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The Traces of Spring

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Come a bit nearer, please. Then might you know

Whose was the evening face so dim in the twilight.

***

The screen shielded Lady Shizuko from Hiromasa's eyes, but he could hear everything. The dull thuds, he imagined, were her thrashing limbs hitting the floor as she writhed, and the scratching was the sound of her nails trying to clutch something, anything, that would steady her. The frantic rustling of robes was punctuated with a low cry, and Hiromasa flinched.

The low murmur of Seimei's chanting halted, and he glanced up without quite looking away from his work. "Hiromasa."

"I'm all right," Hiromasa managed in a breathless laugh, though he certainly didn't find anything funny. "I'll stay. In case something goes wrong."

Seimei's lips curved, and if he wanted to ask just how Hiromasa intended to protect him, not a trace of sarcasm showed through in the smile. He returned his full attention to her without another word, and Hiromasa, embarrassed at his own bravado, took a step back towards her husband.

"Is this normal?" Lord Korechika was suddenly at his shoulder, and he unsuccessfully tried not to jump. It wasn't a new question: Hiromasa had suddenly, one day, realized that the entire capital now considered him the authority on Seimei, and trying to convince them otherwise was not an option.

And he didn't know how Lord Korechika would react if he told him that, no, as far as his experiences could tell him, this wasn't normal.

Shifting uncomfortably, Hiromasa mumbled, "Seimei knows what he's doing," before turning away from Lord Korechika completely. He would have sympathized with the man. But now he wasn't even sure whether Lord Korechika's discomfort was concern for his wife, or distress that he had become the court's new scandal.

Of course, he was never one to believe the court's gossip without good reason; he had been foolish enough once to believe the things they said about Seimei. But Hiromasa had been hearing it for days, even before Lord Korechika managed to swallow his pride and come to Seimei for help. That some childhood lover of Lord Korechika's had sent her spirit to torment Lady Shizuko to death.

"What would you have had me do?"

Seimei didn't flinch at the low, pained voice from behind the screen. Hiromasa bit back his own cry of surprise, but Lord Korechika gasped and grabbed his arm, demanding, "Who is that? That's not my wife."

"What would you have had me do?" the voice repeated, and Lady Shizuko's palm slapped hard against the screen. "Nothing grows here. Nothing."

And as her hand fell away from view, she finally fell silent

***

"Seimei, I'm not sure I understand..."

"Hmm?" Seimei finished pouring Hiromasa's sake, then leaned back to attend to his own drink. Hiromasa felt a small twinge of envy. Seimei had worked for hours to exorcise Lady Shizuko, and yet he looked as at ease as he always did. Would that Hiromasa were so unflappable.

"If what they say about Lord Korechika's former lover is true, I don't understand it at all. Not that I'm sure it's true," he added quickly, "I don't know anything of the matter myself, and I don't want to believe any rumors without good reason. But I thought only the dead could do something like this... can a living person really possess another?"

"It is certainly possible," was Seimei's vague answer as he sipped at his sake.

"But if that's the case," Hiromasa said, growing agitated, "what's to stop that person from possessing Lady Shizuko again?"

"Hiromasa." He really wished Seimei wouldn't smile at him like that. He was being serious. "In cases like these, it's often something much less sinister than that."

"... less sinister?" Hiromasa swallowed. Behind him, Mitsumushi - who had been twirling in the garden with her arms in the air, evidently fascinated with how the moonlight shone through her sleeves - had stopped to listen.

Seimei took another long sip before deigning to explain. "When a living person sends their spirit out to harm another, the person in question may not even realize it."

"What do you mean, not realize it?" he asked, sake long abandoned. "How is that possible?"

The onmyoji's smile widened just a little. In the distorting light of the moon, he looked even more foxlike, if possible. "Humans don't become demons through resentment alone, Hiromasa. Any emotion... jealousy, loneliness, even love can grow so strong that it takes shape of its own. It can't be controlled, no more than the emotions themselves can."

"But..." Hiromasa bit his lip. It was a relief to hear that whoever it was may have not been purposely trying to hurt Lady Shizuko, but he somehow felt worse. "Even if that's so, isn't that too sad? Even if Lord Korechika's lover was the demon, she won't know what she's done, but she'll still be blamed." His shoulders slumped. "It's strange to think that love can do something like this."

