When Subaru awoke, there were birds singing near his tent. Birds - real, live birds, free ones, not birds kept in a garden or made stupid by city life, and they were singing near his tent. Suddenly wide awake, Subaru threw back his coverlet and hurried outside.
A glorious vista greeted him, one which he hadn't been able to fully appreciate the night before. There was ocean in one direction and a mountain range in the other, a thick collar of trees around the base of the stone monoliths, and living things inhabiting them all. Subaru had never dreamed such a place could be real.
"It's paradise," he said quietly.
Behind him, Seishirou crawled halfway out of the tent and blinked in the daylight. "What's that, Subaru-kun?"
"Wonderful... this is wonderful!" Subaru said, memorizing the horizon with eyes slightly blurred from joyful tears.
Seishirou chuckled. "And here I was worried the train trip and hike would tire you too much," he said, exiting the tent without even a hint of morning stiffness. "It was a good six hours before we stopped here, you know."
Subaru did not answer; crouched now, he had ceased studying the distance and now watched the flowers at his feet with avid fascination.
Seishirou smiled. "What shall we do today, Subaru-kun?"
"Anything. Everything," Subaru replied, looking up, the green of his irises putting the shades of grass to shame.
Seishirou beamed and pointed wisely in the air. "Then I suggest we hike and explore until the afternoon, and then either swim or visit the hot springs to clean ourselves off. How does that seem to you, Subaru-kun?"
Subaru stared up at him in amazement, his hair still slightly sleep-mussed; he nodded, too overwhelmed to speak.
Seishirou grinned. "I'll make breakfast," he announced, and handed a thinly folded map to Subaru. "Read up!"
"I will," Subaru promised ardently, and proceeded to do just that while Seishirou made a meal out of the prepared foods they'd brought with them.
It was amazing; just about every outdoor activity possible was available in this area, from scuba diving to mountain biking. Subaru ate with more of an appetite than usual - paying special attention to the banana chips - as he studied and marked the brochures Seishirou had brought along. Finally, he looked up and smiled.
"Seishirou-san," he said. "This place is amazing."
"Isn't it?" Seishirou agreed, tucking the folded tent away and snapping the last pack shut. "I adored coming here whenever I managed to catch a break from veterinary school."
Subaru perked up like one of Pavlov's trained dogs. "Really? What did you do?"
Seishirou sighed, looking dreamily off at the sky. "I came, and slept a lot; watched the sky. Saw the animals. Managed to feed a few, although of course you're not really supposed to do that."
"Of course," murmured Subaru, wondering if he'd have an opportunity to feed anything.
"If we're careful, we'll see all kinds of wildlife as we go, Subaru-kun. We can even go snorkeling and see all the different kinds of fish, if you want."
"...Seishirou-san..." Subaru said, overwhelmed.
Seishirou beamed. "This way," he said, and headed off, Subaru trotting beside him.
Ito Onsen was one of the most reputable hot springs in all of Japan. There were seven hundred and eighty-eight separate sources of hot artesian water, loaded with a mixture of minerals that was unlike any other spring in the country. With the Amagi mountains as a backdrop and the Sagami Bay within walking distance, the Ito Onsen could not have been located in a better place.
There was no lack of visitors. Thousands of people from every age group and social standing poured in and out of the springs at all hours of the day, either coming from local housing or staying at one of the many hotels in the area. They left healed and refreshed, enjoying meditation, communication, or solitude at their leisure. Kyonshi Akaguroi loved watching their before-and-after transformations; people would come in sore, tired, and exhausted, and they always left feeling like they'd been given new leases on life - like those ads on TV. He adored witnessing the process; as far as he was concerned, he was never going to leave.
Kyonshi had lived at the onsen for close to forty years. Not that he looked a day over twenty-five, of course - his type never did - but he had to admit that as living situations for energy vampires went, this one was the best he'd ever had. He didn't even need to approach anybody personally; the ebb and flow of chi was so strong in this place that he went home completely sated every night, without leaving so much as an over-tired grandmother behind him. Definitely the life.
