Co-written with Kira Seldon (“After Dark”). Written before the last 6 episodes of Asuka, so please be kind with your comments regarding what *actually* happened. We know Subaru returns to Tokyo as a Dragon of Earth, but bear with us! *begging eyes*

Some disclaimers: X and Petshop of Horrors belong to their respective authors. They know who they are, we know who they are, and I hope they don’t get mad at us for writing this. ^^;;


Hopes, Dreams, and Happiness


Chapter One

by Kira Seldon


Subaru tried to ignore the screaming of the Sakura in his head. Cherry blossoms whipped past on the gale-force wind, and his bloodstained coat streamed behind him.

He pulled a sheaf of ofuda from his sleeve and threw them towards the tree. "ON!!" he cried against the fierce wind, the screaming in his skull, the deadness in his heart.

The ofuda came to life with a blinding flare of light, and the tree's howl gained a new dimension of terror. Cherry petals became razor-sharp, lashing against his arms and legs, slashing pale skin wherever they touched and shredding his bloody clothing to ribbons.

But he could not let it win easily. It was his last gift to Seishirou, the only thing he could give to balance those few words.

He could set his beloved free.

And he could die then, but now he would. . . not. . . FAIL!

The Tree struck again, dark energies lashing around the cold fire of the ofuda, but nothing could break Subaru's determination. He threw more of the calligraphed papers toward the tree, beginning to chant what he hoped would be his final spell.

The words of exorcism soared above the vicious howl of the wind, and Subaru blinked blood out of his eyes as one of the razor-edged petals slashed his forehead. He raised his voice, the spell clear and cold and perfect as it had never been before. His heart was undivided at last.

A blow slipping around his protections struck him to his knees, white agony filling his mind, but nothing could halt the flow of the words. They were, by now, ingrained in memory. Distraction was pointless.

The Tree howled, keening in shock and fury as the spell drew tighter around it. Subaru ignored his own pain and rose again to his feet, repeating the exorcism as the winds curled around him and slashed at his fragile body. He ignored them.

Its scream rose and rose and suddenly shattered into the blinding flare of the ofuda. Within the ring of light, the thick trunk of the Sakura became transparent as glass, dark shadows within flooding free to the afterlife.

There were so many of them. . . Subaru stared as the cavalcade of souls, grisly harvest of hundreds or thousands of years of murder, thinned to mist and vanished. The keen of the Sakura as it gave up its prisoners cut through his head with vicious strength, determined that it would take its master with it to Hell.

Even through the red mist fogging his vision, Subaru recognized one of the souls flitting soundlessly away from the Tree. Green eyes— a pair, not blemished by milky white as his were now— fixed on him, and the shade of Hokuto dashed to his side. She glared.

"You idiot, Subaru! What were you thinking trying to do this alone?! Get killed and I will make sure your afterlife is Hell!" She grabbed his hand, her ghostly fingers barely a memory of touch against his blood-streaked palm. The keen of the Sakura dropped away to a whisper, and Hokuto laughed.

"Ohohohoho! Take that, tree!"

Subaru smiled, comfort creeping over him as his twin's hand tightened on his. He focused on the spell, ignoring the dizziness of blood loss and exhaustion. The dark tide of souls slackened, then stopped, and he drew a painful breath. Had Seishirou passed unnoticed in the flood of shades?

Then, as the ofudas' light flickered, a single soul rose from the twisted Tree. A man in clothing of an ancient style, hands stained with ghostly blood, he stared at Subaru and dissolved without words. Another followed, then another, in a stately progression entirely unlike the flood of souls that had preceded them. The Sakurazukamori, Subaru realized, with a shock, and his eyes fixed on the progression with a desperate hunger.

A woman, hands bloodstained but face as unlined and innocent as a child's, smiled at them and dissipated slowly. The next shade to form was heartbreakingly familiar. The mismatched gaze traveled to the Sumeragi twins, standing hand in hand, and he smiled. Instead of dissipating as had the others, he stepped down from the air and strolled to them.

