Many thanks to the lovelies on the writers list Slash and Burn for their invaluable help and beta-ing. Any mistakes left are my own (the babes on that list cannot be faulted!).
|No Balm in Gilead
by !Super Cat
Subaru sat on the ugly orange bedspread and smoked his last cigarette, his long, thin legs drawn up beneath him. The sounds of car horns, police sirens and muted voices were entering his room by way of the open window, but they came unaccompanied by a breeze. It was humid. Hot. Subaru's narrow green eyes were gritty, and his long black hair was tangled to his head. Nights like this made him feel both lethargic, and purposeful. He knew he wasn't going to sleep.
Do what, then, if not sleep?
Eat, answered his stomach with shameless immediacy. He ignored it, easily, despite his hollowed cheeks, and painfully skinny wrists. Practice, now as always, took precedence, though his body's demands were surprisingly strong. Eat. You're too thin. Eat something, Subaru. If you don't eat, you'll starve to death, and you won't get your chance to kill him.
He reached out and crumpled the end of the cigarette into an ashtray, his fatigue hidden in the grace of his movements. He was functional, if not beautiful; an onmyouji powerful enough to stop a train with a single, well-cast spell. And he had the eyes of a monster. He had the eyes of a man who could witness another's kill without interest or compassion.
It was the summer of 1997. Subaru Sumeragi was nineteen years
It was dangerous to be out at night in a place like Tokyo City.
Beneath the physical surface of the city lurked the essence of the dead, and of other, older creatures, summoned to do harm, or here--generous and sadistic--to do it of their own free will. At night, magical crimes occur so perverse that they might have spilled out from the high gloss pages of manga.
Subaru kept to himself, avoiding the main streets out of habit, shunning the solid phallus of Tokyo Tower as it spewed its spiritual detritus up into the sky. He ate alone, the culinary purchase made by means of a few gestures, without speech.
Half an hour later he was kneeling in the foyer of a deserted building, spent but victorious, a single hand braced in the dirt. To one side lay the ruin of something that had been foolish enough to emerge at night, and dark enough to have interested a powerful onmyouji who thought he needed the practice. And perhaps Subaru had an inkling of what was to come, for he knelt there longer than he needed to, until over his tired body there passed the shadow of an eagle's wings, and a voice.
"You've improved, Subaru-kun."
Subaru neither started, nor rose, nor lifted his head. "Seishirou-san," he said.
"We were opposites once," said Seishirou Sakurazuka. He picked his way across the devastated interior of the empty building, until he faced Subaru, and the younger man looked up. "Now I think we are merely opposed."
"The demon," Subaru said. "Was it yours?"
A line of petals swirled about the figure of Seishirou. Sakura blossom, out of season, each splay at once crisp and fleshy, threaded through with a delicate capillary. The question answered itself.
Subaru said, "No. Too easily taken to be yours."
"I don't keep pets," said Seishirou. "I had one, some years ago. But he couldn't hold my attention. And then he grew up. . ."
"Words," said Subaru, rising, weak but graceful, steady. "You'll find them wasted. They can't hurt me. I've become too much like you."
To a stranger, Subaru would have looked like an ordinary man, passable, too thin. To one who had known him before, as had Seishirou-san, he looked like a travesty; his boyhood beauty marred, ruined.
"You've lost weight," said Seishirou. "And you've grown bitter--"
Subaru's mouth curved like a blade. "--I no longer satisfy your taste for bishounen?"
"That is a presumption," said Seishirou-san.
"Is it? Forgive me. My politeness vanished the day a man tore the stars from my eyes."
"And now you kill demons for money."
"For practice and for pleasure. And sometimes, yes, for money. I still have an onmyouji's reputation. Though hiring me is becoming known as dangerous."
"Yes," said Seishirou. "Your business has even encroached upon my territory. A fact which may suprise you with its irony. . .you're more like me than you realize."
"Is that why you're here? To console, Seishirou-san? For the sake of commerce? Don't tell me chance drew you out of the woodwork. Or were you so bored with life tonight that you finally decided to give me the chance I crave--"
Sakura petals stirred in a non-existant breeze. "You won't kill me," said Seishirou-san.
"You doubt my hatred, after all you've done?"
Laughter, and from behind Seishirou's shoulders, the rustle of an eagle's wings. "I doubt your ability, Subaru-kun."
