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Bare Your Skin (and I'll Bare My Teeth)

Chapter Text


 

That which thy mother hath given to thee, thou must shaketh in earnest.

- ancient Nipponese proverb, probably

 


“Wow!” chirps Mokona, bouncing gleefully on Sakura’s shoulder. The princess herself is staring, wide-eyed and mildly confused at the commotion, her sweet face bewildered. As well she might, considering her  clothes flatter her as gracefully as any ermine robe worn by any royal. “Now  that’s what Mokona calls daring!”

“Okay,” says Syaoran, after the long moment of utter silence that follows this exclamation. “So I think we’ve established that, no matter what the cloth-seller said, one size does not, in fact, fit all.”

“You’re telling me,” is the only response Fai can give, really, and if his smile is a tad thin it has reason to be. It’s summer in this tropical world, the kind of blazing hot summer he’s never really experienced before, and sure as hell he’s experiencing it now. Though maybe suffering is a better word for it, with how the sun beats heavy across his back and the sheer heat darkens his hair to the roots with sweat.

It’s hot. It’s uncomfortable. It’s disgusting, to be honest, what with the way the air presses down so heavy and humid and wrings moisture from every pore of his burnt and itching skin. It’s also, and this he is almost ashamed to admit even to himself, unbearable for reasons that have nothing to do with the weather.

(From the corner of his eye, Fai sees Kurogane shift; just a little, the motion catching the gleam of golden sunlight on bronzed skin. He does not turn to see the movement clearer.)

Like the locals, they’ve sought shade indoors from the midday heat; the swaying canopies of the trees above, with their huge fronded leaves, provide barely enough shelter from the oppressing sunlight, and the shaded overhang of the inn’s verandah is little better. They’re all dressed like the locals, too; draped in cool, colourful fabrics that allow for the maximum of air circulation- and in Fai’s opinion, only the bare minimum of modesty. Sakura’s sarong -the foreign word untranslatable to Ceresian or Valerian and so sitting heavy in Fai’s mind every time he hears it- is wrapped around her body beneath her arms, knotted neatly across her chest to drape down to her calves, like all of the smiling local women they’ve seen so far. Syaoran and Kurogane and Fai himself have much shorter wraps, with chests left bare; their skirts only cover them from hip to mid-calf, and leave everything else exposed to the heat of the sun. Well, to mid-calf in theory at least, because as Syaoran has so eloquently observed, the advertised ’one size fits all’ of the men’s outfits they were provided with -if one could call a brightly-dyed strip of cloth an outfit- is very, very inaccurate.

Syaoran’s sarong, woven into a leafy pattern in a cool shade of green, falls well past where intended, brushing against his ankles; it’s clear he’s had to fold it quite a few times or risk drowning in its length. Not that Fai is surprised, exactly, to see him have to roll his wrap up or else trip over its hems. He’s only young, after all; barely more than a boy. He hasn’t had a chance to reach the full height of the man he will become. Fai, on the other hand, has had some time three hundred and eighty years, if he is counting to reach his adult growth and compared to the native people of this world, the difference in his frame and height is significant; his sarong cuts off neatly above the knee, leaving his legs bare beneath the fall of soft blue fabric, and Fai himself feeling more exposed than he’s really comfortable being, even if it is wretchedly hot.

(And Fai is not thinking about how it’s his present company more than the weather and the cultural attitude towards undress else making him feel so discomfited, no, not at all.)

Kurogane, being in turn a full head and a half taller than Fai -and significantly larger in frame than Syaoran could ever hope to be, no matter how hard he trains at the sword or how well he eats- is apparently having even more trouble with modesty. His sarong, coloured a deep, rich red, is definitely on the higher side, barely reaching mid-thigh on his long gloriously sculpted legs and leaving so much dusky skin exposed and gleaming that Fai would be scandalised if he weren’t trying so very, very hard to deny he even noticed in the first place. And while Fai is doing his damndest to not stare look, it’s also pretty apparent that Kurogane has as much regard for his modesty as he does for everything else that has nothing to do with him returning home to the world he was sent from: that is to say, fuck all.

(That’s not exactly true, not anymore; no matter how he snarls and snaps, it’s as clear as the cut of those eyes that Kurogane cares more than he wants to let on, Syaoran and Sakura and even Mokona wriggling through the cracks in his bitter black armour and making themselves dear to him. He might be brash and loud and full of the potential for terrible violence, but he is not cruel, and the heart that Kurogane does his best to hide behind arrogance and growling disdain is a very big heart indeed. And if Fai can see this, he really must be blind to not see how he has come to care for all his companions much the same.)

“Are we done?” grunts Kurogane dismissively, crossing his bare arms over his broad, scar-kissed and frankly impressive chest. Out of all of them besides Sakura -the desert princess that she is sweetly unperturbed by her purple floral wrap or the brilliance of the sun- he seems the least bothered by both the weather and his skimpy attire. “We can either stand here whining about what we’re wearing, or we can go get the feather and get the hell out of this place and these clothes, in that order.”

(Fai does not want to think about Kurogane getting out of his clothes, not in the slightest. Fai is a terrible liar.)

Mokona, leaping free from Sakura’s floral headband and wearing her own version of a sarong -barely a handkerchief’s worth of pink fabric knotted around what could be generously called her waist, or at the very least the equatorial mark of her tiny round body- springs gleefully upwards to land atop Kurogane’s shoulder, waving a bunch of tropical blossoms taken from the princess’ headdress in her small paw. ”Wah! Kurogane is so eager to get going- it’s making Mokona excited!”

“Get off me, manjuu!”

“Whee~!”

“Mokona is right- if we’re going to find a feather, we’d best get going,” says Syaoran eagerly, completely ignoring the play fight happening behind him as Mokona attempts to weave blossoms into Kurogane’s short hair and fails miserably. “Shall we, princess?” His determined expression is the kind that says he intends to make the most of this situation, regardless of what he is or isn’t wearing, and Fai supposes he must attempt to do the same.

Sakura beams, and even if he does not approve of this world’s weather or their fashion, he can’t deny she looks happy to be here, the warm and cheerful sunlight something that suits her smile like nothing else. If nothing else, he must be grateful for that; someone so kind should have all the chances to smile that she deserves, all the happiness that can be given. “Mokona said she felt my feather towards the coastline- maybe if we ask around, one of the townsfolk will know something. We should go to the marketplace,” she adds firmly, eyes bright. “All the best news comes from the markets, no matter where you are.”

“Alright,” laughs Fai, and wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist. “If we must.”

He regrets it barely half an hour later. The marketplace is hot and noisy and thick with the smell of salt from the sea and the creatures therein -much to his disgust; the scent of fish reeks- and it is also very, very crowded. People aren’t necessarily a problem in of themselves; he knows how to deal with crowds, friendly or otherwise (smile, smile, smile; keep your hands open, your voice low and sweet and your body language non-threatening; find the first escape route you can and get the fuck out of there) and any pick-pocket who has the misfortune of coming across their small group -though why they would even try, Fai could not say; it’s not like they even have pockets- is likely to find themselves missing a hand if they try anything on, especially with dear Kurogane all but bristling with menace even if he’s mostly naked as he walks. It’s the fact that people are staring.                                                                          

Not all of them, not everyone of all the people they meet or pass or ask if anything strange has been happening, is there magic that feels unfamiliar to what you are used to; but enough that Fai can feel it, prickling down the nape of his neck and across the breadth of his bare naked back and making him even more uncomfortable than he currently is, sweating beneath the harsh sunlight. It’s hard not to hunch his shoulders down, to mimic instead the blithe and innocent self-confidence of Sakura, sweet child that she is, or even the determination to survive with dignity intact that Syaoran wears like a cloak; it’s even harder to admit that he knows quite simply why there are eyes on them, and it’s nothing to do with the feather at all. It’s all because of the fourth member of their small party, the one currently arguing with Mokona about whether his head is a suitable perch to ride upon, and the realisation is no comfort at all.

Kurogane snaps something disparaging at the magical creature bouncing on his (broad, broad) shoulder and as he turns to face her the clean line of his throat flows into the arch of his collarbone and the flare of his chest, a sweep of motion across musculature perfectly hewn by time and effort and the sheer skill it takes to become a swordsman of such deadly calibre. (This man is a threat, and he must not forget that.) There is not a scrap of spare flesh on that body, not an inch of dusky skin that is not graced by the smooth flow of powerful muscle and strong bone working beneath it, and with so much of it on display beneath the inadequate length of that beautifully red sarong -the shade of which flatters Kurogane’s skin tone perfectly, matches the hot eyes that snap beneath the loose dark strands that fall across his face- left bare to any hungry gaze that might alight upon it... well.

Not that Fai’s companion has any clue that this is happening. He’s completely oblivious as he argues with Mokona, attempting to palm her off to Syaoran, and as the boy trips over the hem of his wrap in his distraction, Kurogane catches him easily with one hand about his elbow, hauling him upright with a careless show of strength that lifts Syaoran clean off his feet and makes Mokona laugh. The only reaction Kurogane gives to a young woman passing by dropping an earthen pot at the sight of him is to frown at the loud, shattering crack! and sweep the area around with a cutting glance for signs of danger, and upon finding none -and completely missing the flustered blush of the girl in question as her friends giggle at her misfortune, their eyes raking over his strong, bare back with appreciative gazes- goes back to haranguing the small white thing dangling off his arm.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again- I’m not your damn toy, manjuu! Get off!”

“But Kuro-gangly is so fun to leap on! There’s so much of you to climb!”

“Off! Now!”

“Fai-san,” says Sakura quietly, and he all but leaps out of his skin.

“Yes, Sakura-chan?” If there’s a hitch in his voice, well, it’s a smooth as he can manage and hopefully that will do. “What is it, princess?”

“You’ve got something on your mind, something bothering you,” she says, and though her face is as kind as it ever was, the light in her eyes is clear and guileless and all the more frightening for that. (Fai needs to work on his mask more if she can see through him so easily.) “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, princess,” he manages, after a long moment of his heartbeat echoing loud and painful in his ears. “But thank you.” One hand finds the top of her head, stroking her soft hair where the crown of flowers will allow it, and his smile feels too tight where it stretches across his face. “I’ll be just fine.”

“Okay,” she says gently, and that is simply that. If she knows he’s lying, she’ll never tell, and Fai will never ask.

Chapter Text

About two minutes after arriving in the marketplace of this world -thankfully hidden from sight behind a huge stack of crates and merchandise, obscured enough that their arrival goes unnoticed and they have a chance to observe their surroundings before venturing out into them (instead of stumbling blindly into possible danger, as per normal procedure)- it becomes increasingly obvious they are all overdressed, and even more obvious that they better do something about that damn quick or else risk running into trouble.

“The guards are getting closer,” calls Sakura, without looking down. She’s barely visible behind bolts of cloth and various knick-knacks from her perch atop the mountainous pile of boxes, and worry is clear in her voice. Normally she would not be Fai’s first choice of scout but considering that it’s either have her on the lookout above or down here with the rest of them while they change, it’s not much of a choice at all. That and she’s far better than Syaoran at climbing things, apparently.

“We got it, princess,” grunts Kurogane, stripping himself as quickly as he can of the heavy lacquered armour of the last world, tossing each piece into Mokona’s waiting (gaping) mouth. “Whistle once when they’re at the end of the street, and twice when they’re halfway here, okay?”

Like the rest of them, he’s wearing leggings and a simple linen shirt beneath the armoured plating; however, considering in their flight from the world before this one Kurogane managed to get himself shot in the back with a fistful of arrows, their barbed wooden points catching in the slats of his back-plate, Fai has to step up and help him wrench each bolt free before unbuckling his clasps. “You’re not hurt,” says Fai briskly, brightly, and his cheerful tone does a very good job of disguising the way his hands tremble just lightly against the shaft of each arrow. The armour served its purpose and kept the pointed edge of each dart from piercing skin and muscle, and thank whatever stars shine down on them all for that; at least three of those shots could have been fatal if they’d punched through flesh. “But it was close- Kuro-sneak should be more careful with his thieving.”

Fai needs no response; doesn’t expect acknowledgement at all, really, but the muttered thanks Kurogane gives him as he dislodges a particularly pointy bolt from where it had hit the middle of that broad back stabs Fai neatly between his ribs all the same. (Foolish brave man running straight into the fray to get the feather and nearly getting himself killed. What would Fai do if Kurogane just up and died and left him alone to keep these children safe against his own betrayal?) “If we’d just gone with my idea in the first place instead of entering that damn hunting tournament, I wouldn’t have needed to steal the fucking thing,” Kurogane growls, but quietly, and without any malice. Fai knows the difference now, between Kurogane genuinely angry and Kurogane grumbling for the sake of appearances, and this complaint falls neatly into the latter category. (And if how well he knows the man by now sits uneasy with him, then he’s not going to think about it overmuch and spare himself the discomfort.)

Syaoran seems distressed by this turn of the conversation, and it’s a quick flick of his gaze across that pained face that makes Fai slap Kurogane heartily between the shoulder blades as the last of his armour comes unbuckled. “Nonsense! Kuro-ranger was having such good fun, running about in the woods like that! Who are we to deny him the chance to chase someone else around with a sharp weapon, hmm?”

Kurogane doesn’t get the chance to snap back, even as his eyes flash dangerously, because Sakura whistles once, the sound elegant and piercing, and from there they fall into a quick scramble into whatever articles of clothing they can purloin from the crates about them.

This world’s clothes are pale and plain in pattern but fine of cloth: loose, gauzy, tunic-like articles that leave the left breast and shoulder bare and cinch soft folds tightly around the hips. No leggings or boots to go with them but strappy sandals with leather soles instead, everything below mid-thigh exposed to the sunlight once more. (With how often Fai’s legs have been seeing the sun lately, he’s starting to consider working on a tan; the glare from his pale flesh is damn near blinding.) Mokona gobbles down their discarded clothes as quickly as they can toss them, and when two sharp whistles from above ring out, birdlike and clear, it’s Kurogane who calls back up to their lookout.

“Just jump down, princess- I’ve got you.”

“Alright,” says Sakura sweetly, and takes the leap.

In complete trust she falls and is caught without a sound, her small frame engulfed in the breadth ofKurogane’s strong arms, and he swings her down to her feet once more with no effort at all. “There you go,” he says gruffly, big hand resting heavy on the top of her head for a moment.

Syaoran, still trying to fasten the ties about his waist with fumbling fingers, blushes a brilliant red as Sakura immediately crosses over to help, and when she takes the clothy bundle Fai offers her after -cobbling together his best guess at an outfit for a high-born young lady in this world yields something much the same as their tunics, but of a more delicate fabric, with subtle embroidery around the edges and (thankfully) a tad more coverage; her wrap should cover her chest neatly and leave only her right shoulder bare... which is a good thing too, seeing as poor, besotted Syaoran would most likely have a stroke at the thought of his princess bare-breasted by any measure- the three of them quickly leave her to change, stepping out from the crates and into the wider world just in time for the guards to pass them neatly by with barely an assessing glance their way.

In fact, the gaze of the four men walking past alights on them not at all.

“They didn’t look at us once,” says Syaoran quietly, confirming that Fai isn’t the only one to notice. Kurogane makes a tch noise, eyes narrowed as he takes in their surrounds, and Fai follows his cue: he sees a bustling market place filled with people of all ages, sizes and fortunes, judging by the sheer variety of wares on display... not to mention the jewellery adorning the towns-folk, precious gems and shining metals gleaming in the sun on nearly every passerby-

Fai frowns. There’s no nearly about it; he can see adornment on every passerby, in fact, no matter how ragged or faded their clothes, and that’s enough to catch his eye. Rings and bracelets, bangles and armbands; necklaces and collars and torcs; jewels of every hue and shade and gold and silver displayed beyond measure. Even the members of the populace who clearly lack wealth, their clothes tattered and grey, bear at least one or two pieces of plain copper or bronze to wrap their limbs or dangle from their ears, which is unusual enough to be striking; when one falls upon hard times, it’s the small trinkets like jewellery that are the quickest to be pawned or sold.

Syaoran is the first to speak what they’re all thinking, young face serious enough that he barely notices Sakura -now fully dressed and resplendent in her new clothes, Mokona riding atop her head in pride of place- popping up beside him. “They’re all wearing jewellery of some kind,” he says quietly. “And we’re the only ones without it.” Of course, then, he does notice Sakura, and immediately lapses into a flustered blush (the hemline of her skirt is quite short, her coltish legs on display and really Fai can’t blame him; it’s hard enough to keep himself from looking down to confirm that the hem of Kurogane’s tunic is just as scanty, exposing legs far too muscled and tanned and eye-catching enough in contrast to fine fair linen to not be completely distracting) to lose the thread of the conversation.

“I have a theory,” says Fai thoughtfully, because it’s either start talking or keep staring and eventually his grumpy companion is going to notice where his eyes are focused, and that’s a fight Fai really doesn’t want to get into. Especially not in front of the children. He doesn’t elaborate, but Kurogane looks at him, sharp eyes equally thoughtful, and that’s confirmation enough for Fai to step out from the shadows of their little alleyway and walk towards the street proper.

“Fai!” squeaks Mokona, and is immediately hushed by the princess; the four he leaves behind watch in complete silence as Fai steps out into the throng of the marketplace, and right into the common path of the noisily chattering crowd-

-which parts for him as surely as a river would a boulder or a tree growing mid-stream, flowing clean around his figure as though he were not standing there at all. Not a single face rises with purpose to meet him, and any passing gaze that alights upon his face is curiously empty; not a word of protest comes from his obstruction, people moving aside as though he were simply a lamppost or some other kind of inanimate obstacle, and the notion that Fai is completely invisible to those that surround him raises the fine hair on the nape of his neck.

He retreats slowly, uneasily, meeting his fellow travellers at the mouth of the alley once more.

“It’s like you were a ghost,” says Syaoran, utterly bewildered.

“Not a ghost,” says the princess quietly, her green eyes hazy; the last traces of her magic tingle on the edge of Fai’s awareness as she speaks. “Ghosts have presence. That’s how you know they’re there. This feels like... like Fai-san is empty. Like we’re all empty,” she adds, looking down at her bare arms. Her soul may be fractured and split and scattered across the worlds, but there’s enough power echoing in her words that Fai knows it for truth, and he smiles encouragingly even if their meaning makes his skin crawl.

“I think you’re right, princess,” he says gently. “It was like I wasn’t standing there at all.”

“You’re not exactly easy to miss,” mutters Kurogane, dark face thunderous with a scowl, and Fai has to smile brighter at that. “I don’t like this. Might be good if we have to steal the feather again, but it’ll make it tricky to find out where the damn thing is in the first place. Being able to listen without being seen isn’t so bad, but not being able to ask if no-one’s talking- that’s gonna be trouble.”

“What do we do?” asks Mokona, now huddling down in Sakura’s arms. Her earring jingles as she tosses her ears, her small face scrunched with worry. “If we can’t be seen, we can’t ask, and if we can’t ask, how can we know?”

“I don’t think we’re invisible, exactly,” says Syaoran, after a long moment. “I mean, we can see each other just fine. I think... I think it’s something to do with the jewellery. Like, without it we’re not really there to all these people...” he trails off. “I’m sorry, I’m not really sure what I’m saying.”

“You’re not wrong,” says Fai, before he can stop himself. (It’s too dangerous to talk about magic, especially with Kurogane’s gaze so sharp on his back.) “It’s not as though they don’t look at us, it’s that they don’t see.” It’s not something Fai has encountered before, but it makes sense with both the evidence they’re given and various principles of magic he has studied; the jewellery of this world holds significance beyond mere decoration or display of social status, though it’s certainly that as well. If even the lowest members of society are adorned, no matter how meanly, and treated accordingly because of said adornment, it’s not such a stretch to think that someone without any rings or bangles at all might be seen as less than human and so unrecognised by even direct sight. “Without the jewellery to catch their attention and give us presence, they’ll just look right through us, even if we stand right in front of them.”

“Well, that’s easy to fix,” says Kurogane flatly, startling them all from their silent thoughts. “If all we need is some shiny baubles to wear, then we’ll go get the damn things. Stay here,” he adds, already walking out into the crowd; Fai starts to call out for him to wait, but Kurogane is gone, too far away to hear -or maybe he does hear and simply doesn’t care; Fai wouldn’t put it past him- even as he winds across the road and to the stalls lining the avenue, and there what Fai sees makes him understand.

Near the largest stall, one whose sloping displays are as full of shining, glittering gold and shimmering silver as the night sky is full of stars, and equally as brilliant, there is a merchant: a tall man, broad of frame and heavy with muscle running to corpulent fat. His thick limbs are ringed with armbands and bangles, each one a burning point of burnished light in the sun; his ears are pierced with golden rings and sparkling stones and every finger gleams with jewels. For all his wealth, though, his face is hard and his hand is harder, gripping tight a thick switch of wood he whips down across the back of his scrawny assistant, a tawny-haired boy whose copper bangles clatter about his wrists as he bows his head beneath them and shakes helplessly under each blow.

Even from this distance, it’s easy to see the shallow resemblance in that face to the boy that stands beside Fai now.

“Ah,” says Syaoran quietly, and swallows heavily as the wooden rod in the merchant’s hand swings wide for another strike- and is caught by a broad, strong hand, wood creaking under the pressure of Kurogane’s grip as he yanks it out from the merchant’s hold with little effort. His other hand closes in a crushing squeeze around the width of the switch and when he twists his wrists just a little in counterpoint -the muscles in his strong, strong arms barely tensing at all, hardly any of his impossible strength needed for a feat unlikely accomplished by most men- the wood in his hand splinters into pulpy shards to fall through his fingers and crumble to the ground.

The merchant gapes, stunned beyond measure. His face purples with something approaching rage, but Kurogane does not care; grabs instead the hand that rises for a blow against him and twists it carelessly into a joint-locking hold, even as pain and shock and fear blooms across the merchant’s features as he realises just how badly he is outclassed.