"Indeed," Seimei murmured, holding his empty cup in the air. Mitsumushi glided over to refill it. "Just think: your spirit might be wandering somewhere, tormenting some poor princess who's rejected you."

"S-Seimei!" Hiromasa sputtered, though not for the reason Seimei doubtlessly thought he did. If his spirit were to wander without his knowledge, a princess would be the least of his worries. "Don't say things like that! It's not as if I'm a woman!"

Seimei threw his head back and laughed, and Mitsumushi, in the middle of pouring his drink, joined in. "Why would that make a difference, Hiromasa?"

"Well..." Hiromasa shifted uncomfortably. "A man wouldn't have such a problem controlling his emotions, right?"

"Not so at all," Seimei replied, obviously delighted with Hiromasa's distress. "Men can be just as capricious as a woman. If not more."

"If not more," Mitsumushi echoed with equal delight.

"T-That's not important," Hiromasa said, with a firm shake of his head. "I had another question to ask about Lady Shizuko."

"Ohh?" Seimei quelled his laughter and met Hiromasa's eyes, waiting.

He momentarily forgot his question under Seimei's gaze. "Ah, yes... about what she said. About nothing growing."

He didn't need to pose his question. Seimei glanced over his shoulder and into the garden: spring had only just begun and nothing was yet in full bloom, but little pink buds speckled the branches above their heads. No one could say that nothing grew in the capital. And each of the women suspected to be Lord Korechika's lover lived in the capital.

"Then perhaps the rumors were mistaken," Seimei said at length.

"Seimei," Hiromasa said, with an attempt at a smile, "don't pretend that you don't know already."

"You think of me too highly." It was strange, Hiromasa thought. The same moonlight that had made Seimei look so impish just a moment ago now seemed to age him.

Hiromasa's smile faltered. "You look tired, Seimei."

"Do I, now..." Seimei sighed. "I suppose I haven't been sleeping well." As Hiromasa opened his mouth with a concerned reproach, Seimei's expression shifted to something inscrutable. "How can I, when Hiromasa's wandering spirit keeps tapping at my front gate every night?"

Hiromasa choked, his jaw dropping in horror. "I... I," he began, unsure of what he was saying. An apology? An excuse? He didn't know what would help, now.

But before he could say anything, Seimei began to laugh even more heartily than before, and Mitsumushi was nearly bent double with giggling. "I do believe," Seimei chuckled, "that I've never seen you look so at a loss, Hiromasa."

"Seimei!" Hiromasa choked, causing his friend to laugh even harder. Inhaling deeply, Hiromasa forced himself to laugh along. It at least kept him from saying anything foolish.

***

Hiromasa was almost sure that Seimei's words had been in jest; 'almost,' he qualified, because it was dangerous for one to assume that they understood Seimei completely. But it didn't stop him from worrying.

Say - just for argument's sake - that what Seimei described could happen to him. That his emotions could take shape, could hang onto another person like Lady Shizuko's tormentor had clung to her, without him even knowing. What, then, would those emotions do?

Hiromasa blanched. He didn't even want to think about it.

But the image invaded his mind all the same: he couldn't imagine himself, under any circumstances, being so direct as to scratch at Seimei's door. Hopefully, he thought, with a glimmer of optimism, the incorporeal Hiromasa would have the good sense not to make himself known to Seimei.

What would he do then, though? Hover by the gates of Seimei's house for hours on end? Somehow, Hiromasa thought that Seimei would sense him there. Hiromasa could just picture him, having a good laugh with Mitsumushi at his ineffectual haunting tactics.

Hiromasa shook his head firmly. This wouldn't do. He'd gone for a walk to calm his nerves, not to work himself up even more. He would just have to think about nothing.

He took a few steps down the street, trying to admire the beautiful weather. The capital had bloomed much more vibrantly since Lady Shizuko's exorcism, and the air itself seemed to have a pinkish tinge. Under a grove of nearby trees sat a group of young boys, listening to an older woman in rapt fascination. As Hiromasa walked closer, he recognized the story as that of Amaterasu and Susano-o. A fierce giggle coursed through the group of boys as the woman talked about Susano-o's malicious pranks, and Hiromasa had to stop himself from chiming in that when last he saw them, they had gotten along much better.

And with that, thinking about nothing had failed: his thoughts inevitably led him back to Seimei. That was how he ended up standing at Fujiwara no Yukihira's front gate.

