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Dark and Stormy

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  • Mix equal parts fresh lime juice, VSOP Jamaican rum, and a fine dark Jamaican rum in a shaker.
  • Combine with half a measure orange Curacao, and a quarter measure each of orgeat and simple syrups.
  • Add two cups crushed ice, and shake it like you mean it.
  • Glass it, drop in the lime, and garnish with mint.

     The shadowed room danced with reflections of fireshine from the globe of blazing light hovering over Hikaru's hand. She cupped it near her chin so the glare shining upward lit her face in that spooky way everyone used to do at summer camp. Eagle tried to pretend he wasn't laughing, but since she was sitting on her boyfriend's lap she could feel every rumble when he suppressed a giggle. "And so..." she whispered, "Kouryuu gave up searching for the cats in the house, and ran to the demon prince Kokuyo for help... only to find that Hari and Ruri had been in his throne room the whole time!"

     She blew out the flame in her hand, leaving the room totally dark. Not for long, though. A second later, Lantis walked in from filling the bird feeder on the porch and opened the blinds. Sunlight flooded the kitchen, glinting off the pots hanging from the wall and leaving her more somber boyfriend a tall, dark shadow at attention by the counter. Neither of her lovers were as subtle as they thought they were. "Is that the one you're telling for the ghost story contest?" he asked, cocking an eyebrow.

     "I think so." Alcyone, the queen of the hook-handed lunatic stories, had always taken the top spot before, but no search parties had been able to find her after she'd run off -- six months gone, come August. This year it was anybody's game. "I wish I had time to find a new one. But after how writing one last year went, I thought I'd try a classic. It could work!"

     Eagle burst into cackles and squeezed her around the waist. His white-blond hair danced around the laugh lines at his eyes as he shook his head. "Hikaru. Telling the best ghost story means making your audience afraid -- and you can't do it as long as they can hear how scared you're not."

     "I didn't sound scared?!"

     "Not a bit, hot stuff. Not a bit." Hikaru shifted to her feet to let him up from the chair, watching him stretch his shoulders over his head as he gazed out the window. They'd moved just outside the castle walls, to this house in town, so Eagle could have a view of the bay and a dock for his little superboat, and she never got tired of the way he smiled when he looked at the waves. "You're a tad disadvantaged there, you know. I'm not sure you've ever felt fear."

     With a pout, she sat back down on the edge of the chair. "Sure I have! You scared me with that thing your zappy machine did when you kidnapped me. I couldn't even stand up half the time." Almost nothing she'd run into before or since was more annoying than how Eagle's tech could rip your brain apart, turn your legs to jelly, and twist your stomach inside out. "How was I to know if I could get away, or if Umi-chan and Fuu-chan would have to come in after me and maybe get hurt?"

     Lantis sighed, letting Eagle settle against his chest, but answering the blond man's bright grin with a scowl. Hugging Lantis's arms around his waist, his eyes twinkled as he asked, "Now, be honest. Did you even for a second doubt that all three of you would get out of there safe and finish your mission? No matter what I did to you?"

     Shaking her head, she settled back in the chair. "You didn't even have me chained up! Well, not really."

     "And maybe, if you ever can't see a way to win, you'll have been scared enough to tell 'The Demon and the Phantom Cats' believably enough to win a contest. Maybe I should tell it with you? You could be the monsters, and I could do Kouryuu's parts." He turned his head up to look Lantis in the eye, letting his bottom lip tremble as his eyes opened wide and his voice started to shake. "Did I... did I just see a cat's shadow running up the stairs?!" It sounded so fake, Hikaru's giggles wracked her till she couldn't breathe.

     "You're worse than she is," Lantis answered.

     Neither of them had a chance to try again. While their laughter was still ringing off the kitchen walls, a shower of black butterflies swirled over the table. A maze of lights formed a glowing disc over their wings, Mistress Yuuko's face hovering in the shine. The smoke from her pipe swirled up out of the image, circling her projection in a gray halo. So much for dinner tonight. If the head of the Ninja Union had decided to call, there was a mission and no time to waste.

     Hikaru pulled her glove onto her hand and summoned her armor from the jewel on its back, then stored it away again. Perfect working order. "How may I be of service, my Lady?"

     "Oh, there's just a little trinket I need you to pick up for me. Umi and Fuu have a map, and they'll meet you at the harbor. You'll need to sail through pirate waters to get there, of course, but I persuaded the captain of the Haliotidae to take my three precious wards where they needed to go."

     "I understand." The butterfly mirror scattered, fluttering off on the wind. A few birds chattering outside were the only sound in their little kitchen. She didn't feel any heavy worry in the air, but neither Lantis nor Eagle liked missions where she got sent off without them. Boys could be so high-maintenance. Hikaru looked up at her boyfriends and laughed, "I guess we're going out to sea. Do you think we'll be back in time for the festival?"

     "That's up to the sea," Eagle answered. "The FTO could get you anywhere and back in two days tops, I'm sure, but--"

     She shook her head. "You know Lady Yuuko. She never explains, but she's always got a reason." Hikaru ran over to give him a goodbye kiss, then boosted herself up on the counter to kiss Lantis, too. "Wish me luck!"

     The broad-shouldered man sighed, burying his nose in her hair. "Make sure you don't need it. We'll be there if trouble finds you."

     "Or you find it," added the blond man at their side. "Now get out of here. Low tide'll hit if you don't hurry, and the flood will start rolling in. You know what they say... Time and tide wait for no man? Ninja girls aren't exempt."

     "Okay, okay!" She leapt off the counter into a run. "See you later!" she called, waving from the door, and dashed down the sunlit streets toward the docks. It'd been years since one of her missions had put her on a boat! Would it be a trading ship, she wondered, or a private yacht? Or maybe a fishing boat! She could help with hauling in the nets while they sailed to wherever they were going!

     Hikaru had a perfectly worked out dream in her head of how they could manage all the nets on the boat at once, just bursting with fish, by the time she spotted Umi-chan and Fuu-chan already on the pier. Umi-chan was flipping a long, blue sheet of hair over her shoulder and rolling her eyes while Fuu-chan was leaning over to talk to someone. But Hikaru could barely see the boat! That couldn't be the Haliotidae, could it?

     Oh, no. Of course it wasn't! As she ran, the figure in the water came out from behind the pole. Ferio, in his little dinghy as usual. Maybe he'd finally gotten commissioned on a big pirate boat somewhere and wanted to make good on his promise to steal Fuu-chan away? Hopefully he wouldn't be too mad if he found out she was a ninja, not a schoolgirl. But rules were, she couldn't let him find out, so that probably wouldn't come up anytime soon.

     "I know it's not much," Hikaru heard him saying, focusing in so she could hear from the other end of the dock, "... but I want you to have it. As my promise that someday, I'll make all your dreams come true."

     So he probably hadn't gotten that commission, then.

     Fuu-chan clutched his present under her chin between her folded hands, smile unchanged on her face. "My dreams? What dreams would those be?"

     "Oh, for the love of God..." Umi-chan muttered.

     "Umi-chan! Fuu-chan!" Hikaru called out. "I'm here!"

     "Ah, Hikaru-san!"

     "Hikaru! You're late!" Her blue-haired friend grabbed her around the shoulders and pinched out both Hikaru's laughing cheeks. "What're we going to do with you?!"

     An old man leaned over the rail of the schooner docked nearby. "If that's all of you, let's set sail before we lose this wind!"

     "We'll be right there!" all three girls called together.

     But as they walked off, Ferio grabbed Fuu-chan's hand and stopped her. "Wait. That's the ship you're sailing on?"

     "That's right," said Fuu-chan. "The captain agreed to take us for our field trip, since it's on his way."

     "But the Haliotidae's going to--"

     Umi-chan pouted and crossed her arms over her chest. "To Chizeta. I mean, we know all about the giant octopuses, and how there's pirates there, but there's monsters and pirates here, too. And it's really the closest place to study comparative volcanic geology."

     Oh. So that was their cover story. Good to know.

     Ferio didn't look quite so calm as either of her friends, nor as calm as the Haliotidae's captain, who was probably more afraid of Lady Yuuko than of anybody else. The young man just stood there for a second, eyes gaped and mouth twitching so it set the cross-scar on his chin dancing. "Does your school know Chizeta's just declared itself in rebellion?! You could be heading into a pirate war!"

     Sometimes, Hikaru really wished she could tell people she was a ninja, and could handle little messes like pirate wars, but she doubted Ferio would find ninjas in the mix to be at all reassuring.

~//~

     The haze from Karen's pipe lingered at the top of the war room, nestled in the heart of the Dragon of Heaven where the rocking of the waves tried and failed to budge the lead markers Sorata had spread over the south seas map. Smoke didn't burn Kamui's eyes anymore, whether gunpowder or tobacco, and the swirling shadows it left on their plans below did no harm. They simply made the pictures of the ocean seem to shift and live as if it were real water. Even down here at the Equator, with volcanic beaches instead of the gentle slopes of home or the rocky cliffs of nearby shores, the water was the same terrain he knew. The flagship of the Takifugu pirate fleet, the pride of the seas, didn't usually ship out to personally quash rebellions, but most 'pirate rebels' were lone shark layabouts who came crawling back as soon as they realized how annoying it was to negotiate new shipping contracts. Chizeta was organized, and they meant it when they said they wanted to expand their territory out of their little islands.

     That was bad enough, but of course it wasn't all. Whatever extra message Princess Kotori had sent to Fai this morning, the Pirate King hadn't shared. The blond had barely said anything, and that wasn't like him. His silence as he slowly peeled an orange from the dish next to the map was starting to give Kamui permanent shivers.

     The gunnery mistress curled a strand of red hair over her ear and tapped the tiny bowl at the end of her long pipestem on the blue field marking the Chizetan Sea, spirals of white curling up to join the smoke clinging to the ceiling. "We'll need to be at least this close to their fortress for our big guns to breach the walls."

     "I'm hopin' it won't come to that," Sorata answered, and slid the figure for the ship two inches back from where Karen had pointed. "We're talking before we shoot." After thinking another second, he moved the figure for the Dragon of Earth five inches behind the miniature Dragon of Heaven. Far enough to keep the hell ship out of sight from the land, even if it came out for air. One sight of the Barrows-Guard on her decks would stop any chance of negotiations, that was for sure. The rest were no better. Everyone on that thing was a murder waiting to happen (except Fuuma, and maybe Kakyou). "Anybody got a problem with that, him and me can settle it outside."

     Nobody argued with Sorata's declaration that they'd talk to the two princesses first. The captain was the only one here from Chizeta himself, but it wasn't like these were ninja. Pirates had manners. They might get out of this without wasting a shot, if Sorata could talk them down. Sorata could talk people into the damnedest things, and before you knew it they'd be smiling and nodding when you asked them to do one-handed handstands in waterfalls.

     At least, Kamui was pretty sure Sorata had done that to other people. Not just him.

     Murmurs of agreement from Aoki and Yuzuriha. More silence from the Pirate King, Fai D. Fluorite, and another bite of orange. The pile of peels he'd built up through the whole session would spill over onto the floor any second. Whatever he was thinking, this had better not be just another game to him.

     Arashi had already said everything she planned to say, and Subaru was standing back in the corner as always -- shooting worried glances at Fai every few minutes still. Worried enough that a glimmer of obvious concern peeked through the eternal gravitas that Kamui had rarely seen wrinkle before, so Subaru had to be lying when he said nothing was wrong. He'd been doing that for almost two weeks now, since that fucking ninja had shown up and Fai had let him get away after a parlay for 'favors rendered'. If Kamui didn't know better, he'd have guessed it was because Chizeta had seen that brilliant tactical decision as a signal of weakness to exploit, but the hushed whispers their navigator had been directing at His Mysteriously Royal Foppishness (which Fai had been ignoring) had more to do with a brightening star Subaru thought might be a comet (not that anyone else could see it at all, or fathom why he'd be worried about a comet).

     Kamui would have given his favorite hat to live in a world where Subaru thought nothing was wrong except for Chizeta's princesses, Tarta and Tatra, declaring war.

     "Hmm..." Fai dropped an orange peel into the dish holding down the nearest corner of the map. He scanned the landscape and rubbed his hands, and then he moved every person's figure from the beach back to the ship except for his own and Sorata's. "I think a low-profile chat would go over better, don't you?"

     Kamui grabbed his own marker out of Fai's hands and dropped it back on the beach. "Are you insane?!"

     Fai smiled, and pursed his lips as he cocked an eyebrow.

     "Don't answer that," Kamui corrected himself. "We can't send two people! Tarta and Tatra are the best fighters in Chizeta after Sorata!"

     The Pirate King pushed Kamui's marker toward the ship again. "So since I'm going with Sorata, that's not a problem."

     "They could have an ambush!" When he tried to shove his miniature back towards the beach, his finger hit table and he nearly stubbed his nail against the map.

     Wouldn't you know, Fai had nabbed it faster than the eye could see, and now he was holding it out of reach on the other side of the table, flipping it through his fingers. "We'll be fine!"

     "Yeah, don't worry Kamui!" With a laugh, Sorata ruffled his hair. "I'll have the flare gun. If anything nasty starts, you guys could get there with the ship in two minutes flat to make 'em regret it."

     "Besides, I've got a special job for you." Fai picked up two more tokens from the board and placed all three on top of Mt. Saijaan, the volcano at the center of the island. "You're going here, with Yuzuriha-chan and Saiki-kun."

     All the serious faces in the room looked up from the map to stare down the blond, and Yuzuriha almost choked on the sip of rum she'd been drinking. "Wait, what?" their sea-mistress asked. "Is there something going on besides, you know... the potential war? I thought that was why we were here."

     "Why would there be something going on? I just thought, as long as we were in the area, there's something I want you to pick up. It's not like a little rebellion is the end of the world."

     Fai did have a magpie way of running after shiny objects. Kamui might have believed nothing special was going on, if only it hadn't been for Subaru in the corner. Their navigator's mouth tightened, and now there were no quick glances anywhere. He kept his eyes fixed on Fai without bothering to see where he'd pointed on the map. Subaru knew what this was about.

     Well, then, maybe this 'special job' wasn't complete bullshit. "Fine," Kamui growled. "What do you want us to go get?"

     With a laugh, Fai picked up another orange from the table and spun it around in his hand. "Oh, then I guess you haven't heard, Kamui-chan. You must know how two of the Dioscuri's orbs went missing once upon a time."

     Kamui stiffened, his grip tight on the table. Less because Fai was prattling on about fairy tales like the Six Divine Warriors, and more because the King had called him 'Kamui-chan'. No one but Princess Kotori called him that. Whatever he was out to find, then -- and it couldn't be one of those communicator orbs because the Dioscuri weren't fucking real -- but whatever it was, it had been the reason the Princess had contacted them this morning.

     "Yeah," Yuzuriha answered before anyone could notice Kamui hadn't. "When the Heavenly Twins died, their orbs shot into the sky like falling stars, and no one knows where they fell. At least, that's what the legends said."

     The Pirate King traced a lazy finger around the meandering borders of the volcano on the map. "Well. Word is, we can get to one of them from here. If you're up for it."

     "Maybe if you stop screwing around and tell us what you're really after!"

     "But I just did, Kamui!" Fai whined with a phony pout. "I simply must have that orb. I promise, the fate of the entire human race depends on it."

     "The Six Divine Warriors. Are. A. Myth." Grabbing the orange out of Fai's hands before he could start eating it and refuse to answer because gentlemen didn't talk with their mouths full, Kamui snarled, "Somebody made them up. Like somebody made up the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus."

     "You know, next time Santa stops by for dinner, I'm going to tell him you said that, and he's not going to be happy." Around them, everyone who was involved in a real mission bustled about, cleaning up the map and markers, murmuring about munitions and miscellany. Kamui grabbed the whole bowl of oranges so Fai couldn't take another. "You know, if you're that unsure about what's real and what's not, you could just ask Seishirou. He's supposed to be one of the Dioscuri, isn't he?"

     "The Barrows-Guard would say whatever he damn well wanted, whether it was true or not. Kind of like you!" As if there was anything he needed to know badly enough to ask that bastard about it. "People call Arashi the Fata Morgana, but that doesn't mean she's a fairy castle floating on the horizon. Yuzuriha's not actually a Black Cat. I'm not Death itself! That man doesn't need to be a demon in human form who stole immortality from the stars for everyone to think he's earned the name!"

     Kamui couldn't meet Subaru's eyes while he said it, although he could feel his friend's hurt twisting under the silent, unchanging shell he showed the world. What he'd said had needed to be said, and the one time Kamui had tried to say he was sorry for speaking his mind about the hell ship's navigator after he'd learned how Subaru felt, Subaru had told him, 'Don't,' before the apology could cross his lips. And that had been the last of that. Fai, on the other hand, made more than enough of a show of his wounded pout that a fool could tell it was only an act. "You think Seishirou would say that when it wasn't true?! What, do you think the Snow Fox didn't captain the first pirate ship, too?! And you'd probably say the Dimension Witch didn't really found the Ninja Union!"

     "If six warriors with that kind of power were running around the world, never aging and never dying--"

     "Four warriors," Yuzuriha added, boosting up over the table to steal back one of the oranges. "The Heavenly Twins got killed, remember? Only the Snow Fox, the Dimension Witch, the Barrows-Guard, and the Dreamseer survived at Abaddon Falls."

     He could feel the energy of wanting to punch Fai in the face crackling around his clenched fist like lightning. "Four, six... whatever! Someone would have noticed them! If the Dioscuri were real, where are they?"

     "Gosh, Kamui. You may have a point there." The asinine fop turned to Subaru, who'd dropped his face into his hand and was shaking his head at the ground. Clearly he wasn't the only one who thought Fai was too ridiculous to bear. If Subaru was running out of patience, then matters had gone more than far enough. "Maybe they've retired to some tropical island," the blond mused at the Sumeragi, "with cabana boys to wait on them hand and foot. You don't think that'd get boring after an eternity, do you?" As soon as a growl started rumbling in Kamui's throat, Fai looked back and grinned. "Tell you what. If you can beat me in Rock, Paper, Scissors, you can go to the negotiations with whoever you want, and I'll go to the volcano."

     Kamui stuck out his fist with a glare, silently counting 1, 2, 3 while they both threw down, and stuck out his hand flat for Paper.

     Fai waggled the two fingers he'd held out for Scissors, the sly grin on his face never changing. "Well, isn't that just the worst luck?"

     Swiping his hat off the table, Kamui stomped off toward the door. "I guess I'll find out what we're really after when I get my hands on it."

     "Now you've done it," he heard Sorata laugh from other side of the war room. "You know how Kamui hates losing at Rock, Paper, Scissors."

     "He'll be fine after he's perched on something tall for a while," Fai shot back. "That always makes him feel balanced and defensible."

     The latch on the door was shaking in his grip and the hinges squealing when he felt a hand on his shoulder. "I'll go with you," Subaru said. Kamui hadn't even heard him walk up, and barely noticed his anger fading away as they stepped out into the narrow corridor.

     "Subaru..."

     "Some quiet will be nice while we can get it. This won't be a good year."

     "This trip would go just fine if that--" Kamui cut himself off as he realized that Subaru hadn't been talking about Chizeta. Nobody expected Chizeta to go longer than a week before they gave in. "Wait. Did you say, year?"

     Green eyes stared him down with blunt honesty. Kamui thought he could see echoes in them of the whispers about comets only Subaru could read in the skies, and omens the Pirate King would never take as seriously as they deserved. He tried to sigh, but felt a shiver in his chest that wouldn't still. "I won't ask what you mean by that. I bet I won't like it."

     As they stepped from the lamplit confines of the ship to the clear night on deck, the brocade of Subaru's coat seemed to shine all the brighter under the white light of the moon and stars, as if the yellow flames indoors weren't pure enough and cast a colored shadow over his back. Seeming to glow like the the foam capping the nearest waves on the obsidian seas, his friend murmured, "I'm sure."

Chapter Text

  • Blend equal parts rum, coconut water, and coconut milk with a half-measure of grenadine and a cup of ice.
  • Pour into a highball glass.
  • Garnish with shaved coconut and a cherry.

     All three of them heard the scrape of a long boat pulling up onto the shore. "Pirates," Hikaru murmured. They were too far from the seashore for normal ears to hear them. She, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan all slipped between the trees safely back from the beachline, hidden out of sight in the hazy unreality of the shadows. "Who do you think it'll be?"

     Swords in hand, they waited to see. Umi-chan whispered, "My bet's on Arashi, the war-mistress. Anyone pulling ashore here must be leading an ambush, right?"

     "Except for Captain Arisugawa, I'd say they're all equally likely," Fuu-chan answered. "But the captain would be needed elsewhere. There's always a chance we'll be lucky, and the Dragon of Heaven would have sent a few lackeys without any of their officers."

     That was for sure, Hikaru thought to herself. With the situation as volatile as it was, any ninja who knew less than a tenth of what she knew about pirates would be hoping to get overlooked as soon as they saw those proud pirate sails puffing in the bay, or Takifugu's pufferfish flag flying over that prow -- carved with the figurehead of a red-eyed girl whose white hair trailed into her flowing garments and down into the water. Hinoto, the Lady Luck of the Pirate King's flagship, and where she sailed, her sister ship the Dragon of Earth would be close enough to rain down destruction before the next sun set. Hikaru wouldn't have shied away from a clean scuffle with piracy's elite herself, but it didn't bode well for their mission being quick.

     The Pirate King's Council, so Eagle had said, was home to the very best from each of the ten great pirate fleets. The Dragon of Heaven and the Dragon of Earth made port in the Kaizuka, the floating capital of the Takifugu fleet, but the captain of the Dragon of Heaven came from these Southern waters, the cream of Chizeta, and the captain of the Dragon of Earth had sailed his way to fame in the Eunos Islands dotting the warm, equatorial sea between the three Eastern continents. Fleets as close as England and France, and as far off as Santiago, Lifan, Autozam, Mazda, and Oro... all of the pirate admirals sent commands to their ships from those decks -- leaving four officer spots open between the two crews for whoever was strong enough to take them.

     Hikaru had fought some tough pirates in her days, but the only ninja she'd heard could win against that lot without an army to back him up was Kurogane. At least, if they went head to head, that was. If she, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan did their job right, of course, those pirates would never know ninja had been here at all, and if they did have to fight, the three of them were about a match for an army. They'd make it. But they all listened carefully now to find out if their cover had already been blown. The Pirate King was supposed to be meeting Tarta and Tatra on the other side of the island, after all, not sending people to search the beach near the volcano.

     All holding the same breath, the girls waited for the pirate footsteps to come out from behind the sheer wall of a cliff. Three sets of footsteps, she counted, one quiet and calm, one with a bright spring in the step, and one stomping so hard the sand complained underneath.

     "He cheated," a snarly voice said. "He's a cheat. He always cheats." The voice belonged to the first figure to pass the cliff, hair even blacker than his close-fitted brocade coat, eyes that flashed with the same purple trimming as his waistcoat and one or two of the bobbing feathers on his hat.

     "I think that's Death Shirou," Fuu-chan murmured. So much for lackeys. It had to be him, sure as breathing -- the phenom born and raised in the royal mansion at Kaizuka, First Mate on the Dragon of Heaven. That scowl was legendary.

     And the girl bouncing next to him in avocado and lime jacquard was Black Cat Yuzuriha. They'd met once in line at the ice cream parlor, while Hikaru was pretending to be an ordinary schoolgirl. She was actually super nice. Fighting her might be fun!

     "He didn't have to cheat, Kamui," the pirate lady laughed. "Everybody knows you always throw Paper!"

     "People are more likely to throw Rock than anything else! And Paper beats Rock!"

     "That only works if nobody knows that you always throw Paper. Hey, Saiki-kun!" she called out to the blond trailing behind them, looking much less fine in his yellowed linens and unlaced leather vest. "Can I see the map?"

     The pirates stopped all of a yard away, right at the edge of the trail as they studied their parchment. Always nice when hiding in shadows worked that well. None of the ninja spoke. No reason to jinx it.

     "What the--?!" Death Shirou grabbed the map with both hands. "This is bullshit! How is a maze supposed to help us? The volcano's not even on here!"

     The blond pointed towards the mountain looming in the not-too-distant landscape beyond the village. "Well, we can see the volcano, right? That shouldn't be a problem."

     "I know. I just have this sense of impending doom," the black-clad pirate said, shaking his head.

     Yuzuriha pulled him onto a path by the wrist. "You have senses of impending doom more often than you throw Paper."

     "Can you blame me?! God, I wish Subaru were here."

     "If we get attacked, just make sure you jump high enough that when you spontaneously generate feathers, they fly above the treeline. The Sumeragi will probably see them, and then he will be here."

     "And if that doesn't work, we've got a flare gun," added the blond who Yuzuriha had called Saiki.

     "I don't need Subaru to rescue me!" As the pirates turned down a curve in the path toward the village, trees shielding them from sight, the last thing they heard was Shirou grumbling, "And I don't make feathers appear out of nowhere for fun, you know. The universe does that on its own! Because it hates me!"

     All at once, the three ninja phased out of the shadows back onto the edge of the sand. "So..." Umi-chan said, turning to Hikaru and Fuu-chan with a smack of her lips. "... Everyone noticed that they're headed the same place we're headed, right?" As they nodded, she rolled her eyes. "Yeah. Just checking. Fan-fucking-tastic."

~//~

     Casting on the mooring line, Sorata nodded at the docked Bravada, wooden slats of her fan-sails stowed tight with bare-chested crewmen scrubbing the decks. The blue and red djinn designs etched all around the top of the ship's sides, curling together in a spiral at the point of the bow, were all the proof they needed. That was Tatra and Tarta's ship. He'd know it anywhere.

     "Told'ja this's where they'd be," he snickered, and pulled himself up on the dock.

     Fai stepped lightly from their longboat to the solid pier, easy as if he'd been strolling up a hill. It took a man who'd lived his life on the waves to know how much balance you needed to switch from sea to land so easily, and Sorata envied anyone who had it. Only the Fata Morgana (with her legs like a work of art, no fooling) and the Sumeragi had anywhere near the grace to their step that the Pirate King could muster. The blond twirled around on his toes, pulling taut over his shoulders a careworn, oversized jacket the color of lichens. "So, how do I look?"

     He scratched his head, ignoring the sailors on the Bravada signaling their mistresses that company had arrived. They'd come to talk, so that was no problem. Fai's jacket, on the other hand... Now, the King had said they were doing this casual, and that sure was casual. Not that it looked bad with the baby blue waistcoat traced in silver riding underneath it, or with the cream, feather-crested hat. 'Distressed' could be a fashion statement -- just a strange one, seeing something so close to needing patches and so long the sleeves needed folded up decking the man who usually gussied himself up to the perfectly tailored nines when he was stepping out. And if Sorata remembered right, that particular jacket might as well have been the start of all their problems with Chizeta. At least, that particular problem had been wearing it. "I'd been meaning to ask-- Is that... the jacket the Sumeragi pulled off'a Kurogane when he snuck on board the other week?"

     "Yep!" Fai snugged the collar around his neck, seams draping a bit where the largeness of the fabric folded in to meet the blond's slender frame. "Perfect fit, don't you think?"

     "Is there a reason you're wearing a ninja's pirate costume instead of the coat you always wear? You know, not that there's anything wrong with that."

     With a chuckle, his crazy-ass leader cast his eyes to the shore, then whipped around toward the tent where Tatra and Tarta had to be waiting. "Because I can," Fai declared.

     "Hey, I ain't gonna complain." It was the same reason the King did anything. Fair enough. He'd never have worn something that sweltering, though, not in a place like this. Sorata had pulled his old clothes out of his trunk to let 'em get some air as soon as he'd heard they were sailing down themselves. A bright orange wrap hung over his shoulder and the lazy island wind billowed through pants that felt as light as the air. Ten times too thin for the cold-ass life up north, that stuff was. The only hint of brocade and leather he'd kept was the belts over his hips -- one for keepin' his clothes on, and one to hang his sword from.

     Man, it felt good to be home.

     As he jumped atop one of the pillars steadying the dock, he cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed at the tent struck on the rocky sand a few feet back from the tide line. "Ahoy, the shore!" Sorata whipped a black handkerchief from where he'd tucked it under his belt and waved it over his head. "Two come seeking parlay with the Princesses of Chizeta!"

     A yell rang out of the tent, scaring the birds off in every direction as far as the eyes could see. That'd be Tarta, one crocodile of a woman, though Sorata'd take a fight with her over a negotiation with the older sister any day of the week. Her Ladyship, Princess Tatra, was more like a Venus Flytrap. All pretty and inviting and smiles and stillness, then snap! You're dead meat. At least with the younger sister calling down curses from behind flaps of silk or on a wide wooden deck, you always knew what she was thinkin'. "You wanna end this with a parlay, do you? What limp-dicked Kaizuka fribble thinks he can talk us into--"

     She stormed past the tent flap and nearly fell on her bikini-suited bottom when she saw him wave, long red ponytail swinging up to hit her in the face. Her older sister's hands on her shoulders kept the pirate princess on her feet. "Honestly, Tarta! Such language! And in front of visitors, too..." The two ladies stepped forward with the silk sarongs tied at their waists trailing out behind them. "Oh, but you're not visitors at all, are you?! Sora-chan, what a pleasure to see you again! And I see you brought a friend, too."

     They stepped off the pier and onto the sand, meeting the princesses halfway up the beach. Fai bowed at the waist, perfectly genteel and looking every inch the King despite the worn coat hanging from his shoulders. "Fai D. Fluorite, at your service. It's an honor to meet you face to face -- Lady Tatra, Lady Tarta."

     "And what brings the King of Pirates so far south at this time of year?" the elder sister giggled into her hand. "Why, it's not even festival season, or I'd have some coconut salad for you. The cooks in Saijaan make simply the best coconut salad."

     Tarta rolled her eyes, her growl nearly drowning out the clink of gold bangles as she brought her hands to her hips. "We know why he's here, Tatra-neesama! He thinks if he struts Sorata down here to have a chat with us, we'll be so swept up that we'll forget how that whole ship's gone ninja-happy!" She pointed a finger up under Fai's chin, getting closer to the blond than Sorata would have dared do if he were making a threat. People who closed in to attack the Pirate King had a way of finding themselves screaming at empty air right before a bucket of fish oil 'accidentally' fell on their heads. He didn't much want to know what would happen if you pushed the man far enough to make him fight for serious. "Well, think again!" Tarta yelled, neverminding how Sorata and Tatra each grabbed an arm to pull her back. "In Chizeta, we keep these islands clean of ninja scum, and we don't see any reason to hold with a Pirate Guild whose master lets a ninja come and go from his flagship as he pleases! Did you even get a ransom for those hostages you took?!"

     The smile dancing across Fai's lips didn't falter for an instant. "Oh. I got plenty."

     Sorata let Tarta's arm go, and nodded at Tatra to do the same, letting the enraged red-head charge the Pirate King. Fai was asking for it. He may as well get it, or he might start asking for worse. The blond man slid to the side so she rushed past him, and leapt off to take a lap around the beach with Tarta hot on his tail. From the way his laughs rung out over the seascape and his steps seemed to float as easy as old rope through the baggywrinkle, you wouldn'ta thought he was getting run down by the second best sword-fighter alive in Chizeta. Tarta was already flashing her scimitar, although she wasn't gaining an inch on Fai for all the sand she was kicking up in a tail behind her.

     "Sorry about that!" Sorata laughed, scratching at the back of his neck with a grin that was more than a little bit grimace. So he had to negotiate with Tatra after all. Maybe it was for the best. The elder princess and the Pirate King could probably smile at each other all day and never say a word that'd get anybody anywhere. "His Grace said he wanted to talk this out, but he's got what you might call... issues with anger management. In other people. Just can't help seeing what it takes to set them off. The parlay request is for real."

     "You'll have to forgive Tarta as well. You know she's normally such a sweet girl."

     "Ah... yeah." An image haunted his brain of Tarta from the summer festival before he'd left for the north, wearing nothing but twenty-five balloon-missiles-worth of mango jam, whooping with a makeshift club held high, and taunting everybody who'd run second or lower in the annual marathon from her perch on the lip of the volcano. It was kinda sweet, he guessed. At least, the jam had been sweet when he'd taken a fruit bomb of his own to the face. "Anyways, we brought down a crate of oranges in the boat, and some wine to go with 'em. Why don't you and me at least sit down in your tent and have a civil chat? Maybe put this whole mess behind us? 'Cause I don't wanna fight you, Tatra."