Kurogane leans close, then, dark head bowing low; murmurs something soft into the merchant’s ear, something threatening, if the way the man’s face blanches into blotchy terror is any tell. Immediately the merchant jerks back, trembling, and begins to pry the rings off his fingers and the bracelets and bands that line his arms with gold loose with shaking hands. He doesn’t stop there, either, gathering up great handfuls of his wares; necklaces and torcs, bangles and armbands spill through his fingers in a gleaming shower as he offers them up, and Kurogane nods in something like satisfaction as the terrified merchant starts wrapping them up in soft, dark cloth.

“Huh,” says Syaoran softly, looking torn between awe and disapproval. “We’re... we’re pretty much stealing those, aren’t we?”

“Think of it as payment for services rendered,” says Fai, the words slipping out slyly before he can stop them. “The merchant pays Kuro-rin in gold and jewels, and Kuro-rin doesn’t break his face and leave him bloody for beating his servant.”

Syaoran says something else, then, something to the effect that Kurogane really doesn’t like to see people hurting the weak- and as true as that is, Fai’s not really listening; can’t focus, even if he wanted to. Because Kurogane is helping himself to the man’s wares, sliding thick bands of ruby-studded gold around his wrists and a twisting armlet up his arm, over the heavy swell of muscle as he flexes to test for comfort against its snug fit. Precious metal gleams in the sun, shimmering against dark skin warmed by its lustrous glow, and when Kurogane selects a chest-plate of hammered gold and lowers it over his head, heavy metal pieces engraved with simple, stark patterns falling easily into place against the firm planes of his chest and offset by the gauzy drape of his tunic, Fai’s mouth dries up completely.

He is a prince twice-over, as much as he denies it; born to one throne that refused him even so, tore his soul from his breast as they tore Fai from his arms and threw Yuui down into the pit and adopted by another bloodstained and cold in the end, made frightening by the light of madness in the eyes of his king as its subjects died one by one, and he has seen opulence, has seen treasure beyond compare, silks and furs and velvets, gold and silver and platinum gleaming, precious gems and shimmering jewels enough to spike avarice in the most generous heart. But this, this (the flush of warm metal against warmer skin, the bloody glow of rubies to match those cutting eyes, the wealth of that body on display so luxuriously adorned), this is rich.

And as Kurogane turns away from the merchant at last -the strong lines of his arms flattered by golden bands, the chest-plate shining and bright where he wears it like armour, the gleam of the rubies at his wrists eye-catching and sharp, walking proud and tall through the crowds that part before him and the jewels he carries, dark velvet spilling over with wealth where those hands gather it up in offering- Fai swallows helplessly, a rush of wanting as sudden as it is sharp catching in his throat. Never in his life has he felt so greedy.

“Here,” says Kurogane when he reaches them, and Fai’s hands stretch out almost on their own, the heavy mess of jewellery dropped into his palms like a burden unshouldered as the man before him makes a disapproving noise through his teeth. “Tch. I wasn’t sure what we might need so I just grabbed everything he gave me and then some.” Kurogane’s scowl deepens a little as his gaze falls to Sakura, something almost uncomfortable passing over his features. “Sorry,” he says suddenly, a little awkwardly. “I know you like it better when we can do things honest.”

For her part Sakura looks up at him, green eyes clear, sweet face thoughtful. “It’s okay,” she says after a little while, and the tension in Kurogane’s shoulders eases. “He wasn’t a nice man at all. Besides,” she adds briskly, “I am sure that as long as we give them back after, no one will mind if we borrow these for a little while.” She rolls back the folds of velvety cloth in Fai’s hands, plucking out a long chain of gold that dangles prettily in her fingers. “We probably won’t need all of this anyway.” It still surprises him, sometimes, how practical she can be; Sakura is sweet and kind and gentle, but there is steel in her core that can be seen if one knows what to look for.

“Better safe than sorry,” says Syaoran; now that he has the princess’ tacit approval, he’s a bit more eager about the situation, and he too joins her in picking over the pile of gold and jewels. “It seems like the more the better, here, if the way the crowd were watching you as walked back meant anything, Kurogane-san. Maybe we should just put on as much as we can and see what happens.”

“Well then,” says Fai brightly, and he’d clap his hands together except that they’re full. Mokona echoes him, bouncing up on Syaoran’s head and peering over to the mess of jewellery to make cooing sounds. “I’m going to trust your good taste, princess- you choose what you think we should wear, and we’ll put it on. Kuro-tan got off to a good start-” oh, he most certainly did; Fai is never going to be able to look at rubies the same way ever again “-but perhaps an earring or two to finish him off?”

“What do you mean a good start?” comes the expected snarl, and against all the odds it eases the tension humming under Fai’s skin, lays flat his hackles once more. Kurogane is so much easier to handle when he’s angry and flustered, rather than when he’s doing the flustering, and maybe it says something that Fai prefers it that way. “Are you saying I have poor taste, mage?” Kurogane snaps, eyes glittering, and the teasing grin falls over Fai’s face like magic.

“Of course not, Kuro-chan- perish the thought. Only that your tastes are a little, mmm, austere for a world like this one.”

“Fai-san has a point,” says Syaoran, holding up a pair of heavy ruby drops framed by golden claws that resemble the talons of a hawk. They are rather lovely, catching the light as they dangle. “If we need to fit in with the locals, then we’re going to need to go all out. Have you ever thought about getting your ears pierced, Kurogane-san?”

“Ooh!” chirps Mokona. “Earrings are lovely!” she declares, jingling her own long ears for emphasis. “Mokona can pierce your ears- it’s Super Secret Technique Number Twenty-Seven: Body Piercing Bites!”

The ridiculous look on Kurogane’s face as his jaw drops and his grumpy façade cracks right down the middle -face flushed, eyes wide and stunned, nerve pulsing in his temple as he shudders in horror- at the thought of Mokona nibbling holes in his earlobes is one that is going to keep Fai warm at night for a very long time.

Not on your life, manjuu!”

Chapter Text

“So, let me see if I have this right. Your class determines your clothes? And it’s these… things that determine your ‘class’?” asks Syaoran, turning the orb over in his hands. He sounds puzzled, if intrigued, and Fai supposes both are appropriate really, because it’s honestly one of the stranger concepts they’ve encountered in all the worlds they’ve been through so far- including the world with the Kudan, and even the world where ‘innocence’ was physically manifested as cat ears and a tail, for whatever godawful reason. (Syaoran and Sakura had manifested such as soon as they arrived, as could be expected; they were only very young, after all. But whatever strange magic had caused it didn’t seem to work on Mokona, and Fai was completely unsurprised to note that both he himself and Kurogane -like most of the adults they encountered- had been free of any additional feline features. Intrigued a little, he could admit that. Especially after he had learnt what constituted said innocence by this society's standards. But definitely not surprised.)

“These ‘dress orbs’?” Syaoran continues, and their guide flits about his head happily, sparkling wings fluttering in delight that showers glittering dust down upon them all.

“Exactly!” she says sweetly, voice ringing like raindrops on silver bells. And even if Fai knows what rain actually sounds like on metal, no matter how it’s been shaped, that’s the image his mind stubbornly presents him with: innocence, sweetness, purity. Fai smiles, and does not narrow his eyes; does not let any suspicion bleed through his face or his voice or any part of his body language. This tiny little fairy has very powerful magic indeed, and the danger they could be in if they displease her even slightly is breathtaking.

“You’re very helpful, Miss Fairy,” he tells her, because it’s what she wants to hear, reaching to place his own orb back in the sturdy chest it had come from, easing it gently into its snug space in the plush velvet lining. The glass bauble had sat heavy in his palm as soon as he’d been given it, smoke of indeterminate colour swirling hazily in its confines in twisting skeins and gauzy billows of flowing magic, and beneath his skin, Fai’s own magic is still prickling in something like disgust. It had felt so wrong, and even now he has to fight not to scrub his palms flat against his clothes to wipe away unseen filth. “I imagine you’ve helped so many travellers lost along the way.”

She giggles, and this time it sounds like sunbeams would sound, warm and glittery- if sunbeams could make noise, that is; as if this was not another illusion of spectacular strength she casts upon them with her very presence. “I try!”

Kurogane frowns at her (it?), dark brows creased and those familiar features twisted in something like discomfort. He hasn’t magic of his own, this Fai knows thank the stars for that small mercy; if he did, Fai would be in a whole lot more trouble besides but he can sense it like no other man Fai has ever encountered, aura-perception and magical frequency awareness talents he possesses along with deadly grace with a weapon of any kind. (Swords whenever he can lay hand upon one, but bow and arrow too -Kurogane had shot fowl out of the sky with the easy, careless aim of one long practiced while hunting in Yama- and given a spear of decent length he can more than hold his own. For one so young, it’s more than merely impressive: such murderous skill verges on terrifying.) The miasma of stupefying magic that swirls around this tiny creature that flits before them must be bothering him, if the sour look on his face is anything to go by.

Mokona, hiding in the hood of the princess’ cloak, seems to have been the worst affected. Not surprising, really, considering that of them all she’s the one with the magical core; not only is the tiny creature full of power of her own but she has the capacity to let god-like power flow through her to act as conduit and amplifier, performing feats that would leave Fai shaking and sick with the effort, if not sweating out his blood from every pore altogether. “Mokona doesn’t,” she mumbles, and her ears droop sleepily, her tiny face scrunching up with the effort of speaking. “Mokona doesn’t like this.” She snuggles down into the folds of Sakura’s hood, mumbling softly; the fairy giggles again.

“Aww, she’s so cute! Not to worry- while you’re with me, I’ll be your guiding sprite! All you need to do is pick a class and then we can get going!” She pulls a loop in the air, her delicate wings fluttering prettily, her soft hair floating around her tiny, perfect face. Too perfect, that small face, too sweet by far, and just a little vinegary on the edges of Fai’s perception because of it. “Go on,” she says, waving a delicate hand, “choose one!”

It’s Sakura who speaks up next, reaching out to touch the smooth glass baubles with a hesitant hand. The other hand rises, curling softly about the snoozing weight of Mokona’s body where the little creature is curled into the curve of her neck. “What if I don’t like my class?” she says suddenly, snatching her fingers away and fixing their attentive new friend with a determined expression that in no way reduces the sweetness of her young face. “Am I stuck like that as long as I’m here?”

“No no no~!” chirps their guide happily, pulling a mid-air loop that pours glitter down around them in fizzing pops of colourless magic. “That’s the best part! If you don’t like it, all you have to do is choose again! In fact, it’s even better if you switch it up from time to time; picking a new class will help you expand your horizons and learn new things!”

Personally, Fai thinks that sounds more than a little too good to be true; change comes with pain and effort and bloodshed, nothing so easy as picking out a shiny bauble from a box. But he smiles and nods and catches Kurogane’s eye when the little fairy isn’t looking, enough to see that his companion understands that he is wary, that he is unsure of what this thing’s true intentions are. Kurogane is a sharp man, in many different ways: sharp eyes, that see too much; sharp tongue, when he cares to speak in cutting observation. He’s certainly too sharp to miss what Fai is saying, here.

“Alright,” Kurogane says, speaking for the first time since they’d met the sprite. His voice is hard. “I’ll go first.” His eyes cut briefly across Fai’s face, as if to say and if it goes bad, take the kids and run but he steps forward with no hesitation, crouching by the chest to pick an orb that looks just like any other, curling his fingers around the smooth sphere with grim determination.

“Just squeeze it,” says the fairy, and she sounds so eager, almost hungry. Fai’s skin crawls beneath his shirt. “Wrap your fingers around it and squeeze, as hard as you can- the magic will do the rest.”

Kurogane gives a sceptical mutter that sounds like and end up with a fistful of glass, sure, but he does as he is bid, and immediately a brilliant glow pours out of the orb, washing over his tall figure in a spill of scintillating light.

When it dims -and when the taste of sweet musk and the bitter edge of some cold metal fades from Fai’s tongue- Kurogane is still standing there, looking more than a little shell-shocked (looking like someone’s given him a good hard prodding where the sun doesn’t shine if Fai’s honest) from what Fai can see of his face, but apparently in one whole piece-

-and it’s at this point that Fai’s brain decides that now would be a nice time to short out, because sweet merciful heavens, he has never seen someone dressed in so much look like they were wearing so little.

It can’t be denied Kurogane is wrapped head to foot in fabric, covering everything that could be considered immodest and then some besides, but just as surely it can’t be denied that said fabric is black and silky-slick where it clings covetously to every inch of his body (and there is rather a lot of Kurogane to cling to, considering the height and the definition of his frame); excepting, of course, for the places that said cloth becomes sheer enough to expose tantalising stripes of the dark skin beneath, dizzying patterns woven into the fabric that catch the eye and draw it down to where a polite gaze is not meant to fall.

There’s a sash, too, of what looks like red satin; something shiny and no doubt soft, anyway. His fingers itch; he wants to touch. It loops around the taper of Kurogane’s waist in a wide swath of shocking colour, down to the narrow edges of his hips -stars above, Fai can see the arch of hipbones and the firm cut of muscle so easily through clinging cloth- and ties off in a simple knot, silky tails falling down the length of one long thigh in glossy red ribbons. The rest of Kurogane’s legs are swathed in the same sheer darkness, right down to his feet, and said feet are clad in soft slippers that make Fai think of nothing so much as dancing shoes.

“The fuck,” says Kurogane quietly, perhaps so the princess will not hear the profanity but most likely out of sheer shock, “is this supposed to be?”

“Ooooh- Acrobat class!” says the tiny thing flitting about Kurogane’s head. “I haven’t seen this one in ages!”

“Acrobat?” grunts Kurogane, shifting about to better look down at himself, and Fai has to look away as the movement pulls dark cloth even tighter in various places, else sweat break across his brow at the sight. “You mean like a tumbler or something?”

“Absolutely,” trills the fairy, fluttering up to eye-level as Kurogane scowls. “Acrobat classes specialise in speed and agility, with a focus on flexible movements to dodge and dart about in battle! The skills Acrobat classes learn make them near untouchable!” Even as she speaks it sounds the exact opposite of Kurogane’s fighting style, too evasive by far, and Fai -now keeping his gaze firmly above Kurogane’s shoulders, considering it’s the safest part of his new outfit- snorts softly.

“Not interested,” says Kurogane flatly, crossing his arms. “I can already do all of that; I don’t need a skin-tight suit to make me jump about.” He’s not lying; Fai has seen Kurogane leap quite cleanly over obstacles the average man would need to climb, and his flexibility can’t be denied, either. Never in his life has Fai seen someone so tall and so well-built bend so easily. In battle, that is. Not anywhere else. (And if he’s correcting his own damn thoughts he’s in more trouble than he realised.)

“What?” protests the fairy, and perhaps her sweet smile cracks just slightly. “But the Acrobat class is-”

“Don’t care,” is the blunt response. “I don’t like this orb thing- I’m taking another.” And he does just that, seemingly ignorant of the tiny creature’s shock- but Kurogane isn’t as blind as he pretends to be, not by a long shot, watching her from the corner of his eye as he does so. Syaoran is watching too, young eyes drinking in everything they see, and even Sakura’s polite smile is a little wary as she strokes Mokona’s ears with gentle fingers. Fai can’t blame them; as sweet as their new friend looks to the untutored eye, there is something dangerous beneath all that glitter and they’ve all learned the hard way that what you see is not necessarily what you get.

Kurogane mutters something under his breath, standing with another orb in hand; another squeeze, another wash of brilliant light, and once more he stands before them in an entirely new outfit. He looks more determined than anything this time, that shock of the initial change gone from his face, and he raps out a tight “Not this one either,” before the fairy can even open her mouth to speak.

“Hang on!” she says, and the words come out sharp, more than she clearly meant for them to be; her wings flutter irritably, her small face twisting unpleasantly as she reins in her temper. “Hang on,” she repeats again, her tone softer and sweeter. “How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t try it?”

“I don’t need to try it to know, sprite,” says Kurogane flatly, and with great disgust. “There’s magic in this one, I can feel it.” He shakes his head, snorting at the weight of the cap atop it: a heavy hat of some plush red felt, with fluffy feathers and roses piled up on the brim. He’s wearing a suit to match, a finely cut coat of a similar carmine cloth held closed across his broad chest with buttons that glitter like jewels and a slender belt of dark leather that nips in tight at the waist; velvety-red leggings cling silkily to thickly muscled legs and trail into thigh-high boots, black in glossy contrast. Lace spills over at Kurogane’s throat and wrists, starkly white against so much red and the tan of his skin, and he grunts in distaste, shaking his hands free beneath the fall of his dragging cuffs. “This doesn’t feel right,” he scowls, voice low and thunderous. “This isn’t my magic -I don’t have any of that- it’s whatever magic that orb thing gave me, and I want none of it.”

The fairy pauses, clearly taken aback; something murderous glinting quick and sharp across her face before she can wholly hide it, and goosebumps rise on Fai’s arms even beneath the warmth of the day around them. “Okay then,” she says, too saccharine to be wholly genuine, “why don’t you try another?” She doesn’t sound pleased about it, not in the least.

He tries three more before he settles on the fourth, Conjurer and Dragoon and Ninja classes discarded just as quickly as the Red Mage class was –“I don’t need a magical glass bauble to make me a damn ninja, sprite, I’ve been one for years!”- and each with a corresponding change of clothing paraded across Kurogane’s frame. Syaoran has long since passed from stunned to confused to bemused, taking up a perch on the log Fai sat down upon some time ago, the princess joining them both to watch as the fairy wheedles and Kurogane argues, and by the time the glow from the fourth orb he’s tried settles down Fai is more than merely amused by his companion’s negotiating, he’s damn well impressed.

When that light does fade, however, he’s impressed for an entirely different reason altogether. Kurogane has worn chainmail before, a few worlds before this one, where the martial classes clad themselves in plate-mail armour, but that chainmail had been purpose-built for battle and frankly kind of ugly. This chainmail glitters. It’s gleaming and bright and a lustrous shade of bronze that perfectly flatters dark skin; it’s also -and this is the part that really catches Fai’s eye- being worn as a loincloth, hanging from the thick leather belt banded across Kurogane’s hips to meet the tops of his thighs in a fall of shimmering woven metal. It’s certainly striking, and it does match the rest of Kurogane’s armour in sheer impracticality; the sharp-edged, jutting plates that radiate down from his pauldron to the vambrace that circles his forearm make no effort to cover anything else, and even the gorget ringing Kurogane’s collarbones looks more decorative than defensive. Leather straps band tight across the broad muscle of his chest, meeting with brass buckles to hold the arm guard in place, moving gently as Kurogane breathes. He’s also holding a sword, a wickedly curved blade -it’s easily the size of Fai’s leg, and clearly deadly- with a leather-wrapped hilt; it glints cruelly in the silent fall of sunlight, its sharp edge just as dangerous as the man holding it.

“Hn,” says Kurogane, after a moment. “This feels better.”

“Okay,” says the fairy, sounding tired. Her wings droop a little as she perches atop the chest’s open lid, and she’s long given up any pretence of enthusiasm. “This class is Gladiator. Are you going to give me a chance to explain what it is before you grab another dress orb?”

Kurogane, looking down at himself and apparently pleased with what he sees, shrugs. “Go ahead.”

So their tiny host babbles on about favouring offense over defense (something which Kurogane lives and breathes in battle, from everything they’ve seen so far) but Fai finds his attention wandering, straying even from the crawling unease those glass baubles leave him with. Instead, and despite his best efforts otherwise, his gaze follows the tension and flexion of muscle as Kurogane tests his blade in idle, easy swings of his strong, strong arm to slice sunlight on its glittering edge. There’s grace in the movement, grace which Fai had never thought to afford to this man; but then, Kurogane has come so far from Fai’s assumption that he was little more than a bloodthirsty brute that Fai almost can’t say what Kurogane even is to him anymore. An ally? A companion? A friend? (A fellow pawn. An enemy. A could-be lover.)

Kurogane thrusts his sword into the grass beneath his sandaled feet, the blade pushing easily through soil and turf, and tosses one arm over the other in an absentminded stretch that pulls tighter the bands across his chest, cuts clean lines of leather across dusky skin and the muscle that flexes with the movement. Kurogane shifts a little as he stretches, rolling his weight from foot to foot, and the loincloth ripples in a scatter of sunlight on gleaming metal. The cascade of jutting plates down one arm rustle against each other like dragon scales, and Fai finds -with no small sense of alarm- that not only is he staring, but also that he cannot look away. He’s held so tightly by the sight that captures him, in fact, that it seems like there is a roaring in his ears; the fairy’s words fade to a soft sweet murmur, Kurogane’s rumbling voice a low counterpoint that thrums heavy in Fai’s chest, leaving him light headed and warm. Very warm, warmer than the sunlight melting slow down through his hair and down the back of his neck could account for; warmer than the flush that rises beneath his skin to quicken his breath just a little, teasing up a heat that sits heavy in his belly and tightens his chest, pricking sweat across the nape of his neck.

Oh, thinks Fai, swallowing down the sudden hook that catches in his throat. Oh no, and it is already too late to deny it.

He wants. He wants Kurogane, and he has for quite some time already even if acceptance comes only in this moment. He wants, oh stars above, does he want. (Now, preferably, if he’s being honest; if the children and that cursed sprite could just leave them alone for a moment. Let it happen here in the sun, on the grass, beneath that blue-burning sky with the sweet scent of summer rising from the greenery as it warms under the day’s heat. He could unbuckle that armour, let it fall away in bronzed scales and mail and tumble unneeded from that powerful form, and from there it would be so easy to raise sweat on that dusky skin, chase it clean with his tongue; easy to sift his fingers through dark hair and hold tight, scrape his nails blunt down that strong, strong back. So easy to just give up and give in to everything unsaid between them, to forget that there had ever been anything else; to ride fast and furious against one another to gloss their bodies with the heat and slick of sex and leave them both breathless.)

He is so, so fucked.

