April 27, 2000 — 10:38 [Thursday]
"No, sir, reinforced oak wood will not suffice for the doors." Subaru's voice came from the bedroom when Seishiro closed the house door, the thick envelope holding their tickets safely stuck in his jacket's breast pocket. It had taken some convincing to get these tickets this time of the year. He allowed himself a satisfied smile as he hung up his coat. He could be very convincing.
"I'm sorry, material is not negotiable."
In the silence following that exasperated line, Seishiro got off his shoes.
"The standard design for government offices is irrelevant. This is a safety concern."
The sound of an also amusingly agitated voice from the other end of the line was audible by the time he reached the bedroom door. "I am aware of the building regulations for Tokyo, sir. You explained them in detail on Tuesday, but earthquakes are the least of my concerns here."
From the sound of the voice coming from the other end of the line, the architect ordered to refurbish Subaru-kun's office and the first floor going to hold the rooms of the Onmyo-ryo wasn't too happy with that.
"Yes, I declare my sole responsibility for not conforming with the building regulations," Subaru stated brusquely. "Have the form with you on Monday. Thank you." He put the receiver down. With force.
"Monday might be a problem," Seishiro remarked casually, noting satisfied the speed with which Subaru whirled round, and held up the flight tickets he just bought. "I don't think you'll make that appointment."
"And why not?" Subaru huffed, eying the tickets warily.
"Because you'll be on Okinawa." Seishiro waved the tickets.
"Okinawa?" Subaru asked in obvious disbelief.
"Yes. It's the prime holiday spot for Golden Week," Seishiro declared. "We're booked on ANA124 at 13:40 from Haneda to Naha this Saturday."
"The day after tomorrow?!" Subaru inquired. "Are you nuts?"
"No, I'm going on vacation. With you."
"In the middle of a major office restructuring?"
Seishiro pocketed the tickets again and dropped the exuberance. "I'm sure the carpenters and decorators are more than competent enough to complete the Tokyo offices on their own. Whereas I'm certain that Kyushu section will do a horrible job in complying with the Onmyo-ryo if left to their own devices. So, yes, we're going to Okinawa in the middle of our office restructuring."
Subaru sat down at the desk. "You really expect trouble there, don't you?" he asked quietly.
"Yes. Without a doubt." And a chance to acquaint Subaru with hanazake and a certain related plum dish, but Seishiro carefully kept that smile off his face.
"Then we're going." Subaru sighed, checking the items on his notepad. "If I manage to explain that to grandmother and the Jichi-daijin, that is." He glanced at the clock and stood again. "And now I have to get Omi from the train station. We're going to use the kitchen, if you don't mind. And..." He drew a deep breath. "I'd like to have you around for that talk."
Seishiro nodded. "By the way, what had our architect up in arms like that? A very comfy couch to avoid excessive desk work perhaps?"
"You wish." Subaru, already heading outside, actually snorted. "Glass doors."
"Glass—" Seishiro laughed. "Kinky. I'm sure Namane-san will love our shows!"
"Against ofuda attached in passing," Subaru corrected dryly, stepping into his shoes. "And there won't be any 'shows' to begin with. I'm not an exhibitionist."
"Then we might put my inattention spells to the test." Seishiro smiled. "Right after we get back from Okinawa." Subaru closed the house door faster than usual.
Omi drew a deep breath and touched the protective ofuda attached to the inner lining of his coat and jacket. They were on the way to one of the most tainted places on earth: the Sakurazukamori's house. Subaru-san's house.
Subaru-san, who — deep-red spells disturbingly visible on his bare arms — preceded him seemingly carefree into the maze of small streets and alleys beyond the Kototoi-dori. The grey multi-storey buildings lining the broad street were soon replaced by a hodgepodge of small homes and stores.