Subaru clasped his hands before his chest, adopting a firm stance. "We'll see," he said. His pupils focused, oddly, and then from his still form there came a violent burst of light. Seishirou countered.
The battle had begun.
Subaru fought well.
He was tired, but he was exceptionally skilled, and he was younger--which so often means stronger--though Seishirou-san, exactly nine years his senior, could be said to be in his prime. And he fought like the Sakurazukamori, with dead eyes, and a calm heart. He did not break stance when the eagle faltered, nor did he flinch when it recovered, nor when his own shikigami, twin white doves, once damaged, bled.
But as the minutes crept past--as they gathered together and became hours--Subaru realised an awful truth. He was trembling, exhausted. His hair was in rats tails and his pale skin was sticky with sweat.
"You're playing with me!" he gasped out, the words tearing their way from his throat.
"I have the time to do this slowly. Your doves falter," Seishirou
added, incidentally. "You're losing your calm."
Seishirou asked, "Why should I?"
"I have sworn to kill you, or die in the attempt--"
"Your oath," said Seishirou. "Not mine. Maybe you'll break it, as you once lost our bet."
One of the doves made a sound. The eagle, dark and glorious, had wrapped a talon about its pale throat.
"The Sakurazukamori kills quickly," Subaru said, struggling, and failing. He wanted only to hear an admission, or to strike a blow that hurt. "Expediently. You betray interest, if you linger over my death. You betray. . ."
"I don't linger," said Seishirou-san.
Claws and magic could do a lot that was harmful to the body of a nineteen
year old boy.
Long, dark lashes--vestige of his childhood beauty--struggled to lift themselves over tired eyes. Subaru's body was damaged in several places, but not enough to prevent determined movement. He pushed himself up.
A woman's voice: "Ah. Awake. Yes."
"I. . ." Subaru squinted. A wooden room, a bed, and over the door a strange kekkai. There was also the hum of machinery, and the realisation, I'm alive, which surprised him. "You're an onmyouji?" Dazed, his words lacked courtesy. His tongue tripped over itself.
"No," the woman said. "I am merely grateful. The demon you killed was a curse on the Nakamura. My family."
"Nakamura. . ." Cooking smells were creeping through the doorway to what Subaru saw was a thoroughly modern kitchen. Where was he? He didn't know. "Nakamura-san. You're a prophetess. . .and you've saved my life. . ."
Her head bowed. "In a manner of speaking. You required help, after the battle. I provided it. Though my gifts are common, where yours are. . ."
Exceptional. Subaru knew what the prophetess would not say. He was the most powerful onmyouji in Japan, bar one.
"The Sakurazukamori lives."
"Rest easy," she said. "No man can kill two monsters in one night."
Subaru did not reply, but he lowered his lashes slightly, out of respect, to save her meeting his gaze.
"How can I repay you, Nakamura-san?"
"There is no need. You have slain the demon," said the prophetess.
"But I slay demons all the time," said Subaru, "while it's rare that people save my life. There must be something that you want . . ."
The prophetess hesitated. "One thing," she said. "I would like to know--" She took his left hand and lifted it, palm up. A pentagram glimmered there, dark, and inverted. "--how you came upon this mark."
"The mark of the Sakurazukamori," said Subaru. "Don't judge me by it. I'm not the boy I. . ." he paused. "Do you want to hear the story?"
Another hesitation, then the prophetess shook her head. "You have told me what I need to know. The mark of the Sakurazukamori. . ."
Her words detached themselves.
"In the tales I read as a child," she said in this new voice. "Evil fell in love with Good, and was destroyed if not redeemed. In life, as I believe you have learned, the opposite occurs most often, most commonly. . ."
The pale hand she held trembled once, then was still.
"I don't love him," said Subaru.
"He does not love you. You are a stone. A dragon, merely. You are a boy who lost a bet."
Subaru nodded, too tired to feel sadness as anything more than an amorphous expansion in his chest. After a time, as she had helped him to heal, the lady helped him rise and he took his leave, bowing slightly and thanking her at the door.
"I helped you for this reason," she said. "Dragon of Heaven: Your destiny is foreordained. You will live to fight him again and win, or die in the attempt."
"Yes," said Subaru, nodding. "Yes. I know this."
Outside, he discovered that it had dawned, and was cooler. The weak sunlight busied itself with outlines, exploring great metalworks, highlighting pavement sections, tilting shadows out from under buildings. It found the planes of Subaru's face, touched them briefly, moved on.