“Oi. Mage. Wake up.” Fai blinks slowly, lets his gaze trail upward once more to meet the man that looks down upon him from where he stands, tall and dark and proud even mostly-naked and wrapped only in the most ornamental armour. There’s nothing but the barest trace of amusement beneath Kurogane’s words, not even a thread of grouchiness; those eyes are no sharper than Fai has seen before, and he feels no more naked under that gaze then he usually does. (Which is to say, he feels stripped down and exposed, bare to the bone beneath those eyes that see far, far too much- but he has always felt like that around Kurogane, right from the beginning, and there is a complacency in familiarity which lulls even his tight-wound nerves into something close to calm.) Even the quirk of Kurogane’s mouth as he half-smirks seems harmless, this man standing before him with one hand on his hip and the other loose by his side, fingers curled gently, and it’s with very little effort that Fai turns his face up towards him. And then smiles, because really, what else can he do?

“Mm, I wasn’t sleeping Kuro-tan. Just thinking,” he murmurs, aiming for cheerful and achieving only huskiness, a thickness in his throat –a tightness in his chest- that can’t be swallowed back. If Kurogane notices, he makes no comment; just rolls his eyes in mock disdain.

“Think on your own time. C’mon, up.” It’s a command and it comes with a hand outstretched that Fai takes before he can think better of it, clasping his fingers around Kurogane’s wrist and hauling himself upright off the sheer strength of that arm in counter balance –it’s notable that Kurogane does not move an inch even with the whole of Fai’s weight dangling off his arm- but when he has reached his feet Kurogane does not let go; presses instead the cool glass orb held in his other hand into Fai’s slack fingers and curls them tight around it.

“Your turn,” says Kurogane firmly, his own hand a hot weight that surrounds Fai’s, the force of his grip irresistible. “Squeeze.” Fai wants no part of this strange magic, no part of whatever plot the little fairy is striving for, with their small family group her players (he is pawn enough in the plans of others; he will not be made slave to another master, not now, not ever) but this is another command and heaven help him, but he does exactly what he is told to do, light washing cold and sharp between his fingers and sweeping everything away in the breathtaking dazzle of it.

It’s not the strangest sensation Fai has ever felt -that distinction reserved for the delicate dissolution Mokona’s magic forces upon them every time she shunts them from world to world, breaking them down to so much stardust scattered between dimensions to be somehow woven whole once more- but it’s certainly invasive, as though every inch of his skin were covered with needle-pricks of stinging ice, all at once. (And yes, every inch of skin, which explains completely the violated look on Kurogane’s face earlier, and in more detail than Fai is truly comfortable thinking about.)

But it's not exactly painful and it doesn’t last long, and when the dazzle clears from his eyes -his magic screaming beneath his skin in burning waves that threaten violence at the touch of such strange sorcery, resisting fiercely his efforts to force it down, down- Fai drags in a startled breath and feels the snug fit of his new clothing pull tight across his chest.

“Ooh,” purrs the fairy, and there’s something menacing in the gleeful flutter of her wings. “A Sniper! That’s an advanced class I haven’t seen for a while.”

Fai stares down at one hand wreathed in a half-glove, the grain of fine leather supple against his palm; stares down at the loose clothes of slick, dark silk and light armour of some substance he cannot name plated across his chest and buckled to his thighs; stares at last at the elegant, lethal curve of a longbow as tall as he is and then some besides, hewn from dark-stained bone and carved with impossible delicacy. The string of the bow glistens, a thick thread that glistens in some gory shade of red; in the sunlight, it looks as bloody and raw as something freshly disembowelled and his belly clenches tight at the sight of it. This is a killing weapon, to be sure, and in his hands it will be deadly.

(And if he is a coward for dreading that, so be it.)

But he is not alone and the shock of the transformation must paint itself across his face, because Kurogane’s hand claps down heavy on his shoulder; a clap in truth, a peal of thunder rolling through his quivering bones beneath that touch.

“You alright?” says Kurogane, in a tone that is nothing like mockery; genuine concern threads his voice with warmth that Fai does not deserve could never deserve, not from this man, not from any of them and makes the weight of the hand on his shoulder heavier still.

“I’m fine, Kuro-rin. Just a little... startled.” That’s all the honesty he can afford, especially with how he is so easily tempted now. (Especially with how those arms promise such safe shelter, especially with how his cheek burns to press against warm, bare skin.) Fai smiles thinly and hopes like hell that, just this once, those sharp eyes will not see through him.

And maybe his prayers are answered, because “Tch,” says Kurogane, and turns about; his fingers leave brand marks burnt unseen into Fai’s skin as they lift free, the warrior jabbing one irritated finger in their tiny guide’s direction. “For such wonderful magic you’ve got here, sprite, it sure feels fucking weird. Can’t you do anything better than pretty lights and needles?”

“Needles?” says Syaoran, alarmed.

“Yeah. Stabbing all through you,” says Kurogane flatly. “It only lasts for a second, though, and it doesn’t really hurt,” he adds begrudgingly, perhaps taking in the blanch to Syaoran’s cheeks and realising all too late his words aren't that encouraging.

But the damage is done, Syaoran’s brow knotting and his mouth creasing into a frown as he looks over to his princess, and the worry on his face is as naked as the protectiveness that fills his voice. “Princess, maybe you shouldn’t take a... a dress orb. We wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

Something small crumbles in Sakura’s eyes then, some scrap of self-confidence, and Fai can perhaps understand that; it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are weak when you are not given the chance to be strong, easy to believe the lies that your own thoughts whisper in the echo of your mind when another’s voice joins that chorus, not matter how well-intentioned their words. He knows this better than he can bring himself to say- but this is not about him, it is about the princess, and for all she is precious she is not something to be coddled; he’s learnt that much by her efforts alone.

“I can handle it,” says Sakura, sweet voice firm. “I want to take a dress orb too.”

“But-”

“If the princess says she can handle it,” interrupts Kurogane, low voice drawling and edged just faintly with something like amusement (he does have a sense of humour beneath that scowl, even if it isn’t often seen) as he folds his arms again, “then she can handle it, kid. Give her some credit, wouldya? She already beat your arse in that race in Piffle- what more does she have to do to prove herself to you, anyway.” He nods at the princess then, inclines his head briefly; there is respect enough in the gesture, in the gaze that crosses her sweet face that Sakura straightens her spine and stands taller and prouder beneath it. “Go ahead, princess. Your turn.”

Gently handing the still-dozing Mokona over to Syaoran, the princess steps forward; the fairy’s smile grows in avarice as a small hand takes a glass orb, and when Sakura squeezes it in her fingers, the light is blinding. Tiny wings flutter in greedy excitement when the glaring brightness finally clears, the sprite pulling a mid-air loop as she whistles above Sakura’s head, and when Fai finally blinks away the dazzle from his eyes, he can see why.

“Wow! Wow, wow, wow! I haven’t seen a Holy Knight in ages!”

The fairy’s shocked glee is easy to understand. Sakura stands small but strong, arrayed in shimmering pale armour, metal plates glowing pearlescent beneath the sunlight. Each part of her armament –from pauldron to chestplate to vambrace to fauld; from tasset to doublet to greave to sabaton- is made of the same eldritch steel, engraved with pink-kissed petals on each curved edge and damn near embroidered with the glittering shine of holy magic that almost brings the eye to watering with its brightness. Her surcoat falls down her torso in a spill of cloud-soft silk, an image of a sakura blossom gorgeously stitched into fine white cloth with glowing thread and blooming open, a five-petaled standard that is simply perfect for the girl who bears it.

Close by, Fai can feel the magic that thrums in each piece of armour, powerful threads of cherry-sweet enchantment woven for protection, for cleansing, for a fierce loving light to burn back the darkness; and Sakura can feel it too, if her wide eyes and stunned expression are any tell. Slowly, cautiously, she raises a gauntled hand –well-sculpted and delicate, each plate small and perfect where it overlaps for ease of movement that should not be possible for such heavy armour- to hold over her heart, and when her small fingers curl into a dainty fist, she lifts her head high with magic spiraling about her in pulsing waves of power. But this is not the enchantment of the orbs alone, or even the twisted power of the greedy little sprite that guards them: Fai feels no danger here. The breath he draws in tastes sweet and clean with pure magic, the kind meant for only the most sacred of bearers, the kind that banishes shadows from all who wear its benediction and brings hope in its glowing wake.

Fai smiles. Of course Sakura could take something that felt so intrinsically alien, wrong in ways he has no words to describe, and make it clean again.

She is not unarmed. In the hand by her side a shield, emblazoned with the same glowing standard; by her a feet a slim blade, its guard and quillon both filigreed with the same pearly sheen her armour bears and its thin blade a ribbon of sharp light. Without hesitation, Sakura reaches down, and her fingers close about the hilt as though born to it. The pommel, a heavy pearl thicker than Fai’s thumb, shimmers with in her hand with lambent warmth.

“Huh,” says Kurogane, breaking the silence with dark eyebrows raised high and pride in his tone. “Well done, princess.”

Fai has to agree, but it’s Syaoran that provides the most gratifying reaction, his face flushed and his mouth open in sheer awe. He splutters helplessly, struck into speechlessness by the sight of his princess dressed so well for battle, and when the reddening of his face –he’s nearly scarlet all the way up to his hairline now- proves too much for him to speak through, he babbles instead. “Princess- you- armour- wow,” is the most intelligible thing Fai can make out.

The fairy squeals in delight –the high-pitched sound uncomfortably grating- and loops about Sakura’s head in a glittering halo, babbling on about how rare this class is and what amazing power she can feel, but Fai finds it easy to tune her out. He doesn’t need to listen to the lectures of a malicious little sprite to know Sakura is special; she’s always been special, right from the start. Besides, there’s something to be said for the soft pride in Sakura’s face, as she looks down at her armour and stands straight and tall even with colour in her cheeks from Syaoran’s admiring fluster.

“It suits her,” says Kurogane, and Fai has to agree. Kurogane grins then, the sharp little curl at the corner of his mouth that says he’s thinking of something amusing, and the urge to laugh bubbles up in Fai’s chest just at the sight of it. “Heh, the kid’s gonna burst a vein if he keeps going on,” and this with a dark-haired nod in the still-spluttering Syaoran’s direction.

“It’s cute,” says Fai, because it is, and it is the safest thing he can say; the way the children love each other is the stuff of ballads, with more tragedy than seems fair for souls so young and kind as theirs, but it isn’t only tragedy. There’s sweetness here too, enough to break your heart.

Because this will not last. Because there is no happy end here, not for any of them.

“Yeah,” says Kurogane absently, and Fai turns and stares; feels his pulse skip and his chest rattle beneath the sudden surge of his startled heartbeat. “They really are.” There’s something almost gentle unfolding across those strong features, something Fai has known was there but had only seen in glimpses from the corner of his eye; to see Kurogane’s smile soften even just the slightest is enough to throw Fai off guard, something he could not have prepared himself for in any way at all.

He tries to speak, but his breath catches silent and sharp in his throat, and he cannot make a sound. Kurogane turns away and crosses over to the children without hearing him, and as he moves Fai stands, and watches, and feels his heart pound in his throat. It really is too late.

Chapter Text

The pounding of the drums hangs in the air, a tangible beat that Fai can feel reverberating in his ribs, and it is harder than expected to keep his breathing from falling into line with that heady rhythm. He manages though, if only barely; keeps himself steady and still even as the drumming urges a faster cadence to heart and breath alike, the sound rising clear on the cold air that swirls above the crowds as they flood in through tall gates towards the festival proper. Below, the streets are thronged with people, glowing beneath the strings of lanterns that decorate every possible surface –brilliant splashes of colour against the snow that frosts the rooftops, casting warmth into a night that should be cold and dark and making of it something beautiful- and the energy that rises from the crowd all but crackles from building to building, bright with sparking joy.

“This is amazing,” whispers Sakura, her words fogging from her lips in small, breathless clouds. “I can’t believe we landed here in time to see this!”

Mokona bounces eagerly atop the railing of the balcony, dancing along its frosted edge with no concern for possibly toppling off it. “Mokona loves festivals! All the best food and all the best dancers! It’s like a huge party- we should go down and join in the fun!” Long ears flap in excitement, the tiny red jewel that adorns one jingling happily. “Pay our respects to the shrine and dance the night away!”

There is nothing that Fai would like less to do at this point in time, but he does not have the heart to refuse her, and so he says nothing; merely smiles and smiles and smiles, and pats Mokona gently atop her fuzzy head. The small creature is too caught up in her excitement at the spectacle below to notice his distraction, but Sakura is not, and for a moment her thoughtful gaze weighs heavy on his back- but then the doors to the apartment proper open behind them, and she turns away to greet the newcomer.

“Syaoran-kun! The drumming has started- isn’t it amazing?”

“Absolutely, princess,” the boy says in complete honesty; his whole face is shining with earnest fascination. “This is the biggest festival this town will hold this year, a tribute to their gods that celebrates the fruitfulness of the year past and makes a prayer for the fruitfulness of the year to come… or at least that’s what our host told me.” The woman in question, a kindly matron of advancing years whose eyes are nonetheless very sharp in her soft and wrinkled face, had taken one look at their group’s sudden appearance amongst the snow-choked trees in her back garden and declared them her guests, and all the polite arguing in all the worlds would not convince her otherwise. Fai knows. Fai has tried.

He is not an ungrateful man, not by any means (and not that he has a lot to be grateful for besides); it’s simply that things would be so much easier if they were not in their current predicament, and the fact that he is apparently the only one that sees it as a problem somehow makes it so much worse.

“I wonder if Kurogane-san is at the shrine yet? He left a little while ago, but the streets are so full of people…” Sakura’s voice trails off softly, threaded with something like kind-hearted concern, and Fai does not even need to look up from the crowds below to know how her fair brow creases and how her big eyes will be curious and worried all at once.

“He’ll need to be if he’s to be ready for the ceremony,” says Syaoran firmly. “But then, I wouldn’t worry about him, princess- Kurogane-san knows how to take care of himself better than any of us.” Personally, Fai thinks they’re both being a bit overcautious; but then they are only children, and while they are certainly aware that their currently-absent companion is a dangerous man, Fai is certain neither realizes exactly how dangerous. (He hopes, at least. Especially the princess. She trusts Kurogane so much, it would break Fai’s heart –and the heart of the man himself, most likely– to see her flinch away from his presence in fear.) It’s highly unlikely Kurogane is going to come to any kind of mischief on the way to the central shrine their host had directed (demanded) him to, besides, and especially not on a day holier than any other in this world’s calendar.

“How lucky Kurogane-san was, though,” says the princess happily. “To be chosen to help carry the palanquin during the procession towards the temple!”

Without him meaning for it to, Fai’s smile slips just a little. Luck is not the word he would use for that choice. Troublesome is a better fit, for that is what the choosing of their companion to take part in a religious ceremony none of them know anything about is, when one cuts it down; and while Kurogane had acquiesced to their host’s wishes as soon as it was made clear that his doing so was conditional upon the safety and welcome of their group to this country -not to mention the confirmation that he would not bear the brunt of the attention of any strange god even if he helped carry its reliquary from shrine to temple during the festival procession- Fai had seen enough in the man’s face to know it was a situation he was not exactly pleased about. Anything but pleased, if the muttered string of half-audible profanity (too quiet for the princess to hear, mercifully) was any indication.

There are many, many things that could go wrong on this journey; many things have gone wrong already. And while their interlude in the world of Shura had resolved itself in the end –two gods reunited and calamity averted, no more tears to bleed down stony features- that is not to say Fai relishes the opportunity for power he does not understand to touch upon any member of their small group. He has enough worries: about the princess about what she is now; about what she must become; about the boy about the cool shadows in those warm eyes and the heart that is breaking behind its seal. He doesn’t need to add to them. It does not feel safe, to let Kurogane walk in the shadow of a strange god, no matter how benign, and what’s worse is that he knows the man himself would be furious if he understood that Fai was worried. He can’t help it. Their group (family, they are a family, and stars only know he cannot deny it any longer) is so small, and there are so many worlds in which everything could so easily go wrong, and Fai himself a trap waiting to spring powerless besides. There’s not enough luck in all the worlds there ever were to keep the ones he cares about safe forever.

“Fai-san?”

He startles. “Mm? Yes, Sakura-chan?” Fai pulls his smile into place, feels it stretch thinly across his features. (He must not let himself get so lost in his thoughts that she can see them written on his face; she is very young and she is very kind, but neither of those mean that she is any less than very clever also.)

“When are we going down to the procession? We are going to watch, aren’t we?”

He doesn’t get the chance to answer that, as the elder hosting them speaks up from the warmth of the apartment proper, her voice soft and aged but strong all the same as it carries through the doorway. “Why, as soon as you’re ready, my girl,” she laughs, and in the sound there is the shade of a much younger woman. “But you need to come inside and get dressed first. You can’t honestly think I’d let your ragtag group wander down to the festival without the proper attire, now- you must wear your best if you are to honour yourself and the gods!”

This, too, is something Fai cannot argue against, because this world is cold (not so cold as he is used to but cold enough) and the last was not, and though they have cloaks and warm coats, the strangeness of their clothes sticks out sorely. So he lets himself be ordered into the layers of warm, silky finery in festive colours -dyed with heated tones to chase away the chill, apparently- their host provides with grandmotherly clucking, along with thick split-toed socks on his feet and wooden sandals to match; daring sashes of bright and cheerful contrast wind around his waist to cinch their folds tight and a scarf wrapped around his neck and shoulders to keep out the chill. Syaoran is much the same, though his unscarred fingers are much quicker to adjust to the foreign-styled fastenings of these robes, and when Sakura emerges from the other bedroom to meet them in the hall, the amazement on Syaoran’s face to see her dressed so beautifully in cherry pink silk with feather patterns woven into the fine cloth is enough to make Fai smile and actually mean it.

Whatever else happens in this world, the princess is happy, and that is enough for Fai. She deserves more happiness than he can ever give her, more than the short span of her life will allot her, and he can never make up for that lack.

Their elderly hostess fusses over them in the hallway –tugging Fai’s sleeves down straighter and folding their edges to bare the bones of his wrist; patting at Syaoran’s hair to make it lie grudgingly flat; tucking a pair of floral barrettes behind Sakura’s ears, to fasten neatly the flyaway strands of her soft hair– and affixes at last a tiny wreath of ribbons to Mokona’s ears where she perches atop Syaoran’s shoulder, and then they are down the stairs and out the door, staring out at the brilliantly-lit gates funneling the flowing crowds towards the central square filled with light and laughter.

“Well,” says Sakura brightly, tucking one hand into her beautifully embroidered sash, a small soft bag swinging cheerfully from her free arm where it loops around her wrist. “We’d better get going then if we’re going to be there in time- come on, Syaoran-kun!” Mokona squeals with delight as the princess snatches up Syaoran’s left hand, and even Fai can’t stop the laughter that bubbles up in his throat at the brilliant flush of Syaoran’s face, his cheeks burning brighter than any lantern.

“Careful now,” he chuckles. “Or else poor Syaoran-kun might burst into flame.” Syaoran flushes redder at this, as expected, but then he’s laughing too, and if Fai is smiling (really smiling, truly smiling, the twist of his lips rueful and the pain in his chest bittersweet because this cannot, will not last) as he trails along in the children’s excited wake, then there is no one of import to see it and no one to judge him for it besides.

“Come on, come on!” Mokona’s enthusiasm is so catching, Fai can’t help but echo it with a grin. “We’re gonna be late! Mokona wants to see the procession!” The little creature bounces from foot to foot, springing up in the air with enough speed to set her garland fluttering, and Fai opens his arms so that she might leap onto his chest, catching her gently and putting her on his shoulder.

“I don’t think we’ll miss it, Mokona,” says Syaoran, trying and failing to keep a calm expression in the face of Sakura tugging happily on his hand as they walk, ducking beneath a low-hanging string of lanterns that his princess almost drags him into. “There’s a lot of people and I’m sure they won’t be going terribly fast. Palanquins are heavy, and they’ll want to make sure everyone gets a good look.”

“Oh!” gasps Sakura delightedly. “Look- there it is! You can just see them, at the top of the hill!” And yes, she’s right: there, beyond the spiraling rows of snow-capped houses, and madly fluttering bunting in shades of red and blue and purple; there, where the crowd is pointing and cheering as the ceremonial drummers marching down the slope in paired lines call out in exhilaration, and the dancers that throw paper flowers whirl out across the winding cobblestones in drifts of colourful robes and ringing bells that catch the light of glowing lanterns; there, a shrine, golden-roofed and shimmering in the distance, its scarlet banners fluttering wild.

Sakura teeters up on tip-toes, trying to peer over the flocking people that line the streets before them, and nearly overbalances when Syaoran pulls back on her hand. “We have to get closer, Syaoran-kun; I can’t see Kurogane-san,” she says, with just a hint of a whine in her sweet voice. “There’s too many people in the way!” And fair enough; she’s only a dainty little thing, and even Fai can barely see over the heads of the gathering throng with all his height, let alone either of the children. Mokona leaps from his shoulder to his head, her small weight negligible, and her feet patter across his hair as she stretches in an effort to see.

“Mokona can only just see! And we can’t all use Fai as a ladder!” And thank the stars in heaven for that.

Syaoran frowns. “We might need to go further up. If we can get far enough in front of the movement of the crowd, we should be in a good spot to see the procession when it gets further down the hill.” He turns, brushing his hair back with one hand as he rocks up on his toes, and the look of utterly serious concentration on that young face is so perfect Fai feels his mouth twitch with laughter. “Yeah,” says Syaoran absently, brow creasing, eyes searching for something as he spins about, taking in the layout of the sprawling town below them and muttering under his breath about ideal path and congregational flow. “That should work.”

“Do you have a plan of attack, Syaoran-kun?” asks Fai easily, the amusement in his voice bleeding through with no effort at all.

“You could say that,” says the boy slowly. “Come with me, everyone- I think I know how we can get a good spot to see the procession come past.”