"Hello, Subaru-kun, Hokuto-chan," he called, as the Sakura crumbled to splinters and rotten powder inside the ring of ofuda and the thin cry finally faded into oblivion.

Hokuto dropped Subaru's hand and dashed to Seishirou. He only had time to blink before her hand impacted with the side of his face. Apparently ghosts had no trouble touching each other. The ex-Sakurazukamori staggered with the force of Hokuto's slap.

She glared. "You IDIOT, Sei-chan! You weren't supposed to ACTIVATE the spell!"

One hand over his cheek, Seishirou muttered, "You haven't changed much, have you, Hokuto-chan."

"I'm a GHOST! What do you EXPECT me to do, grow up?! YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO MARRY SUBARU, NOT IGNORE HIM JUST BECAUSE I'M NOT AROUND TO SHOVE YOU TOGETHER!!" She waved an arm wildly at Subaru, who was swaying from the aftereffects of defeating the Tree and the impact of Hokuto's voice, which even posthumously could achieve considerable volume. "Look at him! What were you THINKING, Sei-chan, my brother's twenty-five years old and still a virgin!"

Subaru choked. Somehow, over the years, he'd forgotten Hokuto's ability to embarrass him.

"And now you've gotten yourself killed, what's Subaru supposed to do?! He NEEDS someone to take care of him, he's too thin and, and. . ." She squinted at Subaru. "He looks like hell. Right, Sei-chan, make this short and then I have to bully him to a hospital."

She walked over to the tree and started kicking vengefully at the twisted stump as Seishirou turned to Subaru. Her muttering floated on the still air to Subaru. "Take that! And that! That'll teach you to mess with the Sumeragis!"

Subaru only stared at Seishirou's ghost, choked to silence. "Subaru-kun. . ." Seishirou said, not moving closer. "I knew from the moment I met you that you would be an exceptional Sakurazukamori. But I have to admit, I didn't know you'd be this exceptional." He cast a rueful glance back at the rotten remains of the Sakura. "Congratulations."

A soft, desperate whisper tore almost unwillingly from Subaru's throat. "Seishirou-san. . ."

The older man turned that quick, blinding smile on him. "What?"

"Did you mean. . . what you said. . .?"

"Of course!" Seishirou laughed, and suddenly his quicksilver expression became deadly serious. "I can't stay here too long, but I will be waiting for you, Subaru-kun." He faded away to mist on the wind as Subaru, belatedly, tried to touch him.

Hokuto dashed over. "That was quick. He'd better at least have kissed you good-bye."

"Hokuto-chan—" Subaru protested weakly as her hands came to rest on her hips.

"That idiot," she said decisively. "Subaru, get yourself to a hospital, and it had BETTER be a long, LONG time before we see you again! Oh, and remember to eat! And buy some better CLOTHES, honestly. . ." Her wide emerald eyes shone with tears for a moment, then she threw her arms around him and kissed him quickly on the cheek. "Take care—!" She vanished swiftly, and distant voices rang out.

"Sei-chan, wait for a lady!! Where are your manners?"

"What? Where? What lady?"

"SEI-chaaaan—"

Subaru sank slowly to his knees as the beloved voices faded away on the air. Alone again. Forever. His tears stung in the thin cuts the sakura petals had carved in his face.

He was no longer a Dragon of Heaven. His kekkai was broken, he had nothing left in this world to protect. No reason, in fact, to stay in Japan, where he was bound to his Fate by the very name he bore.

Everyone thought he was dead, or would when they discovered the shattered Sakura.

It sounded like a lovely time to move somewhere where no one would recognize the name of Sumeragi. Somewhere where he could evade the resources of both the Sumeragi House and the Imonoyama family. . .

California was supposed to be lovely this time of year.

As he moved, shadowed by illusion, through the thinning Tokyo crowds to his apartment, he had the distinct feeling that Hokuto would approve.

* * *

The bustle of crowds, hundreds of Chinese people milling through the brightly colored stands and shops, a thousand voices chattering in dialects foreign to Subaru's ears. He thought he occasionally heard a word of Japanese, but never managed to spot the person who spoke.

