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In You

Chapter Text

..: In You :..


.: Prologue :.
{alternatives}

 


"You cannot save anyone."

 

     The words hung in the air, the office quiet and still. He had seen enough. "You may have more spiritual power than ordinary people," he charged her. "But you cannot understand another person's pain. Although you pretend to understand, you cannot save anyone at all."

     "Very true," an unexpected voice responded -- a man's voice, deep and soft, echoing from the door that had opened unnoticed. Kumiko-san whipped her head toward the sound. Subaru stood firm.

     The atmosphere had changed abruptly with the opening of the door. There was no question of what this man was: a practitioner, warded and primed to strike. Moreover, he was strong -- strong enough to be a threat if he chose to be, and Subaru could feel his intentions. The cold, predatory instinct fixed on Kumiko-san filled the room so quickly that he thought at first he might choke. The drift of it was like an early spring breeze, chill on the skin and scented with a faint breath of cherries in bloom.

     Sakurazukamori, his gut screamed at him, echoing a thousand warnings from as long ago as he could remember.

     Subaru turned enough to examine the man, taking care to keep Kumiko-san in his sight. He wasn't old -- only a few years past youth -- and dressed in a dark suit with a trenchcoat that could have belonged to any anonymous passerby. The only truly remarkable thing was the gaze he'd locked on the director of the institute: a single-minded ruthlessness void of passion or anger or justice. It wasn't even murder in his eyes. It was nothing but death.

     The man took an unhurried step forward, moving to pass Subaru without a second glance.

     "Who are you?" Subaru called out, stepping between the man and Kumiko-san. He reached for the ofuda in his pocket, silently working the spell to strengthen his own wards. The attack his opponent had prepared didn't care whom it killed.

     Those eyes had turned on him now, and the golden light that reflected off them in the darkness reminded him of a hawk -- he, now, the prey. Then all at once, a flash of some thought passed over the man's face. The cold hardness of his eyes melted, and an incongruous smile broke his lips. "Well, well," the stranger said in a voice shockingly warm with amusement. "We always meet at the most inconvenient times, you and I."

     "What?" Subaru questioned. The heavy, deadly atmosphere that had come in the door with the man dropped away swiftly, the change so sudden that he hadn't even noticed his opponent slipping inside his guard. Taking in the touch of a finger on his cheek, the smile that now resembled the bare fangs of a wolf, the conspicuous absence of the threatening aura that Subaru knew was still there -- every warning his grandmother had ever given about how he should stay far from this man was inconsequential beside half a moment in his presence.

     He hadn't planned on dying easily, but even as he shifted his foot to step away and summon up a shielding spell, he could feel the stranger's touch freeze him in place. It was as if fear had rooted him there; the Sakurazukamori's spell moved like a shadow into his every limb. The sense of a solid floor beneath his feet vanished and his muscles went slack. Even as his mind slipped away into darkness, he felt the stranger catch him, and -- somehow -- death didn't terrify him at all. There was something comfortably familiar in these arms, something he remembered in the eyes staring back across the darkness.

     I know you... was the last thought in Subaru's mind before he surrendered consciousness.

     "Hush," the man said, his voice echoing close to Subaru's ear. "Sleep quietly now."

~//~

     The woman lay dead on the floor, and Seishirou paged through an open file on her desk. "Sumeragi Subaru. Such a surprise. It's a pity we've no time to play." The file contained a bare outline about the boy: a school name (CLAMP Gakuen, his own alma mater), a birthday (no doubt false), an address (of which he had a need). After running through the unfortunate necessities of sanitizing the boy's mind, he would drop him at his home, none the wiser. Were it anyone else, the trespasser would already be dead; but they two had unfinished business. Kneeling by the side of the couch, Seishirou picked up one gloved hand and traced a pattern over the back. He could almost feel the raised line of the scar where he'd left his mark here years before. There was a spell woven into the glove itself that blocked the traces of it, delaying his hunt so many years so far. Then again, he was in no hurry.

     Let the boy grow. What would it matter?

     "You're still adorable, Subaru-kun. Were you concerned for that woman as well? Perhaps you thought you could save her." He wrapped his hand around the unconscious boy's throat, feeling the pulse and the breath running through the fragile little thing. "I should call in our bet, should I not? Shall I say this is our second meeting?" It might be more of a challenge than he'd expected, if he were to leave those memories intact so that the prey knew the hunter on sight.

     It was too bad, really, but there were older rules to obey than the terms of their little wager. Rules that governed who could and could not witness the Sakurazukamori kill: only one of them could walk away with a memory of this chance encounter.

     He would have to satisfy his curiosity another day. Seishirou leaned his head close to the boy's, running his fingers along the fine lines of a pale, pretty cheek up to the pulse at his temple. He sought out the memories he needed to purge as he whispered -- if the Sumeragi could still hear, any words now would be nothing more than a dream half-remembered.

     "But I suppose I can let you run a bit longer, Subaru-kun."

 

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Do you still hate Tokyo?

Chapter Text

.: Volume 1 :.

{ dream }

     --screamed like shattering glass, every shard a reflection of his past, gleaming. The girl's blind attacks were like wind breaking into his mental body, as if a dream could sever muscle and skin from bone. But a dream could do worse than that, cutting into his mind like this.

     "Mitsuki-san. It's me. I'm here to help you!"

     She fell to her knees, her wail cracking the landscape of her own dreams into fragments, shivering and falling to pieces, into--

     Petals of sakura. The memory of the girl was gone. A gentle breeze carried flowers into a pink carpet at his feet. Everything was still, and a voice asked him if he knew why the petals turned pink, drops of blood falling silently as if to answer the question when they stained the pale drifts deep red. Even as his dream eyes looked up to the shadowed face in front of him, Subaru knew the sound of wind would obscure everything he needed to hear; and when it passed, he'd be awake.