They form a chain of linked arms, Syaoran in the lead with the princess not far behind, her small hand snatching hold of Fai’s wrist in the time it takes to blink. “Hold on tight, Fai-san! You don’t want to get lost in the crowd!” Mokona’s tiny paws tangle in his hair as the small creature squeals in delight, Sakura beaming up at him, and a determined Syaoran makes his move without warning; Fai finds himself quickly tugged along behind the children as they dart into the swelling crowd, and Fai catches sight of the world around him only in brief and beautiful flashes of colour as ribbons and robes and banners blur into a spinning kaleidoscope as they run. They pass a woman laughing, flower petals and snowflakes dusting her curls as she spins about, her long sleeves drifting; they duck around a father lifting his child atop tall shoulders so that small chubby hands may reach up for the stars, bright pealing laughter ringing out joyfully, and the distant drums beat steady beneath it all.

It’s easy to lose himself for a moment; to forget everything but Sakura’s pealing laughter and the warmth of her hand, of the tangle of Mokona’s tiny paws in his hair as he hurries along, sandals clacking on the snow-slick stone that winds beneath their feet- and when Syaoran slows to merely a hasty jog from his determined march, Fai looks up to see them at the edge of the crowd and climbing a steady hill. There are not many people around him, the townsfolk swelling close to the edges of the main procession, but when Syaoran draws them through a turning back alleyway and around through the broken edges of a fence, into the yard of an empty and somewhat run-down cottage, and Fai understands what the boy was aiming for.

“Here, Princess,” Fai murmurs, and lifts Sakura up easily over the crumbling edge of a shattered step with hands around her waist. Her tiny feet dangle in their sandals as he drops her neatly down across the gap and she smiles a thank you up at him with shining eyes.

“Ah,” says Syaoran, and flushes; it’s clear to see that in his haste to clamber up he forgot about the restriction of Sakura’s robes and how small they make her steps. Enough to let her keep up with his brisk pace, but not so good for climbing. “Um. Not much further,” he says, clearing his throat a little. “You see, I thought if we came to some of the older parts of town, we might chance upon an empty yard that overlooked the procession…”

“Very good, Syaoran-kun,” murmurs Fai, because it was a clever idea; certainly one he did not think of himself. But then Mokona squeals from atop his head, and as one they all turn towards the street, and the thronging crowd some space below; from here, they have doubled back and crossed the procession’s path, and into a place where the townspeople are not gathered so thickly- even the smallest of their small group can see clearly over banners and waving hands throwing flowers, and Fai’s breath catches as warm fog between his teeth when the gleaming golden roof of the palanquin and the dark heads of the men bearing it comes into view.

At first, Fai had wondered why Kurogane, of all of them, had been picked for this task. Was it something in the man’s look, like how the colour of his own eyes had marked him as unwanted, unlucky, cursed royal-born in Valeria? Perhaps the priests of this world chose shrine-bearers of particular appearance, to please their gods. Many gods were alike in that; it was usually the most attractive sacrifices that made for the best harvest, as years of study in the magical arts had taught him. Or perhaps it is instead how Kurogane carries himself, a young man in his virile prime who walks with the cocksure arrogance of one comfortable with his physicality? Even if Kurogane had been chaste so far, at least as far as Fai could tell –avoiding the cooing flattery of the women in Outo, refusing what Fai now understood had been invitations to a soldier’s tryst in Yama, seeking no companionship that was not the company of their fellow travellers and certainly nothing intimate- it was unlikely he was unexperienced in bedsports, brash personality and violent temper aside. There are, after all, many who would find such a man enticing, even with that dangerous edge to Kurogane’s sharp grin and he himself included.

(He is not thinking about dark eyes in Yama, or the weight of another’s hand on Kurogane’s shoulder as seen from the shadows between their tents; he is not thinking about how liquor had flowed around the campfires after every battle and how gambling or fighting were not the only past times in Yasha’s camp. He is not thinking of the firm but not unkind tone of Kurogane’s voice as he murmured a reply to a proposition overheard, a low rumble that had sped Fai’s pulse no matter that he had not understood the words. Some things were simple enough in any tongue, and he hadn’t needed the language of Yama to read intention in the gleam in the dark eyes of that soldier, or their open invitation.)

The latter theory makes the most sense; everything they had been told so far indicates that this is a festival of fruitfulness, of fertility and fecundity, and all that boils down to in the end is fucking, no matter how sweetly you dress it up. The power that rises from sex is the root of many forms of ritual, one of the oldest and most potent kinds of magic there is -the heat in one’s blood, to call up the sun after the long dark of winter; the seed in one’s loins, to bring forth the fruitfulness of the new year’s harvest- and it would be simple enough to understand if the bearers of this goddess-shrine were chosen for that and that alone.

But now, with just a quick glance, it is so obvious why Kurogane has been chosen to be a palanquin bearer; so obvious, so simple, enough that Fai has to laugh, startling Sakura and Syaoran both with the noise that breaks from his throat with shocking inelegance. From even this distance, it’s clear to see the other shrine-bearers are, one and all, tall dark men built powerfully and with broad shoulders besides: all the better to carry upon their backs the heavy footing of the palanquin’s base. It is only Kurogane’s strength and nothing more, and Fai a fool for overthinking.

“Why is Fai laughing?” Mokona’s voice, sweet and piping, rings clear over the heavy pounding of the drums as the procession approaches. “Is something funny?”

“No, Mokona-chan. Just a thought in passing, that’s all.” It’s easy to see she would ask for more for that, her small face crumpling in confusion, but for the heavy toll of a gong struck; the sound rings low and deep, a vibration in the ribs that echoes like a blow and steals one’s breath, and forestalls any question that might be asked.

“Oh!” gasps Sakura, hands clasped and eyes shining. “Listen!”

Again, that sound: sonorous and ringing clean through them, shuddering over the crowd like a wave cresting. Fai feels the power in each struck tone as it reverberates through stone and snow and the flesh and bone of the crowds of worshippers alike. Magic here, in the people venerating their god; old magic, powerful magic, the kind that could only be channelled by prayer and ritual, rising like a storm. And it is a storm, that pressure; pounding heavy in every breath, drawing an electric crackle over skin that tightens beneath it, irresistible and –most importantly– unstoppable as it rolls down over the crowd. All that is left to Fai is to ride it as it swells. Every scrap of power he possesses every wretched, cursed inch of it burns as though his ribs cage fire, breath tight and chest aching as he forces his magic back down to quiescence even as it struggles to break free, and for a moment he has to turn his gaze aside from the crowd, blinking furiously; the stinging tears that threaten to spill are not from the cold.

It takes a long, long moment to still the seething beneath his skin. And when he masters himself and turns back, the procession has curved around one final corner and the palanquin is borne up before them at last.

Even from a distance, the golden roof had blazed beneath lantern light –a small sun glowing brilliant on a cheerfully dark night– but now the reliquary is closer Fai can see the beautiful detail carved by worshipful hands into dark and lacquered wood. Symbols and sigils of this world’s faith are graven into shining pillars, gold-capped arches and standing gates forming a path that leads to a heavily-decorated verandah, purple and crimson ribbons and gorgeously woven ropes entwined proudly around silkily painted columns. Beyond the verandah rises a temple carved in perfect miniature from dark and glossy wood, with terraced roofing and doors open wide to the sacred altar within; incense smoke curls with sweet indolence through finely carved windows, spicing the air with its beguiling scent. The scale of it is apparent now; this close, Fai can see the shrine the bearers carry is nearly full-sized- too small for a man, perhaps, but certainly a fitting home for a magnificent spirit, and the thousands of bells that edge the roofing ring joyfully with every heavy step the shrine-bearers take, their wooden sandals clacking boldly against the stone beneath their feet.

The shrine sits atop a platform of red-lacquered wood, set with brass and silver and gold in plates pressed heavy into its footing; long polished beams capped with brass jut from the base like branches, lustrously smooth and yoked across the shoulders of a dozen tall men, and the gleam of sweat shines on skin with the same gloss of well-varnished wood. Faces flushing and strong backs bowed, they march as one in patterned steps, the thudding rhythm of their passage matching the drums brandished by the dancers that weave around them; their breathing comes in harsh and heaving grunts and pants beneath the ringing of the bells, the load they bear a heavy one, but there is joy in their eyes for all their teeth grit in effort.

One man among twelve stands out: taller and fiercer by far than his company, with cutting eyes unclouded by the eager zealotry of the men he marches besides. He draws Fai’s eye to him like a needle to a lodestone, irresistible in its unconscious force, and Fai can no more help the way his gaze rakes Kurogane over than he can calm the pounding of his heartbeat. The royal blue folds of a ceremonial short-coat flap open about Kurogane’s shoulders, brightly-dyed cotton emblazoned with white and gold trim, his chest bare beneath its pleats and his skin rippling with every flexing movement; a twisted cotton headband is a stark white contrast to his dark hair where it winds about his forehead, and his bare arms are cut thickly with muscle earnt in honest toil and killing skill as he shoulders his part of their heavy burden. His legs are just as powerful, each step weighted with purpose, and Kurogane’s bared thighs gleam beneath the scarlet ribbons tied high across them, the tiny bells that drip from red silk jingling with every footfall. Those delicate bells make music in the movement of the shrine-bearers, and Fai’s mouth is dry and his tongue a heavy weight to see a man who knows dangerous stealth mastered by the ringing cries of golden chimes. Worse still the tight-wound cloth of his loincloth, starched to snowy whiteness and leaving far too little to the imagination that races in Fai’s thoughts, chasing them away from decency and into territory he can’t bear to think about.

(He does. Oh, he does, and he will, and he will bear the guilt for it as harshly as the quaking lust that ties his gut in aching knots.)

It’s a stunning sight, and he cannot turn away even as his breath comes quick and his face flushes, hot against the chill air of the night and the barely-falling snow that drifts down in feathery flakes. The crowd is cheering and the noise and the pressure and the spectacle of it all is nearly deafening but for the steady pounding of the drummers, all other sound lost beneath the rhythmic pulse of his heart as it matches that hammering beat and leaves his chest shuddering beneath the weight of it. The shrine is so close now, close enough that all its splendid detail is nearly blinding, but it’s not the sacred reliquary that has his attention.

“Fai-san?”

The palanquin draws near upon the shoulders of the men who lift it, moving at a steady pace for so weighty a burden, and it passes by so close that Fai can hear the chanting of its bearers, and the bells that chime along with each step in their passage- but one man is silent, his teeth bare as he heaves beneath his share of the heavy load. Kurogane’s eyes are fierce, his brow dappled with sweat that soaks his headband and drips down the bridge of his nose; his breath is hard and harsh, his head unbowed and posture tall and strong, each step confident as though this were a task he were born to and not a chore heaped upon him by the providence of this world they are all strangers to.

“Fai-san?”

How he can be seen as one amongst many, lost in the thronging crowd that presses up against the dancers and drummers and banner-bearers that lead the way before the palanquin Fai will never know, but Kurogane looks up all the same, casting his cutting gaze far and wide- and it catches Fai as he stares in open amazement. He can’t look away when Kurogane’s gaze hooks him in, and he does not dare to try.

“Fai-san!”

It’s Sakura’s voice that breaks him from his captured daze and forces him to startle; it only takes a blink to tear himself away from Kurogane, but his heart is pounding still when looks away at last. “Princess?” he says, only a little breathless, and he has to wet his lips against the dryness of his mouth. “What is it? What’s wrong?” Sakura looks up at him, and while she’s not… worried, exactly, to look at her young face, there’s something soft in green eyes that Fai does not understand.

“Fai was staring,” says Mokona, atop Syaoran’s shoulder, and that she had left Fai and travelled to the boy without his notice speaks volumes of his distraction. “Fai stopped talking when the shrine came close and went really, really still. Fai was like a statue!”

“Are you alright?” It’s Syaoran who speaks now, and if Fai were a younger man he would be embarrassed to worry all the children so with his blatant distraction- but as it is, he can barely keep his thoughts in order, and the earnest and well-meaning concern that looks up at him through Syaoran’s warm eyes is not what he needs right now.

“I’m fine,” says Fai brightly, and more firmly than he should. The bells are still ringing, the bearers still chanting, and the drums are pounding above it all; only the throb of his own heartbeat is louder in his ears. “I’m fine, Syaoran-kun, Sakura-chan, Mokona-chan. Just a little awed by the spectacle, that’s all.”

“Have you never… seen a festival like this one?” asks Syaoran gently, after a long pause. “They can be a little overwhelming with all the noise and activity if you’re not used to them. Do you want to go back to the house?”

“I can honestly say I have never seen a festival like this one, Syaoran-kun,” says Fai, and it isn’t even a lie. “But please, don’t think we should have to leave just for my sake. I want you both to enjoy yourselves. There’s so much to see, and I don’t want you to miss any of it.” The noise is ebbing from its ringing crescendo now, a tide receding as the procession passes their viewing point and continues along its stately path, and below them the crowd has started to move once more as the masses follow the path the procession takes towards the temple on the hill. It’s not far from here, Fai can see, and lit by lanterns all the way, colourful bunting and banners fluttering cheerfully in the wind; surely the festivities will continue there once the shrine reaches its final destination, and Kurogane will be free of his obligations as one of its bearers.

Sakura smiles at him, her eyes bright and soft. “I hope you can enjoy yourself too, Fai-san. We all do.”

Fai has to smile at that. I don’t think I can, not tonight. “I always do, Princess.” He sweeps a bow then, mostly as a distraction but also a little to see her giggle, and Mokona claps her tiny paws together, her ribbon wreath fluttering about as she hops from Syaoran’s shoulder to Sakura’s arms. “Please. Let’s not worry about me, hm? A little noise and a big crowd is not too much to handle for experienced travelers such as us,” and the tease in his voice does its work; Sakura laughs brightly now, and Syaoran grins as Mokona chimes her enthusiastic agreement.

“Alright, Fai-san. But if we head along to the festival and it gets to be too much, please don’t feel like you have to stay just for us, alright?” Sakura’s smile is many things, all of them kind. “I’m sure Moko-chan and I can take care of Syaoran-kun by ourselves,” she finishes sweetly, making the boy laugh a protest even as Mokona cheers.

“Let’s go together!” says Mokona, wriggling happily in Sakura’s arms. “Let’s go to the temple and find Kuro-puu and we can all go to the festival together!”

Fai’s heart, slowly starting to settle now that the procession has moved on, gives a single, panicked thud. “Yes,” he says brightly, and the cheer in his voice tastes bitter on his tongue. “Let’s.”

The children are still laughing and talking, still bright with happiness when they join back into the edges of the crowd, and though the townsfolk are not so closely packed together on the fringes of the procession, there are still enough people that the noise is a distraction from Fai’s silence. He can’t do much more than smile for them, not really; not when he catches sight of the temple that glows above the festival as it spills out onto the winding streets in all its glory, and the dancing and drumming alone isn’t enough to clear his mind of the thoughts that refuse to quiet. Even though he played it off earlier, it is too easy to pretend discomfort from the sheer scale of the festivities ringing the brightly lit grounds to take his leave of the children, Sakura’s smile kind and gentle as she pats him warmly on the arm.

“It looks like the shrine-bearers have started to come back now,” she says, in between Mokona stealing delicate bites of her sugared dumplings, steaming and skewered on a thin wooden spike. “I saw a few by the stand selling sweets we stopped at just around the corner.” The same one Mokona had nearly eaten out of samples; Fai remembers, the stark blue-and-white coats standing out like a blazon even against the brightly dressed crowds and catching his eye. “Why don’t you go and find Kurogane-san?” continues the princess, even as Syaoran nods. “He was working very hard before and is probably tired- I don’t think he’ll want to walk around with us all night.”

“We’ll be just fine on our own,” says Syaoran firmly. “I promise the princess will be safe with me.”

He should protest, perhaps, but he doesn’t. “Stay together,” says Fai. “And stay with the crowd.” Promises are made to reunite at the end of the night at their lodgings, and any more advice he can give is waved off by Sakura’s bright smile as she bids him to go. It’s not long before Fai is on the other side of the festival grounds all together, skirting behind the stalls to find the quietest path up the hill to the temple proper. No one stops him, or questions his presence; when he does cross the path of another shrine-bearer, that distinctive coat marking him from his laughing fellows, the man gives him the directions he asks for without any hesitation, and with a bright and happy grin besides. Evidently, Kurogane’s presence is singular no matter what the man does, and he really shouldn’t be surprised the other shrine-bearers had taken notice.

Fai leaves the crowd behind for the far reaches of the temple grounds, atop the hill and down its other side into the shadows once more. The slate-tiled rooves that stretch out before him are dark and gilded with moonlight that far outstrips the glow of the tall stone lanterns that line the pathway in brightness. The full moon hangs pale and heavy where the clouds have broken, spilling silver light down across the snowy roofs of the courtyard and the frosted fountains therein, leaving the shadows beneath the eaves to pool dark and velvet-heavy; in the quiet that falls here, the festivities below feel more like a dream in passing, fading the further Fai travels from their light and colour.

It’s more than enough to see by even so, and Fai’s steps are steady on the speckled gravel, melting snow and chips of stone crunching softly under his wooden sandals. The sound echoes a little; enough warning that he is coming that Kurogane could not possibly be surprised by his appearance, even if the man weren’t possessed of preternaturally sharp senses besides. (He had wondered, before, if it were magic that Kurogane always seems to know his surrounds, is never caught off guard by an enemy approaching; Fai knows better now, knows it for the sheer skill and trained paranoia of a warrior’s senses honed to weaponry in every way.)

Tall trees rustle gently in the breeze as he passes by them, the wind stronger here than below at the festival, and takes the latest twist of the winding path he follows, heading towards the largest fountain as he was directed. His breath huffs as clouds of warm vapour as he turns into the breeze, cool fingers tickling through his hair and tossing strands of it into his eyes; without thinking, Fai raises his hand to clear his gaze, and almost walks straight into an ornately carved pillar that looms around a corner he turns, catching sight of broad shoulders and dark hair touched by moonlight as he finds Kurogane at last, some small distance away. He stands by a fountain, barefoot on cold chips of stone with hands on his thighs and fingers working at scraps of red silk turned scarlet in the darkness, and before Fai’s eyes Kurogane shucks his ceremonial short-coat free and tosses it carelessly over a nearby railing that delineates path from well-tended garden.

He’s still wearing the loincloth. Is only wearing the loincloth now that his coat is gone, and the ribbons from his thighs untied with the soft chiming of tiny bells; and though all Fai can see of Kurogane is his back –broad and muscled and bare to the cold of the night air- it is enough to know who stands before him with certainty. (He would know this man from any sight at any distance.) Fai’s softly crunching footsteps slow to an uncertain stop on the gravel path, his hand falling back to his side. Kurogane knows he is here, must know he is here; Fai has not tried to conceal his presence in any way (liar; if that were so, why did he not call out in greeting?) and yet the man who stands some distance away gives no sign of having seen Fai at all.

Kurogane turns with slow thoughtfulness towards the frozen fountain, reaches out to rap at the thin ice with the bare knuckles of one hand- and then breaks the frost asunder beneath the weight of the large wooden bucket he tosses into the wide, stone-lipped basin at its base. Wood crashes through ice with a crackling crunch, water slopping up and over the basin’s edge to spill over into the drain beneath, and Kurogane drags the pail out, heedless of the water that overflows down its wooden paneling. It splashes to the ground at his feet in a frosty rush from which cool vapour rises, climbing up bare legs in creeping tendrils of fog.

He must be freezing, thinks Fai. He is still staring, still not moving at all.

With both hands curled around the barrel of the bucket, Kurogane lifts it up. Water splatters in fat heavy droplets as he raises it over his head, and then crashes down in an icy torrent as he upends the pail completely. It hits his head first, his shoulders, his chest; pouring in clear and freezing streams over bare skin to soak through the sparse pale cloth wrapped around his hips and between his thighs, and splashing down at last to the frosted ground below.

Distantly, Fai feels himself gasp; feels the breath knife out of his chest in a soundless burst and his belly tighten helplessly.

Kurogane shudders once, violently, his whole body shaking; he whips his head from side to side to shake the droplets free from dark hair in a splattering arc, and huffs a choked breath as the bucket plunges back into the basin. Again, he hauls it out; again, he pours it over himself, another drenching in water that must be unbearable as it crashes over warm, bare skin in steaming splashes. The gravel beneath his feet should surely be icy slurry, sharp and cold and wet, but Kurogane does nothing more than stamp his feet, does nothing more than shiver heavily, the bucket filled for a third time by steady hands that do not shake and emptied over himself once more in a freezing torrent.

This time, Fai takes a step forward, and then another; his sandals crunch loudly over frozen gravel, the sound ringing through the temple grounds. Unable to stop himself, he opens his mouth to speak- but makes nothing more than some strangled sound as the pail, empty now, hits the ground where Kurogane throws it carelessly down, bouncing on the gravel with a wooden clatter. Slowly he turns to face Fai, and his expression is not one Fai can understand.

“I wondered when you were going to say something.” Even if he is shivering, shaking beneath the sheer cold of the water that drips from every inch of him, Kurogane’s voice is flat and steady, as stony and hard as the half-frozen ground beneath their feet. “You’ve been watching me long enough.”

Something hot and twisting snakes into Fai’s belly, something like shame- except shame never had an edge like hunger, never caught tight in his chest like this. (Shame never made him want.) He flushes, heat creeping up his throat in a tight wave and kindling a burn in his face that leaves his cheeks glowing. “Ah. I- I did not mean to-” Fai swallows. “I would not have- have-”

“Liar,” says Kurogane bluntly. His teeth do not chatter, but the chill of the air makes itself known across his body all the same, a shiver tightening his steaming skin. He shakes his head again, scattering water from dark, dripping hair, and brings one hand up to shove stray strands back from his eyes, combing through it roughly with his fingers. “I knew you were there, mage. You’re not as quiet as you think you are.”

Fai laughs a little, the sound rough and unsure, because he honestly cannot think of anything to say; he was watching was staring, helpless to look away, and there is no excuse for it. “Isn’t it too cold for an outdoor bath, Kuro-rin?” he manages at last, his voice rough and throaty. Even to his own ears, it sounds weak.