Here, small front gardens held grass and flowers, sometimes even a carefully tended tree, and children played on the sidewalk. A woman swept the entrance of her wooden house and an old man carried grocery bags from a small convenience store down the street. A uniformed policeman worked on a motorbike in front of a police box, located in a single corner room of a two-family house. Surely, the Sakurazukamori wouldn't live anywhere near—
"Good morning, officer Kawashima," Subaru greeted in passing and soon afterwards turned into a quiet side-street with small homes on one side and a rough stone wall on the other. The wall was higher than their heads and stone herbs clawed into its niches, their pink and yellow flowers bobbing in the breeze. "The Yanaka cemetery," Subaru-san told him, unasked, "We're almost there," and greeted an elderly woman working in the front garden of the white-washed house at the corner. "Yoshino-san, nice to meet you. Has there been any mail for us recently?"
"I'm afraid not. The sensei— Yoshi!" A plump red-tabby cat had slunk off the grounds and angled for Subaru's legs. "You can't bother our neighbors again."
"Don't worry, Yoshino-san. Sakurazuka-sensei loves having Yoshi around." Omi blinked. Subaru-san looked almost mischievous. "He's got so few patients these days." He bowed politely at the elderly lady, fished a set of house keys from his pocket, and told her cat, "Come on, Yoshi. You can torment— play with Seishiro while I'm talking business with Omi-san here."
'Seishiro.' Omi swallowed, watching Subaru unlock the gate to the property wedged between the house with the cat and what looked to be an overgrown side entrance to the cemetery.
"Are you coming?" Subaru asked, holding the gate open for Omi.
The entrance was unusual, with five steps leading up from the genkan to the carpeted living area, but given the Sakurazukamori's occupation, the additional elevation was probably more than needed. The invited cat was nowhere to be seen.
"You can leave your coat over there." Subaru indicated a coat-rack next to the shoe board and Omi cautiously put his coat on a hanger, taking pains not to touch the long black leather coat already hanging there. It couldn't possibly belong to Subaru-san.
He hurried to follow as Subaru stepped out of his shoes. There were two pairs of slippers set out and he gratefully used one. Subaru ignored the other and headed up the stairs in his socks. Black socks. Fluffy.
Omi startled when Subaru called out. The carpet was soft. The house smelled deliciously of lemon and Usukuchi sauce and—
"One paw in that bowl and you are a dead cat!"
Omi's steps faltered on the stairs while Subaru smiled, turning towards the first door on the left. "Sorry to interrupt your cooking," he said cheerfully, waving behind his back for Omi to come in, too. "This is our guest Omi-san, who took care of the mutilated ghosts in my stead."
"And spies for your grandmother."
The man Subaru-san had addressed stood at a lime green kitchen counter, cutting what looked like marinaded salmon into fine slices. Omi blinked, stupefied, while Subaru answered, unperturbed, "That, too." This was—? He didn't quite recall what he had expected the Sakurazukamori — an assassin... a killer! — to look like, but he was sure his imagination hadn't involved a frilly apron depicting a cartoon penguin with a sign reading "Kiss the Cook for Dessert".
Belatedly, he dropped into a respectful bow. "Omi Tono, onmyoji associated with the Sumeragi." He tried not to contemplate that just a week ago these words to this man might have been a death sentence.
"Sakurazuka Seishiro." The knife in the Sakurazukamori's hand flashed as he put it down on the chopping block. Omi winced, earning himself an amused smile. "Don't worry. I never take work home. It ruins the schedule and the carpets."
"And Omi isn't work!" Subaru stated firmly, giving the Sakurazukamori a stern look before offering Omi a seat at the polished kitchen table. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience." Omi noticed, startled, that Subaru-san actually bowed to him. "It's just that—"
"His office still needs a paint job," the Sakurazukamori, having returned to preparing his salmon, said without looking up from the task.
"—and an exorcism," Subaru added dryly.