     Awake, listening to his heartbeat thrum in his ears. As often as he'd had that dream in the nearly twenty-four years he'd been alive, he couldn't bring himself to gasp in fear or surprise. Consciousness claimed his mind without a fight.

     Subaru opened his eyes and stared up at the very real ceiling, feeling his blankets pooled around his feet as the cold sweat on his face dripped into the sheets and soaked his nightshirt. With winter outside, the chill ate into his bones. He didn't need to look at the clock. The stars through the window had shifted slightly from when he'd gone to sleep -- almost three hours. Dawn would be coming. He'd need to get to the college soon anyway. There was no sense in lying here, hoping to tempt another hour or two of rest.

     Rolling off the bed, he stripped his pajamas into the laundry hamper and pulled a fresh pair of gloves from his drawer as he headed toward the shower. The light would only make it easier to see the sweat outline of his body on the sheets, so he left the room dark. The nightmare had gotten worse, he thought, as he'd grown older. No doubt it was only his own mind feeding on his fears that made him feel that way. But the pain, searing the backs of his hands under the gloves his grandmother had given him, like the touch of heat that warned you when a candle's flame was too close... That had grown worse, too.

     Who was the man he dreamed about? The face never came through.

     He waited, flexing a fist in the light of the moon, for the twinges in his skin to subside before he stepped into the bathroom. Never take the gloves off where anyone might see, Grandmother had told him. Not even around Hokuto, not even a chance. He'd decided on his own that, whatever magic the gloves might contain, he ought to keep them on -- like bandages on a wound -- until that ache went away.

     Pain like a burning weight on his wrists every time he dreamed of sakura.

~//~

~//~

dream ▶ noun a series of thoughts, images, and sensations occurring in a person’s mind during sleep
▪ a state of mind in which someone is or seems to be unaware of their immediate surroundings
▪ a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal
▪ an unrealistic or self-deluding fantasy
▪ a person or thing perceived as wonderful or perfect

"dream". The New Oxford Dictionary of English. 1st ed. 1998.

Chapter Text

     In his five years as head of the CLAMP School Department of Veterinary Medicine, Katou Kinji had never handled a case quite like this one. But then, he had never met a student quite like Sumeragi Subaru. The college board had warned him that the young man would fight for his credit hours despite the unrelenting schedule imposed by his family duties as the premier onmyouji in Japan. Even if he had to pass every single course on make-up classes and extra assignments, he'd find a way. And when Katou had scoffed that no student could convince a medical school to let him do it even if that student were extraordinary enough to manage the feat...

     Well. The dean had shaken his head, and told him, "You'll see." Now Sumeragi Subaru -- that stiff-necked son of a bitch -- was staring at him with those undoubting green eyes, as serious and bottomless as mist covering the road at night, and Katou knew exactly why all of his teachers had given him second and third chances. Even when it meant that, practically, they were teaching an additional class for a single student on their own time, not one of them had been willing to tell him he was asking the impossible of them and of himself. And he'd done it. After two years of veterinary school, internship was the only thing between the thirteenth head of the Sumeragi Clan and a license to practice.

     Despite the audacity of his request, the Sumeragi looked neither humble nor arrogant. He held himself easily and wore a haunted trace of a smile like he'd long ago learned to weaponize pleasantry. Or perhaps like he'd been born with the knack. It wasn't quite human, the way Sumeragi-kun could talk as if being called "unsuitable" was some kind of honest misunderstanding.

     "I understand the concerns raised by the Director of the CLAMP Veterinary Hospital as to my ability to undertake an internship in the school facilities while maintaining my duties to my clan. However, if it's possible to meet face to face, I'd like to talk with him myself. Maybe some arrangement can be made."

     "I'm sure it could."

     If anyone else from a family like Sumeragi-kun's had made a statement like that, Katou would have assumed the 'arrangement' would involve money or favors in the government. He would have thrown anyone out of his office who'd tried to buy a medical license that way. Hell, he'd have thrown them out of his school, and out of line for readmission anywhere in the country. He had connections of his own. But Katou knew the Sumeragi lord wasn't proposing to buy anything. He'd made it clear enough that he meant to earn it.

     Clearing his throat, the school director pulled a single, folded sheet of paper off his desk -- the only part that mattered of a letter he'd gotten this morning -- and handed it to his student. "It won't be necessary to convince Yasakawa-sensei of anything, Sumeragi-kun. At your teachers' request, I've made inquiries at suitable facilities off campus to see if anyone would be willing to take you as an intern. One clinic said yes. Just one, but I assume that'll be enough."

     "Yes! That's... all I could ask. Thank you, Katou-sensei. I can't..." A slight tremble at the edges of the paper betrayed the quiver in the young man's black-gloved hands as he unfolded the letter to read it for himself. That hint of a smile spread into real joy, and as soon as his eyes started tracing the text, his face dropped into a kind of soul-stilled disbelief usually reserved for someone who'd just been rescued from a burning building.

     It was the most moved he'd ever seen someone over an internship posting. Katou shook his head, trying to keep the Sumeragi's dropped smile from relighting on his own face. "You shouldn't thank me. Sakurazuka-sensei is eager to have you. An alumnus, and a good student, I recall -- apparently also the head of an old clan, so he's understanding of your position."