     She tapped her lip and looked back at the tent, the racing figures of Fai and Tarta dashing past the front flap three times while Tatra thought in silence. Then she turned to him and smiled. "Goodness. If we go into the tent for a chat, whatever will I do with the squad of bowmen waiting inside for you two to make a false move? I guess they'll have to switch to swords at such close range..."

     Some people might have thought Tatra was joking, but he'd known her long enough and well enough to make out that she was dead serious. She'd opened her laugh-squinted eyes up enough for him to see the steel in 'em. "Is this really how it has to be?" he sighed.

     "Nobody minds who a pirate dallies with, Sora-chan. But if the Pirate King's flagship can't deal properly with one ninja, you're going to have to prove your crew's fitness for command." The princess pushed a toe under the sand to unearth her shield and whip, grin turning cold as she took them up. "And you'll be doing it the old-fashioned way."

     He fell into a fighting stance with his cutlass out. "That's too bad. I was lookin' forward to your mint tea."

~//~

     From their spot in the bushes, Kamui could see more men and women than he was quite happy with, sorting out kegs of powder and reserves of food from stockpiles. The piles the Chizetan pirates were making looked like supplies for at least fifteen warships, with plenty more still in storage. Nothing the Dragon of Heaven and the Dragon of Earth couldn't handle together, but it'd cost them dear. "I'd like to go in there, right through the front, and break up their whole operation," he murmured. He didn't like skulking around in the shadows like this, trying not to get seen. That was ninja stuff.

     Yuzuriha pinched his nose and stifled a laugh. "As long as the Captain hasn't shot off the flare gun, the diplomatic solution still has a chance. No breaking things till then! But if things go south by the time we're done at the volcano, you can let loose on the way back."

     "Thanks." Whoever'd had the bright idea to put the admirals of all the different fleets together as some kind of sea-borne ambassadorial super squad had probably had very good reasons for it, like some fragment of world peace, but all of its perks meant living with one nasty side effect -- every officer on board was so used to being in charge, nobody really gave a damn about their local chain of command. Maybe Sorata was technically Captain, and he was technically First Mate, and maybe Fai had scored the title of Pirate King by some means no one could explain, but everyone was in charge. Sometimes, Kamui thought he'd pay his weight in gold doubloons to understand when he should just ignore everyone's advice and rush off on his own instincts.

     Yuzuriha was right, he decided as he watched more barrels of salted fish rolled into position. If he tried to sabotage the campsite here, nothing Sorata said to the princesses could stop a war. Their best chance of walking away from this with no trouble was not to start trouble.

     He sighed and scowled at the Chizetan stockpiles. "Fine. So let's get to the goddamn volcano and get what we came for."

     "Uncle Seiichirou says he went to the top of that volcano--" Saeki paused as Kamui and Yuzuriha turned to give him the eye. He threw both his hands up. "I'm sorry! I mean... Lord Aoki!"

     "We know the Oathkeeper's your uncle, Saeki-san," answered Yuzuriha, shaking her head at the deck hand's blushing. "Now, what'd he say about the volcano?"

     "Just that he'd been by here when he was young, and the people here race to the top of the volcano every year for their summer festival. Before we left the ship, he said he thought it was odd, His Grace wanting something from the volcano. He hadn't noticed anything there at all."

     "So he means it can't be at the top." Kamui could feel the sandy earth under his hands running through his fingers as they closed into fists. "Fai can't possibly mean for us to search every inch of that mountain when we don't even know how to tell when we've found what we're looking for."

     Pulling at the collar of her coat, so much heavier and more closely cut than anything the locals wore, Yuzuriha laughed. "And it's not like we blend. Think somebody'd talk to us long enough for us to ask if there's a secret cave or anything?"

     Funny how every place on Earth had bugs that sounded like crickets, just waiting to count out moments of awkward silence.

     Then a flash caught Kamui's attention out of the corner of his eye. Nothing big, just a flicker of red where that shade of red shouldn't have been there to see, then a flicker of blue as he turned his head around -- as ephemeral as a spark jumping between folds of a blanket in the dark. No one in the camp noticed it. Even Yuzuriha hadn't seen it, and her eyes were among the best on the ship for spotting the smallest hint of land on the horizon. When the flicker of green jumped from the shadow of one tent across a patch of sunlight to another shadow, he was looking straight at it. He stilled his breath and looked carefully like years of necessity had taught him. The best ninja seemed to disappear clear out of the world, same as moths blending into the bark of a tree. A moth could flap its wings, and if you weren't looking for it, you'd never see it until it flew straight into your face. But if you knew how to look for the wavering of patterns in the bark, they were there to notice. And if you knew how to look for the subtle ripples in the flat reality of the world, you could see a ninja move.

     Just barely, his eyes could make out a pole that shimmered and bent as faintly as if you'd dropped it into an inch of the clearest water. Maybe less. This was no amateur. Then a coconut tree showed a hint of warping, and another, the effect disappearing down a path. Kamui pointed in the direction where the ninja -- it had to be ninja -- had disappeared. "We're going that way."

     "Kamui, that path goes away from the volcano."

     "Trust me," he answered, and shifted as quietly as possible behind the bushes so as not to attract attention from the locals. If ninja were here, that'd explain why Fai was in some kind of a rush to get what he was after. The Witch-Queen, Yuuko, was probably after the same thing.

     He tried to keep his eyes open for the glimmers that'd show a ninja passing, but while he was on the move it was impossible to see. His perspective kept shifting too much to see the world itself shift. All he could do was run where his gut told him to, and breathe a tiny word of thanks that the trail had no branches. Yuzuriha and Saeki ran along behind him without another complaint, all of them setting foot on the trail and running at full tilt as soon as they were clear of the rebel encampment's sightlines.

     The last thing he expected to hear was voices coming out of the wood ahead of them. There hadn't been any footprints, or any indication at all that another soul had gone ahead of them save the ninja sign that had pointed him this way. If a team of shinobi had heard them coming, a silent ambush ought to have been waiting, but if they were talking...

     Maybe the ninja had somehow missed them following? Or they were doing something unexpected and weird. Kamui hated unexpected and weird.

     Blocking the path with his arm, Kamui slowed and motioned to Yuzuriha to stay quiet. Together, the three of them crept around the corner, listening to the girls' voices conversing at the end of the trail.

     "These are definitely igneous formations. See the smooth trails here? And I think that's volcanic glass..."

     "I'm telling you, that's quartzite! It's definitely metamorphic, Fuu!"

     "Well, let's note the surroundings in the notebook and collect some samples to take back to school, okay? Then we can see if that passage leads under the volcano."

     As the trees cleared, he could see three figures gathered around around an ordinary-looking opening in a rock outcropping Kamui never would have looked at twice. It certainly didn't look like any kind of legendary cave he'd ever seen. The three girls weren't armed, either -- that he could see. Didn't mean anything, he supposed. The ordinary schoolgirl clothes they were wearing didn't mean much either. All that mattered to Kamui about them was that one girl was wearing fiery red, one was decked out in blue like some moods of the sea, and one had a jacket and skirt the same green as sunlit leaves rustling in a breeze.

     From over his shoulder, Yuzuriha called out, "Hikaru?" and ran out to meet the three girls. He didn't manage to grab her jacket in time to stop her.

     The red-haired, red-clad girl looked up, and the surprise on her face was plenty convincing for all that Kamui didn't believe it. "Yuzuriha-chan? Is that you? Well, what do you know! Our school sends us halfway around the planet on a research trip, and here you are!"

     "That is just too crazy to believe," Yuzuriha said, stretching her arms back behind her head. She was standing just far enough away that Kamui could hold some hope she didn't believe it.

     "Too bad there's no ice cream here, huh?!"

     "I heard there's a place that makes great slushies in Saijaan, though! We should totally go when you're done with your research! Do you mind if we hang out for awhile?"

     The blonde dressed in green smiled brightly. What was it with blond people and those creepy, too-slick smiles? "Any friend of Hikaru-san's is a friend of ours. Please, stay as long as you like -- I hope it won't be too boring watching us study the rocks?"

     "That's enough bullshit," Kamui snarled, and drew his sword. These girls could hide it well, but every body that had trained for combat reacted somehow when threatened. Muscles ready to move, weight on the toes. Not even a hint of panic in any of their eyes. Maybe they knew when lying wasn't going to work anymore. "We know you're ninja, and we know you're after the orb."

     Technically, that was more than he knew and fell firmly into the realm of guessing, but Kamui didn't much care. All three dropped whatever ruse they'd been clinging to, and fell back into a wedge formation, poised to take whatever attack he had to offer.

Chapter Text

  • Mix equal parts vodka, light rum, gin, triple sec, and Amaretto with half a measure of Bacardi 151. No substitutions.
  • Stir in grenadine syrup to taste.
  • Top off with pineapple and grapefruit juices.

     Sand had already gotten into his boots, fighting the two princesses with Sorata at his back, so Fai pulled off the smooth leather and the socks underneath, balancing on his toes on the shifting beach as the collected heat of the sun burned into his skin. A hard fight under these conditions wasn't his idea of a perfect day, but if everything went just right, they wouldn't be fighting long.

     If everything went right, he had much better plans for the day. This was an island paradise, after all.

     He kept his eyes on the young princess with the sword, paused to catch her breath under one of the coconut trees. The ambush forces waiting in the tent, on the Bravada, and hidden around the surrounding flora wouldn't move until Tarta called for them -- Tatra wouldn't do it first, not while she was in a one-on-one fight with Sorata.

     "Draw your weapon!" The well-kept metal of Tarta's scimitar glinted in the sun as if she hoped to blind him with the flash.

     Fai shrugged with a pout, ducking just enough to let Tatra's whip fly over his head from behind and miss the feather on his hat by an inch. "Can't! I'm unarmed!" he called back. "But that's my fault, isn't it? No reason for you to hold back."

     Technically not true. He had plenty of tricks up his sleeves (and various other places), but he wasn't going to fight her. And that, as they said, was that. Just as Sorata rushed to close in on Tatra, Fai dashed over to a particular palm tree -- not quite close enough to the other trees for the waiting Chizetan squads to consider it an opportunity. And when Tarta grinned and charged him, he smiled right back.

     "You've got guts, I'll say that much," she answered, landing another slice in the sand when Fai slid out of the way of her strike. "Or a little too much crazy. Takin' on my sword barehanded."

     "I wouldn't say 'taking on', really. Weren't we still having a conversation? I'm just dodging."

     "There ain't nothing..." Her blade whistled by his ear. Barely missed that one! "... to talk about!"

     "Isn't there?" Fai laughed. "You object to how my crew handled a little ninja run-in, and why wouldn't you? You've got no idea how we could have let a single ninja get in, and get away with what he wanted. When you've kept these islands ninja-free for so long, I entirely understand how you'd take that amiss."

     "So stop wasting my time!"

     The princess cut the air with a slash, right where his chest would have been if he hadn't rolled behind her. As he stood, he wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her sword hand back to break her grip, leaving the scimitar glittering on the beach. "But it's just not fair for you to judge us, don't you think? You've never even met the ninja we're talking about. Anyone can say they'd have done better, when they haven't had to handle that particular problem. That's easy." He snapped one of his feet back from Tarta's attempt to mash it with her heel, then trapped her leg. Taking her down to one knee, he whispered, "I think my crew deserves a more informed opinion. What do you say?"

     Planting her free arm in the sand, Tarta twisted and kicked, knocking herself free and slamming Fai in the chest with both feet. Even rolling with the impact, that still hurt. But not enough to slow him down just yet. "You goddamned jellyfish! What the hell are you even asking? Spit it out!"

     With a chuckle -- mostly a smile, really, ten parts grin to one part laugh -- he lifted his eyes up to a palm tree that wasn't as empty as everyone else on the beach thought it was. Seeing ninja who were hidden was a difficult trick to master, but he'd been practicing almost as long as ninja had been hiding. He looked straight at a man who'd just realized Fai could see him, clear as day, and yelled out, "Kuro-puu! Come out, come out, wherever you are!" Oh, the look on that man's face before he faded into full view. It would've melted the steel on a icebreaker's wedge. Well, he'd have to be upset to find out his little fact-finding mission wasn't as secret as he'd hoped, wouldn't he? Ninja were touchy about that. Fai tossed a look back over his shoulder toward Tarta scrambling first for her sword, then back toward the pier. "Olly olly oxen free."

     "What the fuck?!" That was Sorata. One could hardly blame him, Fai supposed. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Deadly probably hadn't made any officer's list of favorite people during his visit the other week. Except Fai's own, of course. "Fai-san, you wanna tell me what you think you're doing?! Why is he here?"

     The ninja lowered himself to the sand, striding forward. This time he was properly clothed in black ninja armor and everything. Absolutely scrumptious, and so full of very angry, unspoken questions. Probably not too different from the question Sorata had asked -- only instead of 'What's he doing here?' it'd be, 'How did you find out?' Fai laughed at both his ally and his 'enemy', staring into the breaking red storm of the ninja's eyes. "Oh, Kuro-kyun's been tracking us practically since we stopped to resupply in Marseilles," Fai answered. "I just thought, as long as we had him in tow, we might as well show our friends in Chizeta what manner of man got the better of our ship. Maybe they'll be more understanding." Tarta and Tatra had gathered up now, standing shoulder to shoulder and looking ready to summon their army. Skipping over to where Kuro-rin was flaring his nose and taking the lay of the land, Fai spread out his arms to indicate all the many options the ninja offered to put up one hell of a fight. "Exhibit A."

     An arm flew around his throat faster than he could blink, almost cutting off his air. Almost. Fai could already feel his heart beating faster as the ninja's other hand caught his wrists behind his back. "I ought to break your neck right now," the man in black hissed.

     "But you won't. Will you, lover?" He could feel it in the tension running through his ninja's legs and arms. Even through layers of cotton and linen, Fai could just drink in the way Kuro-rin's body fit to his. There wasn't an ounce of desire to kill anywhere in him. No, it was a different kind of desire, and yet not quite the kind of lust he could get from any passing scoundrel in the night. This was far more indulgent. One more time, the hum of their skin coming so close fed through his blood like a high note cracking a crystal glass. He wasn't done playing with that yet. "You still want to know who I am. You haven't figured me out. Isn't that why you're here?"

     "And you think I'm going to fight them just for that? For you?"

     "Of course not." It'd been a gamble just banking on his Kuro-tan showing himself when Fai called out. That only would have worked if the ninja cared more about what Fai could see -- and what he might be planning -- than he cared about getting in the middle of a pirate crossfire. The fact that the man was pulling his arm up now until his spine hit a painful curve, instead of waiting invisible in that tree while everyone on the beach assumed the Pirate King was fooling around again... That on its own made this officially a Good Day, Fai thought as he chuckled at the force of bright red eyes glaring down at him and the low rumble of a growl starting by his ear. "I don't care which side you fight on," Fai answered. "Just having you here, it's already less boring."

     A shower of arrows ripped out of the tent at the far edge of the beach, and the ninja tossed him to the ground, stepping out in front to cut down every missile coming their way. Fai rolled as he hit and avoided a mouthful of sand, biting his lip with a grin. There went Kuro-pii, one more time. Talking so tough and then acting so sweet. The ninja had stepped right into the perfect position to stop the arrows from hitting both of them. Maybe he hadn't been all the way lying two weeks ago, when he'd made such a convincing act of caring just the teensiest bit -- definitely more than he'd wanted to do.

     But he wouldn't be here for so simple a reason as that, and Fai meant to find out why he'd tracked them all this way -- and how.

     He stood at the ninja's back, casting a taunting grin toward the two princesses who were starting to advance with a small squadron behind them. "You might want to decide if I'm friend or foe pretty quick, Kuro-sama. This is about to get messy."

     "You're no friend of mine. But if you were gonna stab me in the back, you'd have done it by now."

     Sorata rolled over the ground between volleys from the archers, standing so the three of them were back-to-back-to-back against the oncoming fighters. "You maybe wanna tell me before you pull something like this, Fai-san? We got some pissed off ladies on our hands now. And, ah... Hi... Kurogane-san. Nice to see you again?"

     "Let's save the chat till the battle's clear, Captain," the ninja answered, then did a double take at Fai before training his gaze back on the enemy. "What the... Are you wearing my coat?"

     "Eyes on the road, lover."

     The crowds circled up and closed in under Tarta's command, bowmen running behind Tatra as she headed for the Bravada. The younger princess snarled, "Working with ninja! What else have you been hiding from us, huh? Well, we're not chumps you can lick without gettin' bit. If you think we're gonna take this, you've got another thing coming!"

     "I think this counts as negotiations going bad," Sorata murmured, and reached for the flare gun on his belt.

     Batting the captain's hand back down, Fai laughed out loud. Now they were definitely having fun. "I think we can take them."

~//~

     The three pirates all had blades out, but Hikaru didn't plan to draw hers yet. Fuu-chan and Umi-chan kept their swords hidden away as well, only bringing up their guards with their fists. Technically, she was pretty sure the three of them had the advantage if they got into a brawl, given the shadows littering the forested terrain, but not enough of one, and a brawl wasn't going to help anybody. Between a nearby camp full of hostile locals that would be none too happy with any of the people in this clearing, and the front-line issue of how the pirate First Mate had been able to spot them and follow them this way, Hikaru was sure every ninja in the crowd wanted to ask questions first and throw fireballs later. Shirou-san and Yuzuriha-chan must have thought something similar, or they'd have attacked by now.

     "So," Hikaru said, mouth twisting down into a frown. "You're after the orb, too."

     "Whatever's in that volcano, I'm taking it," Shirou answered.

     If Eagle had brought them down in the FTO, they would have beaten the pirate team by at least a week, easy. This could have been so much simpler, even with the miles of twisting cave they'd have to search to get under the volcano yet to go. But no use crying over it once brigands had shown up, blown their cover, and pulled swords, even if only one team could take the prize home. "Put your swords away," she told him. "When you ran up that path, some of the Chizetans heard you. We heard them putting together a search party." Hikaru stepped slowly toward Shirou-san, hands up and showing her palms, and she put her arm over the top of his cutlass to push it towards the ground.

     He flashed it down out of her reach, then swung it right back into a sideways thrust at her forehead. Or, where her forehead would have been if she hadn't flicker-stepped back to her position next to Umi-chan and Fuu-chan. "Give me one good reason why I should believe that. You're ninja. A second ago you were pretending to be students. Why would I trust you not to lie and then take us down the second we drop our guard?"

     That was basically standard protocol, Hikaru had to admit, although she'd always been pretty much the pits at the lying part. Unfortunately for all of them, the search party was real. They'd heard the yells from the camp a split second after they'd realized the three pirates had managed to tail them.

     "Wait two minutes, and it'll come around that corner with blow-guns and arrows," Umi-chan snapped at him. "God! You know, just a tip? Practice running so your footsteps don't sound like elephants!"

     "She may be right, Kamui." Yuzuriha-chan turned to peek back through the trees. "I think I hear voices down the path."

     "Kamui-san, is it?" Hikaru grinned as brightly as she could and pointed at the bare hole in the rocks. "I'm Hikaru. Why don't we all go hide in the caves, and settle this after the search party leaves?"

     "I don't want any of your tricks!"

     Yuzuriha-chan stepped up, putting a hand on Kamui-san's shoulder even as she kept her sword pointed at Fuu-chan's throat with the other. "I think we ought to go, Kamui. They haven't drawn their weapons, and they're not going to. If the search party finds us like this, all they'll see is three officers of an enemy fleet holding three schoolgirls hostage. We can't prove they're ninja."

     "But they are ninja!"

     "And the orb you're after is probably something the villagers don't want taken," Umi-chan added. "Only one way to find out, though. I can't wait to see their faces when we say you're looking for it."

     The black-coated pirate squeezed his grip tighter on the hilt of his sword. "I'm not cooperating with ninja. This whole Chizetan mess never would have happened if His Grace hadn't decided to cut a deal with that Kurogane jackass. I don't care who's coming -- cooperating with ninja makes everything worse!"

     That had to be the first time she'd ever heard the words "Kurogane" and "deal" in the same sentence. She'd heard the officers on the Dragon of Heaven were strong, but strong enough to convince the Black Hawk of Suwa that any level of cooperation was necessary? There was no way they could risk starting a fight until they had a slightly better idea what Kamui-san and Yuzuriha-chan could do.

     Hikaru traded a quick glance with her two friends. The each nodded. So, putting her hands higher over her head and putting on a pleasant smile, Fuu-chan stepped sideways out of formation. "All right, then. We surrender." Umi-chan followed suit a heartbeat later, and Hikaru joined them in the middle of the line. "You win. We're your prisoners. Shall we all see what's underground before the locals arrive?"

     A growl echoed out of Kamui-san's throat, and he seemed to be getting madder by the instant. But before he could shout, Yuzuriha-chan parried his sword down and held up a fist. "Rock, Paper, Scissors. You win, go nuts. I win, we all go into the caves with the ninja as our prisoners?"

     "Fine!" Kamui-san yelled. The two pirate officers turned to block any view of their hands from the ninja watching, shook their arms three times, and then the First Mate shoved his cutlass into scabbard hard enough to make it ring through the whole clearing. "God damn it!"

     Voices from out along the forest path cried out that someone was definitely here, and Yuzuriha-chan waved all six of them towards the natural rock steps down into the caves. "Come on. Let's go."

     All six of them raced down the natural steps into the dark cave beyond the rock face, Kamui-san muttering under his breath, "...same fucking trick that bastard pulled! 'Surrender', my foot. Just gonna bite us in the ass in the end..." Three underground tunnels branched off the first room they found, a squarish hole in the ground with a passage cut into every wall, and the one behind them that went to ground level didn't count. Hikaru shot a fireball down each of their three options, then lit another flame to hold in her hand. Breaks and turns down every path. She could summon some automata and use a sensor technique to track where each one went, but without knowing how many bends and branches and hazards there were, that could take more time than was available. They had a mob of villagers on their tail, and getting caught by village mobs never went well.

     Umi-chan pulled her hand to her chin, eyes narrowed at the three ways they could run, none of them marked with any sign and each as abandoned-looking as the last. "Well, let's start by agreeing that none of us trust each other enough to split up, even if it were safe. And this cave is where our map ends."

     "We've got our own map!" Kamui-san growled, holding out his hand to the blond pirate. Once he had the parchment in his hand, he tilted it to get a look in Hikaru's ball of light. "Ha! Three passages off the entrance. Maybe Fai didn't completely screw us over..." The pirate traced a couple routes with his finger. "If this is accurate, the center path's no good, but left and right would get to the exit. That's good enough to start on." As he looked up, he scowled at her. Hikaru grinned, and Fuu-chan took the opportunity to sneak a photograph of the maze map over Kamui-san's shoulder. Never say no to extra information. Any trace of the shutter clicking vanished under the sound of Kamui growling, "So we follow you this far, and you follow us the rest of the way? I can't be the only one thinking somebody planned for that to happen. That fucking dandy must've been holding this for years, but he didn't send us till now."

     Which could be why Lady Yuuko had wanted them on the slow boat: to hook them up with the pirates who'd know how to get the rest of the way. Well, the head of the Ninja Union could be in on something with the Pirate King if she wanted, Hikaru supposed, or they might just have been spying on each other enough to know what the other side was doing, planning to take advantage. Neither was against the rules. And sometimes pirates could be nice! Like Eagle!

     "This is a fucking setup," Kamui-san spat, talking to Yuzuriha-chan now even though he was still looking straight at Hikaru. "I don't like it."

     Yuzuriha-chan glanced at the map, and tilted it so its directions matched up with the layout of the cave. "It's the best choice we've got, so I say we go while the getting's still an option. Would you say the fastest route to the exit is the left fork?"

     "Well it's the shortest," Umi-chan threw in. "It's got more markings on it, though. I'm just going to assume those colored splotches aren't bathrooms and snack bars. The right fork is longer, but it might actually be faster to run. The only obstacle is that blue spot right there."

     "Either way, let's book it," the blond pirate hissed. Footsteps pounded the earth above their heads. It wouldn't be long before they came down.

     Yuzuriha-chan looked back and forth between the two options. "Okay. Right it is. Let's hit it."

     "Take the third left!" Kamui-san called out, jogging with the map out in front of his eyes, Hikaru keeping pace by his side to hold a light where he could read. Fuu-chan kept a wind behind them to blow their footsteps clear, and Yuzuriha-chan took the lead with Saiki-san -- blades out, just in case there was trouble. Umi-chan had summoned her sword and had her water techniques ready to go as she took up the rear, because trouble was coming that way for sure. They ran like that as fast as Kamui-san could read.

     Right up to the bank of a crocodile-infested water pit, dug at least fifty meters long and god knew how deep, with posts sticking up in the first few yards (to cross on, Hikaru supposed, each of them installed one longish leap from the next), then a trapeze hanging from the arched ceiling that'd land you on a log mounted to an incline, and a pinched together space of wall that blocked off whatever might be past it. And had she mentioned the crocodiles?

     "Well," Yuzuriha-chan sighed. "You were right. That's only a snack bar if we're meant to be the snacks."

     Holding out her arms, Umi-chan shot an ice spray at the water only to have the icicles vanish an inch above the surface. Not even a ripple. "Bad news, guys. That's one hell of a barrier. What kind of fucked-up person designs something like this anyway?! An actual crocodile-infested, magic-guarded underground obstacle course? This is ridiculous!"

     "The orbs were something Clow made, right?" Hikaru asked. "Because Clow would do this. It's totally his style."

     Her two old, ninja friends and her three new pirate friends suddenly looked sick to their stomachs. Saiki-san groaned, checking the hall behind them. The echoes were getting closer again. "So we should assume the crocodiles won't die, and not waste our time killing them."

     "Assume that's acid down there, too," Fuu-chan added. "Not water."

     Everyone flexed their knees and got ready to leap onto the course, the pirates and Umi-chan stowing their swords. "Clow, you asshole!" her blue-haired friend muttered. "This is why nobody likes you!"

     Hikaru shot a fireball to hover ahead of them on the track, watching the timing of the crocodiles who snapped as it flew, and clapped Kamui-san and Yuzuriha-chan on the shoulders with a smile. "Don't worry, guys! We'll be fine!"

Chapter Text

  • Add a few sprigs of spearmint, two spoons of sugar, and a splash of soda to your shaker.
  • Muddle until fragrant. (If you're without a muddler, a marlinspike or hand fid will serve. Do not use pistol butt or knife handle.)
  • Juice a lime into shaker, add 3 oz. light rum.
  • Shake with ice, strain into highball glass. Finish with soda and a sprig of mint.

     The breeze was rolling in from the east across the bay, and with the King, the Captain, and the First Mate all ashore in their various locales, Aoki was taking his turn as Officer of the Watch. He'd already ordered the rudder set to take them to the port and had men on every sail waiting to open the sheets to the wind as soon as Sorata signalled for their help. Based on the fighting he could see through his spyglass, the call should have come ages ago -- Tarta and Tatra making no waste of time before they'd attacked, and for the last few minutes there'd been a figure on the field he couldn't place by his clothes. The battle had looked even so far, and he supposed that was why Sorata hadn't called them, but if it got any worse, Aoki was going to make an executive decision to intervene.

     The whole idea of sending just enough people to hold their own on the beach, and leaving the rest of them in reserve to back up Sorata or Kamui -- whoever needed it -- stank like the trip to the volcano was no whim, and like Fai was quite near to considering this negotiation to be a diversion. As if sending Kamui hadn't made his priorities clear enough. They'd never made a plan that didn't put Kamui right where they needed the most ready firepower. "Could it really be one of the Heavenly Twins' orbs he's after?" Aoki wondered out loud. A nice treasure, to be sure, but trinkets rarely had such a rush on them as to be worth splitting their forces like this.

     "The sister's orb, to be precise," a somber, melodic voice spoke out from the base of the stairs leading up to the helm. The Sumeragi's voice, which had been the last one Aoki would've expected to hear. Even as he watched his fellow Lord stride up the stairs and breeze past the ship's wheel, he could barely believe he'd heard most of a sentence come out of the man's mouth. It'd been shocking enough that, ever since Kamui came aboard, he'd started leaving his cabin on a more regular basis, and doing so for matters other than bringing his violin out by the bow to play some nameless dirge for the rolling waves. For that man to converse beyond absolute necessities with anyone but the Pirate King or the First Mate was practically worth adding to the ship's log.

     Aoki checked for anyone else in the area besides himself and the sailor on the wheel -- whom their navigator passed without a glance. Had he somehow been designated as the person the Sumeragi talked to when Fai and Kamui weren't on the ship? How could that have happened? Why him? But the white-coated lord was right there, almost elbow to elbow with him at the helm, a feather as green as his eyes dancing on his hat as he gazed out through the web of rigging toward the skirmish on the beach.

     Aoki offered him the spyglass to get a good look at the shore. He glanced at the instrument with a puzzled air, as if Aoki had been holding out his parrot instead, and turned his eyes back to the beach unaided. Pulling the spyglass back up to his own eye, Aoki went back to studying the battle for any sign that he needed to take action. No one served on this ship long without learning to let the Sumeragi do as he pleased. He didn't bother himself with day-to-day affairs, or with anyone else's domain, and there was no point in questioning his decisions about his own concerns; he would neither explain them, nor would he change his mind. If their navigator was happy to stare at indistinct figures in the distance, he had the right to do it.

     All at once, the content of what the Sumeragi had said registered in his brain. With a start, he turned back to the marble-sculpted visage whose eyes were locked on the shoreline. "I'm sorry... Did you say 'the sister's orb'? Is it possible for you to be certain about that?" The last he'd heard, the orbs were legend, bordering on metaphor, and the legends had been fairly specific about no one having known where they went.

     But the Sumeragi's gaze didn't waver, or look the least unsure. "The sister's orb fell somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. The brother's fell to the North." Aoki felt his hands shake, hearing the firm sobriety in the man's tone. It was too much like the voices he'd heard from old captains, long retired and gray, telling the tale of the once-in-a-century storm they'd seen wipe half the hands off deck in a tower of water during their days as a swab. If he could have choked the words, 'You sound like you were there,' out of his throat, he would have worried that the Sumeragi would answer, 'I was,' in that same impossible tone.

     A shiver ran down his back instead. But he wasn't going to get swept away in wild imaginings, not over something like the Sumeragi's tone of voice. That was how he said everything, from 'Good morning' to 'We're listing starboard' to 'You have mustard on your sleeve' (though he rarely said that to anyone but Kamui). He was just a serious young man with a heavy past on his mind. That was all. They each had their demons.

     And heedless of whether or not Aoki was actually hearing him, he was still talking with his quiet, steely force. "The brother's orb was found, not so long ago. A singer picked it up outside Hundhammeren while she was looking for a ship that hasn't made port in six generations of men. Hardly a surprise that his orb found someone like her. He... was of a musical bent." Fighting back echoes in his head of Fai joking with Kamui about how people ought to know if immortal heroes were living among them, Aoki reminded himself over and over that they'd all grown up with stories about the Six Divine Warriors. Everyone knew the brother had been a bard before the Heavenly Twins had died. That the songs he could pull out of strings with his bow could even calm the North Wind was one of the handful of things every version of the legends agreed on.

     That the Sumeragi spoke like he'd met the man was probably Aoki's ears deceiving him.

     "I... hadn't realized anyone had found such a thing," he answered after he settled the calm back into his hands.

     No amount of thinking could tell him if the Sumeragi's response was a light shrug of his shoulders or a heavy sigh.

     "Maybe next time we put in near Hundhammeren, I'll go take a look, then."

     The man shook his head. "It was stolen a week ago."

     "We were in Marseilles a week ago," Aoki objected. A theft in Hundhammeren, he was certain, not even the Sumeragi could have witnessed. "And we've been sailing toward Chizeta ever since. Hundhammeren... that's in Sor-Trondelag. It's entirely the other way! How--"

     "Word gets around."

     Not like that, Aoki thought to himself, although he didn't say it to his shipmate. Then he remembered -- Fai had mentioned that Princess Kotori had spoken to him in a dream the day before they'd reached Chizeta. He'd said about nothing but these negotiations, but His Grace made a habit of secrets. Now everything made so much more sense. Princess Kotori must have had a vision about this and told Fai everything the Sumeragi had seen fit to pass along now. It'd be just like Fai not to inform anyone besides their navigator about what would happen and to leave the Sumeragi to share whatever he thought worth sharing in whatever cryptic fashion he saw fit.