Kurogane sighs, the sound long-suffering. “Not doing this because I want to, idiot. Doing it because I have to.” At Fai’s blank stare he elaborates a little, folding his arms; the heavy muscle of his biceps rolls with the motion, a flexion that travels up thick arms to the broad span of his shoulders and the water that drip, drip, drips in icy droplets from his hair to roll heavy down the slope of his throat. “Purification, mage. This is holy water. Gotta get clean before I leave the temple. These gods aren’t mine, but that’s no reason to make them mad- I’ve got enough to deal with without pissing off strange gods.” The scowl suggests that this should be obvious, that Fai should know this already, and without meaning to Fai thinks back to Yasha’s army: to moonlit battlefields and the tears of blood once wept by stone, Kurogane throwing coins and lighting incense for the shrines in Yama out of duty and ingrained ritual rather than belief.

“You left the kids,” says Kurogane suddenly, flat and disapproving.

Fai startles at the change of subject. “Syaoran-kun can care for the princess and Mokona-chan on his own,” he counters, the words tripping quick off his tongue before he can think better of them. “The procession was crowded, yes, but there is no malice in the crowd tonight- and if there is any trouble, Sakura-chan will be protected well enough.”

“It’s not the princess I’m worried about,” comes the half-voiced mutter, but then Kurogane turns the full force of his disapproval on Fai once more, the fall of his gaze cutting. “Why are you here?”

Fai has a quick tongue, silver-tipped and sharp; it has never been hard to lie, or laugh, or twist truths together until they become nothing but meaningless air, their meaning forgotten. But words are like stones now, heavy where they roll behind his teeth, and he cannot speak. “I…” His heartbeat drums in his ears, almost frantic. I wanted to find you to lead you back to our lodgings. No; Kurogane is not so easily lost in even a strange, new place. He can find his own way, and has no need for a guiding hand. The children were wondering where you were. Better, but no; Kurogane already knows the children are occupied with the festivities, and if they were worried so, why would they not be here with Fai? I wanted to ask you about the procession. Ask him what, exactly? He witnessed it himself, and for all its stately grandeur it was fairly simple in its path. I wanted to see you. No. No. Anything but that.

“I don’t know.” It isn’t what Fai wants to say, not by any measure, but it is the truth, no matter how unwilling; and the words pry open his teeth and spill out in a fogging breath before he has the chance to bite them back.

Kurogane takes a step closer. “I do.” He takes another, and another, and Fai mirrors him; walks forward in softly crunching steps on crisply-iced gravel, though he cannot say why.

There is no wall behind Fai to block his escape, nothing that prevents him from finding again the distance that closes with the three steps they each take –they are less than an arms-width apart now, close enough to touch, close enough that he can count the drops of chill water that bead on Kurogane’s skin like stars- but he makes no movement to yield it up once more. His mouth is dry, his lips chapped; the cool night air cuts cleanly down his throat when he takes a staggering breath. “Why, then?” he asks, and cannot help his sincerity. Tell me. Tell me what you understand and I do not. Tell me.

“You’re not subtle,” says Kurogane quietly, in a voice that Fai has never heard from him before. He takes another step; sighs a soft cloud of fogging vapour, blurring against the plume of Fai’s own breath as Kurogane closes the distance between them. “You’re not a good liar, either. Your eyes give the game away.”

Fai swallows back something that could have been a desperate laugh, bubbling up in his throat. “I’m not playing games, Kuro-tan,” he blurts out, looks away without thinking can’t hold himself still beneath the sharp cut of red eyes; finds his gaze trailing over the breadth of Kurogane’s shoulders and the water that falls in trickling droplets down, down. His face burns, a flush of equal parts arousal and shame, and the words stutter between his teeth. “The cold must really be getting to you if you think so, though I can’t say I’m surprised with how little you’re wear-”

“Still lying,” says Kurogane bluntly, and Fai almost bites his tongue. “Look me in the eye. If you can.”

He can’t. He can’t. If he does, Kurogane will know. He already suspects something, that much is clear; has for some time, most likely, and more fool Fai for believing it would be so easy to throw a veil over those sharp eyes. But what else can he do? Denial is incriminating, and it’s too late to play the fool. Kurogane is too close, has seen too much and knows him far better than Fai ever intended for him to.

You weren’t supposed to want to get close to me at all, Kuro-sama.

Fai takes a slow breath, feels it shudder between his ribs and swell in his chest. It’s more difficult than it should be, to lift his chin and tip his face up; to keep himself steady when there’s something in him that wants to shake to pieces. But he cannot, will not back down, and if this is a challenge then he’ll rise to meet it. “Well?” says Fai, between his teeth, and his smile is anything but friendly. “You make it sound like it should be hard, Kuro-rin. Like you’re so scary I can’t bear to look.” This time he really does laugh, and it’s so bitter he can almost taste it. “You don’t frighten me.”

“Good.” Kurogane chuckles, soft and dark and too much like it was in Yama, the two of them alone with black eyes and killing grins and too many hours spent drinking in the shadows of a too-small tent. Too dangerous to even think about Yama; he needs to stop. “Never said I wanted to. Besides, you’ve been doing nothing but look, mage, ever since we first met in that witch’s yard. I told you, you’re not subtle,” he repeats, and Fai’s chest squeezes at the rumble of his voice as it falls to something low and terribly intimate. “Did you really think,” says Kurogane, and takes another step (too close, now; too close to be anything like safe as if this man was ever safe in the first place) so that Fai has to tilt his head back further just to keep his eyes on Kurogane’s face, “I didn’t notice?”

His eyes are heavy-lidded, hot and heavy where that gaze falls, and Fai’s breath quickens in spite of himself. And it is in spite, this wanting; not something he would ever feel if he could help it, not something he cares to know. This man is his enemy, and he has already forgotten that if he can let himself shudder against the twisting in his belly, the tightness of his heaving ribs. Kurogane takes one last step –far too close now but he could be closer, closer- and Fai locks his knees, his hands trembling into fists. Fight or flight, and he can do neither. Fight or flight, and he’s already beaten before he made a move, already caught before he tried to run.

“I know what you want,” says Kurogane, and he’s so close Fai can feel the heat rising from bare, wet skin.

“Go on then,” says Fai, bold as brass. It feels as though the words are not his own, as though they come from some stranger living in his skin: a challenge from a man who is braver and wilder and more daring than Fai could ever hope to be. A better man than Fai (who can count lies and betrayal and murder as not the least of his sins), the kind of man Fai would only dream of being in a world that had not cursed him from his very birth. A man like Kurogane himself, in fact, who says what he means and takes what he wants, and damn the consequences.

But this is not your world, is the whisper of a thought, and if merely thinking it is a trap, then he’s already sprung the snare and caught beyond a prayer of freedom. You left your world behind, and everything you were forgotten in your wake. This man knows nothing of who you are and what you must do; you could tell him anything and he would believe you, you could be anyone and he would not know otherwise. It’s tempting. Oh stars above, it is tempting. “You know so much of what I want, then you tell me.”

Coward,” laughs Kurogane, and it almost doesn’t sting; the warmth in that voice almost enough to blunt its sharp edges, even as they cut into vulnerable places. “You bastard. Even now, even this close you’ll pretend you don’t give a damn.” He shakes his head slowly, incredulous, scattering water from his hair and his shoulders heaving in disgust. A stray droplet hits Fai’s cheek, a cool kiss that slides over flushed skin, trails down to the swell of his lip, wets the corner of his mouth; without thinking, his tongue darts out to catch it. “Men like you, I hate the most.”

He hates me. Of course he hates me. “I know,” says Fai, and it’s almost a relief to say it out loud. Something giddy spirals through his chest as a weight lifts from his ribs, the next breath bittersweet and sharp as it swirls down his throat. This is what he wanted, after all, and he should feel nothing but satisfaction in its confirmation. It hurts. “Kuro-sama has made it very clear how he feels about me-”

“I said men like you,” and the hand fisted in his robe is a shock, a blow to the belly that knocks his breath loose and scatters his thoughts like starlight, bright pinpricks shattered across the dark. Fai is left gasping as the easy strength of the grip Kurogane takes drags him forward a scarce inch, his sandals skittering on icy gravel and his whole body trembling. Brightly dyed silk tangles in strong dark fingers, fine cloth crumpled and straining taut across Fai’s heaving chest as Kurogane reels him in, brings him close. “Men like you,” repeats Kurogane, growling through his teeth. His eyes are sharp and pierce Fai cleanly through. “Not you. Gods help me, but not you.”

His heartbeat slams the denial against his ribcage in panicked drumbeats. No, no, no! “You can’t-” Not this. How dare you. “Kuro-sama mustn’t-”

His teeth chatter as Kurogane tugs him closer, breath huffing from between his lips in a cloud of white. Fai stumbles forward, tripping on his own shock, and one foot slips from his sandal to leave it behind, water soaking through his sock as he lands in a puddle and his toes twitch in shock against the sharpness of the gravel even through cloth. “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do,” murmurs Kurogane, dangerously soft, and Fai swallows in a heady, dizzying rush of gulped down air. The grip on his robes tightens as Kurogane tugs on him, just a little, just once; it brings him up onto his tiptoes and Fai gasps, the sound helpless and uncontrolled, as that gaze catches and pins his own. Before he can think better of it he wraps his shaking hands around a thick forearm in a desperate grab for balance, his fingertips slipping on wet skin and the muscle that flexes strong and sure beneath his grip. It’s a mistake; he knows it as soon as his fingers curl around the firm definition of hard muscle and hot skin. Even with the chill that beads his skin in icy droplets, Kurogane feels so warm, and Fai, Fai wants to wrap himself around that warmth, to sink down into its depths like a stone through water, never to rise again.

He wants more. “Kuro-sama.” Fai grinds it out, throat tight, hands trembling. Let me go. Let me go. He can’t say it.

“Tell me you don’t want me,” says Kurogane, with slow and terrible gravity. “Tell me that and mean it- and I won’t push you again.” The words are honest and all the more brutal for it; Fai knows that Kurogane takes no vow lightly, swears only truth. A promise made by this man is not one that will ever be broken. “If you can tell me you don’t want this, I’ll leave you be,” he says, not ungently, and there is something like resignation that dulls the cutting fall of those fierce eyes. “I’ll let you keep your mask, no matter how badly it fits.”

“I don’t.” Fai’s breath shudders in his lungs, stutters on his lips. His hands flutter at Kurogane’s wrist, heat pulsing at his fingertips. “I don’t.” He can’t say it. He can’t. It’s a lie, like every other one he has spoken –and sometimes it is so hard to remember what is truth and what isn’t, which parts of his soul have been exposed and left to flinch beneath the hard light of day and which parts of him rot in the dark still– and it should be easy but it isn’t. “I, I don’t.” Fai knows what he wants and Fai knows what he cannot have and Fai knows what he needs to say, but the words stick to his teeth, catch barbed and stinging on his tongue. I don’t want this. I don’t want this.

(He wants this. Very, very much.)

Tell me,” demands Kurogane, and there is an edge in his voice, something that Fai has not heard before: sharp and almost helpless in its urgency. That fist tightens where it knots in Fai’s robe, silk squealing in the grip of callused fingers. Fai sways forward, the movement unsteady and unconsciously done, and in spite of everything –everything he knows must come, everything he knows this cannot be– his hand slips, slides slowly up Kurogane’s arm to slam heavy against his chest, and beneath his palm Kurogane’s skin is hot and firm and endlessly tempting.

Kurogane hisses, slow and thin and strained, and Fai’s fingers curl tight, scraping fingernails against the damp skin and hot muscle that heaves against his fingers, that powerful chest surging into his touch; Kurogane’s heartbeat leaps, a pounding weight against the palm of his hand that says Fai is not the only one who struggles with control here. Fai wets his lips, mouth dry and hot and his throat tight, but the blood rushing in his ears drowns out his surging panic that you can’t do this, you can’t, you mustn’t, don’t. “Kuro-sama.” The name is like a weapon, like a lash, and Kurogane’s eyes are dark and hot beneath the weight of it when Fai takes that last dragging step closer, gravel scraping cold and frozen underfoot as the space between them comes to nothing, the closeness of their bodies bleeding through the cold air and layers of silk like heat from a forge stoked to burning. Kurogane’s hand leaves his robe, untangling in a quick and jolting motion startling in its clumsiness; rough fingers find his wrist, slide over the palm pressed flat over Kurogane’s heart to hold it there –gently, oh, gently, and if this is a trap it is the best kind– and Fai sighs out a breath that could be “I can’t.”

“Can’t say no?” asks Kurogane roughly. “Or can’t say yes?”

It is terrifying, how much this man understands of him from the little he has given up.

Fai grits his teeth, and it’s like swallowing stone, forcing down the desperation that claws up his throat (say yes say yes say yes) but he drags in a breath to press it back– and almost loses it again with a shuddering gasp, sucking in air in a greedy startled gulp as Kurogane leans close, closer, dark hair wet and cool where it brushes Fai’s cheek and his breath so hot on Fai’s ear. “You have to make a choice, here,” is the low murmur, his hand trapped against the hard planes of Kurogane’s chest and the heartbeat that thunders against his palm. “I can’t read your mind, mage.”

His eyes close briefly, lashes fluttering shut as the heat of those words pulse through him. It’s dizzying and so wonderful he can barely stand it. “And thank the stars for that,” Fai whispers.

The laughter startles in him in its intimacy, so bitter and soft and dark, and now he really cannot breathe as Kurogane’s lips brush against his skin as he speaks, the words almost lost in the static blur of Fai’s unravelling thoughts but for their magnitude and the fluttering urgency of his treacherous heart as it pounds against the cage of his ribs. “One day,” says this man, this most dangerous man,  “I’m going to find out what you’re running from.” His hand lifts from Fai’s, so that the only thing holding it to the warmth of Kurogane’s breast is his own desire. “And maybe, just maybe, you’ll let me help you fight it.”

I can’t help you fight myself trembles on his tongue, the fear and the wanting a hot-cold tangle in his belly that makes his knees weak in the face of it, but Fai holds his teeth shut and traps it behind his lips, and makes no sound at all as Kurogane draws away at last.  The cold night air rushes in between them to fill the heated space where once he was so close, and a shiver breaks across Fai’s skin like water on stone.

“Get out of here,” says Kurogane gruffly, turning aside so that Fai cannot see his face in the shadow that falls across it; can only see his back, broad and straight and strong as he looks towards the temple and the lantern lights warm in the distance. “Go back to the house, if you can’t bear to brave the crowds- I’ll find the kids. I don’t want to see you again until morning.”

Fai doesn’t flinch from the rejection, as sudden as it is; it’s what he wants, after all, and Kurogane has given it to him with barely any effort on his part. (It is the only thing of what he wants that he can have, and he is so ungrateful for it.) “Wrap up warm once you’re done, Kuro-sama,” he says, instead of anything else, and takes a firm step back to replace his lost sandal. If his smiles are thin then this one is a paring blade, cutting his own lips as they stretch wide and he forces his voice to cheerfulness. “You’ll catch a chill if you stand around like that all night.”

No answer to that –not that he expected one– and silence follows him back in his long walk away from the temple, broken only by the soft crunch of frozen gravel underfoot.

Chapter Text

“Your hair is getting longer, Fai-san,” says the princess quietly. She’s arranging hairpins across the flat of the low table, brass and copper gleaming on glossy dark wood, her small fingers tying them together with ribbon and making them ready to be sold at the markets. “Would you like me to help you cut it?” She has before, in the world where they found rooms above a haberdashery and the children jobs as paper-sellers; he and Kurogane had found employment in the bakery and the sawmill, respectively, and the health and hygiene codes meant that Fai’s hair, then collar length, had needed to be trimmed back to fit under his snug cap.

(She had been nervous, fingers trembling upon her scissors, but Kurogane had grouched aloud that she couldn’t possibly do a worse job than Fai himself considering he looked like a mop, at which point they’d gotten into a play-fight about whose hair, exactly, it was that resembled the bristles of a tarred brush and then Syaoran had gotten caught in the crossfire in his stuttering attempts at forestalling violence and ended up as Sakura’s practice dummy. The children had both blushed so hard Fai had earnestly wondered which one would faint first, and Mokona had sung lovey-lovey ditties while bouncing around, and Kurogane had made that tch sound that meant he found something endearing but could not possibly bear to break character enough to admit it; but somehow they all survived and he still ended up getting a decent trim out of the chaos.)

“No, princess,” says Fai slowly. “But thank you for the offer.” The longer his hair, the easier it is to sweep his fringe over the starkness of his eyepatch, softening the harsh black lines he sees in the mirror each morning when he ties it back in place. He can’t bear to look and see what lies underneath, not yet, not yet, maybe never. White, perhaps, would have been a kinder choice for the tone of his skin — black leaves him sallow, corpse-pale and ghostly; all the more reason for his own reflection to sicken him — but black is what he has and black is what he is, dark in places he swore no light would ever touch, and he deserves nothing of kindness, no matter how small.

He needs to remember that: he has been a fool to forget. He will not be one again.

“A ribbon, then?” she says gently. “To tie it back?” There are bruises under her eyes, purpled and sickly. The princess sleeps so little now, and is so exhausted for it, but it is not his place to lecture her for her nightmares when he has his own to deal with.

Fai lifts his hand; touches carefully the frayed edges of his collar, the soft curl of his hair just barely brushing cloth. Beneath his fingertips it feels like straw, the tips still damaged from rain that burned. “Soon, I think. Not yet.” It’s the only concession he can give. Silence falls again, worn and ill-fitting, and where before there might have been laughter to fill it, now there is only the heavy ticking of the clock, a dull tonal accounting of time passing with painful slowness as the afternoon sunlight creeps in slats across the dusty floor. Sakura continues to tie hairpins, and Fai goes back to his leather work, punching the needle through the edges of his pouch with more force than is truly needful.

“Fai-san,” says Sakura, after a while, and her gaze is heavy. Before, Fai thinks, she would not have held his eye so firmly; would have been bashful to demand his attention so. But many things were before, and he has no space to keep them now in his new determination, and nor does she: the both of them pared down so thin beneath the weight of their choices that only the sharpness of their bones remains.

“Yes, princess?” The smile comes easy. It’s the only thing that does, these days.

“You can’t avoid Kurogane-san forever.”

Oh, I beg to differ. It is very hard to ignore Kurogane when he does not wish to be ignored, Fai has come to realise — but Fai is the master of pretending things are fine when they are so clearly not, and even under this interrogation it is easy enough to keep his smile in place as the sickening double-beat of his pulse pounds in his empty eye socket. He has had considerable practice smiling even when he would rather scream not, after all. “I think you’ll find, Sakura-chan, that it is Kurogane-san that wishes to avoid me.”

It’s not easy, in a house this small; two bedrooms only, a small lounge with a hearth and dining table, and a kitchen the size of a broom-closet. It’s not easy, with the weight of the changes to his body, to his nature: he can taste Kurogane on the edge of every breath, the beating of his prey’s steady pulse a pressure inside his skull, a flutter on his tongue that urges him to bite, to drink take him claim him make him yours with a clawing thirst that drives him to distraction. He masters it, as he has always mastered the need for things he cannot have. Fai is no stranger to starvation, besides.

(He cannot die of hunger, or thirst, or deprivation; he can wither until he is merely bones and ragged breath, wreathed in tattered ropes of hair and wrapped in drum-taut skin that cracks and splits with the smallest of movement – but it is not enough to kill him. To be denied what he wants, to be denied what is needful, is not enough. This, this he has learned.)

“He wanted you to live.” Sakura’s voice is quiet and small, her fingertips shaking across the hairpins. “We all did.”

And I wanted to die, and he took that choice from me.

“We don’t always get what we want, princess.” It’s a cruel thing to say, but then Fai is a cruel man and she does not flinch. Her eyes are as wet and sad as seafoam, so gentle when they rest on his face. Forgiveness, there, soft and kind and everything he does not deserve. (It’s unbearable.) Fai lays down his half-finished pouch — he’s made almost thirty of them today, ready to sell at the markets tomorrow — and stands, old bones creaking, and for a moment the world spins in a blur of bleached-out colour, black spots flashing before his eyes — his eye. His eye, singular, and his fingers tremble with the need to touch the cloth that cuts the scope of his gaze in half. “It’s getting on in the day. Mokona-chan and everyone will be home soon; I should prepare for dinner.”

He’s still a little unsteady on his feet, a few weeks on. There is still grace in him, he knows, and the vampire agility he has inherited makes his footfalls airy and light, but his skull rattles when he walks and nausea surfs beneath his tongue when he bends down from the emptiness of his belly. It makes chores difficult. Fai does not complain. To complain would be to admit hunger and he is not — he is not ready for that yet.

“If you don’t ask him,” says Sakura gently, head bowed and fingers steady at her work, “he’s going to make you.” She’s not lying — is quite possibly the only person in this room who never lies — and it’s a confrontation Fai knows is coming; he can feel the rage that surges in Kurogane’s bones, smell it in the dizzying flush of chemicals that roar beneath his skin whenever they are alone together, taste it in the hot shallow breaths he scrapes through his teeth whenever his prey is near. Sooner or later, he will have no choice but to feed, and it is quite clear that Kurogane himself is angling for sooner where Fai would prefer later, never.

“Possibly.” At this point denial is the only weapon he has. “I will not make it easy, princess. I can’t.” The last slips out where he meant to keep it trapped, and for a moment Fai stills, half-bent over the dull metal of the kitchen sink with shaking hands pressed flat against the bench.

“You could,” says Sakura, looking up. He can’t look back.

I can’t,” he says again, hissing the words painfully, and it’s then that the door rattles and swings open in the entrance hall, gusting cold air into the room and the heavy stamping of boots along with it. “Welcome home,” says Fai loudly, if not as cheerfully as he might have once. “Syaoran-kun, Mokona-chan.” A deep breath that tastes, so faintly, of snow. “Kurogane.”

The wet clumping of ice scraped from oil-slick leather cloaks is a symphony of its own, loud in the silence — Fai knows better than to expect an answer, or any kind of chivalry at all. One can only get what one gives, and Fai has nothing but the dregs of manner left to him these days. Syaoran-kun — that is to say, the boy who replaced Syaoran-kun — musters what little grace he can and murmurs a greeting, young voice soft and worn. The heavy clank of the door closing cuts the chill from the air almost immediately, the rattling breeze dying with it, and Fai’s fingernails bite into the steel of the sink when Kurogane speaks at last.