     The young man looked up, and all at once Katou realized that the disbelief drawing his features tight wasn't the happy sort. It was the kind of look that made him remember where the Sumeragi spent all of those days when he wasn't in school -- battling down ghosts in the worst corners of the city and demons summoned for desperate vengeance that a simple school teacher couldn't halfway imagine. They must have been tremendous spirits, whatever they were. Any ordinary haunt, he was sure, would've been exorcised that burning gaze alone, with no need for ceremony. The paper in the Sumeragi's hands was perfectly still. There was nothing as gentle as mist in his eyes now. They were clear, and they were sharp, and grim weight of them kept Katou rooted in his chair.

     "This gentleman is the head of the Sakurazuka clan?"

     Now that voice had steel Katou hadn't expected. Was there bad blood between their two families? He'd never heard of anyone who had a quarrel with the Sumeragi clan, and the school kept extensive files on student data so that things like this wouldn't have a chance to happen, for goodness sake! Someone should have noted something down before. Moreover, if there was a problem worthy of Sumeragi Subaru looking flat-out disturbed, why would the clinic director have accepted him in the first place? "I spoke with Sakurazuka-sensei myself on the phone this morning," Katou said. The man had sounded like a nice enough fellow. "He was quite clear on that point. Is there some issue I should be aware of?"

     In a slow evolution, the Sumeragi's face retreated from stunned through severe to strained serenity. "I'm sure it's nothing. Certainly nothing to concern the school. Thank you again for your help, Katou-sensei." Refolding the letter in crisp, deliberate strokes, he tucked the paper into a pocket inside his jacket and managed a smile Katou could almost believe was real.

     "Then you'll take the posting?"

     The student caught his own hand as it came out of his jacket, kneading the back of it as if some old, forgotten pain had suddenly flared up beneath the matte silk gloves no one had ever seen come off. Somewhere behind the shock lingering in the young lord's expression, a hint of his earlier, earnest joy still glimmered.

     "I will," he answered.

Chapter Text

     He rushed down the street, checking the buildings against the map in his hand and trying not to run. Failing, usually. Subaru found himself breaking into a jog every time he stopped consciously measuring his footsteps, but he could keep track of the bodies by the sound of footfall and the sense of living spirits swarming the street well enough not to collide with anyone. Of all the days for an emergency job! Subaru had gotten the call to go to Ginza the moment he'd left his morning appointment -- just when he'd planned to report for work at the clinic. He'd had to phone in to say he'd be late on his first day. Unfortunately, he couldn't ignore cracks in the foundation of the Ginza clocktower's shrine -- not this close to when Kamui would appear.

     Hokuto-chan thought that Grandmother just didn't want him taking this internship, let alone with this clinic, but surely she'd never be that petty. Besides, what were the chances that the Sakurazukamori would run an animal hospital in the middle of Tokyo? Grandmother had to realize that was a silly fear, even if Sakurazuka-sensei were the head of the clan. Sillier than an ordinary master of onmyoujutsu hoping he'd make it to that animal hospital before it closed so he could introduce himself properly, certainly?

     He stopped in front of a three-story building, an island of plainness with its undecorated plaster and red brick nestled among skyscrapers blinking with signs for host clubs, and theaters blaring music. Subaru double-checked the kanji in simple black on the sign: Sakurazuka Veterinary Clinic. His frosty breath rose in front of his eyes, obscuring the words for a moment. He felt a chill in his stomach, and the echoes of all his Grandmother's warnings filled his mind. But this was his choice.

     In the shadow of the sign, Subaru caught a glimpse of something fixed to the wall. It looked like a barrier ofuda, something guarding the building.

     So the doctor practiced onmyoujutsu. It was a family skill, and he would need to keep his space protected. That wasn't a crime. A set of wards didn't make the doctor a cold-blooded killer. Besides, Subaru thought to himself, he'd waited too long out here. It was past time to go inside, assuming the office wasn't closed.

     He heard a woman's footsteps jogging toward the door and stepped to the side to pull it open for her before she ran out into the January air. She smiled as she thanked him before dashing off toward the subway, holding her hat on with her hand. Her coat was long, but he could see the blue trousers of a medical uniform. She must have been one of the nurses.

     It'd be rude to call out to her and ask if the doctor was still in. They hadn't even been introduced yet. Nothing to do but walk in and find out for himself, despite all the nervous energy gnawing at his stomach. Subaru took a step around the door toward the waiting room--

     And ran full force into a man's chest. A trace of old cigarette smoke and sandalwood cologne lingered in the air.

     "I'm so sorry," he stammered at the gentleman.

     How could he not have not felt the presence of someone so nearby? Not to mention, the stranger's footsteps were perfectly audible as he stepped aside.

     "My sister keeps telling me to watch where I'm going," Subaru added when the stranger didn't reply to his apology.

     The man leaned against the sign out front, and blood rose to Subaru's cheeks. Most people would have gone on their way. This man... Was he staying to talk? Or at least stare silently, it seemed. Even his silence -- the way he ran a quick glance from Subaru's toes to his eyes, then locked their gazes -- pulled Subaru to a halt the same way gravity held him to the Earth.

     "I think I'll survive," the stranger answered at last, an easy grin on his lips, and he slipped a pack of Lucky 7 cigarettes out of his pocket.

     So he was staying to smoke, then, not for a conversation. Still, Subaru felt like his feet had anchored themselves to the pavement. He couldn't even take a step to stop the door from slamming. The man's trench coat hung open over a suit, double-breasted in a dark blue-gray fabric that looked too vibrant to be anything but new. New and fashionable. He recalled how, just last week, Hokuto-chan had squealed that double-breasted suits were 'totally the look this winter!' and put a fashion spread in his face to ask if there was a style he liked. If it hadn't been for this man's glasses and the cigarette he was lighting in his mouth, he would have looked just like the models in the magazine.