     Well, now he felt marginally more at ease with the entire conversation. Not so at ease that he planned to ask the Sumeragi how his day had been the next time he came in from shore leave, but less like he'd been sharing a deck these past few years with a man who'd transformed into a star and then been cast out of the heavens back to Earth millennia ago -- or whatever might have happened to inspire such tales. An awkward situation, that. If he'd had reason to think it were true, he might not have been able to look the Sumeragi in the eye ever again, and that was already difficult enough.

     "I take it ninja were involved?" Aoki asked after the silence dragged on long enough to feel heavy. "That's why we need the other orb ourselves?"

     "No one should have been able to steal it in the middle of the city like that -- too much certainty that even a ninja would be caught trying -- but Yuuko-san has her ways." Which Aoki took as a yes. Turning away from the shore for once, the Sumeragi's malachite gaze bore down into him. "There'll be no avoiding what's to come, I imagine. Better to be prepared."

     Aoki tried and failed to drag his attention away from the strange warning and back toward the shore. "Of... course..."

     "Flare aloft!" Segawa-kun called out from his lookout in the tops. All eyes went up to the sky, and Sorata's flare was glowing clear and strong. Aoki brought the spyglass back to his eye and saw the Princesses leaping onto the Bravada to make sail with her crew. The black-clad stranger who'd joined the fight stayed by the bright orange and soft blue-grays of Sorata and Fai as the fighting ceased, which at least meant no unexpected enemies. That much was good.

     He signaled the crew in the rigging. "Take us in!" He'd have to handle any dire warnings after their immediate crisis was resolved.

     Sails opened to the wind, they pushed forward toward the beachside docks. Arashi and Karen made their way up from below as soon as they felt the ship moving through the water, all eyes following the Bravada as she dashed for the other side of the bay.

     "Pull in for the Captain and His Grace first!" Aoki called out to the crewman manning the wheel. "We can still catch the Bravada before she makes land anywhere else." Out on the bow, Arashi gave orders to the sailors at the forefront to take cover and prepare to answer the Chizetans' barrage of arrows. Karen shouted at someone below decks to ready the guns. Then, as they neared, the mysterious figure turned around, and the crew murmured in chorus as everyone on deck could finally make out that he was a ninja -- even without a spyglass, that was clear. With its help, Aoki could see more than that. "What the blazes? Is that Kurogane?"

     By his side, the Sumeragi nodded and swiped the hat off his head with a sigh.

     More secrets that His Grace had been keeping, Aoki assumed. No wonder he hadn't wanted Kamui here. Their First Mate might have leveled the entire country if he'd seen that particular ninja anywhere near their ship. Or near their King for that matter. Aoki couldn't say he expected anyone else to react much better, either. Not after Kurogane's previous visit.

     Once they came close enough to the port for Sorata to leap into the longboat, they made ready to take all their men back on board, but Fai wasn't running. Instead, he was clinging to the irate ninja's arm, waving their captain off with a handkerchief. Arashi had already run up the bowsprit to call out, "What's he doing here?!" -- mostly at Sorata, since Fai was unlikely to give a real answer, although every sailor rolling his or her eyes on deck could tell their captain wasn't to blame for this.

     Sorata waved his hands in unconditional surrender as the deck hands hauled up the longboat. "Sweetie, Honey... I'll explain everything as soon as His Grace tells me what's goin' on."

     He should have expected the smack on the head. Sorata was one of the few people who could call Arashi 'Honey' and live, but even he couldn't do it unscathed.

     Karen hauled herself up on the rigging, a flirt of chamois ruffling in the breeze where it peeked out under her corset, showing enough thigh over the top of her stocking that leg turned into hip and made at least three deckhands lose their balance. She'd never stop teasing him for how he used to be the same way -- although he'd since learned to stop walking before admiring. And, unlike the deck hands, from his vantage point he had a perfect view of her swan-like neck as she waved for Fai's attention. "Your Grace! Are you sure this is the best time to bring a ninja on board?!"

     "Eh?!" Putting his hand to his mouth, Fai made a show of looking around. "A ninja?! Where?" At the next turn of his head, he met Kurogane's scowl with a giggle. "Oh my heavens! It is a ninja!" His Grace twirled up onto the black-clad man's shoulders like a child playing piggyback and hugged him around the throat. "Quick! Run for it! I'll hold him back!"

     Whatever the ninja growled at him, Aoki couldn't hear, but it prompted Fai to peck him on the cheek and nuzzle his ear.

     "But he knows we can't just leave him there!" Aoki gasped, turning to the Sumeragi. He was the only person on board with any chance of talking sense into the blond. "Not with a ninja like Kurogane!"

     Their navigator sighed, shaking his head at the scene on the beach. "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

     Aoki blinked at the answer. "As You Like It?"

     "Let him have his fun." The Sumeragi swept his hat back onto his head and cut out down the stairs. He disappeared below decks as fast as a shadow running from the light, as he always did before battles he didn't consider worrisome. If trouble hit, he'd be back, and not before. And truth be told, keeping the ninja out of their way was at least as useful as anything Fai could do on board.

     "Come about!" Aoki ordered. "Make way around those rocks and cut the Bravada off at the mouth of the bay!" The sailors heaved and tacked for all they were worth, leaving their Pirate King behind on the beach, blowing kisses from his perch on the shoulders of a ninja that every one of them could vouch lived up to his notorious reputation. Aoki could only hope, wherever Kamui was in his treasure hunt, he was having a better day than this.

~//~

     Kamui inched his pseudo-grip higher on the sheer stone walls, just barely keeping his toes out of range of the snapping alligators as they tried to set new height records with their jumps, and of the acid splashes from the liquid below when they fell back down. There was no floor here, and the walls themselves were too smooth to get a real grip, but the space between them was exactly wide enough for him to push out to both sides, with both arms and legs, and keep himself up with the pressure -- as long as he didn't mind the strain it put on the rib he'd cracked two weeks ago fighting fucking Kurogane's fucking apprentice, Syaoran. Fucking ninja. He healed fast, and Subaru had stabilized it with one of his spells, so he wasn't worried that it'd give, but it still hurt like a bitch.

     "Come on!" the red-haired ninja, Hikaru, yelled over her shoulder with an unconscionable level of cheer. "Just a little further!"

     "I can see that!"

     When all of this was over, he was going to talk Sorata into sailing back to Kaizuka where there were no fucking ninja anywhere, and maybe he'd even work things out so Fuuma was in port at the same time, and he, Kotori, and Fuuma could all get completely sloshed, pass out in the castle's banquet hall, and wake up to hot steak, all the fruit they could eat, and all the Prairie Oysters they needed. That'd be nice. And not a ninja in sight -- not even ones who were claiming to be his prisoners.

     The green-clad ninja was pushing along behind him, using a wind barrier to keep the alligators and acid at bay, and Saiki was last of all. Yuzuriha was at the front, dropping down onto the ledge waiting at the end of this stupid passageway. A few seconds later, the blue ninja dropped down next to her. They cleared to the sides so he and Hikaru could make their leaps, and they all cast their eyes back across the obstacles so far while they waited for their last party members. The villagers chasing them weren't too far back. This whole course -- which the ninja had attributed to Clow Reed and thus far Kamui hadn't seen a reason to argue -- was probably hard enough to stop a civilian in their tracks, but the people after them were pirates. Some of them would be good enough to make it.

     They'd have to hurry if they wanted to get whatever treasure was waiting at the end, and they could think about fighting their way out afterwards.

     Once all six of them were standing on the block, the ground quaked and shifted, dropping the stone down an inch. "Great," Blue muttered. "A time limit before we get tossed in the acid. So what's the next trick?"

     Yuzuriha squinted in the magic firelight hovering ahead of them at the stone pillars rising out of the drink below. Unlike the last set of pillars, they were an easy distance apart, and all on a level as the lines dotted towards each wall, crossed back toward the center in an X, then reflected off the opposite walls to meet at a far platform. "I'm assuming it can't be as easy as it looks."

     Under their feet, the platform rumbled and dropped another inch. Damn it. The gap looked less than twelve yards across. If the ceiling had been a little higher or he'd had a longer space to get up to a run, he might have been able to cross the whole pit in a single leap and skip whatever trick was sure to be waiting in those rocks. Whoever'd built this thing must have done it on purpose.

     "There's something odd about the look of those rocks," Green mused next to her, and whipped out a lash of air magic against the pole in the center. From this distance, it all looked like rock to him, but as soon as her magic touched the pole, it cracked and fell between two alligators. "If all the rocks that look like that are going to break, the center cross no good, but I think the branches leading to the walls are stable."

     "So we just have to run up the walls!" Hikaru bent her knees, ready to leap out onto the rocks. "No problem!"

     Saiki frowned at the red-head. "You make that sound so easy. Just run along a vertical surface covered in condensation for sixteen feet. No problem."

     Blue looked him up and down with an unimpressed sniff. "You can start by taking off your boots," she told him, and crouched down next to Hikaru to run the other direction. They sped off down the twin trails of pillars, straight at the walls, and launched off. Their first leap cleared a lot of the distance, and momentum carried them against the stone far enough for them to jump to the next set of safe pillars. It did look do-able, as long as his feet weren't slipping inside his boots and throwing off his aim.

     But, damn it, he didn't want to take off his boots!

     With a growl, Kamui checked the soles on the ninjas' tight slippers, as well as he could see them from here. They didn't look like they'd got acid burns, at least. He joined Yuzuriha and Saiki in stripping off their footwear and the socks underneath for good measure.

     "I can take those for you." Green held out her hands for the boots Yuzuriha was trying to figure out how to stow, throwing a creepy smile back at Kamui's snarl. "I promise you'll get them back on the other side."

     "We'd better," he answered. And he absolutely wasn't going to give her his hat.

     Their shed gear disappeared into the jewel on the cuff on her wrist. At that least gave him some idea of their power level: too damn powerful to mess with right here, unless he wanted to risk one of his party dying. They'd be a high B or A-rank squad if they could tuck things away into storage like that. One of them could probably fight him evenly. Top of the line A-rank ninja and S-rank ninja like Kurogane could even shove objects into nowhere at all, but ninja who could use storage gems were more than trouble enough. You never knew what they could pull out, on top of them being first-class fighters. Cheating's what that was. And now they were standing here with no boots, on cold, wet stone, in the dark, trusting a ninja to give them their things back.

     Brilliant.

     Green and Yuzuriha went across next, and Yuzuriha only fumbled the landing the tiniest bit, recovering plenty well enough to run on to the other side. Kamui set himself up to go next, glancing at Saiki out of the corner of his eye. "Don't hesitate," he called out to the blond. "Just keep moving forward. I don't want to hear you say you can't do something a ninja can do."

     "Aye, aye, sir."

     He held his hat to his head and ran flat out, pushing as hard as he could with his back foot as he twisted his feet toward the wall and ignored the gravity pulling him down. Keeping his sights on the far shore, he leapt off the wall like pushing off the side of a boat towards salvage floating on the sea -- and overshot his first mark. He landed off-square on the second pole, but shoved himself along until he stumbled onto the solid ledge. Saiki wasn't doing as well, he saw as he whipped around. Still hurtling forward, but close to dancing off the edge of the rock pillars. Reaching out, Kamui grabbed him by the hand just as Blue shot out a stream of water to grapple him around the waist. Between the two of them, they got him up, over, and steady on his feet.

     Saiki leaned over, panting. "I'll get it next time."

     Far away, voices and splashing alligators told him someone had reached the edge of the obstacle course and would be here after them before too long. "Let's worry about next time on the way back," Kamui said, turning towards the oncoming mess in their path. A jutting series of bars, like a ladder, running up to a dark tunnel -- with the first bar about half the height of their main mast off the ground. They'd have to jump for it.

     Good. Jumping, he could do.

     Six scrambles up, six people crawling along the tunnel, and before long they could see light glimmering beyond that Hikaru hadn't magicked up with her fireballs. All that lay between them and the end of this god damned maze was a swinging chain and a climb up a sheet of knotted rope to one last platform. One at a time, without a word or any more pauses to deliberate, they each grabbed the chain on it's upswing, and sailed across the last pit. Blue was the first one to the rope wall, eyeing the knotwork for any traps and checking her footing before she made her way solidly enough up towards the rock. Yuzuriha scaled past her at a fast clip, reaching the top first of all, and helping pull the girl up while next Green, and then Saiki, each made their starts.

     "Doesn't look hard at all," Hikaru said, and leapt from where she'd landed on the stone to a spot halfway up the ropes, waiting for the pitching to steady before she hauled up.

     Kamui started up despite the swaying and sailed past her to the top. "Once you've climbed a ship's rigging in a gale or two, this is nothing." Without thinking, he held out his hand to help draw her up. Good thing nobody mentioned it. He didn't have a good explanation for him helping a ninja. Turning away before she could do something as embarrassing as thank him, Kamui took a good look at the end of the hallway -- their goal, he hoped, but definitely the last spot on any map they had.

     Four pillars across the entrance of a cave dug into the stone by human hands, nothing natural about it. He thought he could see writing and pictures on the walls beyond, lit in reds and oranges that shifted as if the light was a living thing, writhing through the space. And, unlike the dank, cool space around the alligator pit, the air here was warm -- bordering on hot -- and the rocks were perfectly dry.

     They'd reached the volcano, he presumed, and there was something here. Whether it was what Fai said he wanted, or even what Fai really wanted underneath all the fairy tales, remained to be seen.

     Kamui stood up next to Green and stretched out his neck and back. "Any pirate villagers who can get through that deathtrap will be here in just a few minutes. Now, I think I'd like my boots back if it's all the same to you."

~//~

     The water cut off the hull as the Dragon of Heaven tore through the bay. Sorata jumped up on the base of the main mast, grinning at the smart whip of his ship's colors in the air. All around, crew worked the ropes and sails and wheels to drive the finest ship on the seas as fast as she could go. Not the fastest, alas, as the mechanized wonders out of Autozam were a thing unto themselves, as the Dragon of Earth lived to prove, but this ship could put anything under sail to shame with her least breath.

     "Pull on, me hearties!" he egged on the gents and lasses at the ropes, half of them rolling their eyes at how he chose to elocute. But what did he care? He was a pirate captain, and nothing made him want to cackle with glee as much as the salt wind on his face while they bore down on a ship about to put up a fight they couldn't win but would pay hell tryin'. "Keep that jig dancin' quick!" Pulling himself up into the rigging to where he could see the point of the Bravada's sail over the rocks, he sang out a tune to keep them hauling in tempo -- just a mite faster than they'd been goin'. "I'm pinin' away for the one I can't see," he boomed out, to the roars of laughter from the crew. "A pain in me heart, she's a bloomin'!"

     "But oh! My darlin', but oh!" they answered, the ship's wake churning faster and whiter behind the stern.

     Now they were pulling ahead of Tatra and Tarta's sails, steady on forward. He belted the next line with a smile. "I'm wantin' to say all the words I can't say, and all o' me chances I've ruined!"

     They'd be hitting the mouth of the bay with time to spare. "But oh! My darlin', but oh!" his crew sang again. The Bravada would hear them coming and be on their guard, but where was the fun in a fight where you didn't see the mettle in their eyes before it began?

     Arashi shot him a look so fiery it could've primed coal as she readied the sailors who'd be doing the shooting and boarding. He answered direct, singing his next lines straight to her eyes. "I'd fain spread our wings to the full, you and I! Oh, dreamin' as one, marathon through the sky!"

     The whole boat erupted in the chorus around them then. "Yo ho, oh!" they cried in the heavy rough time of those as ever had pulled with a crew. "... And it's catch you, I'll catch you! So catch me, oh catch me!" Like that, they sailed their ship around the rock to see Princess Tarta on the Bravada, cursing their mothers, cooks, and capstans all with equal fury. Sorata pulled his hand to his mouth for the next line, "Avast! Turn your eyes, dear, and say that you love me!" hoping she and giggling Tatra would hear and catch the spirit. "Yo ho, oh! And it's nice to meet you, oh so good to see you! To your heart my love will fly-oh-fly! Fly away true!"

     The Chizetan crew answered with arrows, as anyone might guess, and the exchange of fire started in strong. No cannon yet, not till there was no choice but to blow the old girl out of the water. When Karen aimed to sink, a ship was sunk. He could hear Tarta now, yelling, "You think this is a game, Sora-chan?! Your land-loving crew of soft-asses will learn to take us for serious when I tear you limb from weather-beaten good-for-nothing limb!"

     "Language, Tarta dear!" the elder sister tsked.

     Sorata was one of the first to grab a rope from on high and swing over to the Bravada's decks, knocking one bowman out cold on his way to the princesses. This was between him and Chizeta. Steel clashed against sharp steel, him and Tarta leaping from deck to deck around her fine little craft. He was fore, Arashi was aft, testing how well Tatra could work that whip in close quarters like these. She did have quite a hand with that whip, Sorata wasn't ashamed to admit he knew well, but she'd never seen the way his newer crewmate could move. From still as stone to a lightning dash and strike, so a man was like to think he'd been swinging at air and only thought a woman had been standing there -- all the while, she had the drop on him from above. As true a mirage as a real Fata Morgana hanging on the horizon.

     A slice came in a bit too close to his ear, and he shook his eyes away from the terrifying grace of the woman he'd win over one day (though, alas, not yet). He had his own fight to win.

     Then the gasps of the crew on both sides stopped him and Tarta in mid-swing, and they glanced out to where the bay turned into the wide oceans. There, rising out of the deep, was the one thing no ship wanted to see: one of the curling tentacles of a monster octopus reaching towards them, and the other seven legs behind, sucker cups on each stretch of the underside larger than a man's head. If he judged that length a-right, one of those legs'd be twice the length of his main mast, if not more.

     That one wasn't just a monster. It was a thing out of legend. There hadn't been one that size spotted in over a hundred years, and it was already close enough to have grabbed each ship by the bow.

     "Not your cutlasses!" Sorata screamed at his sailors across the way, while the Chizetans who'd been fighting them a moment before told them the same. "Don't make it angry!"

     "But how are we going to get at its head before it cracks the ship in half?!" Tarta yelled.

     True enough, it hadn't shown its eyes above the water, and the beams of the hull were already creaking from the pressure. But Sorata shrugged. "We'll have to run up the arms and get it under water if needs be. I think it's got enough meat there to balance--"

     An abrupt cease in the yelling on the deck of the Dragon of Heaven cut him off, and he and every other pirate on the rig turned their eyes to see. A white coat billowed and rippled in the wind, while men and women of every description stepped clear of the Sumeragi's path. His eyes were locked on the sea monster. Seemed that had been enough to rouse him to the middle of a battle when he usually left such things to them as found the rush of battle to be a thrill.

     The man turned his closed eyes to the heavens. Sorata could have sworn he even sighed. Then, watching the calm of the water where the creature's head would be, he raised two fingers to his lips like he was praying. When he stretched out his hand toward the beast, lines of shining light traced out a pentagram on the water and shot up in a five pointed column, the head of the octopus rearing above the waves as its arms pulled back from the ship. The monster curled, locked inside the cage of light, while the rest of them stood by watching.

     "Or that works, I guess," Sorata murmured. Just when he thought he knew the things that man could do.

     Tarta turned on him with three times the fury in her eyes as before. "Sora-chan..." He chuckled to try calming her down, but kept his sword at the ready, since he knew how well that always worked. "What in the bloody hells else have you barnacle-chippers been holding back?! I told you to take us seriously, you turncoat!"

     He dodged to the side as her scimitar dug three inches into the rail behind where he'd been standing, and Sorata let out a sigh. Signs pointed to this turning into one of those days.

Chapter Text

  • Mix 3/4 oz. each peach schnapps, Midori, and coconut rum in a hurricane glass.
  • Combine with 1 oz. each pineapple juice, orange juice, and cranberry juice. Serve with a straw.
  • As always, watch out for sand.

     He took it as a good sign that the big, strong ninja let the Dragon of Heaven sail out of jumping range before he flipped Fai from his back onto the beach. Sun-baked sand tried to burn Fai's neck, but he didn't flinch. The fire in those red eyes was so much hotter, the hands holding his wrists so much rougher, the arch of the body so very enticing. Did he want to play first and question his ninja later, after his guard relaxed, or did he want his immediate satisfaction from knowing how his gentleman caller had tracked his ship so easily?

     Well, whichever order, they'd start the same way. Fai licked his lips and stretched out, catching a twitch in the ninja's throat as he tried oh-so-hard not to lose focus. "Oh ho, Kuro-tan's angry!" he laughed. "What a treat."

     His lover pushed Fai's legs open with his knee. "Nobody asked for your opinion."

     "Am I wrong?"

     Pulling his body up inch by inch -- slowly, to let his would-be captor decide whether to play sweet or saucy -- Fai drew close enough to feel his breath against his neck. In Marseilles, seeing the ninja on the docks, he'd felt his heart pound. Actually pound, rattling his ribs in a way he hadn't felt in years. That instant had recast everything he'd sworn to Subaru and Kakyou: that this one was just like the rest, that he wouldn't lose his heart and get himself in trouble... that he wouldn't get them all in trouble. He'd realized then he might have been wrong. Now, Kuro-run's breath finding his lips tasted like two weeks of restless nights marinated in unexpected dreams, and he was sure.

     But trouble didn't disappear because you ignored it. If this was what he wanted, this was what he'd take, and he'd take it all before his fluttering heart unlocked trouble they couldn't handle.

     Calloused fingers traced his jaw as the ninja twisted it for a better view of his cheek. The cheek said ninja had scraped open when last time had gotten a little rough. "Not even a mark. How..."

     "It looked worse than it was. But thanks for worrying, lover." The tightness between them as Kuro-yan's red eyes locked on his promised so much. Oh, they both wanted answers, but the ninja would want more if he got a reason. Or an excuse. Fai wove his fingers through the hand on his face. Before, Kuro-pyon had wanted to play a game of fondness. Maybe the shivers in Fai's spine were real, but it was still a game. Why not let him think he was winning?

     "You're not here to save a princess this time," he whispered, then rose to his feet, wandering toward the dock as he brushed sand off his clothes.

     "I'm not here to play, either."

     "I didn't think you'd be back so soon. If you're not careful, all this attention will go to my head."

     "Tsch." A sword settled in a sheath with a soft click, and Fai turned to see the last trace of Ginryuu disappear into ninjaspace. Cloak and headgear came off and vanished as well. Disarming wasn't Fai's concern, though -- it the sudden lack of aggression in the air. Had his anger been an act? Or was this the act? His ill-advised crush stepped close enough for Fai to feel his body's heat, and the uncertainty made him reel. Chills through his skin hinted how easy it'd be to lean into the man's chest, to let strong arms wrap around his shoulders. Even though they hadn't known each other long enough for his closeness to feel so comfortable, even though comfort was the kind of habit-forming feeling he was trying to dispel, he wanted it so much, it scared him into silence.

     With a careless sideways glance, his ninja sighed. "I can't tell if you're a jackass who abandons his crew to amuse himself, or a jackass who takes a fall nobody asked you to take."

     "Either way, you can't approve." He walked his fingers up a sturdy armored chestplate over a sturdier chest. "But you don't plan to take me prisoner and drag me back to your castle? No interrogations this time?"

     The warrior snapped Fai's hand away by the wrist, tight but with no pain, as if he'd taken care not to wrench it even though his manner betrayed none. "I'm observing. If I tell you what I want to know, you'll make sure you never say it."

     "You make me sound contrary!"

     "Then give me back my coat."

     "I'd rather not." He slipped the ninja's grip -- too easily, somebody wasn't trying to hold him at all -- and pulled the lapels to resettle the coat on his shoulders. "This isn't your your coat. It's my your coat. You left it after you had your way with me, and that makes it mine." Trailing back along the surfline, Fai pulled a deck of cards out of his vest. "Maybe I'll play you for it. Strip Old Maid? Last one wearing clothes gets the coat?"

     "You'll cheat," Kuro-puu answered with a smirk. But he followed, grabbing the jacket under contention near the waist and pulling Fai in close.

     And what was he supposed to do, except let his own arms fall around the ninja's neck? His heart pounded again as their noses nearly touched and the urge to taste a kiss ran like chocolate down his tongue. "I don't mind if you cheat, too."

     Holding him fast with one arm, his lover knocked the cards from Fai's hand. "In that case, you might as well strip down. I cheat to win."

     He meant it, too. The way he kissed was definitely cheating, or at least he didn't abide by any rules. Just two weeks after they'd first clashed in a hot rush, the ninja shouldn't have known how to slip inside his guard so naturally, to tease his mouth and clutch him in just the right spots to make his legs melt to the ground. Fai found himself back on the sand, shuddering on the edge of mental oblivion as a hand coaxed his thighs wide and teeth nipped down his throat.

     He'd ask questions later, he thought, unbuckling the ninja's armor. Right now, he'd give in to the fever pulsing through his blood. That was important; he could taste the necessity in the lust-soaked groan on his tongue. Then he found a sweet spot of his own in the small of his ninja's back and rolled into the shaking, gasping mess his lover became. The grit of sand bit the skin on his back, traced in under his clothes. A pull on his hip forced him against a wall of heaving skin and muscle ripe for his touch. Insistent lips stole out along his neck, pushing his shirt off his shoulder, forcing his body to quake -- but where was the harm in that?

     The ninja's mouth dipped low to do something obscene to the sheltered traces of skin under his arm. His hand fell, grasping and twitching at the air as he twined his leg around the man's waist. A gasp became a moan while those lips profaned his skin in the most beautiful ways. "Ah!" He sucked a ragged breath in. "Kuro-sama... are you sure... your mission calls for observing me this closely?" Fai pushed his lover onto his back, rolling his hips against the rise in his opponent's black trousers, grinning at the ninja's satisfied smirk when those burning red eyes flickered closed. His lover showed no hint of trying to keep his head. Maybe he'd learned that it wasn't worth the attempt. Hands clutching sand, Fai skimmed his chest forward -- low and steady, skin to skin and heartbeat to heartbeat -- and sucked an earlobe between his teeth. "Not that I mind distracting you."

     "If there's an easy way to keep you in sight, I won't stop just because it's fun."

     Fai felt a heavy shift of fabric across his back and turned to check. Well, well -- Kuro-kyon had a fold of his coat in his grip. It'd come off of one arm entirely without his noticing, and the ninja was inches from pulling it free of Fai's person. They couldn't have that.

     He sat up straight, tugging the jacket back onto one shoulder and free of plundering hands. "I told you, lover. That's mine." He shrugged his shirt and waistcoat off his free arm, his gold key on its chain around his neck swinging as he pulled the coat on over bare skin, then freed the other arm to toss his less necessary clothes aside. His Kuro-danna coat wasn't going anywhere.

     Stealing to his feet, he sauntered down into the surf and unlaced his pants. "The water's warm. Care to join me?"

     The dark haired man drew himself up from the ground like a sovereign god. Seconds were like lifetimes, watching him stroll closer, casting his trousers aside and gleaming gloriously naked in the tropical air. They melted into another kiss as the waves surged around their hips.

     "You're going to give me that coat back," his ninja love-growled in his ear.

     Fai laughed and held his lover's shoulders, throwing his legs around his waist. Wayward kisses strayed into Kuro-pon's salt-sprayed hair while the man's tongue licked his throat, and he whispered, "Not. Today."

     Off in the distance, a tower of white light shot up out of the ocean. Both of them paused and looked, but there was a rocky strip of land jutting out of the harbor, blocking the view no matter how well they could both project their eyesight. "What the hell..." the ninja murmured.

     It was Subaru, Fai knew. Subaru's magic was unique, and he never used it without more reason than the Bravada. But the spell was so far from urgent, so far from his full power, the ship's navigator probably could have cast it in his sleep. Nothing to worry about there. Fai traced a finger down the channel at the edge of his lover's bicep, circling the hollow of his elbow. "Any guards left in Tatra and Tarta's camp will come running. If you'd rather find some place we won't be interrupted--"

     Someone's probing tongue stole his words away. "Maybe we'll put on a show instead," Kuron-ron murmured against his mouth. Between that, and his back hitting the column of the dock rising out of the water, Fai had all the reasons he needed not to argue.

     Today was going more or less exactly how he'd planned.

~//~

     The hall inside the volcano roiled with molten light. Golds and ambers shifted on the walls as if they were standing inside an aquarium walled with lava -- which they basically were, Hikaru reflected. She tapped Eagle's signaly widget (so her boyfriends would know she was still safe) as discreetly as she could and took a closer look at her surroundings. Streams of magma flowed hot in channels over their heads and down the walls, but never dripped or melted the rocks. In the dim, shifting light, she could almost make out carvings of figures along one wall, and the wall Umi-chan was studying looked more like the night sky. The ceiling, where Fuu-chan had aimed her camera, had a six-spoked wheel full of inscriptions but nothing clear enough to decipher. The back wall looked more like a puzzle.

     Hikaru poked at a stream of magma, feeling the heat twist around her finger -- but oddly, not the stuff itself. The air warped with it, like a thick, transparent sheet of taffy that wouldn't break. It had to be old, too, given the archaeological look of the room, but the magic was still going strong. Once in a generation or two, there might be a spellcaster that good.

     A smack knocked her hand away from the channel. And Kamui-san's eyebrows could twitch almost as much as Watanuki-sempai's! She hadn't thought anybody else could manage that!

     "What the hell are you doing?!" he yelled.

     "Just testing it."

     "It's all right," Fuu-chan called out, twisting a dial on her camera. "Hikaru-san is fireproof."

     Hikaru nodded at him, wiping a trace of rock dust off on her skirt. "It's a special duty requirement."

     "Well, I'm sorry if it makes more sense to poke hot lava with a stick and not your goddamn finger!"

     "Magma," Yuzuriha-chan called out, pulling off her hat to take a close look at the carved people. "It's not lava till it gets to the surface."

     "Do I look like I care what you call the super-heated liquid rocks?!" Her new pirate friend pointed outside, looking so super-heated himself that the air twitched on his behalf. "There's a horde of angry villagers on our tails, out for blood over the fictional magical orb we're here to steal, and there's not a single object, pedestal, or door anywhere in this place! It's a dead end! We need a defensive line before we start poking things!"

     Serving with someone as expressive as Kamui-san must be fun, Hikaru thought, what with the way his eyes flashed and his coat swirled when he huffed off.

     "It might not be a dead end," Saiki-san said. In the furthest corner of the back wall, he stood by a crazy, patchwork circle, and his cheeks had flushed bright red. "Dioscuri lore is... kind of my hobby. This is Clow's magic circle, or it would be if it weren't all twisted around. I'm guessing it'll activate when we get it aligned."

     Everyone joined him, and even Kamui-san only glanced back over his shoulder once. From up close the sunburst and moon sigils on a twelve-pointed star were clear, just cut into six concentric circles and turned about all wonky. The carving was deep enough to decipher, unlike the rest of the walls, both for the image and a row of squiggly letters above.

     Umi-chan huffed, twisting her mouth into a scowl. "That's definitely Clow Reed's circle, although I'm not wildly confident that it does anything good. Fuu, can you read what it says?"

     Resettling her glasses, Fuu-chan blew some of the dust off the ancient script. "It looks like it says, 'Game over, insert six coins to play'. It's not the normal word for 'coin' in any dialect this far south, but some isolated islands to the north use it, and the context fits. Or would, if game centers had existed two thousand years ago. The striations in the rock indicate carving tools no one's used in at least that long."

     "'Game over' doesn't sound good," Yuzuriha-chan sighed. "But if we find a spot for coins, I've got coins."

     Frowning, Saiki-san narrowed his eyes at the text. "Hang on. What word for 'coin' is that?"

     "Muhara," Fuu-chan answered, pointing out a series of squiggles on the rock. "Why? Does it show up in the lore you've studied?"

     He shook his head. "No. But my uncle did a lot of traveling down here." Saiki-san closed his eyes and breathed deep. "In one of the towns, he ran into trouble... His dictionary was a couple hundred years out of date, I think -- the locals wanted money, and his books defined the word as 'carved picture'. This isn't that word, is it?"