He was beginning to wish that he had stayed in school longer, or perhaps attended more of the classes while he WAS enrolled. He spoke no English and barely more Chinese, and his situation seemed blacker by the moment.

At least he could read the signs. . . the ones in Chinese, that is. The welcome word "hotel" had yet to appear.

Finally, disheartened, he came to a stop near an unmarked iron gate. He pulled his cigarettes from a pocket and shook one of them from the box, catching it between his fingers and putting the crumpled packet away. He lit the cigarette, watched the smoke curl away into the air for a moment, and wondered why he was here. Really, he ought to be dead, except that Hokuto had saved him again and he. . .

He turned his head towards the iron gates at the top of the stairs, frowning. This was not too much of a change from his previous expression. He could feel a strange aura of power hanging around the place.

Long-established instinct took precedence over the small voice in the back of his head that reprimanded, "Are you trying to hide or not?!" He cautiously approached the gates.

They opened at a touch. Following the long flight of stairs, he came at last upon a brightly painted Chinese gate. The red and gold paint shimmered even in the dim light.

Subaru knocked.

He waited patiently for several minutes before finally deciding to go in. The door opened soundlessly as he stepped inside. There was a heavy curtain of incense smoke in the air, and he coughed on the sickly sweet scent. Blinking tearing eyes (well, eye) he looked around the room.

It was decorated in lavish brocade and Oriental furniture, with delicate Chinese vases as accents. A lacquered screen cut off any further rooms.

Suddenly, a small white kitten streaked out from under one of the sofas and careened towards Subaru. He took a step back, surprised. The cat caught the edge of his coat and began climbing it. It finally reached his shoulder, dug in all twenty claws for a safer purchase, and started washing his cheek.

Subaru blinked. After a moment, he smiled, and plucked the cat off his shoulder. It howled in protest, then settled to a purr as he cradled it in his arms. Vivid green eyes closed as he scratched its chin.

"You seem to have made a friend," a soft, slightly accented voice said in perfect Japanese.

Subaru dropped the cat. It yowled and swiped at his ankle, drawing blood.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to intrude, but no one answered and the door was unlocked and. . ." he trailed off as the man who had spoken moved out from behind the screen.

A long silk cheongsam whispered against the wooden floor as the man stepped forward. Long, lacquered fingernails caught the light as he reached down to pick up the complaining white cat. His straight black hair fell back from his face as he straightened and regarded Subaru with two-toned golden and purple eyes. He glowed with an aura of immense, constrained power.

"Welcome to my pet shop," he smiled. "I am Count D."

"My name is Subaru," Subaru replied, recovering a little from his shock.

"Have you come to buy a pet?" the Count inquired, cuddling the cat. For some reason, the cat appeared to be laughing.

"No," Subaru said, and bowed slightly. "Please forgive me. Do you know if there is a hotel nearby?"

"It's quite a distance," D murmured. "Will you stay for some tea, Subaru- san?"

"Thank you, but I should be going. . ." Subaru replied.

"Wonderful! This way please," the Count chimed, ignoring Subaru's attempt to leave. He put the cat down and led the way behind the screen.

By the time Subaru reluctantly followed, the Count had already laid out a formidable spread. A pile of swirly cookies with jelly centers, just like the kind Hokuto used to make, held the place of honor. Subaru didn't know how the Count thought two people were going to eat that many cookies. D glanced up at Subaru, and the white cat took the opportunity to pilfer one of the cookies.

"Are those good for cats?" Subaru said, sitting down on the sofa. The cat glanced up and growled briefly, sending a small shower of crumbs onto the carpet.

"She thinks so," D replied, sitting down and taking a large handful of cookies. "Do you want one?"

"No thank you." Subaru sighed. "I really cannot stay long, I need to find somewhere to stay for the night." And he didn't particularly want to stay here, not when the entire point of leaving Japan had been to sever his ties with the spiritual establishment.

"Oh but you must! They're very good!" D exclaimed, and poured his handful of cookies onto Subaru's plate. "Please?"

"All right," Subaru said, not seeing many options.