It was at least another fifteen minutes before Hiromasa forced himself to make his presence known to a servant. It pained him to go to another onmyoji - they could gossip just as much as the nobles, if not more so. But Yukihira always seemed to have an honest disposition, and Hiromasa didn't think that he was the type to run and tell the entire court.

Not that he was sure of that. But ridicule was preferable to the hundreds of alternatives his imagination had conjured since Lady Shizuko's exorcism.

As the servant lead Hiromasa into the garden, Yukihira looked up from a text he was reading, and his brow immediately began to crease. Either Hiromasa was nervous, or Yukihira didn't look pleased to see him. "Lord Hiromasa," he said with palpable wariness, dismissing the servant with a wave.

"S-Sorry for the intrusion," Hiromasa stuttered out, "you must be very busy."

"Not at all," Yukihira said, though his tone spoke otherwise. "Is there something I can do for you?"

A question: a real one, one that Yukihira didn't already know the answer to. After spending so much time with Seimei, Hiromasa had forgotten that they existed. "Oh... yes. There was something I wanted to ask you. In confidence."

Yukihira looked even tenser. "Yes?"

"Well... I..." Maybe it would go easier if he said it all at once. He took a deep breath: "Is there any possible way to keep a person's spirit from doing harm to others?"

All at once, Yukihira broke down. "Not you too, Lord Hiromasa!" He reached agitatedly for his head, as if trying to pull his hair, and his fist clenched as he remembered it was tucked under his hat. "Wouldn't it be easier to just talk to her? Reassure her that your attentions haven't strayed?"

"... her?" Confusion replaced trepidation. "Lord Yukihira, what-"

"Or... I'm sorry, I know this is rude, but..." Yukihira gasped, his face turning a blotchy red. "If you don't have the time for both of them, perhaps you should-"

"Both of them?" Oh. Of course. "Oh, no. Actually, I was... asking for myself."

That stopped Yukihira's hysterics short. Tilting his head to one side, he choked, "... really?" When Hiromasa nodded, Yukihira's expression passed quickly from relief to embarrassment. "I... I apologize, Lord Hiromasa. Even since Lady Shizuko's illness, I've been visited by no less than a dozen men, asking me to do the same to their wives and lovers." He shook his head sourly. "As far as I can tell, I'm the only onmyoji receiving this treatment. Just because I don't take part in their petty bickering..."

Hiromasa shifted; though Yukihira hadn't been scolding him, he felt put in his place all the same. As much as he never admitted it, he liked to think that Seimei's attention set him apart from the rest of the court, but his thoughts could be disturbingly similar to theirs at times.

"But I am not sure what to tell you," Yukihira continued helplessly. "If you needed me to read the stars for you, then I might be of some assistance, but demons and possession are a bit..." Something shifted in his expression. "Aren't you close friends with Lord Seimei? He would be able to do something for you, I'm sure."

"Seimei absolutely cannot know," Hiromasa said, with more forcefulness than he would have liked.

"Ah," he said. "I don't blame you one bit for that."

The slight apprehension in Yukihira's words stirred up a rare annoyance in Hiromasa, and he snapped, "Do not talk about Seimei as if he is something to be feared."

"I didn't mean..." Yukihira trailed off - he had meant it, after all. "I am sorry to offend you. I misunderstood."

Hiromasa reeled his temper in, feeling thoroughly foolish. "No, it's... this just isn't something Seimei should worry himself with. That's all."

"I see." Yukihira nodded slowly. "I don't pretend to understand these things well, but the cause lies with unspoken feelings, doesn't it? Wouldn't it be easier to reconcile those feelings yourself?"

"No," Hiromasa said to his lap, "that wouldn't be possible."

"Why not?"

"Well..." He frowned. "These situations just... never resolve well. For me or anyone else." It sounded ridiculous, even to him, but it was true, wasn't it? Lately, rejections weren't the only thing he had to worry about, not after what happened to the Lady of the Full Moon, and Princess Himiko. Even Seimei had almost...

Hiromasa suddenly sat up very straight with horror. "What if I'm cursed?"

"Lord Hiromasa." Yukihira was beginning to look quite annoyed. "I'm not such a novice that I wouldn't notice a cursed man sitting across from me."

"Oh," Hiromasa said as he sunk again. "Yes. Of course."