     Fuu-chan touched her storage gem and pulled out a leather-bound tome twice the size of her head. Murmuring, she flipped through the pages, finally stopping midway through. "Well, goodness. That's exactly what it used to mean, and it makes more sense for the situation. Do you think we're expected to select carvings from the walls, or to make six of our own?"

     Kamui-san glowered at everyone in turn while Fuu-chan put her books away. "How the hell could somebody make a game center pun thousands of years ago, before there even were--!" Everyone turned to answer, but he cut them all off. "Right! Clow Reed! Fine! Somebody call me when this starts making sense. I'm going to watch the door!"

     He had a point, but what could you do? Knowing the future and making stupid jokes were Clow's biggest areas of expertise.

     Outside, the grunts and screams echoing from the obstacle course gave way to the grate of the platform rock before the wall-running bit sinking under a crowd's weight. "Right," Umi-chan declared, walking over to the wall with all the pictures on it. "If it's over here, let's find it. The rabble outside are getting closer."

     But before she could get a good look at anything, the scrape of stone sounded again -- this time from under Umi-chan's feet. Hikaru's blue-haired friend looked down at the square sunk into the floor, blinking at a line of magma filling the engraving in front of her. "Okay, hold on! I know I walked right over this spot when I came in! Someone needs to tell that bastard Clow that life is not an RPG, and tech ought to work even if you haven't spotted his plot device!"

     The old-fashioned linework didn't make a lifelike face, but from the way the woman held her pipe, Hikaru knew what she was seeing. The swarm of butterflies outlined in glowing, flowing heat, was just confirmation. "You got the Dimension Witch! That's perfect, Umi-chan. You've got long hair, just like Lady Yuuko!"

     Her friend giggled, "Oh, to be Lady Yuuko, I'd need more booze. And maybe a Watanuki-sempai," she added with a wink.

     By the door, Kamui-san scowled into the corridor. "Unless your boss is more than two thousand years old, that's not her on the wall. How many times do I have to say that the Six Divine Warriors weren't real?"

     "Here's another!" Fuu-chan called out, sinking into a switch halfway across floor. Magma crept into the shape of a broad-shouldered man sweeping a long scythe as Fuu-chan jumped in place and clapped her hands. "I think I'm the Barrows-Guard!"

     Yuzuriha-chan and Saiki-san took big, sliding steps away from her, and Kamui-san spun around with his eyes wide. Pointing at the image, he snarled, "See? Our Barrows-Guard never uses a scythe! He's not the same guy!"

     "I dunno," Yuzuriha-chan murmured, inching closer to the image. "That stuff around him looks an awful lot like sakura petals, and you can't say Sakurazuka-san doesn't have those."

     Kamui-san abandoned the door and stalked over to the wall while the magma filled in a storm of sakura petals and a sprawling tree. Rivers of magma branched up from both images toward the ceiling, but Kamui-san's eyes never left the image of the Barrows-Guard. "No. It can't be. I won't let him--"

     "I want to be the Snow Fox!" Hikaru and Yuzuriha-chan yelled out together, both running to the wall to spy out the wizard's figure.

     "Jinx!" Yuzuriha-chan giggled. "Can't talk till Kamui says your name!"

     Not saying a word, Hikaru pointed at the switch clicking under her feet and grinned. The picture of a man with a crystal-tipped staff and a blizzard swirling around his head had already started to glow on the wall. With a sigh, the pirate girl stepped back, tripping a switch of her own.

     Her figure was sitting on one of about a score of floating bubbles, with a farseeing-eye sigil carved over his head. "Well, the Dreamseer would've been my second pick!" Yuzuriha-chan said, and grinned at Kamui-san and Saiki-san. "I guess that makes you the Heavenly Twins! Not that you look much alike... Oh, but Kamui! At least you've got purple eyes! That's their big thing, right?"

     “No way," Umi-chan objected while Saiki-san hunted along the wall and Kamui-san tromped away to put his back to everything. "The Twins definitely had green eyes. It's in, like, every other line. What books were you reading?"

     Yuzuriha-chan shrugged. "I just know my grandmother's bedtime stories. Saiki, you've read all the old lore, right?"

     "Well..." His face contorted into an apology. "The oldest texts always say the same thing. 'Eyes like alexandrite'. It's kind of ambiguous."

     As he spoke, the stone under his feet and the square where Kamui-san had been standing both gave way. The dark-haired pirate whipped around, growling softly. Glowing lines on the wall filled in two last figures: a man, seated with an instrument balanced on his knees, bow raised to play; and a woman dancing with a trailing scarf. A five-pointed star hovered between one of the sister's palms and the hand where the brother held his bow. Behind and above them, a light rain of feathers filled the wall, and Yuzuriha-chan lit up while Kamui-san glowered. "Green eyes or purple," the pirate girl announced, "I still say that's perfect. Saiki looks like he's closer to the brother... Does that make you the sister?"

     "I'm not having this conversation," Kamui-san spat. Like the rest of them, he watched the magma. The trails stretching upwards from each of the six figures had all converged on another figure holding a sunburst-tipped staff: Clow Reed, Hikaru thought to herself, as if they hadn't been able to tell.

     "Hmm." Fuu-chan's eyes tracked the molten rock pushing towards the ceiling and the blocks of stone moving around it like a shifted-picture puzzle. "It looks like stepping on all six switches together displaced enough magma to trigger a reaction. I hope it's the right one."

     From there, the lines turned inside the wheel above their heads, filling in letters and images -- some that Hikaru recognized, like the first meeting between the Dioscuri and the Four Guardians of Heaven, others more obscure. On the star wall across from them, particular constellations and asterisms started to glow, outlined with their own trails stretching up like the branches on a tree. "Wow," Yuzuriha-chan murmured. "And what are the chances there happen to be six of us here?"

     "There is no chance!" Umi-chan and Fuu-chan chorused together. "There is only inevitability!" Hikaru would have joined them, but she was jinxed, so she just joined them in miming Lady Yuuko's usual pose.

     The pirates stared at all three of them, blinking. Umi-chan shrugged. "Something our boss likes to say. Now, is this supposed to be a game? Because this may be the most boring game ever. Where is my magic sword and my horde of zombies?"

     Fuu-chan pointed at the text glowing around the outside of the ceiling. "We might be in the introductory sequence. Let me see... I think it says, 'Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale: a tale of a fateful trip that started from this tropic port--'"

     "It's the story of how the Six Divine Warriors went to the Heavens and met the stars!" Kamui-san snarled. "We all know that story!" He turned his face to the seventh figure above their six and yelled, "Clow Reed, if you're listening, just show us the stupid orb!"

     "This... isn't the usual story." Fuu-chan adjusted her glasses, using a wind spell to blow some dust off the glowing text outside a panel crowded with new figures, mostly indistinct and centered around two men. One had a crown showing five points on his forehead, and one looked like he'd just gotten out of the shower and had only had time to grab a towel. Fuu-chan's lips moved silently, and she snapped another few pictures. Finally, she spoke. "This is where they would meet the stars, but the word isn't 'sitara' or 'taraka'. It's 'ashura'."

     "Meaning what?" Umi-chan asked.

     "Demon," Fuu-chan and Saiki-san answered, both with the same small quietness to their voices.

~//~

     Plans, Fai knew, sometimes had to be adjusted for scale. Sometimes, you went looking for a good, solid fuck, but what you got would make an earthquake feel like a see-saw. It was lucky no one had come to the dock yet -- all the voices so far had come from the woods, from sailors running to other piers with boats they could sail. If they had come here, Fai might not have been able to stand against them.

     There was no strength left in his arms or legs. They held him off the ground, quivering in the tide rolling around his wrists and thighs, only because of the need to push back against the man behind him. The sheer urgency flooding through his muscles and bones kept them taut and braced against the body laid flush on the now soaked jacket clinging to his skin, until his fingers and knees buried themselves in the sand. Where the collar gapped down his back, kisses burned his shoulders.

     He'd thought he'd judged what his ninja was capable of last time. If Kuro-sama had wanted to prove his claims that he was better when his hands weren't tied behind his back, his point was made. Those hands kneaded into his thighs, sending paroxysms down his legs and up his spine that escaped his body in trembling gasps, and his legs yawned wider to let them play. As they spread, his hips lowered, even though he was straining back so hard he could feel the firm planes of his lover's abdomen against the muscles of his backside. Down and down, until the tip of his erection grazed the surface of the water. Then, that devastating grip held him there, right where every ebb and flow of the waves could caress him and drive him slowly mad.

     The raw edge on his moans tightened to a whine. "Don't let that spill," the ninja rumbled in his ear. "I'm not done with you."

     "Fuck," Fai gasped. His vision moved in and out of focus as he dropped his head. "Please..." he begged. "God, please, let me feel your cock." Staring under the shadow of their bodies at the flushed solidity standing -- waiting -- between his lover's legs, he panted, yearning with his fingertips, his tongue, the screaming need deep inside. If he'd wanted the satisfaction of that hardness filling him up from the beginning, he was starving for it now. He couldn't count the minutes since he'd taken the man down on his back and watched him writhe with sand in his hair while Fai had plied his lips and tongue, but the stinging savor of ejaculate still hung in his mouth -- and his Kuro-shi was already beautifully hard again.

     And keeping himself just out of reach. Drops of sea splash fell from the tip like diamond teardrops glittering in the sun, mixed with the pre-come that gleamed on his skin. Fai could feel the smile in his lover's kisses as another passing wave on his own twitching length spun his whimpers into a primal cry. "Ah! Put it in me. Put it on me. I just need to feel it. Please...!"

     "Since you sound so pretty." Pulling Fai's hips tight against his own, the man slipped his heat along the inside of Fai's leg, drawing it back against the joint of his thighs, then pushing it forward again along the line where Fai's cock hung down into the sea.

     For an instant, that was everything in his head, and it was enough.

     Then, fingers traced his opening, and the need came back. This time, he couldn't even put together sounds so they made words, but he drank in the touch and shuddered from stem to stern. The next touch was slick, not with water but with cream. The ninja had packed lube this time, Fai thought with a half-moaned laugh rolling out of his throat. Stored in his nowhere-space for when this moment came. No saying this time that they'd gotten swept away by their passions and never meant for this to happen. So sweet, so practical... and so presumptuous.

     So good, feeling it go in, opening to the fingers slipping inside. He arched into the man's touch and threw his head back to breathe in long and deep. "Are you going to let me come with you inside me, Kuro-sama?" His lover's sigh had a hint of a chuckle at the end, as if to say he was still deciding. Fai tried to work himself harder onto the rhythm of those fingers, but a firm hand squeezing his hip held him in place. He groaned again as the ninja found all the best spots, noted them, and slipped away. "Are you going to take me just with your fingers this time, or are you going to put your cock inside me, all the way down? Tell me... How are you going to make me yours?"

     Fai bit his tongue to hold in any more rash words. 'Yours' was about as rash as words got, when he was with this man. When he heard his dark-haired warrior whispering, "Do you really want to know?" it didn't feel like a play word, the way it had been with so many others through the years. No one before this had really believed they could take more than the moment, the passing satisfaction. But when this man pulled him up by the coat, pawed Fai's boneless form around, face to face, to drag him into a kiss... When this man stole into his mouth like he was coming home and groaned in answer to Fai's scratches on his back, Fai knew this man believed he could take everything.

     That wasn't in Fai's plans.

     The rough kisses put steadiness back in his limbs -- enough to force his lover to the ground in the shadow of the dock. While the sea made knots of his hair dance with the tide, Fai wrapped himself tight around the flawless body in his control. He let his knee curl over the man's chest, up to his shoulder so he could feel the race of his companion's heartbeat against his thigh, and feel the quake of the fine warrior's stomach under his foot when Fai lapped the salt spray off his neck, nibbling and purring in his ear. As he slid his leg down to tangle their bodies together, he let the moment wash over him like the tide and basked in the solid heat of the cock tucked against his skin.

     "Kuro-sama..." he sighed, and made another sortie at the ninja's ear until the hands gripping his back jerked him in too tight for the waves to come between them. Their bodies shook with each wash of warm water and the chilling breath of air that followed. "You didn't just stumble on the Dragon of Heaven in Marseilles, did you?" Fai murmured around nipping bites. "Were you hunting for me? Following my boat's not an easy thing to do."

     Somewhere in his lover's moans, he listened for a hint to slip, for the man to brag about how he'd done it, but the only answer he got (for the moment) was a chuckle. Then the ninja rolled him back on his shoulders and pulled his ass up in the air. His Kuro-sama slid inside, thick and hot -- and after the way his nerves had been keyed up, he thought he could feel every blood pulse beating into his body with a new shiver of bliss. Even though he wasn't moving yet, that fullness alone left Fai panting, pushed to that brink where vision blurred and reality might as well give up.

     "It ain't easy to see a ninja when he's hiding either, Your Majesty," his lover murmured, sliding a hand up Fai's hip, up to circle the tip of his cock straining into the air. "Something tells me you took the trouble because you wanted to see me again. But it's a hell of a trick."

     "My proper... style," Fai gasped, arching into his touch, feeling his spine hit its limit as he tried to grind down on the shaft holding him open inside. "... is... 'Your Grace'." But the grip still on his ass held their hips locked together. All he could manage was the barest friction, mixing with the stroke against his aching phallus until he stopped knowing how to tell one from the other. They tantalized his skin and shot anticipation through every vein, and he couldn't remember how long it'd been since his body had been so ready, so desperate to come. "You've got to... Ah! I..." He shuddered into a scream as the hand holding him still traced the taut edge of his opening. "I... need you to move. I fucking need you to move!" His hands fisted in the sand, looking for enough purchase, enough leverage to take what he wanted. His voice rang out, as far beyond his control as the sweat coming from his skin, spilling into sound all the sensation his body couldn't contain.

     "Hold still," that voice told him. His body obeyed. Shuddering, gasping, he obeyed. "Look at me." And when he forced his eyes open, red eyes as sharp as knives looked back at him from a face turned feral with lust. Kuro-sama pushed forward, their bodies together, their faces together, the shock of pleasure making Fai's eyes roll closed again.

     "Look. At me."

     He did.

     "You act like everything's a game, but somewhere in that pretty head, you know some things aren't." As much as Fai wanted to look away, those red eyes held him locked, burning the moment into his consciousness. "I'm telling you right now, I'm one of them. Remember that."

     "Is... that so?"

     The sound of footsteps approaching, of all times, came then. Fai knew they weren't going to stop. It wasn't an option. But he hadn't expected the sudden planar shift as the ninja secreted them away in the world of shadow, out of sight any normal pair of eyes. The two pirates running on the dock above them wouldn't know how to shatter the illusion even if they'd known to try.

     Kuro-sama whispered in his ear, "Keep quiet, and they won't find you."

     And then... then, when the cries welling up in Fai's gut were forbidden, the ninja drew back his length to surge it in again, thrusting that perfect cock like a piston, faster and harder every time Fai thought he'd gotten himself under control. There was no more world, no more sand to feel under his shoulders. Only the man inside him, inside his body and inside his gripping arms, and the detonation of the charge coursing on his nerves. His lip tasted of blood. Swallowing his screams had its consequences, but a bit lip he could handle. With their mouths trapped in some amalgamation of kiss and clash, his body filled with the roll of thunder, and he felt himself come unmade. All the awareness he had left crashed into oblivion.

     The rise of the surf washing around his head called him back to awareness again, then he heard his own breath, piecing together the softest of moans as his shoulders, his spine, his hips all sank into the beach. His dizzy head still felt like he was flying. His muscles couldn't pull him upright yet, but Fai managed to open his eyes. Their visitors were still on the dock, shouting something about getting to the far cape. They'd be gone soon, then. He turned his eyes down to the broad shoulders lying across his chest, rising and falling as slow, deep breaths blew across Fai's throat. Breath resolved into the press of a kiss. Laying close turned into a curling of limbs. All too soon, Fai had to tell himself they weren't cuddling -- he was looking for an opening to get his answers, that was all. He didn't cuddle. He stalled until prying ears were gone, since he didn't have Subaru's talent for making a conversation unhearable to anyone but his intended audience. It didn't matter how mindlessly secure he felt, trailing his fingertips up a shoulder blade to curl over the man's shoulder. It didn't matter how a kiss to his fingers made him bury a smile in his lover's cheek. None of that mattered, not as long as he had other reasons to be here.

     But, oh, he was going to cherish the sun-warmed, ocean-washed scent of 'Kuro-rin Fucked Silly'. Fai could already imagine summoning this memory like a blanket when he wanted to drift off to sleep with good dreams.

     They chuckled together as the Chizetans ran off, none the wiser to their shenanigans. "Admit it," Fai whispered. "You put a tracker on my ship so you could find me again. Where'd you hide it?"

     "If you want to know where it is, you better look for it."

     Which meant there was something to look for. Kuro-pon didn't sound like he was lying. He didn't sound scared his trick would get found, either.

     And, clearly, Fai had to do more to lower the ninja's guard. He let the roll of their bodies pull him on top of that stunning package of trim muscle and complete unselfconsciousness lying naked under the sun, then Fai pushed their noses together and grinned. "You... Last time, you were good, but not as good as that. People don't change that much in two weeks."

     "Two weeks ago, I was tied to a chair."

     "Not when you were interrogating me in my cabin, you weren't."

     The ninja shrugged and draped his arms along Fai's sides, resting both hands in a careless fondle of his ass. "Now I know you like sex too much to kill me halfway through. Everybody's better when they're not watching for a knife in their back."

     Fai thought he felt the world stop dead. He strained to hear some hint of a lie in the man's tone, but all he could find was a simple, direct admission that the legendary, undefeatable Kurogane had come this far into enemy territory and decided to drop all attention for guards and defenses -- to concentrate on fucking him. But that had to be a lie. Just like all the soul-searching gazes when they'd met on board the ship had to have been an act. Just like the intensity when his lover kissed his forehead and stroked his hair had to be an act right now. Finding his way under the man's armor was a goal, something Fai needed to do to accomplish his own ends -- not something the Black Hawk of Suwa would hand over just because his enemy got on his knees once or twice to make supplication in a fit of passion. He was certain, his Kuro-myu had to be playing the tender lover just as much as Fai knew he himself was playing the grateful beloved. So why did he suddenly want to hide his face in the crook of his companion's neck, where those red eyes couldn't see him, and why did the steady pulse beating against his ear make him quake?

     "I think I'm going to disappoint you," Fai murmured. His words had slipped past his tongue without giving him a chance to consider them. He kept doing that whenever the two of them got into these situations. Those words didn't sound anything like what he wanted to say. But as he heard them, he could imagine the disappointed expression his Kuro-sama might make when Fai did whatever he had to do so the ship could get away clean once Kamui had the orb.

     And Fai would do whatever he had to do. His slip of the tongue was true. He couldn't care -- it couldn't matter, not to him -- but it was true. Someday, probably sooner than later, he'd be a disappointment to the man who'd followed him here.

     "Don't decide that on your own," his lover growled. The rumble worked its way from Fai's chest through to his back. "I'll take my chances."

     He took a deep breath and set his smile back in order, pecking the ninja on the cheek. "Chance might not enter into it. Maybe it's inevitability. We both know someone who says that, don't we?"

     "She's a know-it-all bitch, and I don't trust her as far as I can throw her."

     He laughed, almost honestly, and traced circles on the man's chest. "She is a bitch, isn't she? But if you're thinking of falling in love with me, it's probably a bad idea."

     Lacing their fingers together, his ninja pulled Fai's hand to rest against his cheek. It was easier to meet his eyes now, when he narrowed them and shot jibes instead of turning up his countenance to full smolder. "In the two weeks I've known you, you've been annoying as hell and a hell of a fuck. Does that sound like love?"

     "I don't know. It's not my area of expertise." Fai ran his other hand into the salt-stiffened and sand-frosted mess of his lover's hair. "But I do think Tarta and Tatra will have a portable shower in the tent they've so thoughtfully abandoned. We should get cleaned up so you can take me into town and buy me lunch." He giggled as the oh-so-serious warrior's eyebrow twitched. "Come on, Kuro-tcho!"

     "It's Kurogane."

     "You've had me three times now, which activity -- however pleasant -- is around four fifths of the time we've spent together. Hardly a flattering picture of your intentions!"

     "It takes two, Your Majesty."

     "You should definitely buy me lunch. Unless you had other plans?" He knew he'd won as soon as the ninja sighed and shook his head. Objective: Keep Kuro-tan engaged and away from his crew's escapades -- Achieved!

     "I was here to keep an eye on you anyway," he answered. "Like I said, I don't mind if you make it easy." Then he gripped Fai by the arm and whispered in his ear. "But so you know... don't think you can shake me. That's not gonna happen."

     Fai kissed his nose. "Sounds like fun."

Chapter Text

  • Retrieve that highball glass you keep in the icebox for hot summer days.
  • Swirl with 1 oz. anisette.
  • Add 1 oz. fine light rum.
  • Top off with soda, lime, and simple syrup to taste.
  • Ice optional.

     No doubt the shopkeepers in Saijaan assumed that the Pirate King currently locked in a war with their Princesses would be on his ship with the rest of the battle, not sweeping his puff-feathered hat off his head to get a look at a pawn shop's display. If they hadn't, today's 'date' would've been a lot more trouble. As it was, all the locals kept their distance from the strangers with Northern clothes and Northern paleness, but no one drew a sword. It probably helped that Kurogane had stowed his armor in favor of something more casual.

     And, as much as he hated to admit it, it helped that the man on his arm wasn't using his real name.

     "Look, Kuro-tan! Tiger clips!" The blond picked up a set of wooden combs with ornaments dangling from the end, clipping a lock of his hair on either side of his head. "Like the queen of the summer festival would wear. Should I get them?"

     "It's your head, but I don't think they'll fit under your hat."

     The pirate plucked them out again, rolling his eyes. "Don't be silly. They're for Sakura-chan! They'd look so cute on her."

     They would, actually. Although a potato sack would look cute on Princess Tomoyo's foundling. She was cute, end of story.

     And his fair-haired pseudo-sweetheart had more interest than Kurogane had expected in a girl with no past and no memory -- more interest than most pirates had in the lives of former hostages, even the ones who were lethally cute. None of the questions over lunch had given away what Fai wanted with the girl, just like none of Kurogane's answers had given away critical information about his Princess's castle or affairs. That meant she was more important than a ransom. When he finished this trip, finding out where the girl had come from was moving up in Kurogane's priorities.

     "You'll take them back, won't you?" the pirate asked, pressing his find into Kurogane's hand.

     The man wasn't really asking a question. His cocky pout was one more mask in the neverending parade of seeming-careless flirtations. The way the tips of his fingers shied a stiff half an inch away from trailing down Kurogane's palms, though... That had echoes of the way he'd trembled when he'd said not to fall in love. The Pirate King was a liar, Kurogane knew. Not the natural kind who lied like breathing -- he was the polished kind who'd learned to lie for a reason -- but he wasn't the best liar Kurogane had ever met. His game was distraction. Someone who knew how to keep his eye on target could see where the act had a couple mended holes, like the quiver in the blond's voice today. He sounded like someone who needed to believe the reasons for his lies, and was having trouble doing it.

     Good. When his smile was fake, he looked like he was numbering a warehouse of his own sins like a debtor counting a mountain of bills in pennies. If the pirate decided his reasons were shit enough to give up his act, maybe...

     No, this little love story couldn't go anywhere. He had duties, and the blond was on the wrong side of them. 'Maybe' was for another world.

     Kurogane studied the clips in his hand, wondering when he'd realized that he assumed he'd be able to trust the Pirate King in the end. It defied judgment. Not even the strange flashes he'd seen of the future -- the ones Princess Tomoyo thought came from his mother's Dreamseer blood, triggered by whatever change the blond said would take a person who got too close to 'demons' -- had given him a reason to think that. He thought his sense would start working when he'd made his move on the beach, that his instincts wouldn't let him relax in the blond bastard's arms. Instead, he was even more certain this man wasn't his enemy, despite him taking the little Princess hostage when they'd met.

     It was stupid to trust him, Kurogane thought, closing his hand around the present this pirate wanted to send to the girl he'd kidnapped. But he did. And his instincts had never failed him this badly before. "She'll get them after I check 'em for traps," he answered.

     Fai threw his arms around Kurogane's neck and stole another kiss. As much as you could call it theft when the other party didn't put up a fuss. "You're the best, lover," the blond whispered. "Tell Syaoran-kun hello for me, too!"

     "Are you gonna pay for these things or not?"

     He let himself get as easy as he wanted with holding the pirate by the waist, knowing the honesty threw his companion off-balance. Sure enough, the embrace started as supple as fine leather and ended with Fai blushing through a sideways glance and dancing a few feet away. The blond played like he was only flagging down the shopkeeper. Kurogane tried not to wonder what could make him so scared. Where the pirate meant to go from here mattered more than the past, and jumping to theories could stain what you see so you never see the truth. For now, Kurogane was just watching.

     He was watching when the pirate bartered the shopkeeper down to a steal, and their conversation turned to the summer festival. "They'll clip the festival queen's hair up with flowers, just so," the old man was saying. "Ever seen it, me boy? No, I think I'd have marked ye. Ye're a sight a man don't forget, ah?"

     "Oh, I don't know about that! But this is our first time in the area."

     Lies, Kurogane thought to himself. The blond had already known what the clips were for, and at lunch he'd ordered a mix of chopped fruits with a specificity that meant experience. But it was true the Pirate King hadn't been in Chizeta recently enough for the locals to know him, even though he insisted on standing out in a crowd. Of course, Kurogane already knew he was older than the twenty-odd years his face betrayed.

     "Well, make sure t'see Mt. Saijaan before ye leave!" A stiff, wooden edge crept into his companion's smile at the mention of the volcano. "No festival, but ye might see the Stargazer's temple if ye find the trail. Even up North, ye woulda heard of our Sora the Hatless, I'll wager. Well, that Old Stargazer taught the boy everything he knows."

     "I might do that," Fai answered, taking his wrapped parcel from the shopkeeper and bidding him farewell.

     Kurogane had thought it was a waste for the pirate to spend the afternoon distracting him from the ship when he could've gotten on board any day in the past week he'd wanted to. As if he'd sneak in there again before he had a way around whatever the Pirate King and the Sumeragi did to see through his shadow techniques. Was the battle itself a distraction from something bigger happening at the volcano, under the villagers' noses?

     The man's smile was almost natural again by the time he walked away and handed Kurogane the package to hold. On a whim, Kurogane didn't let go of the blond's hand after he tucked the clips out of sight. He laced their fingers together as they walked out onto the street. His companion's flinch didn't show in his face, but he couldn't hide the tiny twitch in his palm. "Aren't you a gentleman?" Fai laughed, faking ease. Faking it better after the initial surprise.

     "Just keeping you where I can see you. If you're not good, I'll put you on a leash."

     "Kuro-sama, you're so mean!" the pirate squealed, cuddling his cheek to Kurogane's shoulder, tension evaporating from his frame as if it was less of a problem holding hands for surveillance than for the act in itself. His grin took on a sparkle that nearly pulled Kurogane into smiling, too. "Tell me... How bad do I have to be? Are there guidelines, or do I have to test all the options?"

     "You think I'd tell you?"

     "Ooh, let's get our picture done! I think that man's making sticker sets!"

     Sure enough, there was an artist by the side of the road, doing a sketch of three girls while a rack of gears trained to his pen made six miniature copies on his table. As the blond dragged him off to stand in line, Kurogane wondered how it could be that he wasn't surprised this was how they were spending their day. A month ago, he would've thought a fried snowball was more likely than him getting a sticker portrait with the Pirate King.

     But there he was, getting dragged by his wrist. Princess Tomoyo must've seen this coming. That was probably why she'd giggled like she did when Kurogane had asked for permission to track down the Dragon of Heaven again and set up proper surveillance.

~//~

     The glowing room was jumping on Kamui's last nerve, telling its story just slowly enough that everybody had time to guess what each new mural was about and just fast enough that nobody got bored, and all Kamui wanted was for this to be done so they could fight the locals on their trail and get the hell out of here. No one else seemed to have his priorities.

     "Demons? Like demons from Hell?" the blue ninja asked, still stuck on how Clow Reed had thrown a twist into his overblown bedtime story. "I thought the Barrows-guard was the only demon in the Dioscuri stories. Don't tell me the man in the crown is supposed to be Kokuyo or something! Those guys are just a myth!"

     As far as Kamui was concerned, everything in this room was just a myth, but did anyone seem to care? No! Why would they?! They were just standing in a mysterious magical apparatus, trusting everything Clow Reed told them to be the truth, and expecting a fun prize when the show was over! Like idiots.

     The green ninja who'd been translating the whole thing took a few more pictures while she puzzled it out. "I don't see anything like the name Kokuyo, and the setting isn't in Hell. This is definitely the story where Clow Reed transported them to the Heavens and they ended up cursed to wander for eternity." The last section of the wheel over their heads filled in, first two figures sitting in a cloud of butterflies and smoke who had to be Clow Reed and the Dimension Witch, then a line of text to the side of their heads. "The Eight Lovers," Green read aloud. "I've never heard that part in the story before."

     The next pair of figures showed the crowned demon, or personified star, or whoever he was, with a man curled at his feet, resting a cheek on his leg. The second man was the Snow Fox, Kamui guessed from the staff lying next to them. For some reason he couldn't explain, a chill shot down his back. It didn't get any better when the four figures below them revealed themselves. A girl with trailing robes and a radiant star by her head took the hand of a seated man marked with the Dreamseer's farseeing-eye, and the Barrows-guard -- scythe and all -- stood with a hand over his right eye, back to back with a young man doubled over in tears.

     The right eye. The same eye their Barrows-guard, Lord Sakurazuka, was missing. But it couldn't be real. It couldn't be him.

     Although... the last part of the picture was a five-pointed star in a circle, underneath the two figures. It looked just like a magic circle Kamui knew too well. And the one he knew belonged to a man with bright green eyes, who loved that jackass Sakurazuka past the telling of it and had probably cried out all his tears a long time ago. Staring at the image, Kamui could almost see Subaru's face, young and distraught, and he had to admit that the chill in that man's eyes would fit this picture of the Barrows-guard's legend.

     "Look at those stars, by her head and under his feet..." Yuzuriha moved her finger between the two images. "Are those supposed to be the Heavenly Twins? The sister with the Dreamseer, and... and the brother with the Barrows-guard?! Well, that's new."

     Kamui didn't say anything. He'd forgotten that the pentagram was the Heavenly Twins' seal. So it couldn't be Subaru -- the Heavenly Twins had died, consumed by their spells in the final battle. Subaru was alive. So maybe the Barrows-guard had a habit of grinding pretty men's hearts into dust, and Subaru had just been next in line. Who could think anything better of that man, Kamui wondered. He'd never found a reason to.

     Green pursed her lips as she studied the text filling in under the images. "Can someone confirm something for me? The oldest stories I've read said the Barrows-guard took a life from the stars, and because of it the Dioscuri were cast out of the Heavens, cursed with eternal life. No one's heard any other reason?"

     "I've never seen anything else," Saiki answered. "I'm... guessing that's not what this says?"

     The wind ninja took more pictures of the ceiling. "No, it's the same sentiment, the same phrasing as I've seen in recorded lore. 'Taking that which is eternal confers into your heart the burden of eternity'. But in this context--"

     "And by 'context'," Blue shot back, "You mean it's the caption for a cartoon about the Divine Warriors getting hot and heavy with demons? Or gods, I guess, since I assume Lady Yuuko caught it from Clow."

     "Can we stop talking about immortality like it's a venereal disease?" Kamui groaned.

     No one seemed to hear. They all kept arguing about the drawings like they were a 2000-year-old soap opera. As he buried his face in his hands, he heard Yuzuriha's voice behind him to the right. "But what about the other four? The Barrows-guard, the Dreamseer, and the Heavenly Twins were all human! It doesn't work!"

     "Unless the Barrows-guard really was a demon," Saiki called back. His voice trembled. "Or... is a demon. If... he's... Well, if he's you know who. The Brother's paired with him here--"

     "And what?" the blue ninja broke in. "The Sister got it from her brother and passed it to the Dreamseer?! Eew!"

     Kamui cringed, dropping his fists to his sides. Standing on a magic rock, waiting for an angry crowd to attack, listening to people debate about who Clow Reed thought was sleeping with whom in legends he'd never wanted to believe could be true. This simply could not be how his life was going to end.