No energy vampire Kyonshi had never heard of had stayed in one place for so long; he'd always assumed that the reason was because a trail of half-dead people in one's wake would tend to make the local situation dangerous. Of course, he'd since then discovered what the real reason was, but since that in itself made for a fascinating experiment, he saw no need to move on.
Kyonshi hardly thought of himself as a vampire anymore; some days he even spent pretending he was human, especially when an attractive lady or three bartered for (and gained) his attention. Humans led such short, passionate lives, filled with a tension that no immortal creature could ever enjoy; Kyonshi, for his part, envied them. Of course he was not human and never could be, but that wasn't something he let pull him down; what was the use in spending eternity depressed, after all?
Today was one of those days in which he certainly did not have time for depression. The weekend crowds were coming in, and the tiny bulbs in the front desk representing reservations went on and off like malfunctioning Christmas lights. Kyonshi was so pleased with the way things were going and so completely focused on his work that he didn't notice Them until They had practically walked right into his lap.
"Hello and welcome to the Onsen at Ito, how may I help y....oooooh," Kyonshi began automatically as he looked up, then stared at the feast laid before him. His pen slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor.
They didn't seem to see the reason for his shock. "Um... are you all right?" asked the shorter one, maybe about sixteen, sort of a prettily effeminate male.
Kyonshi was resisting the urge to bounce on his toes. "Oooh, yes I'm fine, I'm fine - so sorry, I just noticed how late it was, the day has FLOWN by! How may I help you?" He tossed his head, flipping his honey-colored ponytail from one shoulder to the other.
The older one of the two - about twenty five, if Kyonshi's guess was correct - smiled and slid a sheet of paper across the desk. It was one of the onsen's reservation forms.
"We have a reservation," the older one said, and Kyonshi looked very excited.
"You DO!" he confirmed joyfully. "You have more than one - you have one here, and here, and here -"
"Yes, we're planning to visit more than once," the older one explained slowly, as if trying to calm him down. "Will there be a problem if we cannot make one of our appointed times?"
"Oh, not a problem, not a problem at all!" Kyonshi continued, and slid a release form back across the desk toward them. "We'll give you a full refund on your money, of course, if you don't use all your reservations, but I hope you keep in mind that every hour you spend in our water gives you another month of life. It's really worth your time to come here."
"Yes, of course it is," the older one said patiently, and started supplying written information.
The younger one looked thrilled. "Because of the minerals in the water?" he asked, his green eyes so eager and brimming with power that Kyonshi had to resist the urge to kiss him.
"That, and of course the heat helps to clean out your pores and your lungs and to regulate your heart beat," Kyonshi replied, beaming at the boy. "Ah, you DO know to get out once you start to get dizzy? Good - and it also relaxes your muscles from head to foot, which is a wonderful thing after a day of working or walking. Why, the only thing healthier would be meditation and a careful diet! Be sure to bathe before you enter. Here you go, and enjoy!" And with that, he handed them a map, two keys, towels, and slips of paper discreetly telling them when they needed to vacate their spring. The two visitors both smiled - different smiles, intriguingly different smiles - and walked down the northeast hall.
Kyonshi watched them go. His hands clasped together demurely - but tightly, so as to keep from cheering or doing anything else that would catch their attention - he managed to stay completely still until they were out of sight. Then, he bounced on his toes.
Oh, what joy! His horoscope had said he'd be lucky that day, but he'd had NO idea how lucky he'd be. These two alone could keep him going for months at a time, even though he knew he'd have to be careful tasting them so as not to do any damage. That was the rule - no damage. After all, if he wasn't careful, this whole situation could blow up in his face. Or be blown out of the water, which was a much more appropriate analogy.
Oh, this was going to be SUCH a wonderful afternoon. Tidying up around his desk and humming a tune that hadn't been heard for at least two hundred years, Kyonshi logged his paperwork and dreamed about feasting.
"He was a little odd," Seishirou remarked as he led the way toward the bathing area.
"I thought he was nice," Subaru replied, eyeing with fascination the rows upon rows of doors, spaced broadly and evenly on either side of the hall. "He reminded me of that doctor we met last month... Watari something."