"I'm sorry that this is causing you such distress, whatever it is," Yukihira sighed, "but I don't believe I can help you. If it consoles you any, your situation seems quite different from Lady Shizuko's." Hiromasa bit his lip. He knew that much already.

But Yukihira kept talking. "You should hear the things they've been trying to tell me about her," he said, with a hint of bitterness. "They've abandoned that ridiculous childhood lover story all together, you know. Now the entire court has gotten the idea that she was having an affair with Ono no Kiyomori last year."

"Lord Kiyomori..." Hiromasa frowned - he vaguely remembered the name. "Wasn't he exiled to Dazaifu?"

"That's right." Yukihira's scowl deepened. "Disgusting, isn't it? Telling such tales when he isn't here to defend himself. It wasn't as if I particularly liked him... thought he was a bit arrogant, always quoting this and that... but it's a matter of taste-"

And finally, Hiromasa realized it. "Dazaifu..." he said, swallowing. "Nothing grows there."

"What?" Yukihira blinked, snapped out of his tirade. "Well, I'm sure that's an exaggeration, but... yes. That's what some people say."

***

It was with a much more subdued atmosphere that Hiromasa made his way to Seimei's house later that night.

When he entered, Seimei sat calmly on the veranda, a full sake bottle placed in front of him, clearly waiting. Tonight, there were no tricks waiting for him: no shikigami servants flitting about, no false guests sharing a drink with him. He glanced up as Hiromasa entered, observing in silence for a moment. "You seem defeated tonight, Hiromasa."

"Seimei..." Hiromasa sighed heavily. "Lady Shizuko may have a lover in Dazaifu."

"Ahhh..." Seimei closed his eyes. "Since the coming of spring, fifty days have passed, yet I find not one thing that stirs the feelings of spring."

Hiromasa felt himself sink further: the poem Seimei referred to was one of Sugawara no Michizane's. And it had been written during his exile in Dazaifu. "So, enothing grows here' could have meant...?"

Seimei gestured for him to sit down. "Who can know for sure?"

"I knew it." Hiromasa hung his head. "So love was responsible for such a thing after all."

"Perhaps," Seimei said, "he merely wanted to be close to her. At its heart, that's not an evil thing."

Hiromasa forgot his distress for a moment, looking at Seimei closely. It wasn't like his friend to gloss such things over like that. "All the same," he said, now calmer, "he put her through so much pain."

"Oh, Hiromasa..." Seimei sighed in obvious amusement. "You're in love again, aren't you?"

After a moment's stammering and vague gesturing, Hiromasa realized there was no way to deny it. "And what if I am?" he huffed, going on the defensive. "But if love is such a dangerous thing, I'll do away with it."

"But that much is expected, isn't it?" Seimei stood, and moved across the veranda until he nearly stood toe to toe with Hiromasa. "Love brings ruin much more often than happiness. It wouldn't be interesting otherwise."

Another step. "Now, Hiromasa, do you ever intend to tell me what's bothering you?"

"W-What?" he said, stumbling. "Nothing's bothering me, Seimei."

"Don't lie to me." Sometimes, in the right light, Seimei's smile looked more like a wolf than a fox. "Are you really so worried that you've been haunting some poor princess?"

"What? No!" Hiromasa's laugh sounded harsh and high, even to him. "How did you get that idea?" He paused. "D-Do you think it's possible?"

"Hmmm." Seimei pursed his lips in thought. "The possibility is certainly there. But I know a way to ensure that it will never happen."

"... you do?" Hiromasa perked up, forgetting to deny it. "What is it?"

Seimei closed the distance between them, and their lips brushed against each other. "You wouldn't have to worry about killing me in my bed," he whispered, "if you simply spent your nights there at my invitation instead."

Hiromasa tripped and fell backwards.

Sprawled across the floor, he choked, "Seimei! You knew?"

The onmyoji smiled serenly down at him, offering a hand to help him up. "It was you, Hiromasa, who said that I knew everything."

"So you foresaw this?" Hiromasa took his hand and stood.

"Why would I have had to?" That calm smile showed a glint of teeth. "It was written all over your face."

"Seimei!" Hiromasa protested, but Seimei pressed a finger against his lips. Hiromasa almost bristled, and felt the need to remind Seimei again that he was no woman looking to be charmed.

But when Seimei began to laugh, Hiromasa laughed too - and to his own surprise, he felt no need to force it.