The cat clearly did not want to be helped. This was made obvious not only by the noises it was making, but also by the fact that it had drawn blood from each of the three people who'd approached it, and still wasn't looking repentant.

"Hold it... hold it! Now!" Seishirou said, and lunged, holding a towel in both hands like a magic shield. Of course, the cat dodged.

"Eee! I got it - ack! I don't!" Hokuto yipped, trying to catch the animal, but it similarly avoided her and made a run for the door.

Subaru was waiting for it. "Come on... NOW!" He shouted, more for his own benefit than his partners', and made a graceful, swooping dive with his towel.

The cat had not expected such speed from the smaller, slender male, and did not dodge in time; in seconds, Subaru had successfully captured and wrapped the feline like a kitty burrito. Bereft of any other options, the cat yowled pitifully and twitched its tail.

"You got it!" Hokuto proclaimed, and clapped her hands.

Seishirou's glasses had been knocked askew, and he straightened them as he approached. "Excellent job, Subaru-kun! You handled that like an expert," he said, and deftly took the writhing bundle into his hands. "And as for YOU, young man," he addressed the cat. "You've won yourself an all-expense paid trip to the premium-strength cages, which I normally reserve for unruly dogs - and possibly an extra prize of tranquilizer." In respose, the cat only yowled more loudly, but Seishirou remained unmoved. Delivering his patient with smooth and practiced efficiency into a larger, reinforced cage, Seishirou secured the tiny door, then turned back to his assistants with a smile.

"Excellent!" he said, offering them disinfectant towelette to clean their hands. "Who wants ice cream?"

"Yay!" exclaimed Hokuto, waving her towlette and bouncing on her toes.

"Ice cream?" Subaru asked, looking moderately guilty at the thought. "But it's only eleven."

"And we have all been working hard since last night, Subaru-kun, especially you," Seishirou said, rinsing his hands in the sink. "You've been here helping me since four o'clock this morning. I can't possibly allow my Subaru-kun to grow ill!"

"Oh, I... all right," Subaru conceded with a slight blush, and Hokuto cheered again.

The Sumeragi twins had been with Seishirou all night long dealing with animals who'd been turned from pets to temporary refugees by a flood downtown. Many of the furry indigents had been caught, of course, but many had not; and worried for their safety, Subaru had been outside ever since he'd seen the news broadcast the night before, helping the relief workers to catch these poor animals and return them to their homes or get them into shelters. This cat was the last of the strays he'd brought to Seishirou's clinic.

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean to keep you both up so late," Subaru apologized as Hokuto and Seishirou hustled him to the waiting room; he jumped a little when somebody's hand brushed his side as he pulled on his coat.

"Oh, don't be silly, Subaru, we WANTED to help you," Hokuto said, hopping around him to button the bottom half of his coat before buttoning her own. "We couldn't leave those poor things out there to die! It's February! They'd freeze!"

Subaru nodded, knotting his scarf. "I... I know. But still, you didn't have to help me."

Seishirou slid his arms around from behind and buttoned the top half of Subaru's coat. "We wanted to help you - it was the right thing to do! Wouldn't you agree, Subaru-kun?" Seishirou said, and gave Subaru a snuggly-tight hug.

Subaru squeaked and struggled lightly. "S-S-SEIshirou-san!" he protested, cheeks flaming red.

"Oooh, you two behaaave," Hokuto said, waggling her finger and sounding as though she meant exactly the opposite.

Seishirou tsked lightly and pointed into the air, entering lecture mode. "All right, Subaru-kun, I'll stop - but only on one condition," he said, and then leveled his finger at Subaru's nose. "YOU must go home and get some sleep," he ordered, and Hokuto nodded affirmatively.

"That's exactly right, Sei-chan!" she said, pushing them both out the door into the cold of an early Februrary afternoon. "Where would Subaru-kun be without you to take care of him?"

"But... I have a job," Subaru protested helplessly as the door shut and locked behind him, cutting off his voice; and inside the clinic, one very irritated cat continued its determined escape effort.

"Really, Subaru-kun, you push yourself too much," Hokuto said around a mouthful of Seishirou's ice cream. "Riroi can WAIT, you know."

