Two weeks after Hokuto’s death, Seishiro found his next prey in a small store in the Nishiki Market that specialized in selling inexpensive household goods of reasonable quality. Despite the amusement he felt at ‘hiding’ in the city claimed by his enemies as their own, he felt no connection to Kyoto, nothing at all like Tokyo. Aware that his stay in the ancient city would be a short one, he had thought to only buy the bare necessities and ‘slum’ it a little bit. While browsing an impressive display of chopsticks and smiling over ones decorated with kittens, of all things, his next bit of fun presented itself.
There was no hope of finding another child as precocious as Subaru, but this young man, still dressed in his school uniform, held some potential. Only a couple of years younger than Subaru’s current age, he had an air of the older boy’s innocence, had a clarity in his dark brown eyes that Seishiro had greatly enjoyed seeing become cloudy with pain and betrayal. Despite his best effort to shake off a lingering foul mood, he was still disappointed at the way his fun had been snatched from him at the end, left oddly unsatisfied as if deprived of a favored toy.
What better way to rid himself of the unwanted mood than to play with a new toy? Donning his most charming smile, he picked up a set of black chopsticks decorated with pale pink sakura petals and held them out to the boy. "Do you like sakura?"
The new prey did not even last two months.
Tied to the area by unfinished business, Seishiro relocated to Nara, this time deciding the hell with playing house and taking up residence in a luxury hotel. Annoyed by the restrictions placed on him by this recent job as well as the thoughts of how much fun it would have been to tease Subaru in surroundings such as these, he found himself looking for another distraction.
Feeling that perhaps he had been a bit spoiled for boys for the time being, he picked a young woman in her final year of high school, somehow still clinging to that alluring innocence with an almost ferocious tenacity. She did not look anything like Subaru or Hokuto; her hair was long and brown, prone to frizzing on humid days, her skin tone sallow instead of elegantly pale. Only that air of innocence, that crystal stare, was similar, and it was ridiculously easy to gain her confidence.
She lasted three weeks, and only that long because he refused to be deprived of some sort of amusement, no matter how inferior to what he had hoped for, before his assignment was finished.
He roamed about the country, taking care of various jobs that he had been lax about the past year or so, his attention focused on Tokyo and the bet. No, The Bet, as he had grown to think about it, his frustration greatly increasing each time he attempted a new game only to become bored a short while later. The last prey had been killed in less than ten days; he had not felt any sort of thrill or victory as his hand pierced the young man’s chest, only that annoying sense of frustration and boredom. Once he had disposed of the body, he sat in the darkness of his hotel room, the ashtray beside him overflowing with cigarette butts before he reached any sort of enlightenment.
Perhaps the fault lay in seeking prey similar to Subaru, in trying to replace that rare innocence. It took more than purity to be so enticing, and he realized that he had mistaken that precious innocence for naiveté in the last few victims. Oh, lovely Subaru had been shockingly pure, but it was not from being sheltered his entire life, or from a lack of intelligence or understanding of reality. Subaru had known about evil, had faced it on many occasions and even known somewhat of the source it sprung from. To him, it had not been a willful ignorance to face evil, but a desire to remain pure of it, to not accept it into his life or allow it to harm others. He would face evil and do everything within his power to break its hold, until faced with that evil staring back at him with the face of a loved one.
No, the youths that Seishiro had played with the past year had been flawed, fatally so. They had been like sweets that had seemed so enticing with their pretty wrappers and artful decorations, but once tasted had revealed themselves as cloyingly sweet. He had expected something rich and delicious, something to be savored before destroying its beauty, only to end up gagging in disappointment after a brief taste. In hind sight, he should have realized that for someone destined to be his opponent, that Subaru would not be so easily replaced.
So, if he had no hope of reliving the fun of The Bet, then he would have to strive off in a new direction. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and bored with unworthy innocence, he would amuse himself with the opposite and find an entirely new type of prey.
The first opportunity to put his plan into motion presented itself in Fukuoka. Carrying on with the entire ‘opposite’ theme, he picked a young woman at least five years older than Subaru, one whose beauty was entirely artificial. She was greedy, obsessed with the latest fashion and in landing herself a rich boyfriend with a bottomless bank account; it was almost as if outside forces had created her just for this latest bit of fun. She possessed not a shred of innocence, and had spent the past several years developing an impressive set of skills that she put to good use in his hotel room. By all means, he should be enjoying himself as he indulged in things he had largely abstained from in the last two years, yet the pleasure he found with her possessed an odd, hollow note that was quickly filled with boredom.