     The next voice was the green ninja and her infernal calm. "I think it's an emotional transference, not physical. If they'd needed a physical connection of any kind, there should've been a fifth picture here, for an identifiable moment between the Brother and the Sister. But if it's emotional attachment, their existing connection could've caused an inst--"

     "That's just sketchy," Blue insisted. "Even if it is an emotion thing, it's a missing link. These are all 'eternity-burden-conferring' relationships, right? Why are we saying one went through the Heavenly Twins when there's no connection for them on the board?"

     He was about ready to scream by the time he heard Yuzuriha say, "Maybe it's like how you don't put underground rivers on surface maps?" Then he saw a red blur out of the corner of his eyes -- the shortest ninja, waving her arms above her head and looking like she was about to pop.

     "What is it?" Kamui snapped. Couldn't she just yell like everyone else?

     Apparently not. She pointed at the door with her eyes wide and drew a sword out of the gem on her hand. The hilt looked like real flame and the blade reached at least two feet above her head. Not a word crossed her lips.

     Blue muttered, "Shit. I hear... four sets of footsteps all the way past the rope wall. Debates later?" She likewise drew a monstrous broadsword out of her blue gem.

     The green ninja's sword reached halfway to the ceiling. But no matter. Kamui was perfectly happy with his usable-sized cutlass -- happier, if someone came into close range, which they probably would. He drew it, and alongside Yuzuriha and Saiki stepped toward the door.

     Unfortunately, the switches they'd tripped came up once their weight was gone, and the glowing lines around the room started to retreat. "Get back!" Yuzuriha and Kamui both called out to Saiki, who'd stopped in place. Playing Clow's game out to it's conclusion was still the best lead they had towards getting what they came for. They'd just have to fight the scowling hordes rounding the corner without moving from their spots -- even if only the best fighters from the mob on their tail would make it through that obstacle course. To quote the red-haired ninja who'd suddenly changed from a bubbly airhead to a fire-eyed badass, no problem. Kamui could hear their footsteps now, and he'd take a good fight over watching lava pictures (or magma pictures) any day. The back wall was moving now, sections grating and shifting as the molten rock flowed through them, but its picture could damn well wait till he was done hitting things.

     The first four Chizetans ran in. Two more weren't far behind, and Kamui could hear a few more footsteps behind that. He didn't count how many. He was too busy blocking a cut to his chest and trying to sweep his attacker to the floor without taking both feet off of his designated square. Before long, he was fighting off three at a time -- the perils of being the only target who wasn't next to a wall and in the middle of a crowd. He swung his cutlass down against one's arm, thrusting his scabbard at the second, kicking back at the third...

     Only to have a barrage of icicles knock one of his foes away. A fireball brought another to his knees, and the last was trapped in a cyclone, suspended a foot off the ground and struggling to breathe. Kamui eyed the three ninja with unconscious Chizetans at their own feet. "I had it covered!" he yelled.

     "You're welcome," Blue answered before the next wave of fighters got to each of them.

     Yuzuriha's opponent was down. Kamui could see it over the shoulder of the man now trying to take off his head. He'd never seen her fight on land before, without her pet seal to back her up, but her would-be attacker was in a ball at her feet and didn't look to be getting up soon. The crowd of fighters holding off the locals trickling through the door must've bought her enough time to think, too. She was standing frozen with her eyes on the back wall.

     "Guys? I figured out what 'Game Over' means!"

     Kamui's opponent looked at her, just for a fraction of a second. It was enough for Kamui to knee him in the solar plexus and take him out. All the other footsteps were a few yards back from the door. He took his own moment to think and looked at the nearly complete scene behind them.

     "I think this one's a picture of Abaddon Falls," Yuzuriha called out.

     It had a glowing outline of the Heavenly Twins setting loose their orbs, at least, with feathers falling all around them (in a way Kamui wished didn't happen to him so often, since he'd always liked those stories better when he'd thought the feathers were a metaphor). And near them was a waterfall, which should've been somewhere on the Earth but nobody knew where. The part Kamui had his eye on, though, was an outline of the crowned demon, the Snow Fox's lover -- hurtling toward the ground and trailed by lines that made him look like a comet.

     Hadn't Subaru been warning Fai about a comet?

     No. There were lots of comets. And maybe this picture just happened to look like a comet, but wasn't one. They couldn't be heading into a replay of Abaddon Falls. He wasn't ready to fight off the end of the world.

     A club whistled through the air, aimed at his back. Kamui chopped through it with one swipe of his cutlass and kicked the man flying into the far wall. Possibly harder than absolutely necessary. He turned his eyes back to the wall, and skipped to the newest panel to fill itself in. This one had the girl with a star by her head and the man with a scythe in his hand.

     With the scythe at her throat, both figures wrapped in a shower of sakura petals. And a shape below them that Kamui was uncomfortably certain was a pool of blood. "He killed her," he hissed. "The Barrows-guard..."

     But wasn't that girl the Sister from the Heavenly Twins? She should've already been dead after she and her brother released their orbs. They both turned to dust, or so the books all said. If she was still there, where was was the Brother?

     Something else Subaru had said came back to him now. Something he wasn't likely to ever forget.

     "The Barrows-guard... killed his sister."

     "Why are we surprised the Barrows-guard is killing people?" Yuzuriha didn't have a chance to see for herself, with another local fighter trying to get close enough to grapple.

     "It's nothing!" Kamui snapped. That wasn't his secret to tell.

     Sure enough, when the last panel slid into place and lit up, it showed six figures facing down the crowned demon -- all of the Dioscuri, minus the Sister. Clow Reed was standing where she might have otherwise been. The Snow Fox was in front, holding up his crystal staff, but next to the Dimension Witch, the Dreamseer, and even the Barrows-guard behind him, Kamui could see the figure of a man standing over a glowing pentagram.

     The Brother survived. The Barrows-guard killed the Sister, and the Brother survived. He really was looking at Subaru's life, played out in glowing illustrations. He was watching Sakurazuka break a man who'd been like a brother to him. Kamui could feel tears running hot down his cheeks, and the ground rumbled and cracked under his feet. Crushing energy filled his hands. The next person he punched might just implode.

     If he got the chance to punch someone. The nearest enemy was backing away from the splintering rock at Kamui's feet, eyes darting around at the stupid, fucking white feathers falling from the ceiling all around him even though there was nothing they could have come from. The rumbles got louder, and soon everyone had lowered their swords.

     "Kamui!" Yuzuriha yelled. "Not inside the volcano!"

     He took in a deep breath and counted to ten, trying to stop his energy from running wild. His shipmate was right. If he cracked open the volcano, they'd all die, except maybe the fireproof ninja. Instead of cracking every surface in the room to pieces, he settled for grabbing one of the feathers out of the air and crushing it.

     Feathers. How had he forgotten? The Twins had always manifested feathers, just like he did, and like Fuuma did. Subaru caused showers of sakura petals when he got serious, same as the Barrows-guard. That didn't fit. But so many things painted on the walls did. Too many things fit too well.

     Were the Divine Warriors real? Was Subaru one of them? Was he not?

     "What the hell is going on?!" Kamui screamed at the ceiling. Echoes come back from the maze past the door, but no answers.

     Through the cautious silence, a beam of light cut the room and stopped, right in front of Kamui, coalescing into a golden sphere. It traced back to the spot where they'd found Clow's magic circle, which now looked like it had spun itself to rights. He'd come here for an orb, hadn't he? Maybe when he brought it back, he'd get some answers. As the last of the liquid light joined the sphere, he raised his hand to take it.

     In that same moment, the red ninja flickered into view next to him, her own hand poised to steal what he'd come here to...

     Well. Steal.

     The next instant was a blinding flash of whiteness, and the sudden conviction that his substance had turned to pudding.

~//~

     One streak of red fire, with another pure and gleaming bright, shot over Sorata's head, and over on land the volcano made a rumble that no island man born and bred liked hearin'. But no eruption had ever sent white streaks runnin' over the horizon with trails of flame behind them, and the tides weren't bothered none by whatever'd happened under the Earth.

     "What the fuck?" Tarta hissed. Nothin' more complex than every man and woman on both boats was askin' with their eyes. The only body that didn't look to care about it was the giant octopus thrashing inside the Sumeragi's holding spell.

     The Sumeragi himself had his eyes narrowed at the sky with his mouth drawn in a line. Sorata'd never seen much that could get so much of a reaction from the man. Although one person their navigator cared enough for to worry over had been at the mountain, to be sure, the man's green eyes didn't spare a glance at the rumbling rocks where Kamui was. They followed along the trail vanishin' over the edge of the sea.

     Then shadows appeared around everyone's feet, followed by a small stream of white feathers, flutterin' down to the decks and along the water as far as the eye could see.

     Kamui's feathers. Right in the path of that bolt across the sky.

     Sorata caught one in his fingers and twirled it around. "Well, that ain't good."

Chapter Text

  • Mix equal parts peach liqueur, sloe gin, vodka, whiskey, your light rum of choice, amaretto, and triple sec.
  • Throw in a splash each of orange, cranberry, and lime juices.
  • Serve in a Collins glass.

     Fai smiled at the mirrored circle in his hand, plenty aware that his ninja would be watching him from the counter where he was ordering their slushies. The rows of decorative grasses dangling from the ceiling kept the table private from ordinary eyes, but that was nothing to a top ranked ninja. And he'd be listening, too. As softly as he could, and trying not to say anything too incriminating, Fai hissed at Kakyou's face in the surface, "Was there some kind of conspiracy to avoid telling me that it wasn't here?"

     "No one knew," his friend answered. "Clow is still stronger than any of us, except maybe Subaru. What he does in the future, we don't see."

     "I know, I know."

     Even if Kakyou had decided he had reasons to conceal that this island was nothing but a gateway, Princess Kotori never would have. And now Kamui was vanished to parts unknown while the Dragon of Heaven was locked in a battle, and he couldn't get to the Dragon of Earth without an extremely handsome and inconveniently competent ninja tracking him the whole way. It was enough trouble that his flagship had already been compromised without his stealth ship getting marked, too. So far, Fai hadn't tried to slip away, but he'd kept his eyes open for any means by which he could do it. Kuro-bun had been as good as his word about making escape impossible.

     Not that he hadn't enjoyed the experience, but once that light shot out of the volcano and spirited Kamui off to god knew where, he no longer had the luxury of spending all the time he needed to get this little infatuation out of his system.

     As if reading his thoughts, Kakyou sighed, "We'll be ready to sail whenever you shake your escort."

     "If you knew what kind of ninja your great-granddaughter keeps, you wouldn't make that sound so easy."

     "Great-granddaughter six dozen times removed -- although I'll grant, it sounds like Tomoyo-chan takes more after Hokuto than is common anymore. And you'll manage."

     "I will," Fai admitted. He kept all ruminations about the details to himself. He'd probably have to disable his ninja to make a clean escape, and that wouldn't get any easier if his Kuro-ruu could hear him from here. "I'll manage something."

     Kakyou shook his head with the weariness that people could only summon when even sleep was no refuge from reality. "You mean you'll screw him until he can't stand up."

     The first words to his tongue, Fai realized, belonged to the red-eyed ninja. But he decided to say them anyway. "If there's a way that's easy, I won't stop just because it's fun." And why should he throw away a perfectly good reason just because his companion had said it first? It was nothing but a nice way to sum up a philosophy he'd always considered worthwhile.

     "Fai," Kakyou murmured with a bitter grimace. "You should understand, if you open your heart to that ninja, and Ashura breaks free to destroy the world--"

     "I've handled my affairs this long. I think I know what I'm--"

     "--neither Subaru nor I would blame you for that. These things happen."

     It would be petty, Fai decided, to point out that Subaru had never possessed the ability to blame anyone for anything, and that Kakyou hadn't cared about 'the world' in centuries. "I don't know why you're all so convinced that I'm in love with him," he answered instead. "I've had longer flings before. We'll be fine."

     "If you say so," the dreamseer said, with that infuriating fatality that always sounded like he was actually saying, 'I can see the future! Why does anyone ever argue with me?'

     "If that comet were Ashura, I'd know."

     "I'm sure you would."

     But all they really knew was that someone was coming from on high who had enough power to disguise his or her actions in a dreamseer's visions as effectively as Clow Reed could. That field was less empty than Fai would have liked.

     Kuro-kin was leaving the counter now, two drinks in hand. "I'll be in touch," Fai whispered.

     Kakyou nodded. "We'll track down Kamui's location. If Satsuki's instruments can't find him, Fuuma should be motivated enough to talk Seishirou into helping."

     "I'm sure Kamui would love that." The Dragon of Heaven's First Mate would, of course, rather die than take anything from Seishirou, not that Fai could blame him. Subaru was his friend, too. And the one thing Kamui would hate worse, although they'd been at pains to give him no opportunity to discover it, would be seeing Fuuma ask for it, the prince of Kaizuka being what he was.

     Most people never saw more in Fuuma than a remarkable likeness to someone they held dear, and how he treated another person rarely made an impression -- but Kamui would know what he was seeing if he ever witnessed Fuuma, who meant more to Kamui than anybody, reflecting back Seishirou's fondest wishes. There might not be a ship left to sail on if that happened. Fai would've preferred to keep Kamui on a different ship as always, but wherever Clow had sent him, it was too far away and getting him back was too important.

     With a nod, he spun his finger clockwise around the edge of the mirror, collapsing it down like a fan, and he stuck the silver rod into his waistcoat pocket. Next, Fai leaned his chin on his hand with a bright grin to welcome his date. "What'd you get, lover?"

     "I think it's starfruit. And here's the lychee you wanted."

     Fai sipped the cool, white (non-tongue-staining!) slush out of the cup his ninja handed him. Delicious, and entirely worth the trip someone had to take into the mountains to get the ice.

     "And would you believe it's snowing outside?" Kuro-pan ducked his head to look out a window. "I guess it stopped. Damnedest thing."

     Keeping his face set in a blank smile, Fai forced himself to do nothing but take a nice, easy sip of his drink. Certainly, he wouldn't indulge in a false move like reaching for the communicator he'd been using long enough for his energy to bleed into the weather. "You know, technically, it is winter here," he said. "Why shouldn't it snow?"

     "It's hot enough to fry an egg."

     "Oh? Does that mean you won't come to the hot springs with me after this?" Fai asked with a pout. He kicked his toe against the ninja's leg and pulled him onto the bench. His knee hooking over his companion's knee as he dragged the man closer by his shirt was a little more blatant than he'd planned to be, but fortune never favored someone who retreated from that kind of mistake. And his lover made it easy to forget it was a mistake at all, dropping his hand down to inappropriate places. "I know this place. Private baths. Very classy."

     "I'll bet."

     Under cover of a kiss turning tectonic, Fai flipped open one of the trick buttons he'd found on the jacket he'd appropriated from the ninja and sprinkled the powder he'd stored inside onto the yellow starfruit slushie. He felt a jolt in his stomach when the man in his arms didn't even flinch. He should've blocked the attempt to lace his drink. The elite ninja really was putting all his focus into that kiss, and he'd notice if Fai didn't start doing the same. Good thing it was easy enough to lose himself in the enjoyment of a back-corner bench where the table covered how his lover slid both his hands under Fai's legs to draw him closer, letting them play without passersby offering tips (of any sort). What was done was done. As much as he hated the thought of leaving this man unconscious on a hotel bed before they'd both had their fill, actually wearing him out would be a challenge. Having seen Kuro-kicchi fight, Fai couldn't be sure he wouldn't be the one to run out of stamina first.

     At least he could be sure his companion would take the bait. The fingers squeezing his thigh now wouldn't say no to anything. Fai laughed, plucking his ninja's hand up in mock dismay. "They've got private rooms, too, Kuro-sama, if that's still what you're after. You don't think I'm the sort of man who'd settle for a quickie in the back of the slushie shop, do you?"

     "Settle, no. Take as an appetizer, absolutely."

     Fai let the man shove him down on the bench, resting with the wood against his shoulder blades as he drew his legs wider apart. Maybe his opponent had noticed how Fai had spiked his drink after all, he thought, and their hour or two of playing nice was over. Then a firm hand stroked his crotch, grazing the fabric as red eyes studied every inch of him -- slowly, like he was a general drawing up a battle plan. His body whispered that the ninja was none the wiser, and it wasn't too late to spill the tainted drink, to let their day play out as intended. Maybe he wouldn't ruin his chances to repeat this run-in some other day.

     But too much about today had already strayed from the plan for him to take this easy.

     While he considered his options, Kuro-mi picked up his cup and held it an inch from his lips. And waited. Fai pushed his fingers back into his hair, holding his head where he could see the look on the ninja's face and his hands where they couldn't lash out on their own to knock the slushie away.

     "How do you want it?" his lover asked, hand straying down a thigh, away from the wetness starting to run through the tent growing in Fai's pants.

     "Say you'll suck me off. Your tongue is good for more than backtalk, isn't it?"

     "Maybe later. After I take you down here, then get you back up again in that private room. After you want it so bad, you forget how to ask for it." Fai watched his Kuro-nin drink a few mouthfuls. Not the whole cup, but enough already to get a solid dose. Then he closed his eyes and rode into the grip on his leg, trying to forget everything except how this felt. Anything else would put his lover on guard, and who knew if he'd get another chance?

~//~

     Breakfast dishes forgotten, Lantis checked his sword again and settled his cape over his shoulders. "Still nothing?"

     "Hikaru's unit seems to be completely offline," Eagle answered. He pressed an array of buttons on his mechanized wristband. The clink of metal when he walked betrayed the arsenal of knives and explosive gadgetry he had strapped to his back, legs, and arms, and experience promised that was less than half of the weapons he'd concealed on his person. "Has Lady Yuuko given permission for us to leave?"

     Lantis doubted that Eagle could care if she hadn't. But there was no need for him to answer. A cascade of butterflies appeared out of nowhere, circling a silvered disk that hung in the air with their Mistress's face. "Good," Yuuko said. "I see you're all ready to go."

     With a smile not quite bright enough to hide his worry, Eagle stepped up to face her. "At top speed, the FTO should be able to get us to Chizeta and back in around a day and a half, maybe less. You'll barely miss us."

     "Speed will be of the essence in resolving our little problem, but you should know..." The Witch looked like a statue while Lantis counted seconds in his head. "Hikaru might not be in Chizeta anymore."

     "Where is she?" Lantis asked. Pointing Eagle's boat in the right direction was his first priority.

     "We can't tell yet," wasn't the answer he wanted to hear, but he bore it with stiff-jawed patience. Eagle's smile had disappeared completely. "Don't worry. The site is defended. As long as you can get to her within a few days, she'll be fine."

     A man learned not to ask questions like, 'How do you know she's defended if you don't know where she is?' when working for Yuuko. Any answers she gave for free wouldn't be satisfactory, but she also never said anything unless she had reason to be sure.

     "Rendezvous with her team in Chizeta. You'll find them near Mt. Saijaan. If she's not with them, then by the time you arrive she should have activated the item she's gone to discover. My assistant has a device you can use to track its signal. He'll know what you need when you stop by his apartment. The rest is up to you."

     "And what's the price?" Lantis asked. There'd be one if they had to borrow equipment for a personal job. He wasn't happy with shelling out sight unseen, but anything Lady Yuuko thought they couldn't handle on their own power, the cost to get her help would be worth it. The sooner they knew, the sooner they could retrieve Hikaru.

     The Witch smiled and took a draw on her pipe. "The FTO can make maps with its scanners, correct? Eagle, your price is to give me a map of wherever Hikaru has found herself. Lantis, I'll have you bring me a rock from the nearest shore that's been smoothed in the tide. I think that should make us even." They nodded, and were halfway to the door by the time the mirrored circle and its attendant butterflies vanished.

     Skirting the bustle of Hundhammeren's mid-morning streets, they hurried as fast as they could go. He could flickerstep to Watanuki's apartment and be back at the docks by the time Eagle was finished bringing the FTO online. Eagle was restrained by the speed of ordinary running. The blond could manage speed most men would envy, and few sailors were more capable, but despite their agreement with Lady Yuuko to let him serve in the capacity of a ninja, he didn't have a ninja's training and found it amusing to stay that way. "How do the tides look?" Lantis murmured. "If you need to prep the boat, we should split up. It'll be faster."

     With a laugh, Eagle asked, "And who'll make sure Lady Yuuko's equipment has the interfaces I need? Her help won't do us any good for navigation if I can't use it with the FTO's systems." Then the smile dropped off his face, eyes blazing ahead. "As for the tides... Low tide just hit, so the currents'll be strong when we leave. There's no worse time to launch, but I promise -- I can handle it. At least the FTO is small. If she'd been a full-size vessel, we'd have been beached for six hours."

     Not an option Lantis wanted to consider. Thanking fate, or inevitability, or whatever force would let them leave immediately, he kept pace at his lover's side. Before long, they stood outside a nondescript third-floor apartment, and Lantis rang the bell as fast as his feet could hit the daisy-embroidered welcome mat.

     "What do you think you're doing?!" Watanuki's voice screamed inside -- not, Lantis presumed, at them. "Did anyone ask you to answer that?! No, they most certainly did not! I am perfectly capable of answering the front door in my own home, thank you very much!"

     The door cracked open, and a tall, dark-haired man who looked like the captain of the Queen Cassandra stood in the hall. "You've got waffles on," he called back over his shoulder. "You wouldn't want 'em to burn." When he turned back around, his eyes narrowed to hard lines, staring at Eagle's sharpened smile. "You're..."

     The lanky frame of Yuuko's personal assistant poked out of a doorway at the far end of the hall, flushed red and flailing his arms as always. "God damn you, Dou--" As soon as he met eyes with Lantis, his breath shriveled into a wheeze. He returned Eagle's wave, but his hand looked like the last leaf clinging to a branch in the fall. "Oh god. This isn't what it looks like!"

     With the pirate's shirt unlaced and his coat on the coat rack next to his hat, plus a pair of boots abandoned by the doorway with the scent of batter on a griddle wafting from the kitchen, Lantis assumed it was exactly what it looked like: a cozy breakfast for two people not looking for interruptions. Watanuki would've been the last ninja Lantis expected to be making waffles with pirates, but then again, he was no one to point fingers.

     "Good morning, Watanuki-san," Eagle said, and turned to the pirate who'd made himself at home. "And it's Doumeki-kun, isn't it? I think we've met."

     "How have you met?!" Watanuki screamed. Pointing a finger out the door, he scowled and his eyebrows twitched. "These are my coworkers, and I have had it up to here..." He gestured about a foot above his head. "... with you meeting them! And now you're doing it without my supervison?!!"

     Lantis's gut tightened, waiting for the word 'Autozam' to come out of Doumeki's mouth. If Eagle's secret was forfeit to getting Hikaru back safely, none of them would mind giving it up. But then, with barely a wrinkle in his brow, Doumeki glanced from Eagle to the frothing Watanuki and said, "I get around. Do you have any firefruit for the waffles?"

     For now, it looked like their secret was safe.

     "Do you have any idea how far out of season firefruit is?!" Watanuki shoved his face within an inch of Doumeki's. "But I may have some preserves left in the pantry, and if you learn to say please and thank you, I might just be gracious enough to allow you to use them. Excuse me while I go check."

     Once he stomped off, Doumeki turned back to the open door. "So it is you. What are you doing here?"

     Eagle's smile never changed. "The same thing you are, I imagine."

     "Yes! He's here to see me, so you can just sit your ass back down at the table and stay out of it!" Watanuki stormed back and pushed a jar filled with red jam into Doumeki's hands, then faltered as he looked back and forth between Lantis and his houseguest. "I mean... Ah!" He pointed at the dark-haired pirate. "He's not here to see me. I... I don't know why he's here! He keeps showing up places where he's not invited!"

     The pained line on Doumeki's mouth as he settled against the wall and crossed his arms looked like he'd heard that a few more times than he had patience for. More to Lantis's immediate concern, his presence made it hard to ask for the tool Yuuko had sent them to retrieve. Eagle aside, he couldn't discuss Ninja Union matters in front of anyone who wasn't a qualified ninja, let alone in front of a pirate.

     He took a deep breath and stared down his co-worker, who gulped despite his technically equal rank in the organization. "Management said you knew what we needed. It's urgent."

     "Oh. I... I... What you needed..." He patted down his pockets and glanced around the entryway in a frenzy. After a second, a wind blew from behind them and made a paper on a table in the hallway fly up against the wall.

     The paper said, "This thing!" in bright red letters with an arrow. "Love, Yuuko."

     Watanuki grabbed a long, thin box it was pointing to and crushed the paper to a ball in his hand, presumably before Doumeki could see it. He rushed back to the door in a blur, shoving the box at them. "Here."

     Once Eagle inspected the device inside -- something thin and silver, and about as long as Lantis's hand -- he snapped the box closed again and stowed it in a pouch on his leg. "Well, then. We'll be on our way." He sniffed the air. "...Do I smell burning waffles?" As Watanuki ran screaming back to the kitchen, the blond chuckled. "Good sailing, Doumeki-kun."

     "You didn't answer my question."

     "It's a longer story than I can tell at the moment. You'll have to excuse us."

     Although Watanuki's pirate didn't look like he wanted to, he nodded and closed the door. Lantis ran off with Eagle by his side, down to the docks where they had the FTO uncovered and ready to sail in record time. He started the motor churning while Eagle set his instruments for a course to Chizeta. When they were sure no one was watching, Eagle pulled a lever, the sides raised up overhead into a bubble, and they sank down under the water.

     "FTO, go," Eagle purred, shifting the gears up to top speed. He didn't have to say it, Lantis knew, and he definitely didn't have to say it in his bedroom voice, but reminding Eagle of that never got anywhere. He focused on the dim-lit water rushing by the windows and didn't let himself imagine what kind problem could've taken Hikaru, one of the top ten fighters in the Ninja Union, out of contact.

~//~

     Hikaru's eyes fluttered open, but it didn't help much. Everything was dark. And cold.

     Really cold.

     Eagle's signaly widget was still in her hand, blasted beyond repair.

     "Ugh..." a voice groaned, then his jaw started to chatter.

     Her pirate friend, Kamui-san. Now she remembered. She hadn't had time to think when the orb had formed in Clow's picture room. She'd rushed him, and they'd both been taken... wherever they were. Hikaru could hear the sounds of the sea around them, and feel the solid rock where she lay. No people anywhere to be heard, although it sounded like there were seals somewhere within a couple hundred yards.

     First things first. They couldn't freeze to death. She formed a fireball in her hand and, not seeing anything nearby to burn that was more substantial than moss, she blasted a large rock until it started to glow. Next, she summoned two heavy cloaks out of her storage gem. One went over her own shivering shoulders, and the other went over Kamui as he struggled to his feet.

     "Thanks," he said, stepping closer to the heated boulder. Less animated in the chill than he'd been inside the volcano, he shook his head and muttered, "I can't believe I'm thanking a ninja."

     Hikaru shrugged.

     "And why the hell won't you say anything?!"

     She made a zipping motion over her lips and shrugged again, hoping he got the point.

     "Because Yuzuriha jinxed you?!"

     She nodded.

     "But that's stupid! What, are you five?! I really have to say your name before you'll start talking?!"

     She shrugged one more time. It was stupid. That was true. But she'd figured she'd play along, since it might be the only chance she had for Kamui-san to start being friendly.

     Right on cue, the pirate sighed. "It's Hikaru, right?"

     "Bingo!" She turned her eyes up to the ink-black sky twinkling with stars, not even lit by the moon. "So where do you think we are?"

     "Nowhere I've ever been." He shivered, hugging his arms tight to his chest. "And definitely nowhere near Chizeta. Do you have any clue how long we've been out?"

     Summoning her watch, checked the dial, then checked the date, since she couldn't believe the time it said was right. But it was. "It looks like we've been out fifteen minutes."

     They both glanced around the pitch dark landscape, a far cry from the tropical paradise they'd left in the early afternoon. "No way," Kamui-san muttered, and slipped a compass out of his pocket. "East is..." He glanced up at the mountain towering to their right. "Not helpful. West..." Looking out over the thrashing sea, he growled at the horizon where another mountain on another island across the narrow strait blocked most of their view. "Okay, West-ish. Pegasus and Pisces are setting? It's got to be six in the morning here. This is practically the other fucking side of the planet! And where the hell is the sun? There ought to be some light."

     "It's impressive how you know all that." She could recognize the constellations, but she couldn't use them to guess local time.

     He slipped a metal contraption that looked like a slice of pie out of his jacket. "I'm an officer on a boat. This is midshipman stuff." She leaned up to study how he adjusted the knobs and mirrors on his gadget while he stared through the attached scope, murmuring, "Markab, Markab, Markab... Ah hah!"

     "It's still impressive," she told him. "I don't even know what you're doing."

     "This is a sextant. I'm measuring how high up Markab is from the horizon so I can get our fucking latitude."

     "Ooh. That sounds like something Fuu-chan knows how to do."

     "Yeah, well if Subaru were here, he'd just look, and then he'd know. Subaru can..." Kamui-san glanced away from his sextant to scowl at her. "Why am I even telling you this?"

     "Beats me."

     He moved another few knobs on his gadget and made a sound that was oddly similar to spinning windmill crashing into gravel. "Well, I figured out why there's no light," Kamui-san spat. "We're just below the 57th parallel. Two-thirds of the way to the fucking South Pole!"

     Hikaru was still impressed.

     Kamui just reared back his head and screamed, "I hate my life!" at the night sky, so she picked up the black tricorn on the ground with it's huge purple feather and held it out to him.

     "At least you still have your hat?"

Chapter Text

  • Combine 1 oz. light rum, 1 oz. spiced rum, 3/4 of an ounce of orange juice, and half an ounce of orgeat syrup.
  • Add most of a tablespoon each of lemon and lime juices, and two dashes of Angostura bitters.
  • Shake vigorously. Strain into a Collins glass over crushed ice.
  • Invert a lime shell over top, and fill with 1/2 oz. chartreuse.
  • Set on fire.

     Kamui hated everything. He hated this frozen little island, he hated the legends that got him sent here, and he hated that he was wearing a coat he'd borrowed from a ninja. More than that, he hated that he knew this was nothing compared to how unimaginably bad life could be. He could've been here alone, without a ninja who could hand him a coat and fire-blast rocks until they were hot enough for them to stop shivering. He could've been staring out at those black waves, noticing the ghostly threads of green and mauve light starting to stretch above their neighbor island while the air crackled, and he could've had no one's thoughts but his own to distract him.

     And did he smell... chocolate?

     "Are you hungry?" Hikaru called out. She was standing over a big, heated boulder, holding a skewer with two marshmallows on the end. A folding table had appeared at her side with more marshmallows, a pile of graham crackers and the chocolate he'd smelled. The ninja girl drew a second skewer out of the storage gem on her hand, her long braid bobbing behind her head. "There's plenty to go around."

     "We're stuck in the middle of nowhere, and you brought smores?"

     "I can make toast for breakfast, and I've got beans and stuff, too, but it still feels like the middle of the afternoon, so I figured snacks were better."

     "Do you maybe have a way to call for help in there?" Although he did take the skewer and start roasting some marshmallows. He had no intention of watching a ninja stand around making smores while he suffered. He could suffer while eating chocolate, which was slightly less disagreeable than other kinds of suffering.

     Instead of reaching for her gem again, she held up a scorched bit of metal she had clipped to her belt. "It broke on the trip. But we'll be fine! We're still on the Earth, right? All the constellations are the same," she said, pointing at the stars. "So we haven't gone anywhere out of reach. No problem!"

     "Has there ever been anything that you do consider a problem?"

     "Political obligations standing in the way of true love?" She bit her lip, staring hard at the browning shell on her marshmallow. "Although those two eloped to Muscovia, so I guess it's not a problem anymore."

     "... I guess that's good." Kamui got his marshmallows as close to the rock as possible, hoping he could get them hot enough to spontaneously combust and maybe char on the outside. "But it's still a big planet, and we've got no ship -- and nothing here we can use to build a ship, either. I don't know about you, but I left all my friends five thousand miles away. I don't think smoke signals are going to point them here." Maybe Subaru or Arashi could do a divination, though, or maybe the flock of seals around this island could talk to Yuzuriha's seal, Puppy, and he could pass the message on to her. Would it be too stupid to go up to a flock of seals and hope they understood him when he said, "Go to Chizeta and tell somebody where to find me?"