     Maybe more handsome than the models, Subaru couldn't help thinking, the blush in his cheeks starting to feel permanent. Although the man's stark, null aura read more like a lawyer than a model. Not welcoming, not the center of attention who used himself to bring a picture to life and made a kind of truth out of fantasy. More like someone who could wrest the truth from others while never inviting or allowing a look at their own truth -- who could suffuse his being with the cold fact around him until that picture was the only meaning of his existence as a person. But Subaru couldn't take his eyes away.

     What on earth was he thinking about someone he'd just met?!

     At least it was cold out, and cold enough for no one to question why Subaru's face had turned red. His family duties alone would keep him busy enough that deciding whom he found attractive was a strictly academic exercise. He wasn't free to take a lover, even if he hadn't just made a fool of himself by colliding with the handsome stranger head-on. And now he was standing here, staring, without saying a word, when he should have been going inside...

     Amber eyes behind wire-framed glasses seemed to laugh at him, but in a friendly sort of way. The churning in Subaru's stomach eased enough for him to smile.

     The older man smiled back. "That's better," he said, and tapped a bit of ash into the ashtray by the door. "You know, you don't have to run off. The office is closed, if that's where you were going."

     When he tried to speak, Subaru realized he hadn't been breathing, and his first pull of sharp, cold air had enough smoke in it to set him coughing.

     "I'm sorry..." he gasped.

     "Don't be." The stranger stubbed out his barely-smoked cigarette and left it in the ashtray while the wind blew the air clear. "You were saying?"

     "I was hoping to meet the doctor. Do you know if he's still inside?"

     With another bright smile, the man crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the office's sign again, clearly staying for no reason but to talk. Now Subaru could feel embarrassment burning from underneath his collar up to his ears. There was something off about the fixedness of this man's eyes, too. Something that made him shiver. Something that didn't make sense.

     "The doctor?" the stranger asked. "I think he just left for the day. Does that mean I'll see you here tomorrow?"

     His tone was so casual, as if they'd known each other for years. And... that might have been part of what felt so odd. There was something familiar about the way he held his shoulders, the curve of his lip. His eyes especially; they seemed to look right into him, when most people who weren't Hokuto would rarely even meet his eye for long. He knew this feeling from somewhere, he was certain. He couldn't remember where.

     And he hadn't even introduced himself!

     The man hadn't questioned that, though, had he?

     "I... I'm sorry..." Subaru brushed his hair back from his face where the wind had blown it into his eyes. "I'm sorry, but have we met before?"

     Neither shaking his head nor nodding, the gentleman chuckled again. "Someone as beautiful as you, I'd remember."

     Nothing more coherent than, "... huh?" escaped Subaru's lips before the door opened again and a middle aged lady tying a scarf around her neck walked out.

     She flicked one glance at him and tried to tuck a smile discreetly away. Subaru could only imagine what kind of awful, shocked face he must have been making. Then she stopped as she reached the man leaning against the sign. "Thanks again, Sakurazuka-sensei. Asada-san said she'd lock up." After another flicker of a glance at Subaru, she told him, "Have a good day," and walked off.

     The man's amber eyes were laughing still. So that was why.

     "Sakurazuka-sensei," Subaru repeated. Surely this had exhausted all his options for making a bad impression on his first day? He'd been late, careless, and apparently clueless as well.

     "You must be Sumeragi Subaru-kun, my earnest young intern. I'm glad you could make it."

     "I wish I'd been able to get here on time." He would've liked to promise he'd always do so in the future, but they'd both know he'd be lying.

     Sakurazuka-sensei dismissed the problem with a shake of his head. "We'll find a way to work around your schedule. If you still want to meet the doctor, it's a bit warmer in the cafe across the street. I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

     "I'd hate to impose. You must have plans for the evening." All the same, Subaru fell in next to the doctor as they walked down the sidewalk to the corner. It'd be rude to leave, wouldn't it?

     Still, there was something about the genial warmth in Sakurazuka-sensei's eyes that threw him off-balance. His new teacher chuckled and shook his head, looking right at Subaru as if he didn't need to watch the sidewalk at all. "Plans? No. You can have my whole night if you want it." The traffic light switched almost as soon as they arrived at the street, and Sakurazuka-sensei dropped a hand to his shoulder while they walked across. "I insist. Takajima-san will arrange a proper welcome party for you later, I have no doubt, but for now..."

     Without Subaru realizing it, the doctor had drawn closer. He found himself looking sideways at the man's chin. The warm pressure of an arm all the way around his back and the hazy scent of tobacco smoke and cologne cut into his air. No one had ever gotten that close without him noticing. The shock hit his gut like a hammer to a nail, all of his reflexes screaming, 'Threat!', his legs and arms tensing to jump back into a defensive stance, but Subaru forced himself to stay calm and not break his stride. Sakurazuka-sensei wasn't attacking him. The last thing he wanted to do was offend someone who was just offering him coffee as a welcome.

     "Let's keep this simple. Just you and me," Sakurazuka-sensei said with a grin.

     "All right." Seeing the countdown on the walk light flash as it came to an end, Subaru hurried his last few steps to put a few feet between himself and the doctor. Sakurazuka-sensei strolled up onto the corner a second after the lights changed again. "That's very kind of you."

     "It's nothing, really," he answered. Barely three steps from the corner, the doctor held open the cafe door for him. "After you."

     All the servers seemed to know the doctor on sight, smiling as he passed, and the young lady who showed up to take their order brought Sakurazuka-sensei a steaming cup of coffee without waiting for him to ask. "Busy day at work, Sensei?"

     "Nothing out of the ordinary. Oh, but I told you we were getting an intern at the clinic? Mina-chan, this is Sumeragi Subaru-kun."

