceeded swiftly over the steel walkways lining the area open to the public.

The hike once they left the developed area went over slippery travertine terraces and sparkling white calcium carbonate rocks. The water grew higher, sometimes reaching up to Subaru's chest, while Seishiro had to duck under stalactite curtains that stretched for the water surface. They went in silence, concentrating on the treacherous footing and the labyrinthine rock formations to stay on the right path. After almost two hours, the ground rose and while the ceiling remained low with stalactites overhead within easy reach, the water now streamed just up to their knees. The cave widened around the stream, with dry ledges glittering white, orange, and even a pale pink when the lights from the hardhats passed over them. Subaru stopped. "We're there."

"You didn't notice a spiritual disturbance this far underground," Seishiro stated, keeping his voice low because of the forest of delicate stalactites overhead.

"No," Subaru confirmed equally quiet. "But these caves are 300,000 years old. They were discovered only in 1967, well after the war. The front section may be visited by thousands of people each year and was used for filming, but nobody's been down here except the initial university team who found it, and they were dedicated and focused." He looked at Seishiro and knew he had to say it more clearly. "The only spirits in here were already ancient when the Sakura took root, long before your clan or my clan, Japan or the Ryukyu kingdom came to be. To them, we are just children, toddlers to be ignored because they haven't yet learned to get along with each other."

He reached out, clasping Seishiro's hands, effectively silencing the marks. "I can no longer do this without you." He consciously lowered his shields including the outer layer that stayed in place even in deep meditation. "Don't keep yourself shielded, or you'll miss out on it," he whispered, allowing his gift to expand along with his senses, listened to the stream flowing over the ancient limestone, the constant dripping of water that even after 300,000 years expanded the stalactites, their own breaths, even their heartbeats. Feeling Seishiro exceedingly wary doing the same beside him was a gift all by itself, the sensation of wonder and awe rippling through the marks even more.

Down here, in the absolute spiritual quietness, all life was a spiritual flare. There weren't bats that deep underground, but a nest of ants was an industrious spot in a cranny in the far wall; the focus of a dedicated hive mind yet with a leeway to allow the individual slacker who took an eternity to clean just one of its antennae. A delicate shrimp pecked with its long pincers against the tip of Seishiro's boot, before deciding that the yellow rubber just wasn't tasty. And tiny fish flitted around their legs, curious about these unknown things that had appeared suddenly in the middle of their home. A sensation of superiority washed over them—

—Seishiro's shields snapped into place. In the light from this helmet, a tiny black gecko stared imperiously down at them from one of the meandering stalactites above.

"It sees itself as large as a dragon," Subaru whispered with a laugh.

"A correct self-image," Seishiro replied. "It's the apex predator of its world. It doesn't matter that it would be prey everywhere else."

Subaru felt Seishiro's pulse racing against his fingertips. He's never done this before, he realized suddenly. He himself had learned to seek these spots, rare as they were, and trust in them as a child, protected – shielded – by his grandmother, but nobody would have shielded Seishiro. By taking him along, sharing this gift of the ancients with him, Subaru had made another gift to himself. Yes, he concluded. Whatever the repercussions for this deceit of the Okinawan authorities, he had done well.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

"What made them believe they'd need a spiritual clearance for bedrock?" Seishiro asked, when he sorted their car into the lane that would let them turn onto the hotel parking lot. "A gecko with delusions of grandeur is hardly a spiritual disturbance, not even on Okinawa."

"I may not have a government badge giving me access to top secret data, but I'm still the Sumeragi head. If I call a government official about a possible spiritual problem—" Subaru gave him a small smile via the rearview mirror. "They seldom ask questions." He sobered. "Though the elders will, if it gets back to them."

"Authorities can be stubborn." Seishiro signaled and waited for the car behind them to pass before turning into the parking lot. "…and ignored."

"Speaking of authorities… What did you have to do in the cisterns?"

"Do you really want to know what they dug up there?" Seishiro spotted an empty slot not too far from the entrance.

"Yes. We did the purification of the construction site and the equipment," Subaru admitted. "There shouldn't have been any problems for you to address."

"A Mizuchi-obake[17]," Seishiro said dryly. "It managed to sit on the construction committee as a consultant."

"How big was it?" Subaru asked, alarmed.

"Probably a size M." Seishiro shrugged and turned off the engine. "I didn't measure its suits."

"In its natural form," Subaru specified, exasperated."

"About 25 meters long with spittle that ate through concrete, why do you ask?" Seishiro got out and waited for Subaru to leave the car as well. "It's not as if you purified the meetings."

"Are you sure about that?" Subaru quipped, closing the passenger door with a bang.

"With all those politicians involved?" Seishiro laughed out loud, having him pass by into the foyer. "You'd have exorcised half the Diet."