Six weeks after the game had started, he led her to a small park, her eyes bright and witless head filled with the thought that he was going to propose. There was a rush of pleasure as his hand tore through her thin body, yet it was as hollow as what he had felt during sex with this latest toy. As he let the body fall to the ground, he thought about a similar scene not too long ago, about how much more satisfying it had been to do this to Hokuto. But if there appeared to be no hope of finding another Subaru, he doubted that he could find a replacement for the boy’s sister, either.
No, he would find suitable prey eventually, once he finally let go of the past. There was the echo of a thought that the year of The Bet should not be clinging to him like this, which he put down to the unsatisfying ending forced onto him. One day, he would be able to properly tend to Subaru; until then, he would find his amusements elsewhere.
The young man in Yokohama looked so much like Subaru would in another three or four years, save for dark blue eyes that were a result of contact lenses and black hair dyed a lighter shade of blue at the tips. Seishiro learned an impressive bit of slang from the boy and perfected a new persona that had proven useful in his last mission… and that was it. Well, the sex was interesting enough for him to prolong things, as he indulged himself in a few fantasies created during that last year in Tokyo. In the end, however, it only bought the boy a couple more weeks.
When the next assignment came, he left the city without any regrets, his right hand still tingling from the feel of bone shattering beneath his fingertips.
Seishiro returned to Tokyo upon occasion, duty-bound to perform certain jobs and to visit the Tree. During one of those visits, he set up a new apartment, well aware that he would not be able to avoid the city forever. In fact, he grew bored with roaming about Japan, but he was not foolish enough to underestimate the Sumeragi – not after the damage he had done to the clan almost four years ago.
Besides, it was good for Subaru for the boy to do a little traveling, to see more of the world – or at least as much of the world that presented itself inside of Japan. Seishiro was well aware that he was being ‘stalked’, something that provided the only source of true pleasure that he had felt in too long a time. Ah, lovely Subaru and his obsessive need for revenge, all that innocence forever shattered and twisted into hate. Seishiro was troubled by the spark of unfamiliar emotion that followed that thought, at least until he distracted himself by looking at the most recent picture of his favorite prey. Really, someone should hold the boy down and shove a meal or three down his throat, but Subaru carried ‘emaciated’ well. It all came down to bone structure, in the end, and Seishiro could still recall the feel of those slender limbs beneath his hands, how easy it had been to snap and break them.
He inhaled sharply at the glow of remembered ecstasy, then frowned at how such a thing had proven elusive these last few years, even as he had sought out more and more jaded prey. The last one… the last one had been so petty and self-involved, more than willing to inflict any damage upon others as long as she got what she wanted. He felt a twinge in his right eye socket and raised his hand to cover it, only to snatch up his sunglasses a minute later and leave the apartment, determined to shake himself free from such annoying and useless ponderings.
*He* was not the obsessive fool, was not the one so affected by the past. Boredom must be taking its toll on his mind, so he resolved to finish the current assignment as quickly as possible then leave Tokyo.
The image came to Seishiro as he stood over the crumpled form of his latest target, a seller of antique and foreign books in Okayama. To think that those tomes had survived so many decades and so much, had come so far, now to be ruined by artful splatters of blood that slowly soaked into their leather and cloth coverings. He stared at a large drop of blood as it made its way down the spine of a book, the English words slowly dawning on him.
Head tossed back in laughter, he made his way to the small bathroom in the back of the store to wash off his hand. The room illuminated with a too-bright light, he stared at his reflection in the spotless mirror, sunglasses slipped down his nose enough to catch sight of his eyes. Staring at his right one, he supposed it was better than losing a leg – now that would make leaping about rather inelegant, and there was no way he would ever settle for a peg leg, either. As for Subaru, his current too-thin form and horrid hair cut was much preferred to that of a whale, even if their coloring was very similar. No, Seishiro’s lovely toy was much, much tastier than whale meat, a thought that made his grin turn wicked and his left eye gleam.