"Just a little," Seishirou agreed, and stopped outside a door. Checking his instructions to make sure it was the right one, he unlocked it and swung it open wide.
The room was immaculate. With racks for clothing and towels, tatami mats, electric fans, and a small fridge with bottled water, it was stocked for every possible bathing eventuality, and looked comfortable enough to sleep in.
"I think this suits our needs nicely, Subaru-kun," Seishirou remarked with a smile, and dropping his belongings into a neat pile in one corner, began to take off his clothes.
Subaru's eyes bugged. Looking quickly for refuge, he grabbed his towel and scooted into the small one-person lavatory, closing the door behind him.
Seishirou chuckled. "I'll shower first," he called amiably, tossing his towel over his shoulder and opening the straw door leading to the spring. "See you outside!"
Subaru waited until he was sure Seishirou was gone before peeking back out of the bathroom. Sure enough, he was alone; Seishirou had used the small outdoor shower outside their room - rather like the one at the only public swimming pool Subaru had visited in his life - and then settled into the hot, steaming water of their spring. Relieved, Subaru folded his clothing neatly and affixed his towel around his waist before following.
The air outside, cooling as the sun set behind the mountains, was a perfect compliment to the hot spring and added the slightest chill to Subaru's skin as he quickly showered in the shadows. Seishirou was already submerged to his chest, arms resting on smooth stone to either side. His head was back, face pointed toward the winking stars, and the contentment on his face caused Subaru to pause for a moment and simply look at him. Seishirou's eyes were closed; a fact Subaru was extremely grateful for as he hung up his towel and slipped into the water with as little splashing as possible. Trying not to draw attention to himself, he sunk neck-deep - except for his hands - and slid quickly to the other side.
Aware of Subaru's modesty, Seishirou waited until it sounded like Subaru had settled, and then he raised his head. "Isn't this wonderful, Subaru-kun?" he said, purring just the tiniest bit.
"Just right," Subaru replied, still submerged with only his hands and his face peeking out of the water. "Did you manage to write down how many we saw today?"
Seishirou smiled. "Fifteen different kinds of birds, three deer, twenty-five rodents of various sizes, and that one creature that might have been a mountain lion in the distance. I still suspect it may have been a dog."
"Dogs don't move like that, Seishirou-san," Subaru replied sleepily, turning to rest his hands on a rock and his cheek on his hands. "I'm kind of surprised how tired I am...."
"We hiked nearly twenty miles today, Subaru-kun," Seishirou observed, watching his companion sidelong. "Perhaps you're too tired to rest in here for long - would you like to set up camp on the beach tonight? The weather is supposed to be perfect."
Subaru didn't answer. Seishirou frowned slightly.
Once again, there was no reply. Subaru's back rose and fell gently with the rhythm of his breathing, but his eyes remained closed, and he showed no signs of responding to Seishirou's query. Concerned, Seishirou rose from his comfortable spot and slid through the water to where Subaru lay still.
Subaru was sound asleep.
A momentary check showed Subaru's pulse was fine, his respiration normal, and his temperature nearly perfect; but those small touches should have garnered some response, and they did not. Concerned, Seishirou shook him.
Seishirou shook him; called his name. Pulled him out of the spring and splashed his face with water, but all to no effect. "Subaru-kun?" he tried again, murmuring close to the younger man's ear; Subaru did not stir.
Seishirou took a slow, deep breath. Panic was not in his nature; picking Subaru up again, he carried the young onmyouji back to the room and laid him on out one of the tatami mats. Quickly and expertly, he began running his fingers over the younger man's body, trying to detect anything that might indicate a curse or spell of any kind. There was nothing.
"Well, that was less than helpful," Seishirou muttered to himself, and pulling on his trousers, left the room at a run to find a working phone.
The Ito area had a very nice hospital.
The ambulance had arrived seven minutes after Kyonshi called for it, and Subaru had been bundled into it without delay - bundled into it half dressed, at least, since Seishirou had taken the time to pull on Subaru's pants. Like Seishirou, the medical technicians tested Subaru, but could find no reason for his comatose state; he reacted to no stimuli, showed little reflex response, and the paramedics were in the process of calling the situation in as a level-one emergency when Subaru simply woke up.