“We sold extra wood today — cleared a few snowbanks in the village.” The small clink of coin on coin, and a leathery whump as a purse lands heavy on the table. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep us fed.”

The princess’ exclamation of joy is echoed by Mokona, a cheerful bubble bursting in the room beyond the kitchen, but that warmth is only a thin veneer over the ice-deep cracks that run beneath. The weariness in Kurogane’s voice suggests many hours of hard labour for that pittance, and the winter this world endures is harsh: Fai knows better than most how little coin can buy when the deep cold comes to call. Still, at least there are only four mouths to feed now — a dead man has no need to share a warm meal, after all.

“That’s wonderful,” says Sakura warmly, and Fai forces his smile up onto his face once more, teeth grit behind his lips and the hot, empty hollow of the hole in his head burning behind its cloth covering as he walks, a sudden stabbing throb that pierces deep into the dark tissue of his brain with the rhythm of each careless step. By Gehenna’s bloody depths, but it hurts — sickeningly so, agony splintering upon agony as a red-black pulse that spiders like lightning across the inside of his skull. It’s almost too much to breathe through, almost too much to bear entirely — and this from someone who has scraped his fingers down to stubs of bloody bone. Pain is an old, old friend to Fai after all.

“Yes,” Fai says, voice steady and not at all breathless. He very pointedly does not look Kurogane in the eye as he leaves the sanctuary of the kitchen for the small living space. It would not do not to greet the returning members of their sorry little band improperly. “Well done. We can always count on you to work hard, Kurogane.”

The first few times Fai said his name, Kurogane would flinch: an aborted, helpless twitch of movement mostly in the taut skin around his eyes and the flutter of muscle in the sharp angle of his jaw. A hurt that could not be hidden, no matter how determined the man himself might have been to make it so. Now, though, he suffers it as silently as a dog beaten down into fearful obedience would — with the dull endurance of a creature that knows this blow will not be the last to fall, and that to show weakness in the face of pain is to only guarantee the delivery of more. If Fai were crueller than he is a coward, he might find a victory in that, satisfaction in how easy it was to break him; but Fai has never liked those kinds of games and the one he plays now is a mercy more than anything else.

As painful as it is, better he drives the wedge in deep rather than leave the poor bastard to hope for anything like forgiveness.

“Now,” says Fai, and claps his hands with the brisk blitheness of the fool he truly is, “the kettle and the basin are by the hearth — warm water to wash your hands and faces, and a towel for after. Your meal won’t be long now, but good manners must come first.”

“We have to be polite,” agrees Mokona, bouncing up onto the tabletop, but even her usual chirp is muted, not nearly as bright as it would have been once. “Clean hands at the table!”

Sakura bundles up their days work as Fai slinks back to the kitchen, and there is no conversation to temper the ringing silence that falls in his wake; Fai fancies he can hear each drop of water as it falls into the copper basin, each breath the boy shivers out as he warms numb fingers in the still-steaming patter as the kettle is poured, and the delicate clatter of thin hairpins across scratched and coarse wood is a background symphony to the rough burr of Kurogane’s voice as he warns against frostbite. Perhaps there will be coin spare in their communal purse for gloves — the boy is a stranger and they can little afford it, but even with the distance he must now maintain it sits ill with Fai to let the child suffer any more than he must. Better, perhaps, to broach the idea to Kurogane in an aside — as much as this Syaoran is different from the Syaoran that came before, it’s just as clear that Kurogane would take the boy beneath his wing all the same.

The meal he has prepared is a humble one, at least compared to some of the fare their travels have spread before them, but filling all the same: simple soup simmered on the fire the whole day long, dark and coarse-grained bread still in its wax-paper wrapping, even a little sweet porridge with dried fruit for something approximating dessert. A luxury, perhaps, but a small one, easily explained away as leftovers from breakfast and the lie worth it for the simple pleasure that smooths Sakura’s face with happiness at the first sight of the crockpot, earthenware breathing out clouds of scented steam from the crack between lip and lid as Fai sets it gently before her.

He does not sit to join them, of course, but he lingers in the room while the meal is served; just enough to catch the glow of her smile and feel the warmth of her soft and murmured gratitude as she ladles out each bowl. Fai does not miss how her hands tremble slightly, when it comes time to set Syaoran’s serve before him, and nor does he miss how Kurogane refrains from cutting an extra few slices of bread for himself even as he urges them on the children both, despite the fact the man clearly needs it; one small bowl of soup would not even scrape the sides of a day’s worth of hunger, especially a day spent cutting wood and shovelling snow. In another time, perhaps Fai would have teased him for showing such obvious care for the children’s wellbeing above his own, but now he stands by the fire and watches, letting the glow of the hearth warm the deep ache in his cold bones for a little while.

Fai cannot stay to watch them eat, however — these days the smell of food, no matter how pleasant, turns his stomach at the thought of eating it, and there is no place set for him at the table besides. Sakura had tried at first, but even his princess knows there are lines that Fai will not cross, and his unspoken refusal to join their ragged little group for this family ritual is one of the last ways Fai can refuse her at all. He retreats to the only place he can, and simply waits; the meal is over far quicker with only stilted conversation, despite Mokona’s best efforts to lighten the mood.

It’s only when the sound of cutlery scraping crockery ceases that Fai returns to clear the table, accepting Sakura’s gentle thanks as his due as he gathers the empty bowls. Half the loaf of bread remains, crumbs scattered over wax paper, and Fai will not meet Kurogane’s eye as he is watched in his work.

“Please — I can help?” offers Syaoran, already half-rising from his seat. The boy is so young and so earnest Fai almost feels bad as he smiles gently, rebuffing the offer with a simple shake of his head. He grew too close to the Syaoran that came before, and lost an eye to prove it. He will not make the same mistake again, and keeping a polite distance is the best way to do so.

“You should get to bed,” rumbles Kurogane, stubbornly watching Fai’s face as he stacks bowls and serving dishes with a practiced hand. At least Outo had been good for something, even if it had not been real. “You worked hard today, but there will be more work waiting tomorrow. And cold saps your strength as much as swinging an axe or lifting a shovel does — get some rest while you can, kid.”

It’s clearly what Syaoran doesn’t want to hear, but he doesn’t argue even as his face falls a little; the boy is far too young to hide his hurt, and if Fai were a better man the guilt from his part in that unhappiness would do more than cause a flicker of discomfort. But he is not and it does not liar and Fai closes his mind to the soft conversation that drifts in his wake as he returns to the kitchens with his armful of dishes.

“A-Alright. Goodnight, Fai-san, Kurogane-san, Mokona… Goodnight, princess.”

“Goodnight.” Sakura’s murmur is nothing more than a whisper, and Fai knows she is looking down at the hands in her lap, head bowed and fingers tight in her own grip. If Fai lost an eye when the Syaoran that came before turned, then Sakura lost something so much more vital.

“Mokona will sleep with Syaoran tonight! It’s too cold to sleep alone!”

“G’night, kid.” Kurogane’s voice is a low burr, one Fai finds himself particularly attuned to despite his best attempts not to be. “Sleep well.”

Fai pours the last of the kettle into the sink, sets the dishes to soaking in warm water, busying himself with the simple task at hand. He doesn’t need to listen hard to note the sound of Syaoran’s footsteps as they meander down the hallway, to the room he shares with Kurogane (and for tonight at least, Mokona), and the warmth that soaks gently into Fai’s aching hands from the soapy sink he scrubs plates in chases away the stiff joints of a day at rough needlework. Just in time for his hands to hurt again tomorrow, when he finishes the wallets for the market, but at least then he’ll have a day to sell them and a break from the monotony.

It’s not until Fai has finished drying the dishes with a handful of cloth rags and moved on to laying them in the cupboard where they belong that he hears Sakura speak once more.

“Kurogane-san… did you buy the liniment that I asked you for?”

Fai stills. Sakura is not injured — at least, no more than she was when they first came to this world, the wounds Tokyo burned into them all lingering on — and if she were, Fai would know; Fai would tear apart the one who hurt her so, and never mind the gore left in his furious wake. All he has left to protect is his princess, and there is no depth he will not reach to keep her safe, no matter how dark and terrifying the fall.

“Yeah. Found an apothecary. Here.” Sakura has no need of liniment, only the cane she uses to help ease her meagre weight from the ankle that cannot bear it, but glass clinks softly on the wooden tabletop all the same. A jar of some ointment placed there by Kurogane’s hand, then, and at the princess’ request. When had she asked him? For what purpose had she asked it? Why had she not asked Fai?

“Thank you.” A soft sound, the rustling of her skirts as she rises, the hushed skreek of a chair pushed out from the table. “I’m sorry it took me so long to think of it — I know you’ve been in pain for a little while now.”

Kurogane says nothing, nothing that Fai can hear anyway (and oh, he is straining for any breath of sound now, desperate to understand how this could have happened without his knowing) but he must move all the same, because Sakura does, taking slow and hesitant steps across the floorboards, each one creaking quietly where Kurogane’s are silent still. There is another noise, wooden and stiff, and Fai takes a moment to realise Kurogane has moved a chair so that Sakura may sit upon it. Closer to the fire, maybe, and the better to stay warm? Fai cannot know for certain, not without leaving the kitchen, and the thought of moving and placing himself beneath their scrutiny for the sake of his curiosity alone is a desire he cannot fulfil.

“Your shirt, please,” says Sakura quietly, and suddenly Fai understands: it is not her injuries the princess looks to, but the wounds Kurogane sustained in Tokyo, the wounds Kurogane has stoically ignored ever since. Fai had seen glimpses of the ragged ruin of his skin beneath the tattered mess of his shirt; smelt the iron of his blood and felt the burning chill that radiated from flesh torn by knives of wind and ice, a hurt that will slowly heal, if at all. Even in another’s hands, Fai’s magic has ever been the perfect weapon, and the destruction Syaoran’s broken image had rained down upon them all had been terrifying in scale. Easy enough for Kurogane to hide how badly he had been injured in the face of the upheaval that had followed, the sudden departure of Fai’s humanity and Sakura’s own injuries not the least of it.

(And if he has not forgiven Kurogane for sending her out alone at the Witch’s behest for a price he should have refused to pay, well. It is the not the least of the sins Fai holds against him, but it is not the most either.)

A long moment stretches, thin and uncomfortable — one where Fai finds his hands shaking and coils them about the countertop edge to stop their jittering motion — but then, following the crumple of cloth and the soft whump as garment meets wooden floorboards, Fai hears it: the soft, soft sound of an indrawn breath, and then the ratcheting clck-chk of a jar unscrewed with shaking, nervous fingers. It is too easy to picture it, his princess and the man before her, that strong back bared and scarred beneath her worried gaze, and the guilt Fai should not, must not feel is a knot that twists and sickens in his gut.

You did this to him.

“Don’t rush,” says Kurogane quietly, his voice so rough and low it approaches gentle. “A few more minutes won’t make a difference.” The dull creak of wooden floorboards as the weight upon them shifts; he must be kneeling now, that proud head bowed low and those broad shoulders as straight as they ever were.

“It will to me.” Sakura’s on the edge of tears, the brittle edge to her voice steely in a way that hurts to hear. “We should have gotten you better treatment, in T-Tokyo.” She stutters, only a little; a hitch in her voice that belies the sob that she refuses to let slip, and Fai feels the numb echo of his stranglehold grip on the edge of the counter bleed all the way up to his elbows. If he doesn’t loosen his hold, wood will splinter, surely — but his fingers are as stiff and frail as his heart is rotten, and the urge to let both simply shatter squeezes his ribs with vising intensity.

“There wasn’t enough to go around.” It’s a simple rebuttal, spoken plainly. “Others needed it more.” It’s as true now as it was then, and it wasn’t just Fai who needed it — the princess had her own wounds to bandage, her own cuts and bruises to see to, other injuries even more serious. Still does, even weeks later, and most likely will for the rest of her life.

“Other people needing it doesn’t mean you deserved it any less,” says Sakura sternly, and the hard edge of her voice presses against Fai like a finger to a bruise, a chastisement she doesn’t even know he can hear.

“Heh.” The huff of breath is so, so far away from bitterness that Fai can barely stand to hear it. “Not the first time I’ve gone without, and it won’t be the last. Scars aren’t new to me.”

“I can see that,” and if there is a prim humour in Sakura’s words it’s a miracle unsought, the smallest of wonders that is the smile Fai can hear unfolding as she speaks: fragile and thread-thin, but present in the warmth of her words as her voice steadies and grows in strength. “You should be more careful with yourself, Kurogane-san.” Another sound, this one wet: careful fingertips swiping through medicinal unguent, then, and what must be the slick smear of it on torn skin as Sakura’s fingers spread it slow across the ravaged landscape of a broad back that Fai does not need to see to imagine so very clearly. “We care about you too much to see you let yourself get hurt.”

“Can’t promise that,” says Kurogane bluntly, and Fai can smell lavender, rising as the liniment warms beneath the stroke of fingertips on skin that has always run hot. It’s a dizzying, almost sedative taste where Fai breathes it in: feels it trickle across the back of his tongue on the wash of every inhale, drowsily sweet. “Besides, out of all of us here, I’d say I’m the one that takes the best care of my own hide, anyway.” Kurogane isn’t lying, not even in the slightest, and for the second time tonight Fai is bludgeoned by the stark and simple truth. It’s a blunt weapon to be sure, but the most effective.

Sakura sighs. “I think that says more about us than it does about you.”

No more words, then, in the wake of that statement: just the slow creaking silence of a moment observed, and even as he stands voyeur, Fai cannot help but strain himself for every soft sound, no matter how faint. The unctuous smear of salve on skin, and the tacky withdrawal of soft fingertips that are gentle in their work no matter how the arm that leads them trembles. The steady slough of even breath as a man in pain pushes himself to compartmentalise each sensation, rhythmic and slow in the face of a hurt that can no longer be ignored. The dull and aching beat of the heart that stutters in Fai’s breast, its pulse an echo that reverbs in his ears, his throat, his shaking hands.

“There,” says Sakura. Fai hears the jar lid ratchet back into place, clicking as it twists in greasy fingers. “Please be careful when you move, and let it soak into your skin for a little while before you dress again — sit near the fire, and stay warm. It’s going to be cold tonight.” Glass clinks on stone as she sets it down — most likely on the footing near the fireplace, near enough the fire that the liniment will stay warm and soft should Kurogane need more of it. It’s not worth hoping he will not; Fai knows better than most how quickly Kurogane would shoulder pain for the sake of their safety, and the guilt of that thought almost drowns out the taste of lavender in its bitterness.

“It’s been cold every night since we got here,” says Kurogane, but there is no sound of cloth rustling, so he must remain still; he makes no movement Fai can hear, and his own heartbeat slows a little to a steadier cadence. He should not hope for Kurogane’s recovery, should not hope for any surcease of pain (what does it matter if the man he must kill is in good health or poor, and surely the latter would make it easier, anyway — simpler to snuff out a guttering candle than one that burns strongly) but all the same he does, he does, and the pounding in his head begs for relief in a way that Fai himself must not, must never.

“Please,” says Sakura again, sounding tired, and this time Kurogane sighs, a breathy huff that Fai strains his hearing for, knuckles taut with the strain that ebbs down from his shoulders, tongue pressed tight to the ridges of his teeth as they release from a grimacing clench.

“Fine. We don’t have enough of that stuff to waste.” Months (years?) ago, Kurogane would have grumbled good-naturedly, and Sakura would have laughed, and Mokona would have been there too, giggling as she sprang about in teasing bounds and loops — but there is nothing so playful now, only the quiet and the slight gasp of effort Sakura makes as she lifts her small weight from her chair and onto unsteady feet, the drag of her cane across the flooring a soft and waxy skreek as she hitches it to her hand. “Go to bed, Princess. You need the rest,” rumbles Kurogane, a low thrum of sound, and there is no small concern in his voice, no matter how gruffly concealed. “And — and thank you.”

A moment’s silence, so heavy and so soft. Beneath its smothering weight Fai is helpless but to sink into a weak-kneed bow, head dipped low and shoulders trembling as his fingers gouge into the lip of the sink. “Goodnight, Kurogane-san.” The princess takes a hesitant step, and then another, each one mincing slow and painfully across the floor, and then down the hallway at last. The soundless drag of Fai’s own breath, sore in his throat where it catches and sticks, is a choking weight he cannot swallow down.

Breathe. Breathe, you fool.

But Fai cannot, not deeply, not as much as he needs to: some unseen hand fastens about his chest and grinds closed, each finger an iron band that wraps his bones. The cracking squeeze of his ribs makes no sound — at least not one that can be heard over Fai’s own heartbeat, rising in its panicked pounding as each beat drums against his breastbone with bruising force — and surely he is silent enough that Kurogane cannot possibly hear him; most likely Kurogane has forgotten entirely that Fai is still here, in the room beyond, and perhaps just this once he can forgive this lapse from a man whose complete awareness of his surrounds borders on paranoia, just this once, surely. Breathe. The corners of his vision are darkening, blurred with each gasping drag that sloughs through his teeth in gaping, open-mouthed pants. Breathe, damn you!

Panic seizes the next few moments so completely that time is lost — only the quiet desperation remains, and Fai chokes on the bones of his own pride as his hands claw at cold metal, fingernails itching in their beds and fingers curling in taloned hooks. The small sounds of his struggle are close to silent, close enough as not to be heard by any audience, and that’s the only mercy Fai can feel anything like grateful for. The thought of how it would look if the children or Mokona — or, stars be crossed, Kurogane — found him in this pathetic state wracks a chill down his spine, prickling all across the nape of his neck and shoulders.

Fool. Idiot. Cursed and cowardly wretch. You made your choice, you cast your lot, and it’s far too late for regret. He has hurt them, hurt them all so badly, and he will only hurt them more with each passing day. Gehenna only knows what Fai would pay to undo it, but there aren’t enough tears in all the worlds to wash the hands of one so damned clean. Better to swallow the bitter pill and bite his lip against the urge to beg for forgiveness that claws up his throat; better it be his own blood on the tip of his tongue than anyone els—

Blood.

Kurogane’s blood, to be precise, and the scent of it hits Fai with all the subtlety of a dagger to the ribs, shoved in deep with a gouging twist, a rush of smell-taste that scours his palate and blows the cage in his ribs wide open as red-stained breath pours down his throat and sets him afire. Something like a growl rumbles through his teeth, his mouth wet and drooling; the beast in his gut is awake at last and hungry for it. The stinging stretch of his fingernails sloughing off beneath the claws that lengthen from their bloody beds is the last thing Fai feels in trembling hands before he streaks from the kitchen in a blur of speed that makes his eye (stinging and yellow and feral as it must be now, smouldering hot with the monstrous thing that surges up beneath his skin) water helplessly.

Through burning tears Fai sees him — Kurogane, tall and still and shocked into speechlessness, one hand against the mantle of the fireplace and that broad bare back rippling with firelight that flickers across the glossy sheen of liniment. The warmth of his body (the heat of the blood that pounds in his veins) is lit up in radiant lacework, glowing through dark skin so gorgeously it makes Fai’s mouth water, and thirst blooms up his throat as an ember will eat through parchment: all heat and smoke and charred edges that leave him burning.

“You.”

It’s a sibilant thing, that word; a popping hiss that melts in Fai’s mouth, leaves his tongue with a lick of aching hunger as the points of his teeth screw through his gums, stinging and hot. Kurogane’s heartbeat leaps like a deer before the wolf, a hot red throb that Fai can see-hear-taste, each distinct sense tangling into one knotting need, and his next few steps take him across the room so quickly the floorboards scarcely have the time to creak. Each panting breath is a gulp of lavender and woodsmoke, salt-sweat and the scorch of iron, and the hand that slams around Kurogane’s throat bears him down into stone with barely any effort at all.

Kurogane curses, half-breathed and husking, as Fai pins him to the hearth before the fire with a grip so strong his bones creak. A sharp, stuttered breath wheezes through gritted teeth as the man trapped between his knees struggles to push back, but vampire strength gives Fai an edge sharp enough to cut, the side of Kurogane’s face pressed hard to cold stone as one hand slides up to grip dark hair fiercely. The drag of Fai’s tongue up the slope of that strong back — the slope of that back where ragged skin, newly scarred and still so raw, had ripped open anew with one single, careless movement as he rose from his knees; sent the smell of his blood wafting sweet from fresh-torn wounds speckled wet and red through the air like the thunder that calls the storm — and to the length of his throat shudders Kurogane into a stillness so complete that Fai could think him dead but for the desperate pulse beating against his lips.

Hunger twists in Fai’s belly with fraying urgency, a need that cannot be denied. The sizzling drops of blood caught beneath that licking stroke shimmer across his tongue, melting into a taste so drugging and delicious it can do naught but whet an appetite finally awoken. The fingers of Fai’s hand, pressed hot between Kurogane’s shoulder blades with claws prickling, knead and curl with pleasure against the rippling of scar tissue and straining muscle to have caught him so, his prey left gasping in protest as Fai’s lips part slick, purring out a lustful sigh yes finally yes yes mine mine feed now yes as he bares the teeth that will sink into soft sweet skin so tenderly—

“Not like this,” snarls Kurogane in a breathless pant, face-down to stone and shivering between Fai’s squeezing thighs. “I’ll give you what you need, but not like this—”

Realisation is a cold shock to the gut, icing his veins as Fai slams into sense in a landslide of scrambling horror, and his clawed hands come loose as he stumbles back. Kurogane grunts beneath the weight of his body released, crumpling on the hearth and chest heaving as he rolls to his side, and blood, blood slicks his ribs in dribbling trickles, rolling from his back where it is smeared hotwetred on broken skin by Fai’s hands and Fai’s hold and Fai’s mouth—

“No!” It’s more a gasp than a shriek, and more a sob than anything else. Fai’s hands come to claw his forearms through the thread of his shirt, stinging as he scrapes away skin in shredding strips, shaking still beneath the tremors of disgust. What had he done — what had he done? “I didn’t— I wasn’t—”

Fai wets his lips, helpless as he tries to beg forgiveness speak, and the taste of it — stars and saints, the taste is perfect. He wants to smear it onto his face, wants to gulp it down by the skein; wants to lick every last drop from the canvas of bare skin and rolling muscle sprawled before him, Kurogane staring up at him with those eyes that burn and a scent that screams to be devoured. Gehenna help him, but Fai is still so, so thirsty.