     Did he care?

     Oh, what he wouldn't give to be able to fly right now.

     The ninja grinned at him brightly enough to make him feel like kicking boulders into the ocean until he made a wave that'd rip all the way to where his crew and ship were. "Don't worry!" she said. "If I can't contact Lantis and Eagle, that means they'll definitely find us. Somebody'll know how. I'm sure they won't mind giving you a ride."

     She was so fucking happy.

     He hated happy people. Except Sorata. And Yuzuriha. And Keiichi, that new deckhand on the Dragon of Heaven. They were happy people, too, but somehow okay. Ninjas were not okay, and could never be okay, and at least this girl wasn't as bad as Kurogane, but Kamui couldn't help noticing that the hot rock was leaving his marshmallows golden brown and not charred in the least.

     Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the girl set up for another fire blast to re-warm their boulder and dipped his skewer right along the edge. Just enough for them to catch, not enough to turn to charcoal. When he blew it out, they were black and crispy. Everything you could ask of marshmallows, Kamui thought, reaching for the graham crackers.

     "You should've told me you like them burnt! I'd have gotten that for you."

     "Can we just worry about leaving this island?"

     "You're right! We've only got until someone shows up to find us!"

     Kamui stared at the redhead, whose eyes seemed to grow ever wider and more clueless as she stood staring right back at him and munching on her marshmallow-chocolate sandwich. There should have been a limit to that, but he couldn't see one. Nothing was getting better about this situation. Finally, he gave in and sighed, "We've got til then to do what?" Not that he expected anyone to come for them at all, so it was a moot point.

     "To find the orb thingy!" she answered. "That's what we came for, right?"

     That fucking orb. He hated that, too. Hate, hate, hate. "You think it's here?" he asked, rolling his eyes at the barren, looming rocks.

     "Something's here." She stuck two more marshmallows on the end of her skewer and looked out at the growing aurora to the west. Kamui wasn't sure if she knew that any natural aurora should've been to the south, but he wasn't here to make conversation either. And maybe she knew. Her eyes had switched again from airheaded to serious in no more than a blink. "And if this is where that room sent us, this is probably where we're supposed to be."

     "You trust this situation far more than is healthy."

     "What else have we got to work with?"

     As much as he hated to admit it, she had a point. Clow had built the room that dropped them in this hellhole, probably, or someone who was just as good as Clow. Someone who knew what they were doing, just as much as Clow did when he built those stupid orbs for the Dioscuri in those legends. Maybe after they'd searched the island to make sure it was as empty as it looked, he could go back to believing nothing about them was real, since everything that'd happened today had...

     The legends. That might be true.

     "Wait a second," Kamui muttered. The ninja blinked, turning her new marshmallows over the rock. "In the legends... those orbs were communicators, right?"

     "Yeah?"

     "Fuck everything. Let's look for it. I'll forgive those stories for being real if we can get a call off this goddamned rock."

     "Woohoo!" The ninja jumped three feet in the air, then stepped toward him with her hand raised next to her bright-eyed grin. When he didn't answer, she grabbed his right hand and pulled it up to slap hers in a high-five.

     Kamui blinked. "This... doesn't make us friends."

     "Sure it does!" Hikaru sang out, holding up the bag of marshmallows.

     He took three. Because pirates took things. It was entirely normal.

~//~

     The sea churned around the Dragon of Heaven and the Bravada, ears and hands going numb from the salt spray kicked up by the monster octopus they were wrestlin' down -- and been tryin' to do for what had to be hours now, though hours passed like minutes and seconds could feel like days when a fight like this wouldn't quit -- all while fendin' off the whips and slashes Chizeta's two princesses had to spare. But it had to be hours. The rope coiled over his shoulder was soaked heavy, his bones cryin' from carryin' it too long. His breath had turned hard, and his limbs softer than he'd like to admit, leaving the burn of the sea air and the shake of his muscles as all he could feel. Blind faith, not reason, told him he was standing on the octopus at all, and not on the waves themselves.

     Karen, trying to burn the tentacles off of their grip, had made some headway, but not enough. The Sumeragi stood balanced on the deck, ignoring the rushing and the chaos around him as he kept the monster from coming any further in. Aoki'd mustered the crew to pull the Dragon of Heaven back free wherever they could get an inch, and his lovely honey had thrown her all into takin' out this beast -- which was easier said than done. If they hadn't all been dosed in sea water before this'd begun, he'd have tried his lightning, but as it was, a strike good enough to fell the eight-armed horror'd take down every pirate on these waters along with it. Sorata's consolation was, the princesses and their crew were farin' about the same.

     Sorata jumped from one flying tentacle towards the beast's head, only to catch another tentacle that got in his way. Too many arms, that thing had, and the creature's next thrash brought Sorata down almost on top of Princess Tarta. The end of the arm where she stood was wrapped around one of the Bravada's masts, and for the moment she'd found a place to stand firm.

     "None of this would've happened if you assholes hadn't snuck somebody into the volcano!" she screamed. Keepin' his balance on the slippery, thrashin' limb of a sea horror weren't any easier for a lady cuttin' a scimitar at his head.

     "Pardon me askin', but how's the volcano figure in this mess we're in now?!"

     "Octopuses... can sense things!" She clenched her fists and screamed. No doubt she was findin' logic troublesome at the moment. "It probably attacked because it knew your goons were in there!"

     Swinging down into the water with the next strike of the octopus's arm, Sorata made a break for the body of the thing. Getting at the head was the only chance they had. But the beast started sucking in a whirlpool of water that woulda put him nowhere good, and he clambered up onto another limb, cutlass in his teeth. Once he'd got a good grip of his seat between his legs, he slid it back into his sheath. Wouldn't want it lost before he got to his goal. Tarta inched forward on her limb as well, stance wide and low.

     "You wanna think about not takin' off my head, Tarta-chan? Maybe we all got enough trouble with savin' our skins?"

     "I ain't takin' help from no ninja-lovin' Kaizuka turncoat or his frip-frap crew!"

     "Tarta, dear!" Tatra called out. She was sittin' pretty on the far end of another leg, keepin' her grip on a sucker pad and makin' like the curve of the monster's limb was as steady as a chair in a tea room. "You might want to think about taking his help. I think we're needed back at camp!" The older princess pointed towards the shore, where they all saw a bright surge of fire leaping up from the trees at the base of the volcano. Nothing had erupted from the top, but something sure as hell weren't right.

     Tarta stared at the blaze, bobbing on her kraken tightrope as Sorata finally inched close enough to the octopus's body that each move was closer to a sway than a flail. Close enough to whip a length of weighted rope around the base of the next arm over. One down, one to go.

     "Fine!" the younger princess called out.

     Sorata whipped out his second rope to his left. The beast crashed it down, though, and he missed. But he dragged it back in for another go. "What was that, now?"

     She fumed, nostrils flaring as she slid another few inches forward. "I said I'll give!" Tarta barked. "Temporary ceasefire, until we can get to shore and find out what the hell's goin' on!"

     "Not on your life, Princess!" Sorata laughed as he swirled the second rope around his head for another cast.

     "Excuse me?!"

     "You don't wanna fuck around with me..." He hurled the second rope again. This time it anchored itself good and proper. "... and no temporary ceasefires!" Sorata tugged the ropes taut to check his balance and threw Tarta a wild grin. "You agree to sit down for negotiations once we get more immediate matters settled, here and on shore, or there's no deal."

     The lady nearly lost her balance, but her anger seemed to keep her upright. "You wouldn't! You... your crew, your ship..." She swung her scimitar in a circle through the air, pointing at the lot. "You wouldn't risk them to make me negotiate!"

     Working his feet up to the top of the octopus's leg and holding the ropes steady to keep his rear from falling off, he laughed in spite of it all. Had he been feelin' cold and tired a minute ago? He took it all back. These were the times as made a man feel alive. "My crew and my ship are the best on the waves! I'm thinkin' they'll be just fine! What's a little undersea nightmare gonna do to the Dragon of Heaven?"

     "You're bluffing! You wouldn't!"

     "You've met me, darlin'," Sorata answered, and pulled himself up to standin', like he had the octopus thrashing on reins. As he stepped slowly up toward the eyes of the beast, he turned to Tarta and smiled. "What won't I do?"

     Goin' steady up the limb where he'd cast on that last line, he caught Arashi looking at him, like maybe she was worryin' he wouldn't pull this off. He winked at her, sorry he had no time to marvel at her blush and scowl. They were as fine as ever while she lashed a knot into his rope to stop it from slippin'. Alas, her eyes turned all too soon to grappling another of the legs and bindin' it fast into the knot to make herself a steadier bridge.

     Off to his right, Tarta called out, "All right! You win!" She'd crouched down to a knee to fasten a knot in the other rope. "Once this shitstorm quiets down, we all sit and see if there's something to discuss. But I don't promise a treaty!"

     "I think that's a start," he shouted.

     The princess wasn't listening. She was runnin' up the leg Sorata was holdin' still, screamin' like a blood-ghost as her sword glittered in the sun.

~//~

     Kurogane expected that the webs of carving all over the thick, teak doors on their hotel room were just as decorative as the rest of this place. He didn't get a chance to inspect them while he shoved the Pirate King's back up against the grain and tripped the lock on the door in between kisses. The feathered hat was off, the fist that clutched it held up where it hid their faces from the hallway. The scoundrel it belonged to must've decided he didn't want to share his bite technique with the porter in the hallway.

     Lightly scraping teeth pulled a growl from Kurogane's throat.

     No reason to bother with the key. Jimmying the latch was faster.

     They tumbled into the room, door still hanging wide open. Kurogane was busy letting the blond rip his shirt in two right down the front and unfasten the clasps on his pants with his teeth. He traced his fingers through flaxen hair that gleamed white-gold in the sunlight dancing through the window, steeping himself in the touch of an eager mouth licking and nipping its way down his thigh as brusque hands stripped his pants away. Desperate need painted his lover's face, down on his knees to kiss every inch of skin he could find. And he was beautiful. When he laid his cool cheek on top of Kurogane's leg, his blue eyes glistened like living flame. His tongue peeked out through the kiss-bruised redness of his lips.

     The rhythm of his breath was hypnotic.

     It would've been perfect if he could manage not to see how the pirate's mood had changed after the volcano blew. Kurogane didn't mind that half the point of this little day out was to keep him out of the way of whatever his lover's crew had to do. They were both mixing business and pleasure. But the look in his face was different now. The guilt the man hid in the curl of his lip and the tilt of his head was gonna have to go, before they ended up in the same place as they did two weeks ago, with the blond curled in Kurogane's arms, frozen scared by his own head and refusing to say why.

     He'd never say by choice. That much was clear.

     Slowly, Fai settled his knees out to his sides, hands on the floor and arms locked to push his shoulders up. Kurogane reached down to scratch under the blond's chin. "You like that," he murmured as the man whimpered and stretched his neck to invite his touch. With cravat and collar undone, it was easy to slip his fingers down smooth skin, leaving flushed, red paths behind his fingernails. "Looks good on you."

     "I'd like you to throw me down on the floor and fuck me, please." Button by button, he opened his waistcoat, then his shirt, revealing his creamy skin to the light as he stood up and closed the door. "I felt how much you wanted to slip inside me -- back in the booth, when you had my face down on the bench and your tongue in my ass. Or when you shoved me into the wall and put your hand down for me to fuck, and I couldn't move an inch without riding on your lap." He slipped his hands down his chest, skirting his crotch to caress his covered thighs, then pulled back up to unlace his pants. Maybe it was all a bluff that Kurogane meant to call, but his blood still surged when he watched the blond arch his hips forward.

     Pinching a drop of pre-come off the tip of his cock, Fai brought the shine to his lips. "Mmm. If you want to take me from behind that badly..." The pirate bent over on all fours and let his loosened clothing fall away from his ass. "Go ahead. No one's stopping you. I"ll be everything you want me to be, Kuro-sama."

     Kurogane nodded his chin over his shoulder. "Bed."

     The blond sauntered on knees and arms over to the foot of the bed and slid himself up onto the sheets. The way he stretched onto his side could've been the fog rolling over the ground, and Kurogane's mind nearly clouded over with the urge to give that human force of nature whatever he asked for. But there were a few house rules before playtime could start.

     "Up," he ordered.

     Fai rose to his knees, close enough for Kurogane to grab him behind the thigh and pull him closer still. He pressed the man's knee against his hip, letting long, fine legs trail up his back, relaxing his neck against the warm side and heavy-breathing abdomen his lover offered up like a throne. Soft hands reached down to massage his shoulders and trace the lines of his neck.

     From there, he would've had an opening to throttle the air from Kurogane's lungs, if the pirate had been serious about wanting him gone.

     Turning to kiss the pulsing cock running over his shoulder, Kurogane moved his grip back from Fai's knee toward his foot. "I turned your face away because you wouldn't look me in the eye," he said. As the body behind him tightened, so did his hand. "And now you're in such a rush to get what you want me for. Both for the same reason, I think."

     His lover yielded when he pushed, falling back without a sound, but confessing everything with the stripped dread in his eyes. Kurogane pushed the man's wrists down into the mattress. He seemed ready to take whatever might happen to him, but the one thing he wanted least was to hear what Kurogane was about to say.

     "It's because of the tranq you slipped me, isn't it? The one you think is gonna shut me down so you can run out to your ship without me following you. You wanted to finish with me before I went under." And it would've worked if he hadn't made the right guess from the flavor. Those hadn't been your everyday sleeping pills. But Kurogane didn't mention that. He leaned down close to Fai's ear and whispered, "You're lucky I had the counteragent on me. You were gonna regret that."

     And he'd managed to prove in one shot that Kurogane's instincts hadn't been wrong.

     It could've been poison, or a knife. It hadn't been.

     "So what happens now?"

     Blue eyes bit back at him, defiant and ready to fight. That was a damn sight better than watching him feel guilty just because he had to stay to do his own job where he happened to be having a good time instead of leaving to pull someone else's ass out of a fire. If it wasn't important to keep the ninja spy away from the King's pirate business, he shouldn't have stayed on the beach in the first place.

     He let go Fai's hands, tracing a finger down the man's cheek. "Now you choose. Are you gonna run off because you can't trust your crew to handle a little trouble, knowing I'll follow you the whole way? You can walk out. I won't stop you. But I never half-ass it when I do what I've decided to do, and there's nothing I hate more than somebody who does."

     "I don't suppose there is. So I guess I can't let you out of my sight, now can I?"

     "Now that's settled," he growled, "we get a few things clear."

     "Such as?" The blond grabbed his wrist and pulled himself up, chest to chest, and just as trembling to feel Kurogane's arm slip gently behind his back as he'd been in their afternoon on the town.

     Kurogane leaned close to his ear to whisper.

     "I know what you are."

Chapter Text

  • Stir 1/2 teaspoon sugar into 1/2 oz. lime juice.
  • Add 2 oz. fine white or pale rum. Shake with cracked ice.
  • Strain into a cocktail glass.
  • Vary with fruit and blending as you will, or just let the rum and lime get a room. You saw how they were looking at each other.

     The scent of the pirate's skin in full flush was bewitching, the smoothness intoxicating. Kurogane's words hung in the air like a challenge. He hoped it'd draw Fai out, but while he waited, a craving seeped into his bones that wasn't the rush of sex, nor the glow of falling in love. It was like an ache in his dusty corners, pressing forgotten heartstrings. His lover dug into his back, and Kurogane's body screamed for the chance to end the whiplash the blond seemed to cause just by breathing.

     But he wouldn't let the man in his arms see him break. And sometimes, wanting release so badly you felt clawed from the inside out made the rewards sweeter.

     Fai's hands drew back. The brush of skin seemed to kiss deeper than touch, like wind on the tundra cutting to his core. His opponent had stolen back his balance, Kurogane could tell.

     The pirate let out his silver bell laugh. "You 'know what I am', you say?" Stepping to the floor, Fai applauded. "Nicely done, Kuro-tan! Aren't you special."

     Strutting toward a table in the corner, the blond reached into his hair and teased out a hidden garrote wire. A brace of throwing knives came out of each coat sleeve next. Trained as he was to summon his weapons when he needed them, Kurogane hadn't thought about how many blades would fit in that coat. Many, it seemed, confirming what he'd felt during their tousle on the beach. Many and more. His lover slipped them out one by one and laid them on the table, like a dancing girl dropping veils. Or like a predator playing vulnerable to draw in prey. Either way, Kurogane couldn't ignore the way he moved, or how he seemed to steal the light for his own shine. Blue eyes turned into mischievous diamonds as he pouted.

     "So tell me, Kuro-sama: what am I?" he asked, teasing the caps off of cuff buttons where he'd be keeping more tranquilizers -- or poison.

     "If you want to disarm, take off my jacket. I like how your back looks naked."

     And he wouldn't be any less dangerous.

     "Oh, but I don't want to take off your jacket. It feels nice on my skin." He dropped the last button on the table and drew the collar up to his cheeks. "It's comfy. And a boyfriend jacket never goes out of style."

     "You think I'm your boyfriend?"

     "Just for today. You did buy me lunch." He slid long needles out of the stiff braid trim down the placket. "Are you trying to change the subject? Because I'll be very disappointed if you were only playing a game when you said you'd figured me out."

     Kurogane stepped forward as the pirate pulled leather gloves from a side pocket. They knocked the table, betraying steel braces inside.

     "I'm not the one playing games, Your Majesty."

     "Aren't you, now. So you want me to play with myself?"

     "Not this time."

     He unlatched the bay doors overlooking the beach, letting the breeze bring a musician's ballad across the balcony along with the fresh air. His Pirate King stripped himself of the spring baton in his front pocket, collapsed down to the size of his palm, then reached for hidden pockets in the lining. Tiny cartridges that looked explosive came out.

     The gossamer curtains blew between Kurogane and the pirate's face, showing the man in flashes and starts through a field of white. Kurogane pushed them aside. He wanted a better view, from up close. In three strides, he had Fai pinned against the table -- the pirate's cunning hands outlining his chest, inviting lips hovering half a breath away. But he didn't steal another kiss. He drank in the fight inside those eyes that weren't lying as well as they were trying to. They lost their hard luster up close, shining with a liquid entreaty for Kurogane to let him slip away like wind, with his secrets intact.

     Wasn't gonna happen.

     Reaching behind Fai's back for the bone-handled knife he'd felt before, Kurogane stole the blade, then the tight waistband strapping it on. "If you think you can run your little show behind everybody's backs like no one else has a part in it, what you are is a fool."

     The blond gripped his shoulders, pout narrowing to a frown.

     "What did you expect me to say?" Kurogane asked. "That you were the Snow Fox? The way you've been dropping clues, I thought you wanted me to know that."

     If he'd been trying to hide it, he shouldn't have made snow on a tropical island.

     Fai's ice-slick smile slipped into place. "And you believe me?"

     "I don't care if you were or not." Kurogane combed his fingers through golden hair that was finer than the silk on the bed, the way no seafaring man's hair had a right to be. Fai's neck tensed around his breath as he tried too hard not to shy away or to lean into the caress. "It doesn't change anything between us. It doesn't change how your excuses for taking me to bed instead of killing me keep getting thinner. And in case you forgot, your first one was, 'We don't want to crowd the other prisoners in the brig.' Thinner than that ain't easy."

     "There's nothing between us, lover. You looked good. I fucked you. I reserve the right to do it again. I don't like things more complicated than that."

     "Then give me back my coat."

     Slowly, the pirate drew a metal lash out of his sleeve, its tail pulling whispers across his back and down the other arm. The sting of body-warmed wire tickled Kurogane's skin as Fai coiled it in his fist and set it on the table.

     "I've gotten attached. To the coat."

     "Then I guess after I leave you too sweaty and senseless to stop me tonight, I'll take it. That can be your excuse next time you decide you want me."

     Honesty cracked through the blond's grin, then a laugh. "Tonight?" he asked, glancing outside at mid-afternoon sunlight that seemed to melt the unsuspecting bard's music on the breeze. His Majesty loosened up as he chuckled, and didn't seem to notice Kurogane slipping an arm around his waist, nor curling hand into hand. "You've got confidence in your stamina."

     "That makes two of us."

     Kurogane bent to tongue the hollow of his pirate's ear, tightening his arms around his lover's shuddering body. With a gasp, Fai clutched his bicep. Kurogane felt the instinct to run from the closeness shoot through his lover, like it'd done so often today, and he felt how fast his lover mastered it, playing his grip to push himself onto the table. His haste sent knives clattering to the floor. Neither of them stopped to clean up the mess.

     If Kurogane allowed it, those long, inviting legs would hold him prisoner, but he hadn't come to this island to get played. He pulled away from the table while the blond was off-balance, dragging him onto the open floor. Even so, Fai landed on his toes without a stumble, graceful as a leaf from a tree. Skin to skin, their bodies moved like a key in a lock, falling into step with the tune playing outside.

     "Are you dancing with me?" the Pirate King scoffed.

     If you could call their lust-soaked sway by fancy a word like that. But Kurogane cozied his arm around the blond's waist anyway and curled their entwined hands by Fai's cheek. His partner froze, only for a second, then the pirate pinched his ass and glared.

     Pulling the offending hand back up, Kurogane whispered, "You said I was spending too much time fucking you. Is this a more 'flattering picture of my intentions'?"

     "You clearly have no idea what this song is about."

     "What makes you say that?" he asked, hearing the man on the beach croon, 'Heych zeybayey der heqyeqt wejwed nedared.' Nothing like what he'd studied to talk to the Chizetans, true, or like the words of anywhere he'd been. But he saw no reason to admit it.

     Blue eyes twinkled through his bluff. "You want to dance to a song about a man who forswears dancing forever after his lighthearted behavior earns his lover's wrath? Honestly, Kuro-sama! The things you do!" Clasping Kurogane's shoulder, the pirate sang, "Edab tenha cheyezy aset kh bedset khewahed amed... 'The truth so unlovely: naught but torment to be had.'"

     Fai dropped his head against Kurogane's neck, hiding his face, but not before Kurogane saw pain sneak into his smile.

     "I guess, for me, it's all right," he whispered, so softly that someone without ninja training might not have heard. Their embrace wasn't any heavier, Kurogane knew. The air felt thick with gravity anyway. And the more he thought his plan to give the pirate a fight he wouldn't run from had backfired, the more his blood told him this was right where he needed to be.

     "Hey..."

     "I'm not going to tell you what I want with Sakura-chan, you know."

     He hadn't expected his answers to come easy. Tucking that away, Kurogane murmured, "I never asked." He'd find that out in other ways.

     "You've been trying to seduce me ever since you kissed me in my quarters." The cheer in his voice sounded a little too forced. "If it's not to loosen my lips, what are you after?"

     The pirate stood still, holding them to ground as the music died. There had to be an answer that'd put the blond off his guard. Kurogane told the truth instead.

     "You."

     He wasn't entirely at ease with how the word choked in his throat. It sounded like he meant something other than hunting down the Pirate King the way any ninja would want to if he could. Like there was more to this than a pretty face, skill in the sheets, and a few secrets.

     He didn't want that complication any more than than his companion did.

     Although maybe he feared it less. The man who'd told him not to fall in love was so still he seemed to shake. Then Fai gripped the shirt hanging over Kurogane's chest, knuckles turning bone-white on his fists, and gasped hard into his shoulder. Kurogane barely had time to wonder what he was running from when the pirate said, "Shut up," in the calmest tone he'd managed all day.

     "Look--"

     Teeth raked his lips into a kiss, and Fai curved his back just so -- tempting Kurogane's hand down his skin before sense could warn him off. "Conversation. Over," his lover purred, close enough to taste the vibrations.

     Sometimes you had to cede the battle to win the war.

     The blond pulled him toward the wall. Kurogane answered with a push. The slam of their bodies against the plaster rattled the carvings hung on the wall, and one piece of art crashed to the ground. Maybe more. Hard to say for sure when his focus was on a fine neck and finer moans. It was just as easy to slip into the dream that this was safe or sane as it had been on the beach. Nothing about his lover's caresses gave him reason to pause.

     So his first warning was the click of a latch.

     Feeling metal pressed to his solar plexus, Kurogane laughed into Fai's skin. Thin, not sharp -- probably the spring baton the pirate had compressed down to fit in his pocket.

     "Ready to rethink that decision to trust me, lover?"

     "Not until you strike without telling me first."

     Fai clicked the release on his weapon, his thin baton springing out to a full two feet. If Kurogane hadn't shoved the man's hand aside, it would've rammed into his gut hard enough to bruise. Not to kill, though. The pirate tried to push him face-first into the table at the same time, but one counterspin later, Kurogane had him in a lock -- arm behind his back, chest to the wall, minus one whippy metal stick.

     Tracing the curve of the man's ear with the butt of his weapon, Kurogane savored the heavy-breathing push of ribs against his chest. "Is this what you want?" he murmured into the pirate's hair.

     The shadows didn't quite hide a smirk full of teeth and no remorse.

     "Well, that depends, Kuro-rin. Do you know how to use it?"

     "Hands on the wall, where I can see 'em."

     Kurogane stepped back, giving Fai the space to move. As ordered, the blond pushed his hands up the wall. His body stretched in their wake, each bend shown to best advantage. His teasing eyes were just like Kurogane recalled from their first tussle on the Dragon of Heaven.

     Had it only been two weeks? They both danced like they'd known the steps all their lives. Pushing aside the tail of a jacket that never should have mattered so much, he traced the point of the baton over the perfect ass his lover was shaking at him. Tapped lightly once, twice. Then sent the thin bit of metal whistling through the air till it struck with a crack, and heard the pirate gasp. A sharp, red line rose out of his skin.

     The second went to his thighs. Fai's closed eyes looked like he was in heaven as he panted against the wall, moaning when the third strike crossed the last in a red X over his legs.

     "Are you going to tell me how bad I've been?"

     "I think we both know." Another brush before another thwack. Sweat caught the sunlight, gleaming on muscles that tensed and tempted. Whatever else this man was, he was lovely to see. "And you like this too much for it to be punishment. But it'll do to get you warmed up."

     "Mmm. Yes, please."

     The blond's legs trembled under the next stroke. His hands dug into the wall, steadying him while he got his knees back. Another ten, and it looked like the wall might not do it anymore. Kurogane slid the baton onto the table and caressed the lines blooming out of the pirate's skin.

     Most people would still be feeling that days from now. But most people, if they'd had their face laid open in a brawl, would've shown some small trace of it two weeks later. The Pirate King didn't even have the pink flush of newly healed skin on his cheek. He was unmarked.

     "Here's what it'll be," Kurogane said as his enemy and lover rode into his touch. "You're gonna keep me entertained long enough to see these heal."

     "I thought this was punishment, Kuro-puu."

     "Because I won't come -- and I won't let you come -- until your ass is a blank slate."

     Smirking over his shoulder, Fai dropped his hand to caress Kurogane's hip. "Sounds like a challenge. Do I pick your penalty if you're not up to that?"

     "Won't be an issue."

     "Any other unreasonable demands before I start entertaining?"

     Kurogane pressed his lips to the back of Fai's neck, whispering, "Drop the coat."

     With a laugh the blond fell into his arms, so high on euphoria he didn't flinch at being held close. Far from it, he cozied against Kurogane's chest and pecked his cheek -- then bit his chin.

     "But. I. Don't. Want. To!"

     Sparks jumped through Kurogane's skin everywhere they touched. It was going to be a challenge, all right, trying not to lose control for however long, but by the time he was done, his Pirate King would want relief just as much as he did.

     "We're playing for keeps, Your Majesty. The stakes go in the pot before we start."

     "So if this is my stake," the sea cat asked, pulling the coat tight around his chest, "what's your skin in the game? No fair playing if you've got nothing to lose."

     "If you're the one who can stand up and walk away when we're done, I won't follow. I'll go back home before I come find you again."

     A glimmer of calculation cut through the ecstatic haze in those two blue eyes, cooking into amusement as Fai pulled him by the shirt tails. They teetered onto the edge of the bed. The heat of his kiss said he was finally getting all of Fai's attention, and the gleam of one alabaster shoulder was suddenly the shape of victory. The whole blue mess of that damn coat slipped to the floor while his lover pulled his fingernails down Kurogane's chest.

     That shameless nakedness would've made an ancient sculptor weep, and every inch of it was his to take. Even the golden key hanging from Fai's neck was warm, pressed between their bodies as the pirate purred in his ear.

     "You're on, Kuro-sama."

~//~

     One thing Kamui damn well hoped was that his fellow officers were straightening out Chizeta properly, not messing around, so they could track him to this gray, miserable place and save him from the nightmare of being stranded with only a happy ninja for company. After more than three hours on a moss-and-seal-infested, ass-freezing rock, watching his red-haired co-maroonee skip from one beach to another, Kamui wondered if he'd ever get Hikaru to understand that she, as a ninja, was his enemy, or that only one of them could take home the prize. Assuming it was here, and they could find it. They had no real information on what the so-called "orb" would look like, so that was entirely and completely an assumption.

     At least the sun had risen half an hour ago, after two hours of taunting him with hazy, pre-dawn luminesence. Real light was a distinct improvement over darkness.

     "Well, I don't see anything here, either!" the ninja piped, mindless of the icy seas splashing around her shoes.

     Kamui leapt onto a boulder, scanning the barrenness. "There's nothing to see. You're sure you sensed energy from this direction?"

     "Well, some kind of energy is spread all over. Here's where it's strongest. Without a reference, I don't know it's the orb or not."

     He was not going to kill the ninja. He was not going to kill the ninja.

     He didn't know why he wasn't going to kill the ninja, but he wasn't going to do it.

     They were cooperating.

     Hikaru squinted over the eastern sea. "What do you know? There's a glow in this direction, too, like that spot out west! What do you think it is?"

     What -- or who -- had caused the lights rising like a tower of green ribbon in the middle of the western horizon was a mystery Kamui didn't want to consider until he had a ship to sail. Right now, he wanted to know what the hell the Ninja Union taught, and how.

     "You can see an aurora when the sun's up?!" he asked.

     The ninja blinked at him. "Can't you?"

     How was he supposed to answer that? Kamui glared at the girl, hoping he wouldn't have to explain, but she pointed southeast on the empty horizon like nothing was out of the ordinary.

     "It's right there!"

     "It's. Invisible. The sunlight is too strong."

     "Well, sure. I mean... I know most pirates can't, but you said you spotted me and Fuu-chan and Umi-chan when we were invisible, right? The technique's the same. It's all dampened light and contrast."

     Despite his desire to think she was making a joke at his expense, her eyes looked honest. Too honest. More honest than a ninja should have been able to manage.

     What would he lose by trying?

     Breathing out slowly, he refocused his eyes where she was pointing. At first, there was nothing but the sky and surf, but soon flashes of green were flickering into another glowing column. It hurt his head trying to focus on them, but there they were, for as long as he could stand working his vision that way. Right on the horizon.

     Or... it wasn't quite on the horizon, was it? When he looked close, he thought he saw the line of the ocean's edge running behind the weaving ribbons.

     "Hikaru!" he yelled, jumping down from his boulder. "You can see that better than I can--"

     "So you can see it! Not even all Union ninja can do that! I bet if you train--"

     "I don't want any ninja training! But I need you to get a bearing for me."

     She resettled her coat on her shoulders, squinting from one end of the shoreline to the other. "What kind of bearing?"

     "Just... umm... hang on a second." Kamui found true East on his compass, then nudged the ninja's feet until she was lined up. He ignored her grin. "The aurora's not moving, right?"

     "Right."

     "Perfect. Point at the center of where it's glowing."

     "Like this?"

     The ninja raised her arm and pointed a finger toward the invisible light. With more care than he'd ever charted anything in his life, Kamui checked her line of sight against his compass. Swiveling the heading arrow on the top case until it was on target, he checked the rough degree measurement, then pushed the fine measure dial to count off partial degrees.

     "Okay. Now I'm moving you thirty yards South," he told her.

     He pushed her by the shoulders as he measured off the beach with paces. From their new position, he measured again. His breath stuck in his throat once the dials were in place.

     "Three tenths of a degree shift," Kamui choked. He couldn't be completely precise like this, but it was close. He thought back to his rangefinder charts. "That glow is no aurora. It's... it's about three and a quarter miles offshore. It's close." He glanced across the rocks and moss to the west. "We need to check the other one."