There was no moment of stirring and no disorientation. Subaru just opened his eyes, sat up on the gurney, and wondered where in the world he was.
"S... Seishirou-san? Aah!" Subaru covered his bare chest with both arms, staring at everyone and absurdly grateful that at least he was wearing pants. "What happened? Why am I here? What is this?"
No one could give him anything other than observed facts; and those, such as they were, failed to explain anything. Though no longer a level-one emergency, Subaru still ranked as high on the worry list. Brooking no argument, they took him into the hospital and put him through a whole new battery of tests.
It was a very long night.
Kyonshi was very upset. Very, very upset - for which he held the hot springs to blame, and he was letting them know it.
"This is all your fault," he informed them, because, after all, it was. "Couldn't you have shown a LITTLE self control? You had NO restraint at all, absolutely none, and now we're in trouble! They could end up suing us, or worse - and I might have to leave! Do you understand me? Don't you care about me at all?"
A soft breeze, rising from the north and coming through the open door, whispered a reply in the thatched ceiling.
"Oh, it most certainly IS a problem," Kyonshi snapped, his voice slightly wobbly with miserable emotion; he tangled both hands in his glorious hair. "I don't WANT to be caught," he whimpered. "That was the Sumeragi clan HEAD you drained - the HEAD! If he comes back here, he'll make me go away, or kill me, or imprison me or something, and it's all because you couldn't handle a little self control!" He shouted at the ceiling again. "Rule number ONE! There is to be NO damage, to NO person, at ANY time! Period!"
Silence. Apparently demoralized, Kyonshi dropped his head and slumped unhappily to the ground. "You're so mean to me sometimes, Ashikase."
Suddenly the breeze came again, only this time it was stronger - too strong. A shuddering like a great beast stretching its back beneath the floor shook the room, then a pulsing red glow began to shine from the floor up along Kyonshi's body.
He gasped, and for a moment went utterly still, his features sharpened in sudden bliss as the glow grew around him.
"No," he moaned, low and breathless, and tried to gathered himself together. The glow did not abate.
"I said NO!" he suddenly shouted, and wrenched himself sideways in a stumbling attempt to escape out the door. As if the light were a physical boundary he had to cross, he cried out as he passed it, and bruises appeared on his skin.
"I don't want that!" he gasped as he collapsed against the wall. "How could you try to give that to me? I don't want something that awful!" More breeze answered in return, but apparently Kyonshi didn't want to hear it. "No. No more. I'm leaving. I'll come back and talk to you AFTER you're done showing off with things you've stolen from very nice people!" And without so much as another glare, he stumbled right toward the door and stalked out of the room.
Both the door to the hall and the door leading to the hot spring slammed shut behind him all by themselves.
It was thee in the afternoon, and Subaru was still sleeping.
Of course, Seishirou couldn't blame the boy; between blood tests and x-rays and everything else they'd done, Subaru hadn't gotten peace and quiet until well after six a.m.. Of course, Seishirou had stayed awake with him; but he was used to working nocturnally.
Some years ago, the emperor of Japan had created and distributed a list of Very Important People who, at the first sign of trouble, were to receive all priority in medical attention. Naturally, Subaru was on that list; and since comas definitely qualified as trouble - especially when no one could diagnose the cause - Subaru had been given far more of that attention than he wanted.
In short, they'd run every single test they could think of, and every single one of them had come back negative. Subaru, as it turned out, was an unusually healthy boy.
The doctor heading the inquiry sat now behind his impressive desk, tainted faintly blue by the dozens of backlit scans hanging on the wall behind him. He looked at Seishirou and gravely folded his hands. "We're not certain what's wrong," the doctor said, apparently taking the honest path since Subaru was a VIP. "We've ruled out both epilepsy and narcolepsy; there is no evidence of any kind of allergic reaction or poison, and as far as we can see he has no head or back injuries. Sumeragi-san does not have a history of this kind of behavior. We can do nothing more for him except to suggest that he be cautious with his activities in the future, especially if there is a repeat."