     She turned to him with a smile, ponytail bouncing. "It's a pleasure! What can I get for you today, Sumeragi-san?"

     "I... I'm fine with coffee. Thank you."

     "You can't have had time to eat dinner." The voice across the table sounded more shocked than he would have imagined.

     Subaru glanced over. The doctor wasn't just shocked but fully aghast. The look made him swallow his thoughtless, "Of course I haven't," and Subaru considered the whole day, back to this morning's cleansing rituals. No food before the exorcism, of course. No time during the rush to get to Ginza afterwards, and then the second rush to make his way here. "No... I. I haven't... eaten. But I couldn't possibly--"

     "Subaru-kun. I couldn't possibly keep you here without letting you eat. Anything you like. Unless you have to keep to a ritual fast, of course?"

     Slowly tracing the line of the tabletop with a finger, Subaru tried to keep the embarrassment building in his gut to a minimum and smiled at the server. "May I have a muffin, please?" That'd be simplest.

     "And I think I'll have the fried vegetables with rice."

     "Coming right up!"

     He smelled coffee appearing in front of him before he noticed the server pouring it. Like the nurse who'd spoken to the doctor earlier, she had a sideways smile as she glanced between them. When she left, and the doctor leaned in, Subaru was sure the man would say he had something on his face -- something to explain why people were looking at him so strangely this afternoon -- but he couldn't move as long as those amber eyes were locked on his.

     Sakurazuka-sensei's smile was friendly. Why did it feel wrong?

     "I know it's not much of a first date, Subaru-kun, but I hope it's no bother for a brilliant, young onmyouji to spend time with an ordinary man like me."

     "Sa-Sakurazuka-sensei..." He tore his eyes away and pulled his coffee closer, letting the warmth from the cup seep into his hands. The dark liquid reflected the doctor's face back at him, giving him no way to relieve the strangeness he felt. "I'm sorry. I think you've mistaken my intentions."

     With a laugh, the man sat back and poured a little cream into his own coffee. "Shot down, am I? Well, you're pretty enough to have your pick, but I had to try!"

     "Sakurazuka-sensei!"

     "Don't worry, Subaru-kun. I won't..." The doctor paused, sugar in hand. "I didn't even realize I was calling you by your given name! That's inappropriate of me."

     Subaru couldn't exactly tell him it wasn't, but his mind was spinning, in too much disarray to think of anything. He took a sip of coffee instead.

     "Although, now that I think of it... If you don't mind, I'd like you to use my name, too. I'm not used to this teacher-student formality, and outside of the office we're just two men, aren't we? Besides, the way you say, 'Sakurazuka', it makes me feel like the bogeyman." His heart seemed to pause between beats as Subaru looked up to see the doctor's unchanged smile. "My family's occupation is what it is, but the person sitting in front of you is a simple veterinarian."

     He was talking about the Sakurazukamori. For a 'simple veterinarian' to say something like that... It made no sense. But the doctor exuded no malice or deception. There was nothing about him but an easy demeanor and a hint of sandalwood cologne.

     Nothing at all.

     Usually, it was easy to tell when someone was lying.

     "You're not the bogeyman," Subaru murmured, not sure if he was asking a question or willing it to be true. "Sa... Doctor--"

     "It's Seishirou."

     "... Seishirou-san."

     "That's better. Now, tell me -- what brings a busy man like yourself to veterinary medicine?"

     "There's nothing special, really. I love animals. I always have." He was grateful when the muffin arrived, giving him something different to do with his eyes and hands. In his coffee, he could still see the doctor's reflection, which was no easier on his nervous system than looking at him directly. Tearing a tiny piece from the edge of the muffin, Subaru said, "Becoming a veterinarian has been my dream for as long as I can remember," and hoped he didn't sound like a child.

     The silence across the table ate into him. He still couldn't sense any reactions -- good or bad -- from... Seishirou-san. Could he really be so nervous that he couldn't read the man at all? Grandmother would scold him. He had no business being this scattered. Of course, Grandmother would scold him anyway, if she heard about this. She might be happier never knowing several details about his internship.

     Barely breathing, Subaru summoned all his calm. When he looked up, Seishirou-san was smiling at him, the same friendly grin as before, like he'd been waiting for Subaru to smile back. As he met those strangely piercing eyes, another blush spread over his face, now with no convenient excuses like a cold winter wind, but he did smile. He couldn't help himself. And once he did, he suddenly noticed the panicked rush of his pulse that must've been present the whole time. Only as it stopped did he hear it, right before the sound of it surging past his eardrums gave way to the murmurs of other customers' conversations.

     Enough of his nervous energy had faded that his muffin looked appetizing, then the doctor spoke, and his stomach jumped into his throat again. "How could working so hard for a dream be 'nothing special'? Most people with a full-time job don't even graduate from high school. I admire your dedication, coming this far."

     "It's nothing more than you've done."

     "On the contrary, your duties to your clan are more onerous than mine. I get to make my own hours! Ha ha! But animals are wonderful, aren't they?" Seishirou-san asked before Subaru could decide (or ask) what duties he meant. The man's smile seemed to brighten up the whole room. "Puppies and kitties... they're more pure-hearted and honest than humans. If they like someone, they don't have any shame about it. If they're upset, they don't hold back to be polite. It's refreshing. And of course, I like seeing all their cute faces every day when I come into work. I can't imagine a better job."

     "I... I agree."

     It was the most un-assassin-like statement Subaru had ever heard. Hearing it, years of hopes and struggles itched on Subaru's tongue to be shared. He felt like Seishirou-san wouldn't laugh if he explained how he'd thought about being a zookeeper instead, so he didn't have to do dissections. Or at least, if he laughed, that the doctor's laugh would be a friendly one. And after Yuuya-kun's mother had attacked him, desperate to find a kidney for her dying son... when he'd decided he couldn't compromise his goals for the sake of avoiding unpleasantness...