 

Friday, May 5, 2000

 

Seishiro left their bed in the small hours of the morning. He drew the balcony door close so that the cool sea wind wouldn’t wake Subaru, and leaned against the parapet, studying the dark coastline. The new moon was less than two days old; its thin sliver of light still maintaining the night, with the faint glimmer of city lights and ocean glow only expanding the sensation of vastness, its darkness so very different from that of the cave system. Seishiro drew in a deep breath, smelling green leaves and brine.

Subaru's subterraneous leisure activities had been… unexpected, and disquieting. Sensing animal spirits before they become spirits… Seishiro shook his head, sorting his thoughts. …was uncomfortable. I'm too far up the food chain for that, he concluded, but feeling his prey let go of his shields, reaching out in that softest of whispers had been exhilarating, worth the risk of thinning his own shields for a moment. Still, he preferred heights over depths—

On a whim, he called Nandaro, for once allowing his shikigami to stretch to its full size, and had it soar high above Okinawa, as high as the wings of a golden eagle spirit could take him. The light dome of Taipei glowed in the west. The Pacific in the east was still dark; the tiny islands scattered in its enormity still asleep before the dark blue line of earliest dawn. Five kilometers up in the sky, the wind rushed hard through the shikigami's primaries, spread for uplift. Down in Naha, Seishiro rested his hands on the balcony parapet and laid his face in the breeze.

 

~:~:~:~:~

 

Gulls were riding the winds along the tall cliff that shaded the beach – and even parts of the water. Subaru dug his bare toes into the sand, propped his arms against his knees, and watched the gentle waves some twenty meters away. There was really no comparison to the roaring surf they'd encountered on the east coast with the Pine. Here the calls from the white birds above easily drowned out the faint lapping of the waves.

Ameru had recommended the place when Subaru had asked him earlier if he knew a 'beach without sunlight'. And indeed, it would be very late afternoon before Amaterasu's gift touched the sand here. One of the reasons that Seishiro and he had the place for themselves, something Subaru previously had deemed impossible given the season. The other was that they'd had to cross through the fence of an elementary school to access the path down to it.

"I sometimes go there to fish," Ameru had told him. "There's a small creek near the cliff, and it's quiet. The students aren't allowed down to the water, and it's not sunny enough to draw the tourists."

"Because of the surf?" Subaru had asked, and Ameru had laughed.

"No, but the path is steep and the school's playing it safe."

"How did you learn of it?"

"It was Kamui's school."

Kamui.

Ameru. Their father who'd been sent away by the elders when he and his sister had been mere toddlers… Subaru drew a deep breath and watched the gently rolling waves, trying to discern how he felt about that now. There was anger, at Ameru for not having fought to stay with his children, but most of all at the elders for having sent his father away, for keeping his very existence from him, for not trusting him… with his father and most of all with his half-brother.

They could have died side by side last year without ever knowing.

Subaru dug his hand into the sand and balled an angry fist.

"If that's how you feel about a day at the beach, you're doing it wrong," Seishiro, stretched out on his belly on a large beach towel, reading a rather wavy paperback, commented dryly.

"If you were in Kamui's situation, would you want to know about your father and brother?"

"Of course," Seishiro snorted, changing pages. "How else to be prepared for the assault?"

"I wouldn't assault him. And neither would Ameru." And Seishiro's brothers wouldn't try to harm him either— Startled, Subaru realized that he knew about unknown relatives of both Kamui and Seishiro, and he had to figure out how to tell them about it. He sighed. When had his life become that complicated?

A small clam shell bounced off his arm. "You really don't know what to do about vacation, do you?"

"How should I?" Subaru returned, picking up the shell, studying it. The inside was pearlescent pink… a tiny hole where the muscle holding the clam shut in life had been attached. Beauty in death. Like Sakura—

"Start with doing something for fun." Seishiro returned his attention to the book. His skin glistened with sunscreen despite their place deep in the shadow of the cliff, making Subaru wonder if Seishiro was at risk of sliding off the towel into the riotous surf burbling around those tiny pink clams…

A handful of powdery white sand eliminated that unacceptable risk. "Better?" Subaru laughed, narrowly escaping towards the shallow water when Seishiro lunged for him. Seishiro gave chase, gaining ground rapidly. Subaru veered to the left—

—and was suddenly alone on the beach. "Hey, no maboroshi!"

"Says who?" Seishiro's voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere.

Subaru scooped up a hand of wet sand and queried his marks. Red flashed to his right; the wet sand caught Seishiro midriff. "Two can play—" He sputtered when a cloud of dry sand hit him mid-chest. The next moment, Seishiro tackled him into the surf, pinning him to the sand. Small waves lapped around them. Subaru pulled Seishiro's head down into a kiss—

A wave broke over their heads. They both jerked up, spitting seawater. Subaru burst out laughing. Seishiro shaking water out of his hair, chuckled. "At least, it washed off the sand."

Water splashed as a brown rail darted towards them. Subaru felt his face growing hot as he spotted Shang Namie on the dry beach. "Tokyo called, sirs," she called instead of a greeting; the color of her face likely matched Subaru's own. Wet swim briefs didn't leave much to the imagination. "The observation team reports unwelcome activity at Shibaura wharf."