“It’s yours, anyway,” says Kurogane lowly, and the hand he presses to his neck as he sits up comes away slick, damp with liniment and the marks of Fai’s own mouth, blood swept up beneath the drag of his lips and the stroke of his greedy, greedy tongue. “You can take it — I know what price I paid.” With difficulty he rises, a hand heavy against the mantelpiece and strong fingers hooked for balance as Kurogane stands at last. He’s still bleeding, just enough that Fai is still drooling, his teeth as wet as they are sharp and the weight of his thirst a coal burning in his throat, unquenched by the saliva that floods his mouth. “Just let me,” and Kurogane swallows, face dark and eyes hooded, something pained in the taut line of his mouth, “just let me brace myself first.”

It’s not fear Fai can taste, curling bitter through each smoking breath of salt and lavender and iron. He’s seen Kurogane afraid before, as loath as Fai was to call it such at the time: saw the whites of his eyes and heard the fury and the fear that rumbled beneath each word as this man bartered his own life as prey for Fai’s survival. There had been so much in the face that looked down at him — hope and desperation and a sickening depth of care, one that churned Fai’s gut to think his lies had caused it. A man like Kurogane (a good man, beneath the coarse bristling and posturing, and no matter how much he might protest otherwise, a kind one too) should not give a damn about anyone like Fai, and yet, and yet—!

“No,” says Fai, and a small part of him is amazed at how level his voice is. “No, no thank you. I’ve had enough for now.”

Kurogane stares. His mouth opens, just a little, lips parting; it is entirely unfair how lovely he looks, how very badly Fai wants to kiss him. “You — you can’t be serious.”

“Oh, but I am, Kurogane.” It feels rather like pulling out a dagger in a fist-fight, the sharp point of that name raising the stakes immediately from wary circling to an immediate chance of death. Though Kurogane would not need a knife to kill him, would not need any weapon at all, not even the hands that are so very skilled at doing exactly that. All Kurogane needs to do to kill Fai is simply deny him, and isn’t it telling that when Kurogane bares his throat in offering it is Fai that would deny himself?

“I don’t want your blood.” It’s perhaps the most bold-faced and brazen lie Fai has ever spoken, at least to Kurogane, and that is no small category to compare. It’s certainly unbelievable, especially when Fai can still feel the hot wet smear down his chin, can still taste it, is fighting this very moment the feline urge to rub his hands all over his face to catch every last drop and lick it clean from scarred and trembling fingertips. “I don’t want anything at all you have to offer,” he finishes, just to labour the point, twist it in deeper where he can. Attack, attack, attack — it’s the only defence Fai has.

With his back to the fire, Kurogane’s face is dark, the blaze of his eyes muted by shadow. “You’re really going to…” He trails off, voice hoarse, and the expression that dawns on those strong, beautiful features is not one Fai can let himself understand. “You’ll die,” is what he says, at length, and Fai is far too aware of the blood drying on his skin, the half-glimpses of scar tissue where it feathers over the arc of his shoulders, the slope of his ribs, ferning out from the bloody ruin his back has become.

My magic did that. I did that. Fai is never, ever going to forget it.

“We all die in the end,” is what he says, however, and the firelight flicker does nothing to disguise the horror on Kurogane’s face. That’s a look Fai understands well enough, and what it means is that Fai needs to cut this off right now, before Kurogane believes he has the right to protest. “Some of us sooner than most.” It’s not a threat insofar as it is a statement of intent, but Kurogane reacts like it is, darting forward to snatch Fai’s wrist as though he means to haul Fai from the cliff’s edge himself.

The floorboards creak. “You—!”

Rage now, deep in those eyes: black and red and shadowed in the dim seconds that waver between the fire’s glow, and the crush of strong fingers as they bracelet Fai’s wrist is painful enough to be felt even numb as he is, an abrasion of heat and pressure that pounds with Kurogane’s pulse, fluttering in his fingertips and pressing into Fai’s skin like moth wings beating in the dark. “You can’t just, just—!” Kurogane’s teeth are white, a bright crescent in his snarl as his face twists, lips curled like a hound on the hunt, and for a moment Fai lets himself wonder how easily they might gentle if he were to step forward and raise himself up to seek them softly with his own.

(So easily, is the answer; so easily and so quickly, if he were to take that step. Kurogane would gasp, the kind of half-bitten breath that sounds punched out, and his lips would slacken in shock — and then open, slipping soft against the press of Fai’s own as the hand about his wrist slid up to Fai’s elbow, fingers curling to the pulse that pounds in its crook, thumb pressing soft to that steady beating sign that Fai is still living, is still present in this moment. His other hand would find Fai’s shoulder or his waist or even the side of his face, thread fingertips through the strands of Fai’s hair, let it tangle around the knots of Kurogane’s knuckles with a grip so gentle it is breathtaking. Kurogane would kiss him back, then, as Fai took his mouth, and they would come together with all the yearning of a forest fire: something that consumes in its wild passion, devours unthinking what it needs most to live and dooms them both in kind.)

“Kurogane,” says Fai, and this time Kurogane does not — cannot — hide his flinch at all. “Kurogane, I can. I will. Let me go.”

Carefully the fingers around his wrist curl free, each one a trembling stroke. Kurogane’s touch is burning, haunting in a way that fills Fai’s skin with ghosts of touches past, touches he will never feel again, rippling all over the places he wants those hands to hold him. Even when Fai is dead, gone to nothing and his life given up to whom it rightfully belongs, even then Fai will still feel this: a heat beyond hunger, warmth and wanting and the simple need for affection all melting into a heady blur of sensation that stings so sweetly he never wants it to end.

Fai takes a breath. Steps back. Crushes the beast in his chest back into its cage, the frantic thumping of his heart a prisoner once more. All the while Kurogane watches, one hand just barely reaching out, but it falls as it must beneath the grim line of Fai’s mouth, the glint he lets sharpen his eye. It’s the work of seconds to grab the shirt and vest left crumpled on the floor, the coarseness of the weave so stark against his fingertips, and Kurogane barely lifts that same hand to catch the clothy bundle Fai whips at his chest, a soft whump where his fingers snatch it free from the air.

“Clean yourself up before you put that on,” Fai says, coldly as he can. Which is very cold indeed. “You don’t want to be getting blood everywhere.”

Kurogane’s face slackens, weary with an age the few years he has lived belies, and the gaze that stays with Fai as he walks away (as he turns, bones shaking in his skin, heart roaring against the ribs that cage it and all the lies unspoken acid on his tongue, in the tears that sting his eye unshed) is both heavy and hurtful, tired beyond all meaning of the word. Each step is uneasy, but Fai does not look back — not when the clamouring voice in his head begs to stay, not when Kurogane’s words follow him towards the hallway door.

“I won’t just let you die,” says Kurogane quietly. Even so it rings with determination fit to bend iron, a truth Fai feels sink to the bone. “I can’t.”

“It’s not your choice,” murmurs Fai, and slips silent into the hall, the door closing behind him. For once in his life, he isn’t lying either.

Chapter Text

It’s quite possibly the first time since that rainy afternoon in the witch’s yard that Fai has woken before Kurogane, and for a long moment he lies frozen atop the sinking warmth of the futon, wondering what on any earth he should do next. This situation is not something he could have anticipated, really: to be here, in this quiet room, curled up close to the dreaming figure of a man who has come to mean so, so much – not to mention his singing awareness of the barest taste of copper warmth tinting each silent breath. The smell of Kurogane’s blood is still so potent even beneath bandage and night-sweat and salve and the cool silvery traces of the healing magic the princess and her priestesses (miko, is the foreign word, and it weighs heavy and strange in his thoughts) had worked upon his battered form.

Kurogane had needed rest, had needed quiet, had needed anything but what he had gotten – namely a blow to the head that Fai can still feel smarting in the bones of his hand and the haughty desperate confession of a nickname that was so much more significant than what its mere meaning implied. He couldn’t have held it back, not after everything Kurogane had done to close that distance between them: the cruel distance Fai himself had wrought and Kurogane had clawed back inch by bloody inch without care for all of Fai’s struggling to keep barren between them. Kurogane had given him a final end to the curses that had held Fai captive from the moment his treacherous heart had been pulled from Valeria’s blackest pit – and so Fai had surrendered, yielding at long last with all dignity forgotten to the force of that simple wish: I want you to stay with me.

And so he had.

The thin sheet that Fai had pulled over them both when it became clear they could not bear to part, even as sleep itself dragged Kurogane down without regard for his drowsy protests, is now rumpled and soft, warm with the heat of their bodies; it whispers easily over the thin cotton robe Fai wears when he moves beneath the covers, and as he eases so carefully nearer to the man asleep beside him, he can feel every inch of the fine-threaded cloth that clings and wraps about his legs as he shuffles across the thickness of the futon. It was the closest layer to his skin beneath the silky folds of the alien garb Tomoyo had ordered her attendants to dress him in without so much as an explanation, and Fai had stripped down from the outer-robe of heavy silk and trailing sleeves with all haste when Kurogane had held out a bruised and trembling hand – his only hand, now, and those fingers had shaken with fatigue and pain both as they reached out to him – and murmured in a voice thick with exhaustion stay with me.

“Always, Kuro-sama,” Fai had said, and if Kurogane had heard he had given no sign; just sighed at the touch of Fai’s fingertips to the bruised pads of his own, and slumped over with barely another word. Kurogane had succumbed to sleep so quickly, in fact, Fai had startled himself into a panic with the thought that he might have simply died – but Kurogane’s heartbeat had pounded in fast, fluttering determination against the palm of Fai’s trembling hand where he had pressed it against the bandages crossed in stark warning over the broad slope of his breast, and the legs that would not hold Fai’s weight folded beneath him as he collapsed to his knees in sheer relief.

Fai does not remember having fallen asleep, but he must have; must have laid himself down at Kurogane’s side and slept dreamlessly and deep, because it is morning now, the thin light bleeding through the slats of the shutters soft and early still. The shadows of the room – Kurogane’s own room, Tomoyo had said – are cool and blue, the grey ghost of pre-dawn pooling in the creases and folds of the covers, and the white bandages that bind Kurogane are so stark against dusky skin they seem to bleed yet more colour from his ashen pallor. Healing magic is no substitute for time, no matter how powerful – it will be days, weeks even until the glow of ruddy health returns to Kurogane once more. Days or weeks they do not have, with Fei Wang’s plans still in motion. How long until the warlock makes his move? How long until Fai’s betrayal is discovered and another of his master’s cruel pawns is dispatched to find them here?

The gentle tapping at the door startles Fai’s thoughts from him like dawn startles songbirds, but the soft sound that catches in his throat is nothing like music. Fai shudders in a gasp of a breath as he fights to make sense and speech once more, surging to his knees as the sheets slide around him, and the fumble of his fingers to tighten his loosened eyepatch stabs panic into his gut.

“Enter, please – you can enter,” he manages to croak, sounding like a man half-dead, and the slither of wood on wood as the panelled door slides open pours into the room like a sigh.

“My lord,” is the murmur, the dark head of a young woman bowing low enough that the sweep of her hair brushes the floorboards in a long tail as it tumbles over her shoulder. “The Tsukuyomi bade us come for Kurogane-dono – we are to change his bandages and bathe his wounds.” Behind her, her companions bow low also, gazes averted in demure benediction – and abruptly Fai’s face flushes with heat to be caught so, dishevelled and underdressed in the same bedding as the still-sleeping man he cannot even claim as a lover. (Oh, but if only he could, if only, if only–)

Fai swallows, straightens, sweeps the shreds of his dignity around himself like a cloak so tattered as to be barely there at all. If he can face down a mad king and the collapse of a world entire, he can find his poise here, and never mind what this looks like: Kurogane’s wellbeing must come before all else. “Please,” says Fai at last, only a little thickly, and the hands in his lap do not shake. “He bled some during the night.” The words are coppery on his tongue, a little desperate – but the beast in his belly sleeps for now, even the vampire itself cowed and meek beneath the weight of what Fai almost, almost lost entirely.

(He had wondered, in Infinity, how long he might survive if Kurogane were to die on the chessboard. If he would go mad with thirst before he starved, or if he would find the nerve to end his life some other way before it came to such an extreme. But even only the thought of it had sickened him enough to leave him retching bile into the basin of their shared bathroom, unable to meet the golden eye that stared so stark and hateful in his own reflection, and Fai had strangled the notion back into the darkness from whence it came before he lost all sense entirely.)

The Princess’ attendants are mercifully silent, their gazes soft with understanding, and Fai stands aside and trembles as they bustle into the room to take their places at Kurogane’s bedside – their baskets full of liniments and bandages, and a basin brought in still steaming with water that laps in slow ripples at its wooden sides. The smell of their tinctures is clean and sharp and silvery, magic threading through it like the most skilful tapestry, and even just breathing in its echo seems enough to ease the ghost of strain from Kurogane’s sleeping face, his brow unknitting as he sighs. Atop the coverlet Kurogane’s fingers twitch, the slightest of movement beckoning and soft as the blankets are drawn from him, and the light through shutters hastily opened to peel away the shadows is harsh upon his sallow, sweating skin – but he does not wake, still deeply unconscious, and that alone is sign enough of how badly he is injured.

His wounds now look so much worse by morning sun than they did beneath the moon, so many bruises blooming black and gruesome between winding stripes of white cloth that Fai can only flinch at the sight. Guilt twists razored in his gut for the loving blow he had dealt to a man already so badly hurt. Kurogane had grinned at the time, yes, those hot eyes bright with the fiercest of joy in those few shocked seconds after the punch had landed – and no wound-fever could have ever accounted for the flush to his face or the sweetly savage threat he’d growled in response. Fai’s heart had been left pounding in hope and terror and delight all at once (he forgives me he forgives me oh I am forgiven) but now any happiness is stripped from the moment in its aftermath as Tomoyo’s miko loosen sleeping robes to expose the bandages crossing every inch of ashen skin.

It’s too much, to see it laid out so clearly: how close this man came to death’s domain in denying Fai his own passage over that self-same border. Too much to bear, even for a heart so scarred by tragedy one more death should mean nothing at all. But this man is everything now, and when the steady movement of caring hands begins to unwrap the first layer of cottony gauze, the taste of precious blood that blooms across the air is enough to startle Fai into frantic, furious motion.

“No!”

It’s a shout, breathless and cracked, and Fai lunges without thought – drops to his knees at Kurogane’s bedside, the crack of bone on wood jarring and completely ignored for the flutter of his open hands across bandages. “No, please,” he gasps, and between his ears is a soundless roar of terror (mine mine don’t touch him don’t hurt him my blood my prey my own mine oh gods mine) that wrings into the sob of his breath and the greed of his grasp, shoving his way between the threat woman and Kurogane’s prone form before he can stop himself. “I’m sorry – I’m so sorry, I can’t–”

Can’t speak. Can’t say why the sight of another’s unknown hands on this man of all men should bring fury and fear in its wake. Can’t stop himself, or the wretched snarl that vibrates unvoiced in a throat wrenched so hurtfully tight he can barely breathe. His one eye burns so hot in his skull his gaze must be golden, the beast in his blood writhing in possessive rage even as his hands tremble. “Don’t touch him,” Fai gasps at last, staring at his own hands splayed wide over Kurogane’s chest, the puddle of his draping sleeves across bloodied bandages. “Don’t touch him. Please.” The words grate through his teeth like crushed glass, tiny shards to cut his tongue and leave his voice tattered as it ribbons from his lips. “I can’t let you–!”

Fai pants, each breath shallow and shaking, and the squeeze of his eyelid shut is to force the tears back more than anything else. Wet, dripping down his chin – hot salt on his lips that scalds and stings. It falls regardless of his shame, pattering heavy on the backs of his trembling hands. Each breath is iron and stone, a weight dragging in his throat to tear it open; against his palm beats the one heartbeat the beast inside is wild to protect, wild enough to make him even more wretched a creature than he already is. Hunger and pain wrapped in human skin, and Kurogane just one more desperate need he is doomed to lose

Fai bites the thought in half before it comes to fullness, a snap of teeth that ratchets through bone with the loudness of a blow as he tightens his jaw with a grimace. Enough! No curse remains to tear him free of life’s cruel grip, and every choice Fai makes is now his own: there is no space for fear in this new world, and now is no time to fall apart.

(Beneath his touch, Kurogane’s chest rises in a slow and steady rhythm, and though his breath catches with effort it does not falter.)

“I cannot allow you to touch him.” It’s hard to speak – hard to breathe – but Fai struggles towards speech, mustering what control he can. Composure is a battle hard-fought and he claws it back by inches, his hands knotting in the gauze of Kurogane’s bandages and nails itching to burst out from scarred and trembling fingertips, but he forces his face to stillness. “I am sorry.” It is only a mask, thin ice cracked and frozen over dark currents that churn deep, but for now it must do. Fai is no stranger to masks, after all.

When he finally drags his gaze upwards, it’s to find the head attendant watching him like a hunter might a wounded animal: wary of claws that can still lash out even in the face of some great hurt. The steel in dark eyes is unbearable, her expression placid and calm. Fai is not sorry, not even remotely so, and no doubt the woman kneeling across from him knows this even if propriety keeps her from calling out the lie; and so the moment is silent and still, bowed beneath the weight of her gaze.

“Of course, my lord.” She sits back, kneeling with the serenity of a warrior, and in her shadow her junior attendants bow low, dropping into an obeisance so underserved Fai can barely look at them. “Would my lord prefer to unwrap Kurogane-dono’s dressings himself? If it pleases my lord, this one may humbly demonstrate the best manner in which to clean these wounds, and aid in their treatment.”

“I – yes. That would be good. Please–” He chokes out the word, pulse throbbing in his mouth, and the ragged edge of his lip tastes sour with blood. “Please show me.” He cannot bear another to touch what is his – but Kurogane needs his wounds attended to, and if his own clumsy hands must do it then so be it. “It has to be me.”

Fai has no healing magic. Fai has no healer’s hands – no talent for anything other than destruction. But he can unwind bandages, and clean wounds, and he has practice with both. His hands are steady where he follows the directions laid before him by the attendants here at Princess Tomoyo’s command. The outer bindings are cleanest, as expected, but the gauzy padding at Kurogane’s side is crusted and dark, sticking tight to a wound torn bloody and raw. Ashura’s magic, shaped and bound to jagged ice, had ripped through flesh with lethal intent, and for a moment black spots flicker before Fai’s eye at the thought of how easily Kurogane might have died simply from that first blow alone – at the thought of how, for a long moment shaped by sheer horror, Fai honestly thought Kurogane had.

(he remembers screaming the electric sizzle of his own flesh as power shrieked from his fingertips and his hand became a fist a spear of brutal sparking rage striking with the intent to kill he remembers the pain the sick ugly terror that tore his gut open and left him empty blood in his mouth and tears in his eyes and everything else lightning the last of his straining beastly instincts wailing in abject despair gone gone gone he was mine and he is gone)

And all this is without even considering his shoulder.

Fai is not ready to look there yet, and so he does not. Maybe it is cowardice, but he concentrates instead on the gut wound that had driven Kurogane down to the frozen ground in a steaming gout of his own blood, and it’s only by some strange detachment that Fai does not wince at the way cotton soaked with clotted gore seems to melt into torn skin.

“Soak the wound first,” says the attendant at his elbow, gesturing so that the basin – still steaming, and seeped with spells Fai can taste as it wafts from hot, cloudy water – appears beside him. Long strips of wet cloth slump at the bottom of the bowl, and Fai reaches for one, startled at the pleasant tingling that ripples up through his fingers. Healing magic, of a foreign kind, a moonlit glimmer that prickles Fai’s skin in short, silvery bursts; when he wrings the cloth out the warm liquid spills down his wrists to drip from scarred fingertips, leaving pleasant numbness in its wake.

“There will be no pain,” she prompts gently. “The reagent will dull sensation and allow for the removal of the dressing without discomfort. Kurogane-dono will not awaken.” It’s perhaps pointless to be reassured so – if Kurogane had not already woken to the presence of several people at his side, then he truly would not stir at any ministrations worked upon his wounds, and never mind how rough Fai might be. The pallor to dusky skin, the weak flutter of the pulse in that long, bare throat: all of it signs Kurogane is already so far under that Fai could not rouse him, even if he tried.

And true enough, Kurogane does not stir – no flicker of eyelids, or twitch of fingers, even as Fai laves the steaming reagent over the edges of his wound, letting it soak deep to loosen his dressings. The smell of blood rises, undercut with the sharp mineral tang of the water and the pungent aroma of herbs, and Fai feels the familiar surge of wetness over the back of his tongue at even that small taste as it washes across his palate with every breath. The hunger is instinctual, but not urgent; a small blessing but one he is grateful for, that the beast in his belly feels no urge to feed while so cowed by the severity of the wounds bared and bloody before him.

(He supposes it makes cruel sense, of a sort: the vampires he had met were prime predators, not starveling scavengers to feed on half-dead corpses. They savoured only live game, and only the best of game at that.)

The lady at his side nods to her underlings, and another basin is offered up – this one empty, for the dirty bandages, and Fai drops crusted strips of cloth into it without ceremony as they are loosened. When the last of the padding is gone, the ruin of Kurogane’s side is exposed: a raw mess of torn skin, ice-burns and jagged lacerations closed neatly with tiny shimmering stitches – magic sewn in place, pulling torn skin together once more. The wound is a horror, a solid chunk carved from flesh, only a few scant inches from disembowelment. A lesser man would have died at first impact, let alone fought and killed the one that dealt the wound in the first place; not for the first time Fai finds himself staring in awe at what is only one symbol of Kurogane’s sheer bloody-minded determination.