     But how could he put the burdens of his memory on someone he'd just met? It wouldn't be...

     Polite. One thing Seishirou-san didn't care for. He'd made that clear a moment ago, as if it hadn't been obvious already.

     Subaru gripped his coffee mug again, giving up on the muffin. "I've never met someone who thought my choice made sense before." Once that was out of his mouth, the urge to say the rest overwhelmed him. "The truth is--"

     At which point, his cell phone rang. Subaru wished he could have melted into the seat. "I'm sorry. I have to make sure this isn't a job."

     The doctor's eyes widened at the slim phone he slipped out of his pocket. "How... trendy. I assume that cell phone case isn't standard issue?"

     The wards traced on the phone case were something Subaru barely noticed about his own phone anymore. He checked them every week, of course, to make sure the patterns hadn't been scuffed off, but they had been part of his life, and that of all agents in the employ of the Sumeragi family, for years. While he tried to think of a proper explanation, however, the phone rang again. There just wasn't time.

     "Telephone attacks are... embarrassing. It's a long story." A story that he hoped wouldn't turn into him narrating his entire life to a near-stranger over coffee after this call. Blushing again, he pushed the call button before the entire diner turned to look at him. "This is Sumeragi Subaru."

     "Congratulations on your first day of work, Subaru! So! Did you meet any strange animals? Is the decor nice? Is the doctor really with the Sakurazukamori?!"

     He dropped his head into his hand. "Hokuto-chan... now might not--"

     "Oh my god, he's right there, isn't he? Go to speaker! I want to talk to him!"

     "I can't put you on speaker. We're in a cafe. You'll disturb the customers." Looking over at Seishirou-san's amusement, he mouthed, 'It's my sister'.

     "Well, then, put him on the line! I can't interrupt you having coffee with your boss without saying-- Wait, why are you in a cafe and not in the office?" She gasped with uncalled for drama. "Subaru~u! Don't tell me you're on a date!"

     "It's not what you're thinking. Here he is, Hokuto-chan." Subaru held out the phone. "I'm sorry, she wants to speak--"

     "There's really nothing to be sorry about, Subaru-kun."

     His grip faltered when the doctor's hand brushed his, and his breath stopped short again, but Seishirou-san caught the phone before it hit the table. Staring straight at Subaru, as if the man was trying to read his soul, he pulled the phone to his ear. "Subaru-kun's lovely sister, Sumeragi Hokuto-chan, I presume? Sakurazuka Seishirou, at your service."

     The doctor laughed at something Hokuto-chan said. Normally, Subaru would have been able to hear her even from across the table, but those amber eyes bearing down on him made every sound disappear except for Seishirou-san's voice. He couldn't break away from them this time.

     "No, no, it's fine," the man said, laughing again. "I wouldn't have it any other way. ...mm-hmm. Well, you're welcome to visit. I look forward to meeting you in person. ...Yes. ...Yes, of course. ...Oh, definitely the Mont Blanc! There's no question. ...Hah hah! You don't need to persuade me! I can already tell, I'm going to enjoy having Subaru-kun in the office very much. ...Well, I'd be crazy not to. Your brother is a truly charming individual."

     Subaru wished he could stop blushing. He hadn't been prepared for the intensity this man had, or for his frankness. Tomorrow, he'd make time to meditate before he came in. If he had a firmer grasp on himself, this wouldn't happen.

     "The pleasure was all mine, Hokuto-chan. ...Yes, I'll put Subaru-kun back on."

     He took the phone, but couldn't quite return Seishirou-san's smile.

     "Hokuto-chan--"

     "He totally sounds hot. Is he hot?"

     Of all the...

     "Hokuto-chan, that's not why I'm here. You shouldn't be asking me that."

     "Oh, please! Sei-chan won't mind!"

     "Sei-chan?!"

     Across the table, the doctor looked unduly thrilled with the nickname. Over the phone, his sister didn't give an inch. "Is. He. Hot? Yes or no."

     From the way Seishirou-san's grin broadened, Subaru assumed that Hokuto-chan's voice had carried over the table. There was no point in lying to his sister, and any dignity he might have brought into this conversation was beyond salvaging. The least he could do was suffer indignity with grace. Subaru looked Seishirou-san in the eye and said into the phone, "Yes. He's reasonably attractive." At seeing the doctor's eyebrows raise in surprise, he added, "And unreasonably forward."

     With a sigh and a nod, Seishirou-san ate a bite of his rice bowl.

     Hokuto-chan cackled. Subaru had to hold the phone away from his ear to keep from being deafened. "Oh ho ho! That sounds like boyfriend material!"

     "Please don't joke about this. He's my supervising teacher."

     "Just remember, Subaru, if he might be a dangerous murderer, don't sleep with him on the first date. I need to meet him first."

     "I'm hanging up, Hokuto-chan. I'll call you when I get home."

     He pressed the cancel button, then waited three seconds for the phone to ring again before he was sure Hokuto-chan would leave it at that. She didn't call.

     Subaru looked up to see if there was any chance of salvaging his teacher's professional opinion of him. Within a heartbeat of meeting Seishirou-san's smile again, he could see exactly how their relationship would continue, without a hint of professionalism (the lack of which the doctor himself was somewhat responsible for), and that future didn't look as bad as he'd expected. Smiling back was easier now.

     "So now you've met my sister."

     "She's cheeky. And now I know who's behind the most interesting collection at Tokyo Fashion Week every year! She's the Sumeragi Hokuto responsible for Kirari by Hokuto?"