     Hikaru flashed a smile. "Race you."

     She shot off in a red streak before he could say yes or no, although she didn't cheat like ninja normally did. No flicker-stepping, no turning invisible. She leapt around boulders and through narrow passways faster than most people could sprint, but not so fast Kamui couldn't keep her in sight when he ran full tilt. He'd almost caught up when they hit the other beach almost half an hour later.

     And he didn't refuse the canteen of fresh coconut water she offered when they stopped.

     Once they'd caught their breaths, he lined her up facing west. As stupid as it was to use a ninja as a measuring device, he had to use what was at hand. The shift on this side was smaller -- harder to gauge, but he thought he had it right.

     "A tenth of a degree. Maybe a hair more. That one's about... eight and a half miles out."

     "They're marking something around the island? That might be the energy I feel."

     "Some kind of boundary, I think. And if we look at the center of it, maybe we'll find what we're looking for." Kamui pulled some charcoal from his pocket and scratched out the direction from the western glow to the eastern glow on the rocks at his feet. For this, he'd need diagrams. He didn't have Subaru's skill for navigation. Nobody but Subaru did.

     "It's worth a shot," the ninja answered. "But you need three points for an exact center right? If we're figuring on a circle, anyway. With just two, you can't be sure how big the circle is. You'll get a whole line of centers."

     Kamui sketched his trail of equidistant potential centers -- a perpendicular at the midpoint between the two glowing areas. It looked on his rough map to point a little east of north, and to lie a little less than a tenth of a mile off the coast at its nearest point. "It's better than nothing. We'll each pick a direction and check the seafloor. If we don't find it before we start to freeze--"

     "Why don't we get a third reading from the glow off the North coast?"

     He paused.

     And stared at her.

     And reminded himself again that he'd decided not to kill the ninja.

     Fucking cheats -- seeing things, and expecting him to see them, too. She couldn't have mentioned a third aurora that he wouldn't have noticed because it was fucking invisible?!

     "Right. North. Lead the way."

     He couldn't wait for all this running around and pointing red-headed ninjas at glowing spots on the horizon to drop them in a near-frozen spot of salt water where they'd probably find absolutely nothing. Or might find a mystical artifact made by Clow Reed, which could be worse. Clow Reed rarely made things better.

     They measured, he charted, and he had no idea what he was hoping for as Hikaru pulled an actual collapsible life raft out of her storage gem. If he never met another ninja and their questionable relationship with physics ever again, that day would come too soon.

     Boats. Stored in nowhere space. That was just annoying.

     They pulled off their shoes and set their coats aside. "This is as close as we'll get," he told Hikaru, "but we're looking at a twenty-yard radius, more or less, given the margin of error. If we don't find it in an hour, we'll figure out somewhere else to look."

     "Let's not waste time. I'll go first."

     "Fine."

     He held back from telling her to be careful in the cold water, torn between the knowledge that she was his enemy and the understanding that her resources might keep him alive until his ship came. The fact that she was unnervingly endearing in no way entered into it -- he was perfectly aware that she was dangerous behind the innocent expression.

     While he debated it, she slipped into the ocean and took a few deep breaths, bobbing her face in the water to get used to the chill. So, clearly she didn't need his help anyway.

     She dove, straight down. The water wasn't the clearest he'd ever seen, and soon too little light penetrated the waves for him to see her kicking. Peering over the side, he tried refocusing his vision again. This time, he had a better feel for what he was trying to do. It hadn't occurred to him that he was doing anything but seeing normally when he tried to glimpse ninja hiding. Now he could feel the weight of effort in his eyes, and he could just make out a hazy figure swimming in a spiral below, far past what he should have been able to see.

     It didn't matter if it was a ninja technique. Pirates used anything that gave them the advantage. The code specifically encouraged it. And seeing invisible things was, without a doubt, an advantage. Turning invisible would be, too, but he wouldn't stoop to that. Attacking head-on was better.

     Learning to see invisible things was just leveling the field.

     Hikaru spiraled out from the boat's shadow along the sea floor, surfacing every few rounds to take a breath. Half an hour later, she swam back, shivering, for Kamui's help getting into the boat. He pulled her on board and settled her heavy coat over her shoulders. She made herself a tiny fireball to hold close to her chest.

     "It's too bad Umi-chan's not here," she said through chattering teeth (while, for reasons he couldn't explain, Kamui rubbed her hair dry with a towel). "She can swim way better than me, and you could drop her in the snow in a bathing suit and she wouldn't freeze."

     Umi. Probably the blue one, who shot icicles and made whirlpools in thin air.

     "You're immune to fire, and she's immune to cold? What's your green friend do?"

     He supposed he was no one to talk. Karen didn't burn, either, Sorata couldn't be electrocuted, and you couldn't drown Yuuto no matter how much he asked for it.

     The red-haired girl curled into the coat. "Fuu-chan? However bad the winds are, or how rarefied the air gets, she can always breathe. That, and her hair never tangles."

     "I'll have to ask Lord Aoki if he can do that. The breathing thing, I mean. He doesn't have enough hair to tangle. Are you... I mean, do you... do you need anything before I start?"

     He might not like ninja on principle, but he didn't want her to die.

     She pulled a small charcoal stove with three iron legs out of the gem on her hand and lit it with a fireball. Shooting him a bright smile, she said, "I'll be fine. Thanks for asking!"

     "Umm... Great. I'll just... go then."

     "Good luck!"

     The ninja waved. He splashed into the ocean and tried not to hyperventilate from the cold. Once he was alone and swimming, it was easier to clear his mind. All he had to do was look for whatever they were trying to find. He swam to where Hikaru left off, circling the water and coming up for air when he had to. It was too cold to think of anything else.

     A half-buried shape caught his eye -- too many right angles to be anything but a box, and too cleanly maroon despite sitting on the sea floor to be anything but magic. Normal debris should've shown signs of weathering if it'd been sitting here long enough for the sand to edge in around it. Kamui surfaced for one more breath, then dove for the box.

     It was marked with Clow Reed's circle.

     Fucking Clow Reed. There just had to be an actual thing here, didn't there? The god of mischief couldn't even leave a man the right to complain that he'd been transported halfway around the world to chase fairy tales that were never real. Oh no! He had to go and make them actually real things that existed, throwing everything that had ever made sense in this world into ruin! Kamui could've left the box there, but either the ninja would insist on diving again and would find it, or they'd go home empty-handed and Fai would know he was lying, and whatever happened in either case would be worse than just taking the damn box and having done.

     It didn't seem right that something so damn important should be as light as this was, either. As he swam back to the boat, he could barely feel it in the crook of his arm. Clattering on the metal deck of the ninja's boat, it seemed like nothing more than debris. If he had any good luck whatsoever, that debris would be the communicator orb he'd been sent to find, and the means to work it would be obvious.

     "You found it!" Hikaru said, helping him onto the boat.

     "I found something."

     And he would have objected to the way she toweled him dry and put his coat on him if he'd been able to move without shivering so hard his hands were halfway to falling off his arms. He would never admit to liking a ninja, but the ability to be close to her hot-burning charcoal stove right now was somewhat useful.

     "If you had a stove the whole time, why were you heating up rocks on shore?"

     "Well, I only had one. And we should open the box!"

     The instant she flipped the lid open, they both felt it. Energy like a crashing wave rushed from every direction into the box, where a simple silver sphere lay in purple velvet (that was mysteriously dry when any normal box should've been soaked through with seawater). The ninja's face turned hard as she looked toward the horizon. Kamui checked the west, too. Any glimmer of the aurora was gone. Whatever perimeter this thing had been maintaining, it was gone now.

     "Let's get back to shore," Kamui muttered.

     "Yeah."

     They couldn't row fast enough for his taste. As soon as they made land, he grabbed the box before the ninja could pull it back into her storage gem along with the boat. Something about the air smelled like a storm. He didn't like it. It felt like impending doom, and whatever Yuzuriha had to say about it, his senses of impending doom were always justified.

     Life was full of doom, that was all. If he could call the Dragon of Heaven, maybe they could get some backup and a trip off this island before they died.

     Him and the ninja.

     He hated today.

     While Hikaru blasted more warmth into their trusty fire-boulder, Kamui slipped the silver sphere out of the box. It transformed in his hand into a mahogany writing pad, complete with a silver pen and a thick pile of paper.

     As feathers rained out of the sky. Naturally.

     The ninja stared over his head, craning her neck higher and higher as if trying to find a source for all the loose plumage, something Kamui had long since given up. "So, that happens to you a lot? Is there, like... a reason?"

     "The universe likes drama?" he grumbled. On the paper, he wrote a quick request for help alongside notes on their latitude and longitude. "Don't ninja have atmospheric effects?"

     "I... don't think so. I'm pretty sure we just have techniques. That do what we say."

     "Then I'm glad I'm not a ninja -- feathers make everything better."

     They were annoying as fuck, actually, but like hell he was going to admit that.

     "Eagle doesn't have feathers, though. I'll have to ask him when he shows up."

     He wasn't going to admit that he'd never seen another pirate make feathers, either, or speculate on why only Subaru and the Barrows-guard caused sakura petals to fall out of nowhere. Blowing away a feather that'd landed on his nose, Kamui slid the pen back into the holder and pulled off the paper with his message.

     Then he realized what name she'd used. He knew that name. And it sounded like she wasn't talking about a ninja. "Eagle?" he asked. "You can't mean--"

     His voice dropped out as the paper in his hand folded itself into an origami dragon. Even for something Clow Reed had designed, that was weird. It flew into the air, turning a loop in the sky as it flapped off toward the East. He didn't like the chances that a flying piece of paper would make it to Chizeta any time soon, but he watched in silence anyway. Besides, what would he say to his companion? Ask if Satsuki's rear-admiral, the White King of Autozam, had run off with Hikaru when he disappeared four years ago? Eagle Vision, hanging around with ninja, right under their noses in Hundhammeren? More likely, Hikaru's Eagle was a ninja who'd trained to infiltrate pirates, like fucking Kurogane had done.

     And as his paper dragon flew over the rocks, it dissolved entirely.

     "Fuck. Do you think I did it wrong?"

     "Here, let me see!"

     He laid the writing pad in Hikaru's outstretched hand, where it ceased to be a writing pad. Its shape melted away, and curtains of fire that shot up around the ninja, miraculously burning nothing in their path.

     Kamui narrowed his eyes at the girl. "You were saying?"

     "I always thought that was burn-off from my spells!"

     "Well, I guess everybody learned something today."

     "I can't wait to show Umi-chan and Fuu-chan!"

     "Can we start by getting off this damn island?"

     She turned over a white-lacquered device in her hands. Instead of a writing pad, the orb had become a headband with painted metal ear-covers shaped like white-and-red riceballs.

     "Lady Yuuko made headsets like this once," the ninja said, opening one riceball and turning some dials inside. She pulled the thing onto her head. "They transmitted voices. Knight One to Knight Two and Knight Three. Come in, Knight Two and Knight Three... Come in..." She shook her head. "I read that the Dioscuri's orbs let them talk no matter where they were in the world, but all I've got is dead air. Maybe someone local can hear?"

     Kamui looked at the horizon where he thought he saw something moving, and the doom floating in the air got heavier on his shoulders. "I hope the locals are friendly."

     "You sense someone, too?"

     "If that box had a barrier to keep them back, they'll come in fast now it's gone. We should get ready to fight." They huddled close to the warmed boulder, breaking the chill the sea had put in their bones. "And just so we're clear... me teaming up with you to fight off attackers does not mean I've forgotten we're competing for the orb. Only one of us can take it home."

     "It could go with whoever manages to get through to their people," she suggested.

     "And what if neither of us get through?! No. I have a sword, you have a sword, we're having a swordfight. Done."

     "But I don't want to hurt you!" Hikaru frowned, with an expression that was disturbingly more like her serious face than her fluffy face. "Maybe we could arm wrestle?"

     He chomped back the grunt of agreement that almost slipped past his cold-weakened defenses. Because it would be stupid for him to agree to arm wrestle a ninja over his mission objective, and even stupider to think that maybe hurting this particular ninja would be a downside.

     They would definitely not be arm wrestling.

     And there was no way in which he did not hate today.

Chapter Text

  • Combine 1-1/2 oz. gold rum with 3/4 oz. lime juice and 1/2 oz. limoncello.
  • Add 3 dashes Angostura bitters and shake with ice.
  • Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lemon.

     Today was a 100% success! Sure, she and Kamui were stuck on the other side of the world, separated from anyone they knew for fifteen hours now, with no idea how long it'd be before they could make contact, but they'd found the orb they were looking for. And whatever force was whipping up killing intent in the dark mist on the horizon had held back instead of approaching. She and her new friend could wait till their teams showed up, safe and warm on shore.

     Though, boy, had Kamui pitched a fit when he realized nobody was attacking. He'd kicked rocks all over, screaming for somebody to show up who he could fight, and worked up a nice, big hungry just in time to eat the beans and corn bread Hikaru had brought out for lunch (which went perfectly with Kamui's beef jerky). Once they'd gotten into the hard cider, he'd even agreed to arm wrestle (although he insisted that wasn't how they'd settle who got the orb).

     A friendly match and conversation was way better than fighting and bleeding and dying.

     Kamui was a pretty good arm wrestler, too. In all the hours from lunch, through sunset and moonrise and the present field of stars on black, neither of them had budged the other more than an inch. The glow of the boulder she reheated every half hour cast their table in a warm orange light and empty bottles clinked merrily at their feet while they pushed. Eventually, they'd think about dinner, but it wasn't like they had to stop arm wrestling yet. They didn't have a schedule or anything.

     "I don't expect you to understand," Kamui snarled. (He'd been telling her all about his friends back home.) "Everybody always says, 'You just have to do what your heart really wants', and I know that's my problem. But it's not that simple! How do I make a choice like that?"

     "They like each other, too, right?"

     "Of course they do!"

     "Then there's no problem! You can date both of them together."

     "What?!"

     She tried to take him down when surprise broke his focus, but his reflexes were too good. He caught the attack and pushed their hands back to the middle.

     "New rule. No making fun of my problems."

     "I'm not making fun, though. When I met Lantis and Eagle four years ago, I fell in love with both of them, too. But they were practically dating each other already, so that whole 'picking' thing never came up. If it's the three of us, nobody gets left out."

     "I... Um. Huh." His scowl twisted up into a thinky face. "I wonder if keeping up a committed threesome for four years would get enough points to beat Fai? If he has more sex with Kurogane, and Captain Doumeki's points aren't enough, I mean."

     "Well, Eagle says he'll stay at a 10x combi modifier for the next two years, so between me and Lantis he's getting about nine million, five--"

     "How the hell do you know the combi modifiers?!" Kamui's eyes went so wide, she could almost see how purple they were, even by the bare glow of superheated rocks. "You keep talking like this 'Eagle' is a pirate! Are you trying to tell me that you've been shacked up with a pirate for four years?!"

     The only people Lady Yuuko had said weren't supposed to know that Eagle was from Autozam were members of the Ninja Union, since most of them would throw a fit. Kamui obviously wasn't Union, but he looked like he was going to throw a fit anyway. Hikaru figured she'd better keep that part to herself until she asked Eagle if Kamui could know.

     "Did any pirates turn in nine and a half million sex points last year?"

     "Well, no."

     "Well, there you go."

     "But if he was in hiding, he might not turn them in." Frowning at nothing, Kamui asked, "You met him four years ago? Does your Eagle have a last name?"

     "Everybody has a last name!" she answered, and changed the subject as fast as she could. "Mine's Shidou, by the way. But what about you? Are you going to ask out your two friends when you get home?"

     "What? No! I mean... That's... A threesome's really not going to work for me!"

     "Why not?"

     "Why not?! She's his sister!"

     "I guess that would complicate things."

     Before either of them could say another word, a new light flared on the horizon in the middle of the dark mist. Where the glow before had been green, and full of trailing spirals, this was a ghostly blue so soft, it looked like a lightning bug at the edge of the world. It'd have to be bigger than any lightning bug, though. Making sure her arm didn't give in their arm wrestling match, she focused her eyes on the horizon.

     "Can you see what it is?" Kamui asked.

     "A ship," Hikaru answered. "I see three masts, and a black flag... with a four-leaf clover over crossed bones. So it's a pirate ship, right?"

     Kamui's voice turned soft, and had an edge to it that sent chills down her spine. "Can you see a figurehead on the bow?"

     "I see a lady with wings like a dragonfly... and no head."

     "Shit." He slipped a spyglass from his pocket to check for himself. His hand gave way, slamming into the table as Hikaru's push lost its push-back. Barely flicking his eyes away from the strange ship, he muttered, "That doesn't count."

     "You know that ship?"

     "It's the Clover Belle. It's got to be. The actual fucking Clover Belle." As clouds rolled into dark, thundering masses at the edge of the world, Kamui kicked his chair over and shouted at the moon. "Now it's ghost ships?! What's next?! Does somebody want to pull Valeria up from the seafloor, full of mermaid zombies? How about demons? We haven't had any actual demons yet! Somebody drop the fucking King of Hell on this island so we can throw him a tea party!" He whipped around, pointing a finger at her. "That's a metaphorical tea party. Don't you dare pull a teapot out of fucking ninjaspace, or I swear to God I will break everything."

     "No teapots," she promised him. Hikaru followed him to the edge of the tide. He held out his arm to keep her from stepping into the water, and she stayed. Even she'd heard the stories that anything in the water within sight of the Clover Belle was cursed to an undignified death in short order. It was more surprising that Kamui took those stories seriously. "You think the Dioscuri are made up, but you believe in the Clover Belle?"

     "I don't know what to believe anymore, but I know the Clover Belle is real." He looked away from his spyglass to meet her eye. "Privilege of serving on the Pirate King's Council. I know she's real, I know she calls the seas of Lifan her home, and I know Nataku is deadly serious about Lifan's... arrangement... to float her a tribute every year. I don't know what she's doing this far south, though. We're nowhere near Lifan."

     Tight-lipped, Kamui went back to studying the ship, and Hikaru likewise gave it a quieter inspection. On her dark wooden decks, under sails stained gray by salt and shadow, five figures stood as if the seas churning into a storm around them were no more concern than a pleasure cruise. Three young men who had the same face and wore matching coats in a red so dark it was almost black held look-outs on both sides of the ship, with one at the stern. A girl in a dress that glowed like moonlight with mechanical wings on her shoulders walked up the bow, and a man in a high-collared coat of blue brocade had the wheel. He wasn't steering, Hikaru noticed, nor even touching it. The wheel and all the sails moved without assistance.

     "The one in blue'll be the captain," Kamui murmured. "Mihara Oujirou. No one knows for sure what crew he's stolen over the years."

     "But they can't make land, right?"

     "That's the story. Doomed to sail forever, reliving her last voyage, taking whatever sailors are unlucky enough to cross her path."

     "So we're safe. The ship can't touch the island."

     "Is that supposed to make me feel better?" Kamui asked.

     Hikaru shrugged. "It's supposed to be true."

     On the distant ship, the gears on the girl's wings turned. She floated into the air above the bowsprit as rolling fog churned around the sides of the boat. Flashes of dark pink and purple shot through the clouds. Sometimes Hikaru thought she saw mist become a person's face just before she blinked. The pale glow around the ship made everything ten times clearer than it should have been, even with distance vision techniques.

     She saw perfectly when the girl in white turned to look straight at her and at Kamui. The girl smiled, like an old friend, and mouthed something that looked like, 'It's all right.' Hikaru strained her ears to listen across the distance.

     "My name is Suu. Stay away from the water and you'll be safe."

     "Is she trying to talk to us?" Kamui asked.

     Hikaru nodded. "She says her name is Suu, and that we shouldn't touch the water."

     "Oh, thanks!" Kamui yelled. "It's so helpful for you to tell me things I already know!"

     "You already knew her name?"

     "Well, no... but--"

     "It's nice to meet you, Suu! My name's Hikaru, and this is Kamui!"

     Suu smiled again, and held out her arm above the ship's bow. Glass formed out of nothingness in front of her. It wasn't the same as pulling something from ninjaspace -- Hikaru sensed it coming into existence, not popping through cracks in reality. The fog rose up to punch through it, shattering the glass with an inhuman shriek. Even Kamui jumped as if he could hear the crash. As it passed through the bright shower of shards, the purple streak became a shadow on the clouds. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled like festival drums -- and in the light, the darkness had arms, maybe maybe even a head silhouetted on the sky with two glowing eyes dead center. Its fingernails were like knives, and could've used the ship as a bathtoy.

     "I was kidding about the demons!" Kamui hissed. He didn't look like he'd think twice about taking the shadow on, but something was making him shake. Hikaru could feel his shivers. They shook her, too, like a nearby bell ringing when you sing its note.

     Hikaru shrugged off the feeling, taking a fighting stance, and tried to think of a good way to know what was happening on that ship, or how she could help. She frowned at Kamui.

     "Are we seeing something that's happening now, or an old fight they're reliving?"

     "Don't you know the story?"

     "Only that the Mihara brothers fought over Princess Shuuko, and when Ichirou won, Oujirou named the Clover Belle for her, then sailed off and never came back."

     "It's more complicated than that," Kamui answered in a whisper.

     When he calmed down a little, maybe she'd ask him about it. She could ask Suu, she supposed, but the ghost girl was busy right now. It wouldn't be nice to interrupt.

     Suu and her fellow sailors fought mostly without noise, except for the crash of stormy waves. Hikaru imagined their wordless understanding was a lot like what she, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan would be like if they'd been working together for hundreds of years, and could create sharp metal or living glass out of nothing instead of fire, water, and wind. Two boys in red pushed their hands forward, and a web of glinting spears, branching like metal trees, shot through the floating maze of Suu's glass.

     "Can you even hurt a demon with metal?" Kamui wondered. "Will they be okay?"

     "I think that glass technique is forcing that shadow to manifest physically. I'm not sure how -- I haven't learned about fighting demons yet," Hikaru answered.

     "Me neither. But I know some people I can ask."

     Swooping colors in the mist filled the air with a shrill whine. All the ghost sailors focused their full attention on the fight, except for one. One of the three boys, unnoticed by the rest, snuck behind the boy at the stern. As fast as Hikaru saw his knife -- before she could yell 'Look out!' -- he slit the other boy's throat. All other eyes on the ship turned when the body hit the deck.

     The last boy's face drained to bluish white. "A! B!" he yelled, running toward the stern as Hikaru focused on hearing his words within the clash of battle. "Not again, A! I won't let you do this again!"

     The killer had jumped onto the rail as the last boy ran over. Kamui turned away with a sickened look on his face. He'd probably known this would happen.

     "Don't worry, C. It's going to be different this time," the killer promised with a sad smile. "It won't be you who has to run."

     With his knife still dripping blood, he let himself fall backwards over the side of the ship. The pink streak flying through the fog caught him and bore him toward the giant shadow. Something about it put a chill in Hikaru's spine like nothing she'd felt before.

     "A!" the boy named C roared.

     No one had time for any more words. The shadow leaned over the boat as if to smash it, and C joined Suu in forming a dragon out of the sea itself. Plated in glass and flanked by metal, the raging salt water screamed toward the shadow. It struck. It didn't kill, but it struck true, and fell back into the ocean. A noise resounded that sounded like storm clouds cackling, then a wave the size of the wall around Lady Yuuko's castle surged toward the shore, looking like it would break over their heads.

     Hikaru strained her will toward the magma under the earth, pulling it to meet the wave. Alongside, Kamui's power pulled the ground into a towering cliff. Her wall cooled into a curve of obsidian, holding back the tide. Kamui's rock shift put their entire campsite on a perch twice as high as the wave crest. Hopefully, that'd keep them alive and uncursed.

     Even if she couldn't offer the same to ghosts that'd haunted the sea for centuries.

     "I'm not saying this because I like you or anything," Kamui said, his eyes on the Clover Belle's battle, "but I hope my crew are too busy to get here until that ship is gone. I'll have your back till then if you'll have mine."

     The idea of Lantis and Eagle running into this storm, and possibly being cursed by sailing towards the ghost ship, didn't sit any better with her. She'd rather freeze a few more days.

     "You've got a deal." Hikaru smiled at the way-too-serious pirate. "Because I do like you, and there's nothing you can do to stop me."

     "I... have no response to that."

~//~

     Sorata wiped the sweat and soot off his brow. The rising sun mocked their sleepless night, but the Dragon of Heaven was docked by the Bravada with a felled octopus between, and teams were dousing the last flames scattered through the trees. Damn lucky no lava had come from the hole busted out the side of Mt. Saijaan. The near-molten rock shards and fire spurts'd been nothing to laugh at, but lava flow would've gone through the village on its way to the sea. Instead, his people were safe, and that was a night's work well done.

     Kneeling on the beach, he poked the odd little creature who'd appeared with the fires. Those who'd watched it come out the mountain said they'd seen a tawny cat, big as a tiger with wings wide as two men were tall. All anyone could find now was this animal sleeping on the sand: a cat with wings, or near enough, but looked more like a child's toy than anything else.

     "Do you know what it is?" a lady's voice asked.

     Tatra and Tarta walked over from a knot of pirates who'd lay down to sleep next to their buckets, their work done. Sorata shook his head.

     "Never seen anything like it before. We'll take him to the Old Stargazer once we've rested. Maybe his books will say."

     "I'll get a cage," Tarta said.

     He took her elbow. "No cages. He's a magical creature of no common order, I'll wager that much. When he wakes up, we ask nicely if he'll come with us to see the old man."

     The younger princess simmered with frustration that would've been a boil had they not all been so tired. "So we hope it speaks our language, and it doesn't fly off?!"

     While they locked eyes, the creature rolled out of Sorata's shadow into a sunbeam, murmuring something that sounded like, "Hungry..." Sorata dropped down again. Clear as a bell, the cat grunted, "Takoyaki..." and went right back to snoring.

     Laughing, Sorata wiped the sand off his hands. "Well, he sure speaks my language. Whatcha say we check the volcano before I beg you ladies for a bed on solid Chizetan ground?"

     They strolled toward the mountain, and the older princess pulled a shawl around her shoulders with a giggle. "Well, I can still make room for you in my bed, Sora-chan. If you don't want to sleep on the floor, that is."

     "Nee-sama! No screwing the enemy! Am I the only one who remembers Sorata's here with that friff-fraff, ninja-lover Pirate King?!"

     "Oh, no one cares about that, Tarta, dear!"

     "I care!"

     "Thanks, Tatra, but the floor might be best." Nevermind that the redhead would as like cut his throat now as she would have yesterday -- that was the life they lived -- but he wasn't so fancy-free as when he left. Their path crossed a clearing where Arashi minded a troop awake enough to clear rubble. She met his eye with the same cold frown as ever, then showed him her back. "There's someone..." he told the princesses. "... I want knowin' I'm serious."

     Tatra leaned into his path with a glowing smile. "No wonder you're fond of that ship. You always did like pretty people."

     "Ain't no better place for a man who likes pretty people than the Dragon of Heaven! Beauties every way you turn."

     They weren't just pretty faces, either, although there were more lookers on board than he'd ever seen in one place. Arashi far from least. But his words on that were ones he didn't dare speak. One thing he knew about wishes: if you tell 'em, they never come true.

     Laughing, he took both princess by the shoulders and moved the talk to safer waters. "You haven't even met Kamui yet!" Sorata whistled. "He'll break your heart to look at him! Like the Sumeragi's angrier, even prettier little brother. Can't miss him."

     The trees cleared a few steps down, and there was no mistakin' where his people said the lava broke through the side of the volcano. He hadn't figured what they said could've been fact, but it was plain to see. Not flowing down but busting through the rock, and no small measure of it. A right torrent. A run like that should've destroyed everything in Saijaan.

     It hadn't, because what Sorata saw was cooled solid, a stone patch like a scab on a wound. Tendrils of volcanic glass curled off the surface in a pattern any eye would know as a windmaster's who'd served with one. But to cool that much lava, that quickly, down to solid stone... If Lord Aoki hadn't been on the boat, Sorata would've been sure it was his work. There weren't any other windmasters at that level in port.

     Yuzuriha and Saiki were at the edge of the clearing, tending wounds on a few of the locals. They left the bandaging once they saw him there. Sorata looked long over Lord Aoki's nephew, wondering if he had to recommend the kid for an officer's post.

     "Did you do this, Saiki?"

     "Ah... no, sir. We... had help."

     "Three ninja," Yuzuriha explained. "Two now, since Hikaru disappeared with Kamui." She nodded at the cooled lava patch. "They did this, and helped with the forest fires, too."

     Tarta tried to throttle the air. "How did that many goddamn ninja get onto the island?!"

     "Sneaking, probably," Tatra offered.

     While the younger princess screamed to bring the trees down, Sorata turned back to Yuzuriha. "Were they with Kurogane?"

     "Kurogane?!" His ship's sea-mistress buried her face in her hands. "I was wondering why Fai wasn't around. Kamui's going to be pissed."

     "So what else is new?"

     "Well, these were the Witch's people, and Kurogane went into private practice however many years ago. It's possible Yuuko and the Daidouji had a joint operation--"

     "But not likely," Sorata finished. "Right. So where might a man offer thanks in person?"

     "They're right..." Pointing toward a far corner of the clearing, Yuzuriha sighed at the empty space. "How predictable. They're gone."

     Nearby, Tarta kicked a tree. "Fucking ninja!"

~//~

     Stepping out of the shadows into real space, Lantis pointed Hikaru's teammates toward the cove where Eagle had hidden the FTO. He stayed for a second to be sure no one had followed. Not a soul to be seen.

     He dropped behind the rocks to meet Eagle's longboat. It was tight with four of them, but there was room for one more.

     "Lady Yuuko's device works as advertised," Eagle said. "I've got a heading on what I assume is Hikaru's position."

     Umi settled in her seat with her arms crossed. "Then what are we waiting for?"

~//~

     Fai couldn't beg with his face buried, breath gagged in the pillow, but his throat was so raw, he could barely make words anyway. Every inch of him, plundered five times over, and his ninja's tongue on his asshole still sent pure ecstasy through his skin. His nerves danced like a thousand pinpricks rolling over his back.

     When they'd begun their game, he'd purred in his Kuro-sama's ear how good it'd feel to have his cock inside again, slow and deep. Not that he'd minded taking it hard on the beach. That'd been it's own kind of perfect. But pushing what their bodies could endure practically demanded a heaving chest pressed to his back while he savored a thick cock filling him up.

     Then teasing turned into screaming for it, and for anything that came to mind.

     Taunting fingers had slicked him up inside. His lover had laughed like summer thunder when Fai protested that he wasn't putting his preparations to use. For his answer, he'd massaged more lotion into Fai's shoulders and back.

     His skin hadn't needed the help, both of them dripping with sweat.

     Now his body did the begging his voice couldn't manage, straining against hands that...

     That...

     Lightheaded, he toppled to the sheets and gasped. It came out in a moan. His hips bucked against a caress, his sex flush and straining for the sky. Hitting his sweat, the wind tickled cool as steel.

     "Do you want to come, Your Majesty? Is that what you're trying to say?"

     That was it. He'd forgotten the word. A whimper brushed out of his throat.

     "I told you, not yet. Not till I say."

     And Kuro-sama's word was law. Mad as he was for that last spasm of ecstasy, his skin obeyed. He forgave it all for the moment he could curl onto that muscled form, could rain kisses down whatever limbs he found. Was it a shoulder in his mouth, cut like rolling hills? Then he'd leave bite trails, red rivers drifting toward his lover's neck.

     Something impaled him. Something metal, smooth and cold. He couldn't say what, except that it wasn't flesh. It was so close to what he wanted, tears welled in his eyes. It was an echo, and it was fucking his body into bloom, but it wasn't enough.

     "I want... you," he gasped, ignoring the pain in his throat.

     "That makes thirty-nine." One hand held his thigh still as the other worked the shaft in his ass. "I wonder how many times you'll beg before you can't take it anymore."

     The pressure in Fai's own cock started to hurt. As if the ninja could sense it, he pulled his toy away. Kuro-sama drew his hands in calming lines down the insides of Fai's legs, and like he'd done so many times today -- five or fifty, Fai couldn't recall -- the ninja's touch seemed to float arousal down his erection to every part of his body. His cock softened, but without release. Every muscle took on the charge, desire layered on desire. If he bottled his tears right now, they'd be pure, golden sex overflowing, not water at all.