Subaru blushed. "No, he really can't, and I don't have the right - sure, you can have a bite - to make him. I need to just... be there on time, and I've only got an hour to get home and get my robes."

Hokuto shook her head. "Noooo," she said. "We Sumeragi are always there for people who NEED us - but he doesn't need you. He wants you." She lowered her voice. "And frankly, you can do a whole lot better than Riroi," she said, bluntly indicating Seishirou with a nod of her head. Subaru blushed.

"I... I... I'm not looking for ANYbody right now, Hokuto-chan," he protested. "And don't call the Kokushi that."

Seishirou sighed dramatically. "Still, still he rejects me, in spite of my deep, passionate love," he said, wiping away invisible tears with his fingers. Hokuto took another bite of his ice cream.

Subaru flushed more deeply. "I'm SERIOUS, Seishirou-san. He called me to go, and I have to go. And... I'll go home and sleep afterward, I promise, but I can't just ignore him - "

"Sure you can!" Hokuto interjected. "After all, we're going to celebrate our sixteenth birthday this year, and we haven't done anything to prepare for it! And you aren't really crying, Sei-chan, cut it out."

"Oh," said Subaru. "I forgot."

"Forgot!?" Hokuto said, coming to a halt and whirling on him. "How could you forget?"

"Hokuto-chan, we're not celebrating it until July," Subaru said, looking embarassed; Hokuto was not to be dissuaded.

"We only turn sixteen once! ONCE, do you hear? This isn't something to be taken lightly, Sumeragi Subaru!" she pronounced, feet planted wide on the sidewalk. And then she blinked, eyes focused on something behind him. "Oops."

Puzzled, Subaru turned, following her gaze to one of the digital clocks gracing the outside of a bank across the street. "Ah!" he cried. "It's almost one! I'm going to be late!" And then he yipped because Seishirou swept him up with strong arms right off the sidewalk. "Seishirou-san! Wh... what are you doing?"

Seishirou was all business. "Saving my Subaru-kun's reputation, of course," he said with solemnity, and took off in an an effortlessly smooth stride for his van.

"Sei-ei-shi-i-rou-ou-san!" Subaru protested, bouncing, gripping his hat with one hand and Seishirou's shoulder with the other.

"Yay! Veterinarian in shining armor!" Hokuto cheered, and ran after them.

By some miracle Subaru arrived on time, flying up the path in his ceremonial robe and slippers and trying to pace himself so as not to be out of breath when he arrived in the governor's presence. Seishirou and Hokuto stayed in the van, watching him go.

"So... what'll we do?" Hokuto said, leaning between the two front seats and peering up at Seishirou adoringly. "It's gotta be SPECIAL, Sei-chan!"

"Even though it's not really your birthday?" Seishirou responded, winking. Hokuto swatted his arm.

"Stop that. You're wasting time," she declared.

Seishirou beamed. "No time with my future sister-in-law is wasted, Hokuto-chan!" he said, and she swatted him again.


Seishirou settled back with a sigh. "Well, Hokuto-chan; I have to admit that gift-hunting for your brother is much more challenging than I thought," he conceded, glancing at her sidelong. "He doesn't really want anything, does he?"

Hokuto sighed explosively. "No, he doesn't," she said, and rested her chin on her hands. "The only thing that makes him happy is when other people are happy - or animals, or..."

"Perhaps a pet?" Seishirou suggested, but Hokuto shook her head.

"No; neither of us are home often enough to take care of it, and he has enough problems with guilt trips already. And can you imagine when it finally dies? No, that won't work at all."

"As always, Hokuto-chan is wise," Seishirou agreed, watching the small explosions and odd poufs of color coming from the windows of the governor's mansion. "Seat belt, please."

Hokuto complied, squirming into the front seat and buckling up. Seishirou pulled away from the mansion.

"Perhaps he just needs a vacation," he suggested with an odd smile, and Hokuto sighed again.

"Nope," she said. "He'd never take it - too much to do, remember?"

"Well - I'm at a loss then, Hokuto-chan," Seishirou admitted pensively.

Hokuto patted his arm. "Oh, don't worry," she said. "Between the two of us, we'll think of something grand - we ARE his family, are we not?"

Seishirou smiled in response, and Hokuto was satisfied. They chatted for a while more, amiably, until Seishirou dropped her off back at her apartment house; and when he pulled away, he looked pleased.