     "You go to Fashion Week?"

     "Well, I read the magazines in the waiting room. I can't say I'm an expert on fashion, but speaking as a person, I think I like her."

     "Good," Subaru answered, dropping his last hint of formality without even missing it. "I don't think I could respect you if you didn't." He'd seen too many people who looked at Hokuto-chan -- and sometimes at him -- like they were a pair of wild tigers escaped from the zoo. It was better than when he'd been young and clients thought he had to be an amateur, but not by much. Seishirou-san's delight was better than anything he'd known he could hope for.

     "Subaru-kun! Do you respect me?"

     His tongue tied in knots, trying to decide between, 'Yes', 'Not yet', 'I don't know', and 'Why shouldn't I?' Instead of picking one, he shook his head and ate a few bites of muffin. He was sure it was excellent, but barely tasted it as he forced himself away from those hypnotic amber eyes to look at traffic. No matter what Hokuto-chan might say, he couldn't afford to have a crush on his teacher.

     His forward, casual, and potentially very dangerous teacher.

     When Seishirou-san's hand moved, Subaru saw it before he felt it. He managed not to jump, or to block the hand from cupping his chin despite his instinct to defend himself, but this time he was sure: he hadn't sensed 'nothing' because he'd been distracted, but rather because there was nothing to sense. When he hadn't noticed Seishirou-san approaching him at the clinic, when he couldn't tell if the man was lying, and now when he couldn't sense a sudden move, that nothingness he felt was deliberate. Seishirou-san was hiding his ki.

     Not something a 'nice' man made a habit of.

     Subaru reminded himself that he'd come here knowing the doctor was the head of the Sakurazuka clan. He'd allowed for the possibility that this man might be the most dangerous person he would ever meet, although it drove a cold spike down his spine as that man pushed his chin until their gazes locked again, then brushed Subaru's lips with his thumb. Subaru pushed the offending hand back to the table, moving slowly to avoid triggering a defensive reflex in the doctor, keeping his eyes steady as he'd do with anyone dangerous. On Seishirou-san's face was a smile too 'nice' for Subaru to believe it was sincere.

     "You know, Subaru-kun, I didn't know what had come over me when I joked about this being a date, but I think I understand now. I've fallen in love with you."

     "Seishirou-san--"

     "I'd never believed in love at first sight," he laughed. "Isn't that what people always say right before, '...until it happened to me'? I suppose you'll tell me I can't possibly know I love someone I've just met, but I do. I'm sure. You'll be someone very special to me, Subaru-kun."

     This sounded familiar. It felt familiar -- not in the way the doctor's eyes seemed familiar, but in a way Subaru could place very, very clearly. It reminded him of the story he'd heard from a ghost named Nanako, who'd been murdered in a Roppongi alley. Or Shunji, whose spirit had remained after he jumped from a ledge. Like too many spirits, each with different stories but one thread Subaru had heard far too often:

     Part of me felt like there was something wrong, but he was so kind. He said he loved me. Before I realized it, I couldn't get away. I didn't even know him.

     In his head, he heard a sound as if their souls were trying to warn him of something, but he knew it was only an echo of the alert he already felt. Their spirits had found peace and passed on. Was he being unfair, judging this man on a brief impression, his family's reputation, and the sad stories of unfortunate souls? The kind of killer who'd taken those ghosts' lives wasn't even the kind of killer Subaru understood the Sakurazukamori to be.

     Did unfairness matter? He'd already decided he couldn't be close to this man.

     "Seishirou-san, I don't--"

     "Try some of this rice. It's delicious."

     "...Eh?"

     Chopsticks appeared over the table so suddenly, Subaru couldn't think of a polite way to refuse. If he'd had his own utensils, he might have used those, but all he had was a muffin. And just like that, he was taking a bite of food off the chopsticks of a man who'd been a stranger five minutes ago, and who was very possibly the Sakurazukamori.

     "You only have to turn me down once, Subaru-kun. I'll take no for an answer."

     Subaru couldn't say anything with his mouth full.

     "You don't owe me anything because of what I feel. Think of me falling in love with you as 'something that happened', like a new train line on the next platform over. You never have to take it. It's just something that's there. Of course, if you ever wanted to take a train with me--!"

     "Please be serious, Seishirou-san. We only met today." Refusing to turn his eyes away, he pronounced what he was thinking like it was a spell that would keep him safe. "I don't even know you."

     "I guess you're right. Although... I already feel close to you. Like I've known you for a long time. Like I could tell you anything. Strange, isn't it?"

     Heat flared under Subaru's collar, remembering how he'd felt the same way. Despite good sense telling him to be cautious, he couldn't deny that he still felt as if this wasn't the first conversation they'd shared. Even the alarm bells ringing in his head right now felt more like familiarity than they should have. Conversation came more easily than it ever had with fellow students he'd seen every day that he attended school. He could talk with so few people.

     Subaru's gaze almost faltered. He blushed yet again, a condition it seemed he'd have to get used to. "I... I hope you still feel that way when my internship is over. Once we know each other better."

     The doctor's farcical grin faded into a quieter smile. "I'm sure I will."

     With those four words, Subaru realized, heart pounding, how close his own line had been to a promise that his answer would change when he graduated. If he didn't get his wits about him soon, the two of them were bound to have a misunderstanding. He stood, hoping to find a restroom where he could wash his face with cold water and settle his nerves.

     "I'm sorry. I'll just be a moment."

     Half a step from the table, Seishirou-san gripped his arm. As breath hit the back of Subaru's neck, for the first time today he was certain of feeling something from the doctor besides nothingness. There was tangible danger in his closeness, in the precision of his grip, and in the incongruous smile Subaru saw when he turned around.