With a curse, Seishiro was on his feet. "Footage?" he asked, already striding past her towards their towels and clothes.

"Not yet. But three of the cameras malfunctioned simultaneously. A team is on the way to investigate. There's an airfield five minutes from here. I had the Learjet relocated to it once I learned your location. It is cleared to start in Okinawa's restricted airspace within the next hour."

 

 

to be continued in

Business as Usual
part.1 – Demons

 

[1] single-age kusu: awamori (distilled rice liquor) aged for at least 3 years (and up to 20 years) without any blending with younger batches as is usually done. Its alcohol content is between 30 and 50 %; brands with over 60 % are used in funeral rites mostly.

[2] The Ryukyu kingdom was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1872, formally maintaining independence as a domain until 1879, when it became Okinawa Prefecture.

[3] Rafute. Braised pork belly cooked for several hours in awamori (20 – 50 % alcohol content) and coated in black sugar.

[4] Kaminchu are Ryukyuan practitioners, who serve as mediums, prayer and offering performers, healers/guardians, and diviners, and are sources of mediation both within the living community and between material and immaterial beings. Although men may display some of these abilities and often assist in rituals, women are the primary interlocutors between humans and spirits or gods in the Ryukyuan religion.

[5] Luchu Pine (or Ryukyuan Pine; Pinus luchuensis) is a salt-resistant conifer endemic to Okinawa that grows in wind-swept areas close to seawater. It is a large, evergreen tree with hard, dark-green needles as long as 15 centimeters. Its bark is gray-brown with deep furrows. Its resin is thick, colorless, and virtually transparent. Its cones are approx. 5 cm long.

[6] Mabui. Spirit in the Ryukyuan religion. The immortal essence of self and a defining characteristic of the respective person. Mabui is transferable by contact with objects, persons, or other spirits, and can be lost due to stress or helplessness. In case of sudden death, it may cling to the place of death, requiring an extensive ritual to be moved to a proper resting place.

[7] Miami Vice aired as "Maiamivaisu criminal investigators" from Oct 7, 1986 to Mar 29, 1988 on TV Tokyo. I picture twelve-year-old Hokuto being a fan, always watching it at a classmate's because the main estate wouldn't have a tv set, and – to grandmother's dismay – dragging Subaru along for it.

[8] Kajii Motojirō (1901 – 1932), "Under the Cherry Blossoms", short story originally published in Kobo Cabinet Bookstore's "Poetry and Poetics" Vol. 2 on Dec 5, 1928. The first line reads "There lie cadavers buried under the cherry blossoms!" (Translated version by Bonnie Huie available online at http://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/japanese/under-the-cherry-blossoms).

[9] Sun Tzu, The Art of War: III Offensive Strategy, 4. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy; […] 5. Next best is to disrupt his alliances. [translation by Samual B. Griffith, Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780195014761]

[10] Kham. Bija mantra (activating sound) for the upper tanden associated with spirituality and Vairochana buddha, who Kukai (774–835, a.k.a. Kobo-Daishi) associated with Amaterasu in the 9th Century. Bija for the middle tanden: Ram; and the lower tanden: Lam.

[11] On abokya… Mantra of Light (usually dedicated to Vairochana Buddha): "Praise be to the flawless, all-pervasive illumination of the great ritual. Turn over to me the jewel, lotus and radiant light." (Note: The official translation uses "mudra" instead of ritual. A mudra is a symbolic or ritual gesture which may involve the entire body, but most often only hands and fingers are used.)

[12] Jing (essence). In the Dao of sex, male/female copulation can result in the creation of jing as a sexual energy (instead of its loss through ejaculation), which a man can partially transform (transmute) into ch'i. [Wikipedia]

[13] Tsukiyomi. The moon god in Japanese mythology, who angered his sister and wife Amaterasu by killing the food goddess Uke-Mochi because she pulled a meal from her nose, mouth, and arse. The murder prompted Amaterasu to leave her husband and move to a different place in the sky, not wanting to see him ever again.

[14] A yanamun is an evil-spirited, malevolent yokai (supernatural being); a nurikabe is a yokai that takes the form of a wall – usually invisible – that encloses and traps passersby. A center of nurikabe activity is Fukuoka prefecture. [Wikipedia]

[15] Ryudai. Common abbreviation for the University of the Ryukyus, the largest public and the only national university in Okinawa Prefecture.

[16] Kasukabe cisterns (and the connected drainage systems). Fifty meters underground, it's the world's largest underground flood water diversion system located in Kasukabe, Saitama, under construction since 1992 to protect Tokyo from flooding (completed in 2006).

[17] Mizuchi is a great water serpent that dwells in a river or other stream and may breathe or spit its deadly venom on passersby; also known to demand human sacrifices from anybody disturbing its watery home (as with building dams, canals, drainage tunnels…); obake is a shapeshifting apparition in Japanese mythology.