"That, too," Sakurazuka conceded. Omi, in the process of sitting down with his briefcase safely on his knees, winced slightly. Surely, Subaru-san wouldn't— "But don't put getting rid of Romiro's abysmal taste too far down on your to do list," the Sakurazukamori continued, placing salmon slices and chopped vegetables in a pot lined with konbu. "He wasn't the company's sunshine on the best of days."
"A position I don't intend to fill, either," Subaru retaliated and Omi wondered if it would be opportune to ask for a reschedule of their meeting, giving the rather private nature of the exchange spinning on around him. He wouldn't want to intrude— "I apologize for the impertinence of my colleague, not the location." Subaru-san claimed the chair opposite him, propping his elbows on the table. "I take it the exorcisms went well?"
"Yes." Omi nodded, relieved to focus on business. Sakurazuka at the stove closed the lid of the pot and cranked up the gas. "Two of the locations may require a second check-up, though."
Glad that he had taken the extra-time last night to neatly sort and document the cases, he took the files for Subaru-san from his briefcase. After a wary glance at the table top between them, placed the files on the lid of his ofuda-lined briefcase instead. He could hardly perform a salt purification in front of the Sakurazukamori! "The cases in Shibuya and Shinjuku were straightforward work," he summarized, pushing the briefcase over the table for Subaru-san to read.
Subaru snatched the file off the case and placed it squarely on the table in front of him.
Omi swallowed, embarrassed, and continued. "Public locations. The bodies were found early and the passers-by were adults, focused on their specific tasks—"
"Shopping and sex," the Sakurazukamori commented dryly, coming to stand beside Subaru-san and read over his shoulder. "Or a combination of both. Doesn't leave much mental capacity for a spiritual tainting."
"Indeed, sir." Omi cleared his throat nervously, noting that Subaru-san apparently didn't mind the co-reader.
"The other locations?" Subaru prompted quietly.
"Yes." Omi hurried to open the next file, holding the meticulous notes and annotated snapshots of the location he'd made prior and after his work in the hope of making a good impression to Subaru-san. "The spirit in Koto-ku was on the playgrounds of an elementary school. The body hadn't been found until the other morning."
"How far did it spread?" Subaru asked, alarmed.
"The whole yard and into four classrooms on ground floor." Omi drew a deep breath. "Sixty-eight children age six to ten. I did my best to purify them and specifically warded the school." He shook his head. "Exposing children that young—"
"The location was important," the Sakurazukamori explained, resting his hand possessively on Subaru-san's shoulder. "There was no leeway for it."
"A sensible person would have warded the school," Subaru told him angrily.
"A sensible person wouldn't have had a beige-and-rust colored office," Sakurazuka returned.
Subaru stared at him, exasperated, then shook his head in resignation and gave Omi a sad smile. After skimming over the file, he said, "I couldn't possibly do more than you already did. I'm sure it'll be alright. And the last case?"
"The spirit was at the water edge." Omi placed the last file, opened, across those already on the table. "On the grounds of the Tokyu Shipping container yard down in Minato-ku. Its presence called a minor sea demon to shore."
"Returned to sea now, I suppose," the Sakurazukamori said with a hard edge in his voice.
"Yes, sir," Omi confirmed hastily. "And the spiritual essence was scattered as far as I managed. However, even minor, it was a demon landfall. We might see another visit from Susanoo's minions there."
"I'll make sure that we won't. Shibaura wharf is too close to the city center for demon plays." The Sakurazukamori left the table. Omi noticed, astonished, that he made a large step over the cat playing with the hem of his pants. "Subaru-kun, why don't you set the table for us and your guest while I make that call? The salmon should be done by the time I got the Mori earning their keep for a change."
Omi blinked, horrified. He was to eat here?!
"Omi seems to have a very sensitive palate," Seishiro commented when Subaru returned from showing Omi off. "He looked positively sick at my Ishikari-nabe."
Subaru collected the dishes from the table. "I doubt his unease was about the food." He glanced at Seishiro as he handed him the stack. "As you well know."
"True." Seishiro stacked the used bowls into the dish washer. "I should have sent the cat off the premises."