     "You really need to stop apologizing, Subaru-kun."

     Subaru felt more grounded in an instant, knowing far better how to handle danger than to face the nothingness that had knocked him off balance. Breaking the man's grip -- and he was aware that Seishirou-san had let him do it -- he answered, "All right," and walked toward the restroom.

Chapter Text

     Subaru-kun hadn't changed apartments for as long as he'd been living in Tokyo -- at least, not since Seishirou had learned his address. The sister had moved to an estate house with the dreamseer she'd taken in, but Subaru-kun remained in his high-rise flat the heart of the city. The apartment's wards had gone up in quality as the boy's skills had improved; Seishirou couldn't get in without leaving a trace anymore as he'd done after killing the Nagi woman. His scrying spells wouldn't penetrate either, but as long as Subaru-kun left the blinds open (unconcerned about prying eyes so high above the glimmering streets) he could see enough.

     Enough to keep their duties from crossing again in the last eight years.

     Enough to know his intern's strength and habits.

     Enough.

     Tonight, Subaru had come straight home from 'meeting the doctor', turning down an offer of dinner although it looked for a moment like he might say yes. Dear, venerable Lady Sumeragi's heart might give out if she ever knew about that look, but reason had won in the end. Instead of being treated to yakiniku a few blocks from the office, he fished a bite every few minutes from a tupperware he'd taken from his freezer and microwaved while he studied dossiers -- still eating food his sister left for him each week, probably only thinking to eat because she did.

     By now, he'd finished sorting requests that would go to other agents in Sumeragi service, finished filling in both his own calendar and the one he'd bring to the office tomorrow (his clients' details removed), and finished examining the casefile for the exorcism he'd be doing tomorrow afternoon. Now his hands, cased in black silk, traced the pages of an old book. New blood reviewing ancient wisdom. Try as the Lady might to shroud them, those hands were marked as his. Seishirou felt the pull of his spell as his eyes followed Subaru-kun through the window, across the valley between buildings. He created on his mind's stage the whisper of cloth on paper and the creak of a turning page. His prey had no idea that a clock had started, and when it ran down one year from today, he'd die.

     Taking another drag on his cigarette, Seishirou savored the shiver of expectation in his breath. Subaru-kun hadn't lost his shine to damage or tarnish, but he wasn't a child, either. He was like a fine diamond now, ground to luminance by the grit of the city. Was a kind heart with the strength to survive in Tokyo enough to make its owner more than a toy to be broken and left behind? Probably not, but something in those green eyes had made him curious once, and Seishirou liked to keep the promises he made to himself.

     Subaru-kun checked the clock as he finished his studies. The hour didn't make him hurry. He washed his dishes in the sink, all alone in his warded bubble of safety high above the city. Gloves got wet without concern under the flowing water, and he dried them on his hands by squeezing them so tightly with a towel, it was a wonder the bones didn't break. The gloves had never come off in any of the outer rooms, not once in eight years. When Seishirou had asked today if he needed to set aside a private washroom at the office, Subaru-kun had said no -- the gloves he had were specially made for medical school, washable while he was wearing them since he couldn't remove them around patients, and fitted to go under latex gloves.

     But then there were the pairs of identical gloves in the drawer by his socks, laundered by a man employed by the main house who stopped by on Wednesdays at 6 AM to take old pairs and provide a fresh stack. Subaru-kun always took a clean pair when the went to shower. They had to come off, then, at least for a moment. During the several minutes spent behind the bathroom door, Seishirou wondered, how strict was the command not to take off his gloves? Did he take them off to brush his teeth? Only when he slipped into the shower in the morning?

     In the bedroom, Subaru-kun pulled a cashmere turtleneck and an undershirt over his head, showing a few scars on his lean torso that stuck out even more prominently than his ribs. The rough slash of a madwoman's knife on his shoulder had traces of red, like the matching mark on his arm where he'd knocked the knife away -- a mark that wouldn't have been necessary if he'd decided even a second earlier not to let her kill him. The thin surgical line on his back was pure white, betraying a secret that the Sumeragi clan hid behind anonymous favors and incorruptible lawyers: one of their master's kidneys lived in a child who could thus be a living curse doll if he fell into the wrong hands. Lady Sumeragi had tried to stop her grandson from giving his organs away, of course. It'd been like watching a tempest blow the house's pillars down, seeing a young Subaru-kun years ago declare that his mind was made up. That he would take whatever steps were necessary to see the child kept safe from harm.

     And the child was perfectly safe, and secret. Seishirou verified that regularly. If necessary, he would kill anyone who tried to steal this prey from him before his curiosity had been settled, but even that hadn't been necessary. Subaru-kun was too kind, but he did his work well.

     After he slipped off his pants, Subaru-kun stopped to frown at the small mirror on his bureau, something he'd never made a habit of doing before bed. Seishirou had only ever seen him glance at his reflection before leaving in the morning, but tonight he tried brushing a different part into his hair, and sweeping his bangs ever so slightly to the side. They sprang back into an unsightly mess. Frowning again, the boy rebrushed everything into its proper order and turned the mirror to the wall.

     He changed nakedness for striped pajamas, then headed for the lightswitch. Paused to look through the clothes in his closet, though he usually paid them so little mind, the sister took it upon herself to engineer a color scheme every season just to be sure his clothes would match when he put them on. Frowning at them as hopelessly as he'd done at the mirror, Subaru-kun switched off the light with a decisive click.

     The way the young man seemed to fade into the sheets in the darkness made the whole apartment look deserted. His last motion was to drape his arm over his eyes, blocking even the light from the moon and stars.

     Seishirou's cigarette burned down to the end.

     It was as good a time as any to leave.