"Wonderful!"

The cat, wearing a smug and jelly-smeared smile, leapt up next to Subaru and attempted to sneak another cookie. Subaru looked down at the pile of cookies, opening his mouth to speak.

Whatever he was going to say was lost forever, as the cat took the opportunity to shove its cookie into his mouth.

"MMMMFFF!"

"She really does like you," D caroled, clasping his long-nailed hands. "You have quite a way with animals, Subaru-san."

After Subaru cleared the crumbs from his mouth with D's admittedly excellent tea, the Count inquired, "So you are from Japan?"

Subaru nodded warily.

"Where?" D said, sipping his tea.

"Tokyo," Subaru said.

"A lovely city!" D exclaimed. "I've been there a few times. It's especially beautiful in spring when the sakura are in full bloom."

Subaru choked on his tea. He glared defensively at D. The Count smiled back with perfect innocence.

After a long moment, Subaru nodded in agreement.

"Are you here on business?" D asked. "Oh, do have another cookie."

Subaru picked up one of the cookies, and stared at it without making any move to eat it.

The cat took a swipe at the cookie, trying to steal it. He moved his hand out of the way.

"I'm. . . not really here on business, no," Subaru said.

D nodded. "A vacation, then! Certainly it's a good time to leave Tokyo for a little, those earthquakes I've heard about seem very frightening! But if you want to get away from earthquakes, Los Angeles is perhaps not the place to go."

"That's true," Subaru agreed, watching the Count warily.

"How long will you be here?" the Count continued.

"I'm not going back to Japan," Subaru replied sharply, the cooling tea splashing over his hands as they suddenly tightened on the cup.

Purple and gold eyes narrowed as the Count lifted his own teacup. "Is that so. Not business, and not a vacation, then. Tell me, Subaru-san, why is the Head of the Sumeragis here?"

Subaru caught the cup before it hit the ground. "I am not," he said, his voice cold and shaking slightly, "a Sumeragi."

The Count inquired, with a tiny smile on his face, "Then is it Sakurazuka?"

The fine porcelain rang sharply as Subaru placed his cup on the table and stood. "Thank you for your hospitality," he said with a very slight bow, and strode out of the room. His steps were a little too rapid for a graceful exit. It was more of a desperate retreat.

D's smile widened as the white cat leapt from the sofa and streaked into the other room after Subaru. He took another cookie and waited, counting silently to himself.

At "eight," there was a loud feline yowl and an even louder thud from the other room. D stood and swept out.

Subaru was trying to get up from the floor. The cat hung onto his black shirt, every hair standing perfectly on end, and doing a very good job of keeping him pinned, considering that Subaru outweighed it by at least fifty pounds.

"Oh dear!" D exclaimed. "I do hope you're not hurt! You must watch where you step, I own many small animals and some of them tend to get underfoot."

Subaru picked the cat up by the scruff of its neck and detached it from his shirt. "That," he said, "was not an accident."

"I'm so sorry, she can get out of hand sometimes," D said, accepting the cat. It winked at him.

Subaru stood, trying helplessly to scrape some of the heavy layer of white fur off of his chest. "I did not leave Japan because I wanted to be reminded of my past," he snapped.

"Of course not," D apologized. "I understand perfectly."

Subaru muttered something under his breath.

"Please," D said calmly. "Come back and finish your tea. We have more to talk about than you believe."

Subaru looked at the cat, which was purring loudly as D scratched its chin. "All right," he said with bad grace. "Since you two seem determined to keep me here."

He followed the Chinese man back to the elegant tea room, and reclaimed his seat. D put the cat down. It immediately ran to Subaru and leapt into his lap, settling comfortably. He sighed, and offered the cat his hand. It considered for a moment, then rubbed its cheek against his fingers.

"She does get along with you very well," the Count said, pouring himself some more tea. "Do you like animals, Subaru-san?"

Subaru smiled at the cat as it purred loudly and butted its head against his hand. "Yes, I do," he admitted.

"As do I," D smiled. Something chirped, and Subaru looked up.