“Now the salve.” Fai is offered a small towel to wipe his hands dry with, and then a clay jar filled with unguent which slips silkily beneath his questing fingers. It, too, reeks of magic, but sharper and bitterer than the water to clean the wound, making his eyes prickle as it stings his nose. It’s cold to the touch but warms quickly under his fingers, and Fai is generous with the thick dollops he smooths into torn and oozing skin. “Use as much as you deem necessary,” he is instructed, and her tone is approving as Fai scoops yet more salve onto skin already slick and gleaming.

“Good. The salve is to aid knitting of the skin, and to banish infection – one cannot use too much. It acts to prevent scarring if applied consistently.” Pointless perhaps, when the torn canvas of Kurogane’s back is so hideous it makes Fai’s gut cramp to look open it, but then the lady catches his eye with an almost kindly expression. “This salve may also be used to reduce existing scar tissue, no matter how old the wound.”

The ghost of lavender stings Fai’s eyes, dances on his tongue, and between his teeth he catches it sharp, biting down on the pain that rises from a memory pushed back. But his fingers are quick and gentle, his touch light, and as he works the slow rise and fall of Kurogane’s breathing – deep in his belly and steady with sleep – is enough to ease the taste from his mind. The new scent that rises from this unguent is sharper, less smoky, and even on long-ruined fingertips Fai feels it spark and tingle: powerful magic here, made ointment, and even only a moment in Princess Tomoyo’s presence would be enough for Fai to know her love and blessing poured into it.

The click of the jar’s lid replaced is a soft, final sound, and as Fai turns back the lady by his side meets his gaze with cool regard. “Clean padding next, my lord, and bandages to bind.” She does not need to tell him to be gentle, because Fai can be nothing else as he takes in hand soft gauze and pads it carefully at Kurogane’s side, and the oily gleam that slicks torn skin is enough to hold the cloth to the wound all on its own. “Here, perhaps, we may lend you aid,” says the woman at his side when Fai is finished, and her hand moves in swift motion to beckon forth her own attendants to come closer to the futon. “With assistance, we may lift Kurogane-dono between us so that the bandages can be properly wound–”

“No need,” says Fai, gently but firmly, and her voice cuts to a stop.

“My lord.”

It is question and admonishment in one, and Fai can’t help the bitter curl of his lip. Ah, he must seem mad! But it is not the possessive nature of the vampire that makes him so – or at least, not only, and he cannot accept help even if he needed it. Which he does not. Something the woman beside him doubts, clearly, her gaze strident enough to bore through bone as she stares – but Fai can pay her no mind. Even under such scrutiny Fai finds it easy to move forward, to shuffle on his knees and slide one arm beneath the slope of Kurogane’s back. The other loops beneath Kurogane’s own arm, bracing his uninjured shoulder, and his Fai’s hand curls warm and steady against the back of Kurogane’s neck to cradle his head. Dark hair, tangled damp with fever-sweat and still so soft, slips between his fingers.

“I have him,” says Fai simply, because he does.

Kurogane comes gently into Fai’s embrace, his body solid and weighty as Fai eases him up with all the care he has in him. With the strength of the vampire threaded through his limbs, even such precious, heavy cargo takes no effort. Dark lashes flicker, the movement beneath heavy eyelids indicative of dreaming, but Kurogane does not stir, and the crease at his brow smooths momentarily. It’s so different from how Fai had held him last (had held him for the first time, his hands clenching tight in blood-soaked fur to stem the hopeless tide pouring from these terrible wounds, Kurogane’s face ashen with grim determination and each breath huffing through teeth that ground together in gritting agony as his life spilled between Fai’s trembling fingers) he cannot even begin to compare it.

I have him. He is mine and I have him, and by the grace of every star, I will not let him go, not ever again.

Wordlessly, he is handed bandages, and the neat roll of clean cloth unwinds beneath Fai’s fingers as he presses it to bare and bruised skin. It is not easy, but he will suffer no other hands to aid him, and nor will he let go. Certainly there is a moment or two where his own stubbornness works against him, but for nothing in any world will he give up the warmth of Kurogane settled into his embrace, or the slow steady breath that sighs against the curve of his neck as Fai makes taut the dressings wound tight around Kurogane’s waist and hips.

But when the dressing is done and all loose ends tied, Fai must steel himself. Even here, now, with Kurogane pressed close, Fai feels a momentary trembling – despair comes creeping as he turns his gaze higher, thorny roots squirming in sharp and deep to the parts of his soul that are still tender and weak. He cannot ignore it now, the barren slope of Kurogane’s shoulder where his arm should be, and the wound bare beneath his sight; to even try to look away would be the worst kind of cowardice, and Fai has had a gutful of that bitter taste. No, Kurogane deserves only his frank and honest regard, no matter how the guilt might curdle thick in his belly at the sight.

More stitches, tiny specks of bright clean magic sewn across a starburst of skin, pulled tight and gleaming to seal the stump of Kurogane’s shoulder where his arm had been severed with one neat stroke. A small mercy that the cut had been clean – Souhi’s edge as sharp as her master’s skills, to sweep so swiftly through flesh and bone – but still it was the most grievous of wounds, an urgent amputation that had very nearly brought the death of the man himself. Already, a scant handful of hours later, Kurogane’s skin is discoloured: ugly blotches of broken-veined black and traumatised purple blooming wild from the site of the injury and across his left breast, spreading down his ribs and the bony arc of his shoulder-blade in a sweep of bruising that watered one’s eye to look upon. The thick muscle of Kurogane’s neck and shoulder is taut and straining, knotted with painful tension, and even clouded with the taste of blood Fai can scent the stinging savour of seared flesh where a hot iron had sealed pumping arteries closed with needle-sharp precision.

“More salve,” says Fai thickly, swallowing through a throat closed tight and aching. It’s an imperious demand for the stranger he is to Tomoyo’s own staff, but it is obeyed none the less, slick unguent given over his trembling fingertips from the moment he reaches out a hand. Much like before, he daubs it thick against a wound earnt by a man who deserves much more than Fai’s own clumsy hands – but if Fai cannot give Kurogane over to the care of another (he cannot, he cannot!) then Fai must make do, and makes of his touch the barest stroke of fingertips as ointment glistens and gleams against the edges of this deep and deadly wound.

Tomoyo’s magic tingles icy-hot against his skin, a stinging sweetness that needles into each brush and stroke of slick fingers. The teeth-grinding intensity of it seethes against his own magic, a conflict of power that brings tears to his eye, setting vampiric instinct to a furious simmer (another’s touch another’s hand upon his prey unbearable unfathomable this man is his his his) as it bubbles up in his blood, and the need to pull Kurogane closer – to sink greedy claws into his bruised and battered body and squeeze from sore wounds more blood to slake his possessive thirst – strikes a dread contrast to the need to make him whole once more.

“Bandages,” grits Fai, teeth sharp against his own tongue. More gauzy padding offered for his taking, and so gently Fai coddles it against the severed edge of Kurogane’s shoulder that he startles himself with the delicacy of his own touch. A roll of taut cotton next, rougher linen than the soft trappings beneath it, and Fai winds it firm as best he can with trembling hands and shaking, unsteady breath. There is more cloth to the roll than needed, the end of the bandage trailing loose long after Fai has wrapped it taut, and so when he ties it in place it is barely a thought to lengthen a nail into a slashing talon and cut through fabric with the merest flick.

A woman gasps – a sharp, short sound, quickly stifled, and the impulse to bare fangs and snarl ripples through Fai with more force than he is prepared for, his fingers itching with the urge to claw as he sinks Kurogane dearer into his embrace. The beast in his belly purrs in ferocious satisfaction as Fai lays his head gently atop Kurogane’s own, the winding of his arms around Kurogane’s torso cuddling him close. It’s something Fai has always, always wanted, to hold Kurogane like this – but something he never would have dreamed of asking for. Beneath his cheek, dark hair is damp and softly fragrant with sweat, the smell of saltwarmskinmine chasing away the ghost of blood and lavender from his tongue, and Fai turns his face away from his unwanted audience with a shudder of a sigh, breathing in deep enough to drown.

Fai should lay Kurogane down now, should lay him to rest upon the comfort of the futon, ease his weight against the pillows waiting to receive him. Fai should, but he does not – cannot, not just yet – and when the low murmur of soft voices pricks at the edge of earshot, Fai cares not to hear them. Fai can spare no care for anything the attendants gathered at Kurogane’s bedside might have to say, not when peace of a sort he thought he would never know settles itself in his chest with the same ease as Kurogane himself is held close to the heart that beats in Fai’s breast, and for a long slow moment there is only this: comfort, and warmth, and the weight of Kurogane where he belongs – in Fai’s arms at long last.

“My lord,” comes the voice, speaking so softly and from such distance that it sounds as though it echoes from a dream. “If I may, my lord…” But no dream this, and the voice rings clearer as Fai fades back to himself and into awareness once more. “Kurogane-dono must rest,” says Tomoyo’s attendant, and her gaze is stern where it alights upon Fai’s face. “The healing magic of the Tsukuyomi is powerful, and Kurogane-dono strong and valiant – but he must rest still, to recover from such grievous wounding.”

It is only the truth, and though Fai is loath to loosen his embrace, Kurogane’s wellbeing must come before all else. Gently, and with slow reluctance, Fai eases himself forward to let Kurogane down from the cradle of his arms, the sinking softness of the futon waiting to receive him. Kurogane stirs only a little for the movement, caught deep in the grip of exhaustion, but the frown that creases his face when Fai lays him back is endearing in its grumpiness – a flicker of familiarity that twitches the beginnings of a smile at the corners of Fai’s mouth. Even so, he cannot lift his hands away completely: something unconscious holds the fingers of one hand tight to the folds of bandages, fingertips seeking the warmth of brown skin and the sure beat of Kurogane’s heart as it pounds slow in his weary breast.

Around him, there is movement – the graceful rise of the coterie of attendants as they move to gather bandages and basin, spiriting away the medicines and tinctures used to tend Kurogane’s wounds with quiet competence. One even takes the initiative to fold and neaten the scattered layers of Fai’s over-robe, the rustle of silk a whisper that sighs into the near silence of the room. The woman beside him makes no move to rise, the weight of her gaze steel-heavy with assessment where she watches Fai, and it is she that speaks to draw his attention away from Kurogane.

“If you are satisfied with Kurogane-dono’s care, my lord, then perhaps a meal may be prepared for you.” It feels more a command than an invitation, but Fai has no appetite – wants nothing but to rest here until Kurogane wakes once more. He shakes his head in refusal without glancing across to the woman beside him; to look away from the play of early morning light as it brings brightness through cracks of the shutters and warmth to the face of the man sleeping still is an impossible task.

“It would please the Tsukuyomi to see you break fast, my lord,” she continues, and the ungrateful creature that Fai knows himself to be beneath the layers of courtly manners refuses her once more, focusing instead on the slow rise and fall of Kurogane’s chest as he breathes, the warmth of his body as it seeps through bandages, the clean white cotton in stark contrast to the darker shade of bruised skin. The silence is expectant – of course she would wait for an explanation, as no doubt it is his welfare also she has been ordered to look to, but Fai has already shown himself to be strange and ill-mannered and somewhat beastly, and so cares not for the subtle thread of impatience that suffuses her perfect posture.

“I will not leave him,” Fai says at last, licking his lips against the dry rasp of his voice. “Not until he wakes to chase me away himself.” A trifle dramatic perhaps, considering his reception earlier (oh, how long had it been since he had felt the warmth of that regard? How long since he could savour the heavy weight of those eyes upon his face, the grin so sharp he could only hope to cut his lips on a kiss?) but something of the sentiment colours his words, marks him a man in love and stubborn with it, if the disapproval she turns upon him in her look is anything to go by.

“We will prepare a tray for you my lord, so that you may eat to regain your strength.” A prospect that Fai cares little for, but enough of a compromise that he offers no objection – merely nods once, and lets himself glance briefly over to nod again, with as much grace as he can offer.

The movement around their strange tableau slows into stillness, and the scrape of the door as it slides open almost startles with its suddenness. The attendants under her command move gracefully from the room with their collection of items, each bowing deep as she departs, and when they are gone the woman at Kurogane’s bedside rises from her knees and to her feet with the perfect poise of a queen. She bows once and lowly, her dark hair a curtain and her expression a calm and beautiful mask, but then she straightens, stands as tall as she may, and the sincerity in her face is almost painful as she looks down at Fai seated still at Kurogane’s bedside.

“My lord,” she says briskly, and then a softer, “Fai-dono.” It sounds a little strange on her tongue, lilting and unfamiliar – much the same way Kurogane had said it himself in those rare times he would call Fai by name: soft and airy, rounded on the mouth and sighed between the lips to gentle the harshness of the vowel.

(He wants to hear Kurogane say his name like that again, wants to hear Kurogane say his name like that always.)

The ache of it cuts to the quick in a way she cannot possibly know, and in the sweetness of that ache Fai can do nothing but give her his full attention. “There is no doubt that Kurogane-dono is in need of your care,” she says quietly, almost hesitantly: a deviation from a script planned in advance, or a moment of softness behind the brisk façade – maybe both. “But you are also a guest of the Tsukuyomi, of Shirasagi. My lady would not wish for you to dwell so deeply on your sorrow that you give no care to yourself… and neither would Kurogane-dono, I do not think.”

The chuckle of a laugh surprises her and Fai both, even as he bows his head against the curl of his lip that wants to be a smile, against the warmth that swells briefly in his chest: of course Kurogane would not want Fai to neglect himself. Kurogane has in fact made several very persuasive arguments in the favour of Fai actually paying attention to his own needs and wants over the brief time they have known each other, the most recent and powerful of all the left sleeve of the silk robe that lies empty atop the futon, crumpled beneath the sleeping body of the man himself. Kurogane has damn near killed himself trying to prove how much Fai means to him, and if he were awake, would probably thump Fai across the back of the head for even trying to deny it.

“Thank you,” is what Fai says, instead of I know or I will try to be better or I think he has loved me for a very long time – all of them too small a statement to possibly express the enormity of what he feels, of what Kurogane has been to him and what Kurogane will be, if the stars are kind and perhaps even if they are not. Fai has already defied death twice over at this point; he sees no reason to stop now. “Thank you,” he says again, looking down at his hand on Kurogane’s chest, at his scarred fingers curled soft into the bandages, at the slow rise of Kurogane’s breast as he breathes deep in slumber. “Please express my gratitude to the Tsukuyomi also – I am thankful for everything she has done.”

If she hears the smallest, slightest crack in his voice, she gives no sign. “Of course, my lord.” Another bow, not nearly so deep, but with a respect newly earnt. “The house staff will come by again with a meal for yourself, and a basin so that you may freshen up.” Fai must look more than half-mad to her, a grief-stricken foreigner with one eye and tangled hair, clinging to Kurogane like a curse, but still she is faultlessly polite with manners to be envied – and a kindness that just maybe Fai deserves. “Please rest and be at ease until then.”

Fai does not smile – a smile would be a lie, after all. But he meets her gaze with an honesty he could not have given mere days before, accepts the offered care and solicitude as it is given, and does not falter beneath that lingering gaze as she moves across the floorboards. A rustle of silk and the quiet scrape of lacquered wood and she is gone, closing the door behind her with a sweep of draping sleeve, and without her stern observation Fai feels as though he can breathe for the first time in hours, stuttering out a slow breath that seeps tension from his shoulders and leaves him trembling on the exhale.

It can’t have been more than an hour since Fai woke, and already he feels battered: the rush of too many conflicting emotions hammering his heart against his ribs, leaving it bruised and aching even as it beats frantic double-time. Time is what he lacks, when it comes down to it; there has been no time to decompress, not really – most likely there won’t be until everything is over at last, and even then only if they survive. Fei Wang’s plans are complex webs of cause and correlation, of a scope and a scale a single mind cannot hope to comprehend without breaking; if the Dimension Witch herself is caught powerless in that web, what hope does Fai have that he can escape the last unfolding machinations of the greatest warlock the multiverse has ever seen?

Death is the natural, forgone conclusion, even as Reed himself rails against it – but if Fai has cheated death once, twice (a thousand times with every breath, with every scrape of broken nails and bloody fingers against frozen stone in a climb that could not end) then perhaps he can squeeze the last drops of luck from whatever dregs he has left to keep the ones he loves safe as reality shatters around them as he tries to cheat it one last time.

Fai’s fingers, caught in the wrapping of Kurogane’s bandages, slip gently free. His hand lifts, drifts, comes to rest at Kurogane’s breast – the better to feel that beloved heartbeat against the slope of his palm. Fei Wang may have power beyond comprehension and plans innumerable, but he has not a sliver of the determination Kurogane calls his own. With Kurogane at his side, Fai has broken the chains fate set shackled around his ankle from birth; he has no doubt at all that between the two of them, they can do the same for the children so dear to them both.

“Go on – think a little louder. I think half the castle is still asleep.”

The rasp of Kurogane’s voice is unmistakable, even throaty with pain, and Fai startles like a fool to hear it: blood rushes to his head so quick it burns his face, and the hand tangled in Kurogane’s bandages twitches helplessly.

Kuro-sama,” he blurts, jerking back with unthinking haste – but no, the hand that falls upon his own is rough and firm and utterly sure in its grip, catching Fai’s palm and holding it where it lies beneath the weight of Kurogane’s own. Fai cannot move for the hold that catches him, keeps him here with his hand pressed warm over the heart that beats steady against the palm that guards it. It’s a demand as much as it is a plea, as much plea as it is a trembling gesture of hope: Kurogane’s fingers are shaking against his own, and not from fear or pain.

(I want you to stay with me.)

“I didn’t say you could move.” Kurogane sighs a breath as his eyes open, slowly and with well-deserved exhaustion, and though his eyelids are heavy his gaze is as sharp as ever beneath the fringe of dark lashes that veil its cutting edge. His eyes are red – his eyes are beautiful. “Figures you’d still try to run when I finally got you where I wanted you.” Fingers, scarred and roughened with a thousand old hurts, curl around Fai’s hand in a slow closure; slow enough that Fai could pull away with ease, slow enough that he has the time to think about how simple it would be to do so.

He does not.

“I wasn’t thinking about running,” manages Fai at last. It’s not even a lie (all he can think is you want me, you want me and oh, where would you have me? but he has not the wits to even whisper it) and so Fai watches his own fingers as he turns his palm to tangle them with Kurogane’s own. The ruin of his fingertips makes touch a strange sensation – there so powerfully one moment, a ghost the next – but now he feels the heat of Kurogane’s skin sink into him with the radiance of a hearth fire, a long slow burn to hold back the winter creeping cold into the dark. With this one touch alone, Fai could burn for centuries.

“I want to believe you,” mumbles Kurogane. The words would sting, if they were at all sharp, but the voice that breathes them is soft – softer still than Fai has ever heard it. “Am I a fool for that?”

“If anyone here is a fool, it’s me.” It’s choked, and the sudden tears at the back of Fai’s throat swell it closed, tightening the pull of his breath and making his shoulders tremble. “I hit you – you’re so badly hurt and I hit you–” Gehenna damn it all, but the tears won’t stop, and Fai has to duck his head to press his face into his own shoulder, soaking up the wetness with silk as it spills over in stinging salt. Ah, stars, if there was yet more a way Fai could make a spectacle of himself!

“Why are you crying?” Fai looks up, and the tears that limn his lashes blur the morning light that sweeps against Kurogane’s face, golden and warm and so damnably dear Fai can’t breathe for the thought of losing him. “We’re alive, aren’t we?” Those much-loved features come to clarity as Fai swallows and swipes at his own face, the long drape of his sleeve swinging clumsily as he tries to hitch it up past his elbow with one hand only – the other hand still willingly caught at Kurogane’s breast, tangled in his strong fingers and held so tightly that Fai is loath to do naught else but squeeze back tighter still.

“We’re alive,” repeats Kurogane firmly. “No point in thinking about what didn’t happen.”

“You never look back, do you, Kuro-sama?” It’s not truly a laugh, but it bubbles in Fai’s chest like one, tearing free with the sharp edge of hysteria. “How do you– how can you bear it?” The fear, the pain, the terrible awareness of what could have been if the blade had slipped but an inch, if the hand took hold with a fraction less fierce a grip: all of it yawns open within Fai’s heart like a great and dreadful maw, a darkness so absolute it could have swallowed everything he loved whole without anything approaching effort.

“I’ve lost a lot of things.” Kurogane’s thumb, rough-skinned and sorely bruised to the bone, strokes slowly over the back of Fai’s trembling hand with halting, careful movements. “But I can bear it all for this.”

The words are soft but they sink in deep, with a surety and a swiftness that strikes for the kill, and Fai has barely a breath before he crumples. “Kuro-sama – I can’t–”

The hand on his pulls him down, reels him into the hollow of Kurogane’s arm with no room for escape if even he wanted it, and Fai sinks into the embrace with everything in him aching for the relief of being held so close at such long last. He fought this, he fought for this, for so long and all of it (the pain the fear the terrible wanting the desperate tearing choice he had to make) falls away to nothing as Kurogane catches him close and keeps him there, a trembling mess of a man falling apart against the only thing keeping him whole. Fai drags in a gasp, salt-wet and stringent with the smell of blood and liniment, bandages scraping against his mouth as he sobs into the crook of Kurogane’s shoulder and his breath soaking damp and desperate into gauze. The hand that slides from his own sinks into his hair to cradle the curve of his skull, Kurogane’s palm fitting warm and solid against the nape of his neck with fingers tangled in the flossy mess that tumbles over Fai’s eye to cloud the last of his vision, and tears blur everything else to streaks of shimmer-wet brightness.

Kuro-sama,” he gasps, and the word is more than a name, more than a prayer. “I could have lost you, I could have lost you, you were never even mine and I could have lost you–”

“You didn’t. You won’t. I’m here.” It’s tempting disaster, it’s turning against the cruel stars themselves to even dare to hope for this, but if ever there were a man to deny fate its set course then Kurogane is he, and the movement of those lips against Fai’s hair as he speaks, the barest kiss of a breath – a whisper, a promise, a truth that will not be denied – burns itself into Fai’s soul with indelible hope.

“I’m yours. You have me – I’m here.”