"The cat—?" Subaru burst out laughing.
Seishiro closed the dish washer and switched it on. "So, did you give him a note about Okinawa for your grandmother?"
"No. I'm going to call her later." Subaru leaned against the kitchen counter. "What about the container yard?"
"The first team should be on location by now." Seishiro appeared somber. "There'll be three shifts a day for the next two weeks. We’re also installing cameras for a year or two."
"Cameras?" Subaru frowned.
"A demon may affect observers on location, but electronics are another matter. Either, they are overlooked and give us an image of the intruder, or they stop working altogether, which also raises an alarm." There was a hard line around Seishiro's mouth when he added, "You can trust me with this. I don't want an unchecked demon landfall any more than you do. Too messy."
"We shouldn't both leave town when a demon landfall is possible," Subaru said quietly.
"There's always this or that possible within the next fifteen minutes. If that stops us from leaving, we'll never get anywhere, not even the bath!" Seishiro wiped his hands. "Besides, we'll be no more than a phone call and a less than two hours flight away."
"Two hours that are entirely dependent on ANA's flight schedule," Subaru warned.
"A demon landfall is business." Seishiro shrugged. "I'll have the Learjet on standby in Naha."
"A Learjet?" Subaru stopped. "And why don't we—"
"—because that would mean business and not vacation!" The used towel made an audible snap as Seishiro slapped it onto the edge of the sink. "Excuse me. I have to make a couple of calls to arrange that now." The door bell chimed as he left the kitchen.
"I'll get that," Subaru called after him. Seishiro didn't bother to reply.
Kamui in a crisp school uniform was a welcome surprise. "We didn't have much time to talk at the memorial," he said sheepishly when Subaru unlocked the gate and pushed it wide to let him in. Kamui looked past him at the open house door. "Is he here?"
The gate clanged faintly. "Yes. We can talk in the garden if you prefer that."
Kamui nodded. "Yes. I think I do."
Sunlight filled the yard where the twisted crown of the old ginkgo didn't shade it from the afternoon sun. A breeze ruffled the tree and the ferns beneath it. Subaru ran his fingertips through their fronds in passing.
Kamui slowed and asked, "Those weren't here last time, were they?"
"No, I planted them later." Subaru brushed again over the ferns, finding their touch calming against his fingers. His cut palm didn't sting any more. A tiny yellow beetle buzzed away. The ginkgo above their heads rustled. For a moment, there were only the sounds of insects, leaves in the wind and the constant hum of the singing dead. Their melody had barely changed, he realized. There was nothing of the grating dissonance that had marked Kamui's last stay here. As if— No, Subaru decided. It was better not to consider the fading of Kamui's powers. He could hear Seishiro speaking on the phone and led Kamui closer to the ginkgo, away from the open bedroom window.
"Are you alright?" he asked, taking a seat on a gnarled root of the ancient tree. "Is something going on with the—" He didn't say Twin Star. It wasn't the right term any more.
"No, all's fine." Kamui gave him a wry smile. "He knows that I'm here though."
Subaru nodded, having expected as much. "How's it going?" he asked quietly and remembered the ghost of a long dead Sakurazukamori sitting exactly where he sat now.
"From day to day, sometimes from hour to hour." Kamui shrugged. "Somehow, it's as if— as if I'm getting to know him all over again."
"Probably you are," Subaru told him. "And probably, so is he." And probably Yue was around to tattle everything they said here to the Sakura.
"Yeah." Kamui flopped down on the overgrown desk chair beside the trunk, crushing some of last year's dried weeds that poked through the seat. "And sometimes it's dead-out like last year!"
"Does he threaten you?" Subaru asked, alarmed. "Hurt you?"
"Nope." Kamui actually grinned. "I told you I'm fine. It's just… he's not just Fuma, if that makes any sense."
"It does," Subaru nodded, relaxing again. "A lot, actually."