Seishirou sighed. "I thought as much," he said, nodding. "I take it he's free to go once he awakens?"
"Of course," said the doctor. "I hope you have a way to contact help immediately in case he falls into this state again."
"Yes, we do," Seishirou said, not bothering to elaborate.
The doctor nodded and stood; his lab coat looked more blue than white in this lighting. "I'll make sure you have the correct paperwork."
"Thank you," replied Seishirou, and wondered if Subaru were going to cancel their trip. He wondered if Subaru SHOULD. Wearing a mask of concern, he wended his way back toward the in-patient sector to see what Subaru would choose; hopefully, at least the boy wouldn't be too unhappy.
Subaru was anything but unhappy; he'd never been surrounded by so many nice people in his life.
Looking even more delicate than usual in a faded sheep-pattern hospital gown, Subaru sat in his bed and smiled at the nurses who kept coming in to see him. They brought him food, things to read, offered advice on what was good on the television, talked about their families - in short, did pretty much anything that would give them an excuse to be in the room with him.
Subaru had no idea why; he just enjoyed the attention.
He didn't want to take them away from their work, of course, so when the parade of nurses had first begun, he'd tried to be less than friendly with them; but then one or two had started looking hurt, and that plan was abandoned immediately. Now, at least two nurses at a time came into his room to see him, trading off as if taking shifts. It was a little odd, but he'd seen worse.
"Thank you," Subaru said to one who'd just brought him a chocolate chip cookie from the cafeteria.
"You're welcome!" she beamed in reply, and then headed back out the door looking as happy as if she'd just pet a tiny duckling. Seishirou passed her on his way in.
"Seishirou-san!" Subaru said.
"You're awake," Seishirou observed, sitting next to the bed and studying Subaru closely.
"Yes, I am," Subaru said; his expression melted. "Seishirou-san, I'm so sorry - "
Seishirou held up one hand. "None of that, Subaru-kun. I know you couldn't help it - it wasn't your choice! There is nothing to forgive. Now, the only question is: where are we going from here?" He gazed at Subaru closely, his expression very serious. "This hasn't happened to you before, and it may not happen again; but is that something we want to risk?"
And he watched the battle on Subaru's face. The challenge - the pull of responsibility versus the desire for play and freedom, which were things Subaru experienced so very rarely that their taste was intoxicating. It went dancing through his eyes over and over until he looked almost too upset to decide.
"I don't want to go back yet," Subaru finally said softly, studying his gloved hands. "Not after everything you've done for me - this is a wonderful present. We don't have anything to do until Tuesday, Seishirou-san. Do you think... do you think we could stay?"
Seishirou smiled. "We can stay," he said encouragingly, and Subaru's eyes lit with visible relief. "But we're going to be
more careful. Regular rests, and certainly no more twenty-mile hikes - all right?"
"All right," Subaru conceded, and gave an answering smile. "Do you think we can go back to that hot spring?" he asked, and Seishirou paused before answering.
"Why would you want to go back there?" he said, carefully keeping his voice neutral.
"I just... want to," Subaru said earnestly, and blushed all the way to the tips of his ears. "I already caused enough trouble to that man - Kyonshi-san - and it sounded like he was so upset when this happened. I don't want him to feel like it was his fault, or that his onsen is anything but perfect. Please? Can we go back?"
Seishirou chuckled softly, shaking his head. "So kind, Subaru-kun," he said. "I think we can manage that - if he'll have us. Sometimes embarrassed people can do very strange things."
"I know," Subaru confessed. "They do it because they're hurting and want to avoid more hurt - but I want to relieve his hurt. That's what I want to do - it's why I want to go back."
Seishirou nodded. "I'll get your release forms," he said. "You stay here - and if any more women come in to flirt with you, you can just tell them you're already engaged to the handsome veterinarian who brought you in!"
"Seishirou-san!!" Subaru exclaimed in horror, flushing once more; satisfied, Seishirou smiled and left the room.
[ part three - in progress ]