He stared with amazement at the little bat-winged creature that swooped on the cookies, tiny hands outstretched and black button eyes shining with delight. It was nothing natural. That was very obvious.

The creature managed to get a grip on one of the cookies and hauled it happily off to the unlit chandelier. D watched with a slight smile on his face, and ate another cookie. Subaru realized that, between D, the cat, and the bat thing, there were hardly any cookies left.

He sighed. At least he didn't have to eat too many of them. He wasn't that fond of sweet things.

"Do you have any experience caring for animals?" D inquired, quite casually.

Subaru looked down at the cat, his smile slipping away. "No," he said, and then continued in a burst of candor, "I wanted to study to be a zookeeper, but. . . I had to focus on other things."

"Family responsibilities?" D suggested.

Subaru laughed without any humor. "Yes."

"You seem to be free now," D suggested. "And very good with animals. I could use some help running my shop."

"Are you offering me a job?" Subaru asked, looking up from the cat. It tilted its head, looking at D with interest.

D smiled. "Do you want one?"

Subaru considered his current employability. He couldn't speak English, he couldn't clean house or cook, and he definitely wasn't going back to Japan anytime soon.

". . . Yes."

D's smile grew even wider. "Wonderful! It is sometimes difficult for me to care for all my animals. Some of them have very specific needs. I carry some . . . extremely rare creatures."

"I really don't have any experience," Subaru said, doubtful.

"I'll write out the requirements of the creatures you will care for. You don't need to do anything but follow them." D put his tea down and stole the last cookie from under the claws of the cat. It retreated to the couch in a huff as he finished the cookie and stood. "You will need somewhere to stay. I have a few spare rooms. . ."

* * *

Subaru didn't exactly have many belongings to stow in the lavish bedroom D had explained was kept for guests. In fact, he seemed to have brought nothing more than the clothes on his back. D shook his head over that and pointed out that Subaru would at least need more than one suit of clothing if he really intended to stay long.

The cat jumped up onto the bed, bringing its head a little closer to human level, and nodded smugly along.

Subaru, outnumbered, agreed.

Finally, D scooped up the white kitten and left, advising that Subaru get some sleep since he didn't look like he'd had a full night's sleep in weeks.

"Happy?" D murmured to the cat as he walked back to the tea room. It nodded, and leapt down onto the table as he began quietly clearing the dishes.

He looked up at the kitten as it sprawled out on the sofa, leaving large amounts of white fur on the upholstery. To his eyes, the "kitten" was a young Japanese girl, short black hair sweeping around her pointed feline ears. A white tail flicked absently behind her. Her clothes were a flight of imagination: the jacket was black brocade cut into a wide netting, over a tight minidress that shaded from maroon at the hem to white at the high neck, a bunch of white ribbons threading through the neck and cascading down the front. D hadn't quite figured out how she managed it, but she wore a different outfit every day. Compared to some he'd seen, this was quite tame.

She grinned at him, and stretched out comfortably. "Yeah! Thanks a lot. I didn't figure on being a cat when I went looking for a reincarnation that would let me keep an eye on Subaru."

"You take to it well," D commented, as he swept the last crumbs from the table. "Do you want these, Hokuto-san?"

"No thanks, I'll just make more," she waved, then glared. "Hey, I *said* you should call me Hokuto-chan. The only one who calls me 'san' is my grandmother."

D bowed his head in graceful acquiescence. Hokuto sighed.

"I can't believe Subaru moved to America and didn't bring any CLOTHES. He's the ONLY one who would do something so. . . so. . ." She trailed off, with a very feline growl, and her tail lashed. Suddenly she perked up and bounced to her feet. "Hey! You think I could go shopping with him? He needs my expert fashion advice."

"Certainly," D said. "But I don't believe he can understand you."

"Ohohohohoho! He'll understand me grabbing something off the rack and dragging it to the cashier," Hokuto said, and her smile showed distinctly pointed teeth. "But for now. . ." She tapped her finger against her chin.

"Hey! Can he borrow one of your dress things?"

"He may not," D said frostily.