"Oh, I know just what to do for my Subaru-kun," he murmured to himself, and smiling almost pleasantly, he donned his sunglasses and headed toward home.

Subaru did not wrest his freedom from Riroi and accompanying demons until sunset had begun to paint the sky red over the west of Tokyo. It turned out that Riroi's "small meeting" was actually a hopeful discussion between Subaru and the governor's three top advisors regarding the future of the city, but the only result was chaos; it wasn't every day one encountered two out of three loyal advisors who also happened to be possessed and determined to take over their employer's mind. Misunderstanding Subaru's attendance, the demons had attacked him almost immediately out of self-defense; naturally, Subaru had fought back, and a minor war resulted - one which lasted for several hours.

At least it had ended well. Riroi was unharmed, the demons were cast out, the advisors were sent home with wards of all kinds on their bodies and souls, and Subaru himself refused the governor's generous offer to spend the night and instead headed toward home. This had been a terrible day; draining, exhausting, very messy. Feeling as if he could barely put one foot in front of the other, Subaru moved slowly toward the slender, private garden entrance that led to the street.

There was someone standing in the gate's shadow. Someone tall, leaning against the wall with that pretunatural stillness that only predators seem to possess, and a few moments passed before Subaru realized who it was.

"Seishirou-san?" he queried, shock fluttering in his stomach.

The shadow pushed away from the wall - and Seishirou-san it was, all hints of menace suddenly banished back into the imagination. "Subaru-kun," he said with concern, approaching. "Are you all right? You look terrible!"

Subaru wasn't surprised that he looked terrible; he felt terrible, and knew for a fact that his robes were a mess. "You... Seishirou-san, I was in there for hours! You shouldn't have waited for me."

"Don't be silly, Subaru-kun," Seishirou said, draping his coat around Subaru's frame and bundling him toward the van. "Who else would come to take you home?"

"Seishirou-san," Subaru protested, but he did not fight. He was exhausted; being taken care of like this, right now, was soothing internal wounds he didn't even know he had.

"Off we go," Seishirou said as soon as Subaru was ready, and pulled away.

Subaru was quiet for a long time. Outside the window, sidewalks filled with people flew by at varying speeds, according to the flow of traffic; Subaru's gaze lingered along the dark skyline of Tokyo, contrasted against the brilliance of this Februrary sunset. Eventually, he closed his eyes.

"Seishirou-san?" he said quietly.

"Yes, Subaru-kun?"

"Why did you stay?"

"Why, because I love you, Subaru-kun. Hokuto-chan is probably worried silly about you."

Subaru didn't answer right away. He sat, wrapped in the safety of Seishirou's jacket and Seishirou's concern, and after a moment, he felt very good. Visibly, spiritually, he relaxed.

"Thank you, Seishirou-san," he said.

Seishirou smiled. They rode the rest of the trip in silence.

The next few months absolutely flew by. School, appointments all over the city, two trips to see his grandmother, and of course, evenings at the veterinary clinic took up his time, and soon all merged into one busy mass. It seemed that Subaru had no time to think about anything else; and then suddenly it was the July - the time he and Hokuto had agreed to celebrate their birthday.

Subaru did not usually care to make a fuss at all, but Hokuto usually insisted on at least one birthday party for the sake of their friends and dragged him into the thick of it. Well, her friends, anyway; Subaru, as much as he loved and was loved, had very view people other than Hokuto and Seishirou with whom he would consider spending an evening.

Unusually, this year Hokuto had not been up to her usual shenannigans. She had not prepared an outfit for him, nor dropped any broad hints; instead, she'd merely smiled like a cat, given him significant looks, and cackled every once in a while. Subaru knew his sister well; rather than growing paranoid, he accepted that she'd tell him what was going on when she was good and ready, and there was nothing he could do to speed up the process.

And then came the first weekend in July, and it was too late to run.

"You're going camping with Sei-chan," Hokuto informed him blithely over tea one Friday evening, and Subaru nearly choked.

"WHAT?" he blurted, spilling a little of his jasmine; Hokuto mopped it up.

"You're going camping with Sei-chan," she repeated, unrepentant. "That's his present to you. You're going to get some memories."