"And you?" Kamui inquired. The old wood of the chair creaked under his weight as he leaned forward. "What about you?"
"Life has become… interesting, for lack of a better word." Subaru looked at the open bedroom window, though Seishiro seemed to be done on the phone, and smiled self-ironically. "We're going to Okinawa the day after tomorrow."
"Okinawa?" Kamui's eyes widened. "You go on vacation with—" he turned and stared at the open window, shaking his head as if he wanted to 'unsee' something.
"It's nothing like that." Subaru actually felt his cheeks growing warm at the implication. "We're restructuring Japan's spiritual protection to accommodate the Dao and Okinawa requires special attention."
"And it's pure coincidence that you're going in Golden Week, right?" Kamui returned dryly. "Sure."
Subaru thought of Seishiro waving the flight ticket and smiled. "It's coincidence on my side," he affirmed, and admitted, "but probably not on Seishiro's."
Kamui stared at him. "You want this," he said as if testing the thought. "You truly want this," he repeated more firmly with a gesture that seemed to cover the world. "And not because of the Dao."
Subaru smiled wistfully. "Yes," he confirmed. "But the Dao makes it a lot easier to explain."
"I bet." Kamui snorted.
"Don't!" Subaru warned him, only half-joking. "Bets are dangerous things around here. Look where it got me."
Kamui looked at him thoughtfully. "You know this is twisted, don't you?" he asked, but there was acceptance in his expression. Maturity.
Silence expanded between them. The old wood of the chair creaked under Kamui's weight when he glanced at his watch. "I have to get going. Imonoyama-san arranged for cram sessions." He sighed. "I still have to repeat the year, but maybe I'll end up with grades to make up for it."
"I'm sure of it," Subaru encouraged him. "I know I wasn't much of a tutor."
"Hey! You kept me going at all!" Kamui protested, fumbling a letter from the pocket of his school blazer as he stood. He gave it to Subaru. "It's from Imonoyama-san. He said it would be your answer."
Subaru opened the slightly wrinkled envelope in the shadow of the ginkgo after Kamui had left. It held a sheet of off-white, delicately patterned paper with a single line of Imonoyama's flowing handwriting on it:
~To love someone means that one's willing to grow old beside that person.~
"No," Seishiro explained briskly. "What we're setting up is a position which is a little more visible. We're close enough to the dark to vanish if necessary, but far enough into the light not to be replaceable on a whim. In addition, we streamline the current system and shorten our response time. It's a win-win setup, actually."
=They might not see that,= Michiko's warning came instantly. =You have Korea and Hokkaido—=
"—and Honshu and Shikoku," Seishiro interrupted her.
=But Kyushu has a problem with it.=
"No, Michiko," Seishiro said incredibly soft. "Kyushu won't have any problems at all." He disconnected the line.
Stay tuned for
"Business As Usual"
 Hanazake is a special brand of Awamori (distilled rice liquor unique to Okinawa). It has an alcohol content of 60% and more (it catches fire) and is drunk straight without any watering. On Awamori: http://sake-world.com/html/shochu-awamori.html
 Ishikari-nabe is a typical dish of Hokkaido, making use of fresh salmon from head to tail. Chunks of salmon are stewed with vegetables, tofu and konnyaku (devil's tongue) in kelp stock with potatoes and cabbage. Its origin is a salmon and vegetable stew cooked by the Ainu people in the 17-18th centuries. Seishiro’s recipe is a private version with salmon fillet and fresh kelp instead of soup stock. [source: http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/attractions/dining/food/jfood_02.html]
 "To love someone..." is a quote from Caligula in "Caligula & Three Other Plays" by Albert Camus, Vintage Books, New York, 1958, p71 as translated by Stuart Gilbert. The original text is "Aimer un être, c'est accepter de vieillir avec lui." by Caligula in Caligula, act 4, sc. 13, Pléiade (1944). It is the answer to Subaru's question of "How do you define love, when..." at the end of chapter 12.