"But I'm sure it'd fit him, you're almost the same height and you're both way too thin. Hey, you know, you'd be a billionaire if you could sell whatever it is that lets you eat ALL my cookies and stay that size. But Subaru would fit your clothes— well, his shoulders might be a little wider than yours, but not MUCH. And he doesn't have any of his own except those HORRIBLE black things, which are dirty anyway after he walked through half of LA wearing them. You really should. Besides," she added, laughing, "I've always wondered what Subaru would look like in a dress. . ."

"It is not a dress," D said, crossing his arms and glaring at Hokuto. "It is a cheongsam. It is traditional Chinese clothing."

"It's got a skirt," Hokuto shrugged, and stared at the clean table. "You ate the last cookie. I didn't get to have more than two of them and I made the whole batch."

"You are a great deal smaller than I am, Hokuto-chan," D said, directing his glare at the opposite wall.

"But I'm a growing cat!" she laughed, and bounced to her feet. "It's not late or anything, it's the middle of the afternoon. I'm going to go make some more cookies. You have to come help."

"I don't know how you can claim you made them," D murmured, "when all you do is direct me around the kitchen."

"They're my own recipe!" Hokuto exclaimed. "The director's the most important person in a movie, right?"

D sighed, and stood up. "Oh, all right. But do remember to put my name in the credits."

"Great!" Hokuto cheered, and dashed ahead of him into the kitchen. Anyone else would have seen a white long-haired kitten frisking about his feet as he walked. Only D heard the running monologue.

". . . So that means Subaru can borrow something to wear, right? Come on, just for tomorrow, until I can convince him to go shopping. . ."

"No."

"Oh please? Pleeeeeeeease? Come on. . ."

"No."

"If I share more cookie recipes?"

D hesitated.

* * *

A faint scratching woke Subaru the next morning. He blinked up at the ceiling for a moment. It seemed very folded and far too dark to be the ceiling of either his apartment or anywhere in the Imonoyama mansion.

Slowly, he remembered. He was in a pet shop in LA. Where he was now working.

And for the first time in years, he hadn't dreamed all night.

He sat up, yawning, and squinted at the clock on the opposite wall. It was. . . nearly noon?!

There was a loud feline howl from the other side of the door. Subaru pulled himself out of bed. "Coming," he assured the cat, trying to straighten out the sleeve of his shirt. It had become twisted somehow while he was sleeping, and it was just tight enough that it wouldn't simply straighten itself out.

He opened the door, and stared down at the cat.

"Mrow!" it said plainly, and tugged at the cuff of his pants with one paw.

Subaru sighed, picked up the elegant and slightly crumpled cheongsam in one hand, and scooped up the cat with the other. "All right, all right. Does D know you stole this?"

The cat nodded distinctly. Subaru stared at it.

"Just how intelligent are you anyway?"

It smirked. But then, all cats could smirk.

Subaru spread the outfit out on his bed and looked at it. "So. . . if you're that intelligent, you can help me figure out how to put this on, right?"

For some reason its stuttering meow sounded remarkably like a peal of laughter. The cat leapt up on the bed and began directing, with remarkably efficient sign language.

Some time later, Subaru gave his reflection a very dubious look. The face was the same, except that he looked far less tired than usual. His hair was unruly as usual, despite the cat's attempts to lick it flat. However, from the chin down, he looked a great deal like the Count.

The cat had somehow managed to pilfer an outfit in deep blue-green, sketched with a spiderweb pattern, and drag both it and the matching pants to his door. However, he was taller than the Count by a margin wide enough that the hem ended at mid-calf rather than at his ankles. The slits along the side were hardly evident, since the cat had managed to drag the matching pants with the cheongsam. He still wasn't sure how it had done that. It looked about three or four weeks old, barely enough that it had fur and color in its eyes and certainly not bigger than an average guinea pig.

The cat looked him up and down with a clear air of approval, and meowed again. Subaru smiled at it, and lifted it quickly to his shoulder. It settled happily down, careful not to knead on the fine silk.

"Shall we go down, then?" he asked it. The cat chirruped agreement.