"Memories? Of WHAT?!" Subaru cried, and Hokuto gave him a look that said he was being silly.

"Why, your time together, of course!" she exuded. "The outdoors! Each other! Animals! Birds! Blossoms - of romance! ANYTHING could happen!" She clapped her hands together while Subaru sputtered, then leveled a finger at him. "Don't you DARE think of turning him down, Sumeragi Subaru! He's promised me he won't do ANYTHING to you you don't want, and he's cleared his entire schedule to be able to do this. You ARE going, and don't you say another word about it!"

Subaru knew when a case was hopeless, but he tried to protest anyway. Naturally, it did no good; looking satisfied, Hokuto began clearing the dishes from the counter.

"But... where did this idea come from, Hokuto-chan?" Subaru asked miserably.

"Oh, you're hard to shop for, Subaru, you know that!" Hokuto said happily, dropping dishes into the sink.

"But... but I have jobs..."

"Not any more, you don't," Hokuto replied. "I cleared your schedule all the way to Tuesday."

Subaru goggled. "Tuesday!?" he said, his voice cracking; and with truly despicable timing, the doorbell rang.

"There he is!" Hokuto said, happily abandoning the dishes in favor of skipping out toward the foyer. "I didn't want to give you any time to come up with any excuses."

"Hokuto-chan!" Subaru protested, but Hokuto was already past him; flinging open the door, she inviting Seishirou inside with open arms. The two of them talked loudly and joyously for a few moments about the wonderful time that was going to be had, and then Subaru finally peeked around the corner.

He spotted Seishirou and froze with a tiny inhale.

The vet stood there, bereft of his usual academic appearance, outfitted for hiking rather than the lab: khaki pants, boots, buckles over everything - and he was smiling a full 100 watts at Subaru. "There you are!" he said. "Hokuto-chan probably didn't warn you; that's all right - I brought supplies!"

"I...I'm sure you did," Subaru began weakly, flushing bright red, and then squeaked because everything started moving too quickly. Hokuto pounced; within moments, Subaru found himself dressed in hiking-appropriate wear and loaded into Seishirou's van before he quite knew what was happening. He stared, stunned, at the windshield.

"Have a great weekend!" Hokuto was calling. "Be nice! Be good! ROMANCE HIM WITHIN AN INCH OF HIS LIFE, SEI-CHAN!"

Subaru hunched down out of view as Seishirou drove off, laughing. This was definitely going to be a weekend to remember.

Seishirou waited until they pulled away from Subaru's apartment house before glancing over at his half-unwilling guest. "Please don't tell me you're unhappy, Subaru-kun," he said softly, and Subaru stirred himself to answer.

"No, no of course not, Seishirou-san," Subaru replied, sitting up straight and watching the glove compartment with concentration. "I just... this is so sudden."

Seishirou chuckled. "Yes, I know it is; but Hokuto-chan and I discussed and planned, and we finally decided that the best thing to get for you would be... a memory."

"A memory?"

Seishirou smiled. "Yes. Just wait, Subaru-kun; I think you'll see just what I mean."

Subaru had no idea what to say to that, so he went for obvious. "Thank you. I... I don't know how to show my gratitude."

"Just have a good time, Subaru-kun," Seishirou said warmly, signaling as he passed a slow driver. "I want this to be a happy time for you; no beeper, no fax machine, no assignments. Just you and the great outdoors."

"And you," Subaru reminded softly, but he'd already begun to relax. He'd never taken a vacation; the idea was both exotic and terrifying. He looked up as they approached the train station. "We're going by train?" he asked.

"Yes - we're going to the Izu peninsula, Ito area," Seishirou explained, pulling into a long-term parking spot and switching off his headlights. "It's wonderful; we can watch birds, animals - plants. Explore the forest. Mountains. Rivers. Stars, if we go far enough. Hot springs. And the wind in the trees will sing us to sleep at night."

Subaru sat still, eyes wide; and then, he smiled. "Seishirou-san," he started softly, his voice slightly thick, and Seishirou shook his head with a grin.

"Thank me later," he said. "We have to get into the station or we're going to be late."

Grinning back and feeling oddly free in a way he never had before, Subaru nodded and reached behind to grab the pack Seishirou had prepared for him. This wouldn't be so bad after all.

[ to part two ]