He left the shop and corpse behind and went outside, deciding that he might as well visit the gardens while he was here. As he walked, he thought about Subaru and the many bets, each more of a disappointment than the previous one until he had finally given up on the things. Besides, *that* time was fast approaching, and he had too much to do to allow himself such indulgences.
Soon enough he would face Subaru again and deal with the fact that he had destroyed the best fun he ever had, filled with a rare longing that he had been able to draw out The Bet for just a little longer. Ah well, there was no changing the past, and careful investigation had revealed that there was still a bit of innocence left to Subaru, who was just as obsessed as Ahab himself in a way. That fragile innocence was to be savored, considering how ruined the boy had otherwise become.
If Seishiro could feel regret, it would be that he had not entirely thought things through, that he had ruined such a unique opportunity. Caught up in The Bet, he had not considered alternate opportunities, the possibility of prolonging his fun in face of what lay ahead of him and Subaru. He had focused too much on ending their relationship there, not counting on Fate to intervene, and so had destroyed his own fun.
All those attempts to find a replacement for Subaru, first as close a replica as possible and then the extreme opposite, and it had slowly dawned on him that he had the perfect prey, the most delectable of dishes right before him, and he had tossed it aside. Tastier than whale meat indeed…. Subaru had been like a dish created by a master chef, so enticing to look at, a perfect blend of delicate flavors, and in his determination to destroy that precious innocence, it was as if Seishiro had added too much katsubushi or mirin to a consummately prepared dish in a misguided attempt to improve upon it.
The past was the past, and only important for the part it played on the future. He had work to do, something that would distract him until the end times, and then he would face his mistakes and see what could be salvaged to provide amusement during the last few weeks before humanity was destroyed. No sense in wondering what would be when it would happen soon enough.
When the time finally did come, Seishiro remained cloaked behind illusion long enough to observe his favorite prey. Really, what had the Sumeragi clan been thinking to allow the boy to neglect himself so much? Aesthetic self-denial truly was not such a good thing, not to the extent that Subaru had taken it over the years, judging from the way his clothes hung on him, that those fragile bones pushed against smooth skin. Seishiro drank in the sight before him, pleased that Subaru was still so lovely, even as damaged as he was.
No, ‘damaged’ was not the correct word, not truly. After observing the boy the last few days, shadowing Subaru about Tokyo as the boy searched for him in vain, he had begun to realize something. All those years of running around, of trying to find some sort of game to occupy his time, and it had never occurred to him to verify that he had indeed broken this toy. That was a foolish assumption that had cost him much amusement.
When he grabbed the boy’s too-thin wrist in his one hand and stared down into green eyes now clouded with pain but still so deep and beautiful, a surge of pleasure coursed through him. He raised his bloody right hand and smeared it against that smooth, pale skin, an outward sign of taint that he realized had not the chance to sink into Subaru after all. Oh no, there was hope still left in the boy, hidden beneath that cloudiness, a bit of innocence that was not merely of the flesh, as he had thought for so long. Despite all he had done to Subaru, the betrayals and the deaths, leaving the boy to years of fruitless searches, there was no sign of hate in the first few seconds after he revealed himself, no drawing away from his bloodstained touch.
To think that he had let himself believe that he had ruined this purity, had underestimated it even after he had considered it strong enough in the first place to be worthy of The Bet. He had only considered one side to it, had seen it as flat and limited, like reaching for a photo of some priceless gem and finding the real thing in his hand instead, no longer one-dimensional but hard and multi-sided, cut so finely that its sharp edges pressed against his skin and threatened to make him bleed.
Ah, but then again, *he* was not the one destined to bleed just now, even if he deserved it for his lack of thought. They stared at each other for several seconds, him smiling, Subaru looking as if his most hoped for dream had finally come to life, and *then* the boy recoiled, beautiful eyes darkening from returned pain and virulent emotion. Now they would fight, true enemies at last, but this was one time when Seishiro would be more than happy to prolong the inevitable end. No, he had one last chance to enjoy his favorite game, to stir inside Subaru all those emotions that had no place in himself, even if it was hate this time instead of unacknowledged love. Yes, the end of the world could wait a little longer, now that Subaru had revealed a new facet to him, a new approach to their game.
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