     His mind found stillness -- clarity in the haze. His hands found purchase in a broad back. His legs circumscribed a world couched in powerful loins that drove Fai down into the bed. A kiss had never felt so much like the clash of shields and spears, or if it had he couldn't remember. His Kuro-sama's chest heaved, breath and heart pounding out a cacophony.

     His groans under Fai's teeth were like honey.

     And though his ninja had been telling him all day that all guards were down, in that instant Fai first felt an opening. A real opening, where Kuro-sama wouldn't see him strike. He couldn't remember why he needed it, but he remembered that he did. And he took it.

     His mouth was already on his lover's neck. He bit down, not hard enough to rupture but enough to block the blood to his head. The fighter's body shook with pleasure, right up to when his muscles went slack.

     Fai needed a moment longer before his mind caught up.

     His lover wasn't moving. He'd blacked out.

     Then he remembered all the reasons.

     That meant victory, didn't it? The one who walked away won their game?

     Fai leaned over, pressing his hand to a muscled chest to be sure there was breath moving, a heart beating. The ninja was only asleep. Fai's hand curled over that beating heart, and he took a ragged gasp in. His forehead to his lover's, he saw the lips that had been so sure Fai was too fond of sex to betray his lover in the act.

     If only the ninja had known he was no stranger to that.

     Whatever monstrosity he felt now, it wasn't a disappointed libido. But he didn't have time to ponder why leaving hung like weights on his shoulders. Pulling his hand away, he stood.

     The world spun. Fai stumbled first to the water pitcher he vaguely remembered Kuro-sama ringing the kitchen to deliver. It wasn't cold anymore, but the jasmine-steeped liquid was refreshing nonetheless. Enough that when he scoffed at the rays of light coming through the balcony doors, sound came out of his throat despite how raw it was.

     Daylight. So Kuro-sama hadn't made it to evening after all. He'd have to pay a penalty.

     If he ever came back.

     Fai's feet were a little more sure as he walked to the balcony. He threw on his waistcoat on the way. His hand trembled at his Kuro-rin's jacket, so he left that on the floor, but he needed his communicator from his waistcoat pocket.

     Something about the landscape made him pause. Fai studied it -- for how long, he couldn't say. His sense of space was so far gone, he couldn't place it at first.

     The shadows were pointing west.

     The sun was in the east. Dawn, not sunset.

     No punishment for Kuro-sama. Not if they'd run out the night and started another day.

     He knew better than to look back, but he did it anyway. Covered with scratches and scars, the dark-haired man lay with a peace over his young eyes that only honor could buy. Fai had no doubt that, if they'd met under different circumstances...

     Better not to finish that thought.

     He hadn't done anything today but what he'd promised to do, and maybe his legs were still like jelly from their rudely curtailed roll in the sheets, but enough of his mind had come back that he remembered what he had to do next. Fai pulled the slip of silver out of his vest and spun it into a disc hovering in the air. He ignored the dusting of snow that fell.

     "Kakyou."

     The dreamseer's frowning face appeared. "Fai. You look awful."

     "It's done." He stopped himself from looking back again, and he dried the tears he'd cried in their bed. "It's done. Where's Kamui, and where should I meet the ship?"

     "You're not meeting the ship."

     "So you have some other plan to keep Kamui from destroying everything the first time Seishirou opens his mouth?"

     "Do you honestly believe it'll go any better if you see Fuuma right now?"

     Monou Fuuma, lord of a thousand faces. But Fai knew perfectly well that no matter what fate had laid out for him, a man was just a man.

     "I can handle Fuuma," he told Kakyou.

     "Right now, you look like you'll handle him as well as Subaru does. And while you're 'handling' that, who'll mind Kamui? Eat something, clean yourself up. We'll leave when you've got your strength back."

     "I don't need to be coddled, Kakyou. Kamui is--"

     "Kamui is safe."

     Fai almost collapsed on the railing from relief. The last thing he wanted was for anyone else to get hurt because of his mistakes. "He's safe?"

     "Whatever meddling Clow arranged is over. I can see Kamui's future now -- he's uncomfortable but out of immediate danger. Seishirou tracked him to Candelaria, southeast of Santiago waters. We can be there seven hours after your business is done."

     "I'm fine."

     "Fine enough to forget how fast top-level ninja recover from blacking out."

     Glancing over his shoulder, Fai listened more closely to his Kuro-kii's breathing. The rhythm had changed. It was ever so slightly more even. Turning back to Kakyou, he said, "I'll be in touch," and folded his communicator away.

     He leaned against the railing, watching his ninja's peaceful face. Kuro-sama opened one eye. Fai raised an eyebrow.

     "You were having a conversation," the man explained.

     "Which you wanted to listen to before you followed me out."

     "That was the deal. If I can walk, I follow you. I've got duties same as you."

     "Now that you know how wrong you were to trust me, we'll have to settle this in some less pleasant way, won't we? Letting you follow me just won't do."

     The ninja groaned as he rolled out of bed. He strolled up to the balcony where Fai was standing and gazed out at the sea. "I figured I was wrong to trust you from the beginning. I'm doing it anyway."

     Fai wasn't sure if his blood wanted to freeze or boil. It took everything he had to keep his face blank while his gaze was trapped by the firm lines of his lover's face. Before he realized, he was drowning in those red eyes again.

     Kurogane brushed his chin with a finger, sending a tingle down Fai's neck. "What, you think you're the only one who makes hard choices?"

     The wave of guilt he expected never came, as if making a choice could be better than having no choice but to do what had to be done. He'd made enough choices he regretted not to be sure of that. And the ninja didn't even have the decency to be mad at him.

     Mad at him for what? For taking the man down in what was technically a fair fight?

     Feeling almost human again, Fai wondered why he cared if anyone got mad at all, let alone a man who'd vanish soon enough into the dust of years. He fixed his smile -- which didn't even feel heavy now -- and he leaned over the rail so he couldn't see his lover's face.

     He didn't have any such defense from the ninja's voice. "So it was Kamui, huh?" Kurogane asked. "I'm glad he's out of trouble. He's a good kid."

     "Don't you get tired of being perfect all the time?"

     "Nope."

     "... I do."

     "If it ain't fun, you're doing it wrong."

     "And if I don't stop you here, you'd chase me to the gates of Hell, wouldn't you?"

     The ninja shrugged. "I've seen worse."

     "Hell is subjective, you know." Also a physical place, but one's personal manifestation of the form was no less real, Fai thought as he twirled the key on the chain around his neck. Its golden shadows looked so innocuously pretty. "We all carry our own Hells with us, and the doors are everywhere we turn. I might be yours." He reached for his Kuro-sama's hip, admiring the battle-tightened physique under his fingers. "Will you keep trying to seduce me anyway?"

     A calloused grip wrenched his chin up, settling on Fai's throat so tight he gasped.

     His lover snarled, "You don't get to be my Hell. I've been there once. I'm not going back."

     "Neither am I."

     So he couldn't let his knees feel weak when the ninja trailed that hand off his neck, down his chest, pushing him against the balcony rail. He couldn't let a kiss steal into his mouth like a raiding ship slipping past a blockade by the dark of the new moon. Most of all, he couldn't let his heart waver when a fine, upstanding man murmured by his ear, "Good. Then I'm not done with you yet."

     He had to fight back. Offering his neck, Fai tangled his fingers in his lover's hair.

     "Good," he purred. "If I'd left, you might think I'm not able to fuck you till you can't move."

Chapter Text

  • Add one part amaretto and one part caramel liqueur to two parts gold rum.
  • Shake with 1 tsp. condensed milk, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, and a handful of ice.
  • Strain into an old fashioned glass filled with ice.
  • Drink with a straw.

     As Kuro-sama sank to his knees, the arousal he'd left in the bed crashed down on him, taking his breath away. Fai's grip on the railing was all that kept him upright. The tongue running over his cock left him unfit for anything more complex than a moan. The night had left him aching. Now the solid heat of his blood under the morning sun was desperate for release his lover might still deny. Fai tried to drive the searing pleasure stealing through his skin out to its conclusion, but he knew it wouldn't happen. Not without permission.

     "I need to... please, say I--" His words died in a gasp as the ninja circled his fingers over the head of his cock.

     "Next time I swallow you down, I want you to come in my mouth. Show me what a little brewing does to your flavor."

     "Ah!" was all the agreement Fai could manage.

     It felt like a lifetime waiting for Kuro-sama to lick his way up from his balls, along his shaft, but once he was deep inside his lover's mouth, he had no trouble obeying. One sharp shot lashed from his toes to his head, flashing lights behind his closed eyes. If he was flying or falling, he couldn't tell, until the ninja caught him on his way to the ground.

     He was still shaking. Every brush of his lover's hands made an aftershock, as if the wanting built up in his skin hadn't been spent -- just shaken till it was ready to ignite.

     Fai bit at the man's lip, speaking in groans his Kuro-sama must've understood. His lover dragged him to his feet, and pushed him around to face the railing. Wrestling back his muscle control, Fai hooked one leg on the rail and braced his arms as a sweat-soaked chest curled against his back. He didn't want to fall again, not with the stakes on the table. Fingers that seemed to know his body like a well-worn book teased him open. It was easy. The warm, solid cock he'd wanted all night pushed in like a hand in a glove.

     The ninja stayed there, filling him up, as he nipped down the back of Fai's neck. "Let's hear you beg one last time, Your Majesty."

     Laughing off the lingering waves of ecstasy, Fai settled against the pressure making him all tingly inside. "Ooh, ooh, me! Pick me!"

     "You're one big put-on," he said. But Fai felt a smile through the grimace pressed into his skin, and the delicious friction of his lover sliding out till only the tip teased the cleft of his ass.

     "Mmm. Am I? Well. There once was a ninja from Suwa..." He gasped at another push, this one fast and hard. Through the slow retreat, he struggled to recite his poem instead of just moaning incoherently. "With... teeth like a wild barracuda... But his treacle-and-tart... Ah!" Fai shuddered, pushing back on the hands squeezing his ass and on everything suddenly inside again. "Is... my favorite part..." The panting breaths he didn't fight pulled his voice into a rougher register. "Wh-when... he thrusts it... I shout, 'Ha-'... A-ah..." His body tremored around one more surge and one more pull. "God fucking damn it! Do it harder!"

     That slow roll of their bodies slipping apart shot excruciating bliss straight up his spine. He wanted to lose himself in it, but he couldn't. Like a parched man tortured by drops of water falling on his tongue, Fai was aware of every shift. He felt the thrill until he couldn't take feeling any more, and thought his body might shake apart.

     "You want it fast, huh? You told me slow before."

     "Less... memory... more... fucking."

     The maddening rhythm never let up, no matter what he screamed, no matter how he cajoled, reaching his hands back to tangle in the ninja's hair. His body convulsed until rapture pushed out all his ability to want anything but this. He fell back onto his lover's shoulder, feeling like orgasm was exploding out of every speck of his body, from his bones to his fingernails to the sweat dripping off of his hair. After his screams faded into the sunbeams, his voice settled to formless moans as the haze in his mind shuddered away through the quaking of his limbs.

     He hadn't even realized when Kuro-sama had reached around to work his cock again. But through eyelids fluttering open, he feasted on the sight of a battle-hardened hand falling to his thigh, caressing his skin with a slick mess trailing behind. Fai found the other hand on his chest, and wove his fingers through the ninja's. His big, strong man leaned into him for help standing as much as he leaned back. The groans on his neck, the heaving chest pressed down his spine, the perfume of hot bodies, the spent cock on its way out, all of it summoned a giggle to Fai's lips that he couldn't explain.

     The smack Kuro-rin landed on his ass was entirely the wrong way to stop him laughing, but his ninja had to know that by now. Fai curled into the hollow under his lover's ear, then bit his tongue when he realized he was about to ask, "Where have you been all my life?"

     He'd had enough romance. He didn't have enough wits right now to play that game.

     Asking, "Is that all you've got?" didn't feel right either.

     While he tried to figure out the right way to express his appreciation, he flung himself around, onto the mercy of his lover's kisses. Fai clasped his hands on the ninja's face, overlooking how close a tender embrace felt to the dance they'd fallen into before. He preferred to think about the tongue teasing into his mouth, and his surprise at thinking -- still -- that his Kuro-sama was a better kisser than a fucker. Surely it wouldn't be wrong to miss these kisses when they went separate ways. He'd as soon pretend opera was as good in other places as it was in Vienna.

     It didn't mean he was giving up the wild seas for cobblestone streets.

     Coming up for air, Fai stroked the trail of red bite marks adorning the canvas of his someone's rugged neck. He purred against his Kuro-sama's lips, "My turn to call the shots," and they slid into the bedroom. The ninja didn't even resist when Fai tumbled him to the ground.

     A very handsome man. He'd thought so at first glance, but from this vantage -- astride his lover's hips, trailing his hands over the shimmer of sunlit sweat -- Fai felt like everything he'd seen before was potential, and now he had fully actualized hotness in his grasp.

     Shrugging the soaked waistcoat off his shoulders, he swatted the ninja's hand off his thigh. "Did I say you could have touching?"

     "I can watch if you want me to watch," Kuro-sama answered, smirking as he pulled his hands back to rest his head on.

     Fai reached up for the pitcher of jasmine water on the table, then for one of the drinking bowls and the silk handkerchief among his clothes on the floor. He poured the bowl of water in silence, but as he wet the kerchief and washed the sweat from his lover's neck, he let himself sigh in appreciation of the divine sculpture that was man.

     "Didn't you say you came here for the hot springs, Your Majesty? Your 'classy private baths' are just ten feet away."

     As if he'd forgotten about them, Fai looked at the doorway on the far side of the bed, steam from the stone pools filling the air. Then he rewet his cloth and stroked his lover's collarbones. "They'll get their chance to clean you up. Later. Right now, I want to do it."

     "Wouldn't say no to that."

     "Didn't think you would."

     He met the ninja's gaze for as long as he dared before he flirted his eyes away. Fai played a quite convincing, 'shy and embarrassed', if he did say so himself. It felt almost real, between the hot shivers running up his neck and the moment's hesitation when his sidelong glance found Kuro-sama's eyes still locked on his lips. He hadn't planned that. Though it didn't get in the way of the plan, either.

     Kuro-sama had every right to be proud of his stamina, but it'd only last as long as he had self-control to manage it. There were thousands of ways to strip a man's self-control. If the ones Fai had already tried hadn't succeeded, well...

     Try, try again.

     He'd get there no matter how long it took, and he'd definitely enjoy the process.

~//~

     Sailing west from Chizeta, Lantis meditated on how Eagle's boat outran the dawn. Every hour they came to the surface to refresh the air, and the sun had dropped closer to the horizon. After seven stops, the day had unmade itself. They zipped through inky waters toward the goal, with their only light the blue beacon shining from Lady Yuuko's mechanism.

     Thinking about things like that kept him from imagining what could have happened to Hikaru. He had Hikaru's own competence and Yuuko's word to assure him she was safe, but he'd seen too many competent people hurt in situations that should have been safe. Filling his mind with that would help no one.

     The other three people on the FTO had their own coping methods.

     "Action, Attribute, Object, Being, or Immaterial Concept?" Umi asked Fuu. Their games of 20 Questions had long since left, 'Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral' behind.

     "Hmm. That's difficult," the girl with the glasses answered, tapping her lip. "It's possible to treat it as an object, but I think Immaterial Concept is closer to describing its true nature."

     "Is it music?" Eagle asked. Lantis narrowed his eyes at his lover's constant mission to be an ass, but Eagle wasn't sorry. Running out the 20 Question limit was how he said he didn't care about winning, so you didn't have to watch for him cheating or stabbing you in the back.

     "No," Fuu told him.

     Umi took the next question. "Is it something invented by people?"

     "Yes."

     Eagle guessed, "True love?"

     "No."

     "Can it be bought?"

     Fuu pursed her lips at her blue-haired friend. "Well. It's certainly possible to pay for an experiential instance, but not the thing itself. I'll say no."

     "Is it God?" Eagle tried.

     "No."

     "Is it a performance?" Umi asked.

     "It can be performed, but the nature of the thing is not a performance. No."

     With a grin, Eagle declared, "A dinner recipe!"

     "No."

     The white-haired pirate held out his hand to stop the next question. "I'm reading a storm on the surface. Everyone strap in."

     Lantis buckled himself to his seat, but couldn't help noticing Lady Yuuko's beacon turning about as they fought through the rolling seas. Their destination was close. He reached for a rebreather, in case they had to swim for the surface. Eagle and the girls did the same.

     "One hundred feet to surface," Eagle said, fingers flying over his controls. Rough water shook the little boat. The metal shell complained as Eagle kept them on course. "Fifty feet."

     But as they rose higher, the water stilled. They surfaced, and what should have been hard-breaking waves in howling winds was a light drizzle over seas rolling into equilibrium.

     "What was that?" Fuu asked.

     "Lucky," Eagle answered. "My instruments show a real mast-breaker moving west, and our beacon is pointing southeast now. Let's find Hikaru before the weather changes its mind."

     Pulling a few levers, Eagle sent the FTO along the line of their beacon's blue glow, toward a stretch of rock rising out of the ocean. One outcropping stuck out: a tower of gray stone with a fire blazing atop like a natural lighthouse. Lantis sighed away the breath he'd been half-holding for close to a day. He could tell it was Hikaru from a mile away, safe as promised.

     A distorted voice crackled out of the air. "... Come in, Knight Two, Knight Three. This is Knight One..." Lantis couldn't see a source, and it didn't seem to be coming from any direction in particular. The sound was simply there.

     "Hikaru?" Umi called out. "Can you hear us?"

     "Umi-chan! I can hear you! Are you here?!"

     "We see you on top of that outcropping," Eagle said. "We'll meet you on the beach."

     "Eagle! I see you! The coast is clear now, so come on in. I'll be right there -- Kamui's been teaching me how he jumps off tall things!"

     Half a second later, almost as soon as Lantis focused in on the red-haired figure standing in the flames, Hikaru jumped straight down from the outcropping to the beach. Fire trailed behind her, and she landed in an easy crouch despite the sheer height she'd fallen from. The scowling pirate next to her made his landing on his feet, arms crossed as the feather on his hat fluttered in the breeze. 'Kamui', he assumed -- the one Umi and Fuu had identified as Death Shirou when they'd explained what happened.

     His girlfriend was now on friendly terms with one of the most notorious Pirate Lords.

     Then again, they'd been together an entire day, and Hikaru was particularly good at that.

     "Lantis! Eagle! Fuu-chan! Umi-chan!"

     Shirou's scowl turned into a snarl behind her. "Eagle! I knew it! It was you!"

     "Hello, Kamui. How's life treating you?"

     "Like Clow Reed shot me out of a volcano to a frozen island in the ass-end of nowhere while my crew is fighting a war on the other side of the planet. Thanks so much for asking!"

     Lantis caught Hikaru as she leapt over the waves. He didn't think anyone else saw the smile he hid in her hair. Eagle might have been able to see when he closed in, but that didn't count. Eagle would have known anyway.

     "I knew you guys would come."

     "Of course you did."

     She dropped down to hug her teammates, fielding five questions from every direction about what had happened -- until Eagle asked, "And really? 'The coast is clear'? Did you think I couldn't pilot through a little storm?"

     "Oh, it wasn't the storm," Hikaru answered. "It was the demon fighting the ship in the storm. The crew lassoed the demon and dragged it west, and the storm went with them."

     While all the ninja blinked, Eagle turned pale. "Do you know what ship it was?"

     "You wouldn't want me to say while I'm standing on your boat."

     Eagle turned to his controls and started the air reserves refilling, then burned an image from his instruments to paper to make the map he'd promised Lady Yuuko. Lantis reached down into the water to pull up his price as well -- one rock, smoothed by the waves. Good for a scrying spell, if he knew anything about the Witch. He had a lot of questions, but they'd wait until Hundhammeren. Neither of his lovers seemed likely to discuss what had them worried.

     "Would everyone mind taking their seats?" Eagle asked. "We're leaving."

     "Not yet, you're not!" the black-clad pirate yelled from the beach.

     Splashing back to shore, Hikaru grinned wide enough to terrify her stranded friend. "You mean you're coming with us after all?! I'm sure there's room! Are you going back to Chizeta?"

     "No! I mean... yes, but... that's... I'm... I'm not going with you!" The man fended off a hug, but seemed to melt in front of Hikaru's pout. "I don't mean it like that. I just..." He sighed, frowning at the stars over the northern horizon. "I trust my people as much as you trust yours, you know. They're probably on their way now. I want to be here when they show up."

     "Okay, then. Tell Yuzuriha-chan hi for me."

     "I will. But you're not leaving until we settle who gets that orb!"

     Hikaru glanced at the metal earphones in her hand -- which didn't look orb-shaped, but Lantis wasn't one to interject semantics -- then gave the pirate her battle stare. Without a doubt, they could take him if they worked together, but no one on Eagle's boat moved an inch. This looked like a matter of honor. Hikaru would want to fight him alone.

     The pirate met her with just as much tenacity as she told him, "Rock, Paper, Scissors."

     Lantis had seen pirates kill ninja for less, but this one didn't. He held up his hand and snarled, "Count one, two, three, then throw on 'shoot'."

     "One, two, three, shoot!"

     Given that Shirou threw paper, which covered Hikaru's rock, Lantis wasn't sure why the pirate was the one who looked upset.

     "Is this supposed to be some kind of a trick?!"

     Tossing him the earphones, Hikaru smiled. "Most people play Rock. Didn't you know?"

     In Shirou's hands, the earphones transformed into a handheld writing desk, and more unexpectedly, feathers started falling from nowhere all around the befuddled young man.

     Hadn't Master Clef mentioned something like that, however many years ago? Lantis called back school lessons from long out of mind. Was it that the Dioscuri's orbs matched the will of their bearers, but to claim one or to use it required more power than the world could absorb? Like with casting a top-tier spell, excesses of the bearer's spirit bled into material reality. That sounded like what Clef had said.

     The other girls had said that was what Hikaru had been sent to find.

     And, now, what she'd just given up to the Pirate King's cohort.

     She flicker-stepped into the boat, waving at the man on shore. "See you later, Kamui!"

     With that, Eagle sealed the bubble on the FTO and they pushed into the deeps. He ran the engines even harder on their homeward course than he had coming in.

     Hikaru dropped onto Lantis's lap, summoning a tiny flame to her hand to dry her socks. The cheery goodbye faded off her face, leaving the iron frown she wore when she had something on her mind. Maybe it concerned whatever questions Eagle wasn't making her answer until they were on land, maybe it was something else.

     Lantis pushed a wisp of hair behind her ear. "Are you sure you can leave the orb?"

     "Kamui and I agreed on fair terms, and he won. Lady Yuuko can't complain about that. Besides, I figure there's a reason Clow Reed's puzzle chamber chose him." She offered a quiet wince to her team. "Sorry I didn't ask you guys first. This seemed like the right thing to do."

     Umi rolled her eyes. "Oh, fine. We forgive you, you silly goose! Although we weren't exactly mad about it."

     "No, I was thinking, 'That's so like Hikaru-san!'," Fuu said with a smile.

     "Thank you."

     "So why don't you help us finish this round of 20 Questions?" the blue-haired girl asked. "Fuu has this round. So far, she says it's an Immaterial Concept that can be made into an object, was invented by people, can be paid for in specific instances but not bought as itself, can be performed but is not a performance, and isn't music, true love, God, or a dinner recipe."

     Hikaru clapped, all worries forgotten in sudden brightness.

     "I know! It's a riddle, isn't it!"

     The blonde giggled into her hand. "Now that Hikaru-san is here, we'll need a new game."

~//~

     Steam-filled air filled Fai's lungs so slowly, he couldn't be sure if he was breathing or if the air was seeping through his skin. His Kuro-puu was still breathing, he could tell -- warm sighs stirred Fai's hair. Neither had moved an inch since they'd fallen from their rouse to the side of the pool. Stripping away his ninja's restraint was...

     ... a lot like fucking a thunderstorm. Only a good idea. This was the best exhaustion he'd felt in years.

     But this stillness wasn't cuddling, Fai assured himself.

     Just basking in volcano-heated water caressing their skin, the quiet song of birds past the wall, and the curve between his ninja's neck and shoulder where Fai rested his head as if it were made to fit.

     And if he'd started thinking like that, he'd stayed too long.

     His legs didn't move the first time he tried, but Fai focused on each muscle in turn. Rolling astride Kuro-sama's lap, he smirked at how his lover's eyes complained that his well-earned rest had been disturbed. Fai kissed him, once. And lingered.

     "You're not bad, lover. Come try to catch me any time -- after you stop by your castle to tell your princess how well this went."

     His opponent tried to hold him as he stepped out of the bath, but the iron grip had melted.

     Fai felt accomplished.

     He couldn't keep the smile off his face, even though no one was in a position to watch him restock weapons in his entirely fairly won Kuro-nin Coat. Making sure his hands were dry, he tore off half the sticker portraits they'd had done and dropped them in his pocket.

     "I'm leaving your stickers on the table, Kuro-kicchi!"

     "I'll be back for that coat," the ninja said, finding his voice.

     Peeking around the doorway, Fai saw his lover still sprawled, eyes closed, in the hot bath. "I'm counting on it," he said. "So, should I pull you out before you get heat stroke, or should I just leave a note for the manager?"

     "Don't need help."

     "Uh-huh."

     Kuro-pon turned his head, although it looked like it took all the strength he had left. "I won't argue if you stay till I can follow."

     Well, if the ninja could still sass, he was fine. In. So. Many. Ways.

     After blowing one last kiss, their date was definitely and superbly complete. Fai floated straight out the door. He may even have been whistling. It wasn't until after he'd gotten the location of the ship from Kakyou that he noticed the naked lack of anyone following him. He'd been prepared to take a long, winding way with lots of hiding. The ninja shouldn't have needed much longer than him to recover, and Fai had figured it more likely that Kuro-tan would interpret 'gone' as 'off the island', not 'out of the room'.

     But he could tell when he was being followed. There was no trace of his would-be pursuer's very distinctive presence. Before he slipped behind a row of trees into a hidden bay, Fai scanned every inch of the scenery for a stealth studmuffin. He may have seen every trick in the book, but he wouldn't put it past Kurogane to write new chapters. For the moment, at least, it looked like the man himself wasn't following him onto the Dragon of Earth.

     Fai stopped at the edge of the tide. Not two seconds later, the seas slid away from a metal behemoth rising to meet him. The shell surrounding the ship gave way like a gaping maw. As the masts rose, jagged steel teeth run by gears and venting steam exposed the navigator's deck, and the navigator upon it. Seishirou leaned over the ship's rail, the feather in the hat Hokuto had made for him once upon a time still bobbing on the bastard's head. Fai smiled his utmost lie of pleasantry. The Barrows-guard answered in kind.

     A simple word of appreciation for Seishirou's help finding Kamui stuck in Fai's throat. Words, spoken or unspoken, were at the heart of every kind of magic, and this man knew that as well as he did. Fai wouldn't let himself say anything that might put him in the hunter's debt.

     Still smiling, the one-eyed man turned away without a word. Just as well.

     The bow hatch yawned wide below, opening for Fai to enter as a gangway lowered to his feet -- the very image of a dark passage into oblivion. It was no wonder most of the crew of the Dragon of Heaven chose never to enter when both ships were in port. Looking at the ship from without, no one could forget her crew's ominous reputation. Inside, however, lamps lit the narrow corridors with light as cozy as on any ship, and the smell of frying mackerel wafted out of the mess. Contrary to popular reputation, the Dragon of Earth's crew were largely human -- with debatable exceptions, but Fai considered himself no one to throw stones.

     He flinched when he saw the First Mate at the stove. If he could have, he would have passed before Fuuma noticed him, but there was no way. Mirrors never hesitated to reflect.

     The man's head turned, and Fai could feel the change that'd come over the young prince's being. When their eyes met, it was Ashura's smile Fai saw, regal and full of secrets. The way he used to smile before he enacted his plan to drown the world in blood. Fai couldn't move an inch, not even to spare both himself and this poor boy the bitter memories.

     If it weren't for him, Fuuma would never have to become Lord Ashura's living ghost.

     "Fai. I'm glad you could come. It's always a pleasure to see you."

     Was it really. Even if Ashura had been here to say it himself, Fai couldn't believe it was true. Less so in the mouth of a man who lived in the shadow of everyone else's wishes.

     "Fuuma. We'll set sail immediately. It won't be long before we have Kamui back."

     Somewhere under the mask of the Heavens' Demon King, the person Fuuma was meant to be could hear him, Fai hoped, and might appreciate the assurance.

     The person Fuuma was right now clucked his tongue, leaving his mackerel to burn on the stove as he strode over to run his fingers through Fai's hair. Kakyou had been right. If Fai weren't at his best, something like that would bring him to his knees. At least he had the bitter comfort that everyone was wrong to claim he'd lost his heart to Kurogane. As long as he saw Ashura's face when he looked at the prince of Kaizuka, the world was safe. His heart still had the monster locked inside.

     "That's better," the man said, arranging Fai's bangs around his face. "Your hair practically manages itself. How do you make it look such a wreck when you go out indulging?"

     Fai didn't answer. He waited for the guilt to take him, still strong despite the two thousand years since he'd first betrayed his love, and for the memory of Ashura to make whatever man he'd bedded seem inferior by comparison. Once the feeling came, it would pass, and he'd feel like he'd sold himself cheap, but he'd be able to walk away.

     The guilt didn't come this time, either, any more than it had claimed him when Kurogane had called his actions a choice. Maybe exhaustion had left him too far gone to care. Without the pain, he wasn't sure what to feel next. He couldn't feel cheap. He didn't even feel sold. The air in the room was like a memory of when he could look at Ashura with his pride intact. He could almost taste the contentment he used to feel. In its own way, this was worse. He'd forgotten he could feel so light, and there was no way it would last.

     Prolonging this would do no one any good. Fai locked his gaze on the First Mate's eyes and willed himself to remember that he was talking to Fuuma.

     "You'll have to excuse me. I'm quite tired."

     He strode down the hallway without looking back. He could never look back. All he wanted was to sleep away his time here so he could wrangle Kamui on the way back. Unfortunately, he didn't make it far before the vessel's captain stepped out of a crosspath to intercept him. Lord Kigai Yuuto's businesslike smile seemed even less reassuring than usual.

     "Perfect timing, Your Grace. Satsuki-chan just finished refreshing our air supply."

     "Get underway, and run top speed when you hit the deeps. Kurogane is on the island."

     "I heard he'd been snooping again."

     "I don't know yet how he followed us this far, but nothing is fast enough to follow the Dragon of Earth. I'll be in my cabin. Wake me if there's an emergency before we reach Kamui."

     "Sweet dreams," Yuuto answered with that saccharine pleasantry that always made Fai want to lock his door and sleep with a knife. He knew it was the captain's attempt at friendliness, but Fai had lived with lies long enough to hear the emptiness inside it.

     At least no one else appeared to extend their greetings before he reached his door. There'd be time enough to be social after he'd had some rest.

~//~

     He'd have to give Fai this round. 'A hell of a lay' was an understatement. The Dragon of Earth was leaving, no doubt, and Kurogane was only just able to think of moving. But reconnaissance for this trip wasn't a total loss.

     He studied the projection his tracker made on surface of the bath: the Pirate King walking around his underwater ship. The hazy image of the Dragon of Earth rising from the deeps had answered his questions about how the ship escaped detection. Now that he knew what to look for, he could find it on his own -- no need to rely on a lucky break like a Pirate King who should've known better than to take trophies.

     The homing technique he'd worked on the coat was one he'd learned in Daidouji service -- just a basic trick for finding your things in case you had to drop them during the mission, never meant for surveillance. Then Princess Tomoyo had told him, if his mother's Dreamseer blood really had woken, he might be able to use that link to scry. He hadn't figured it to work. When it did, all he'd expected was a trap, not to find his coat on Fai's back. If luck came in threes, it'd stay there as long as the blond thought Kurogane wanted to take it away. Though honestly, it looked good on the pirate, and he didn't need it for anything else. He might let Fai keep it.

     He wouldn't call this trick equal to a real look around the ship anyway, at least not yet. No way to know if he'd ever have the skill to make it worthwhile. Right now, he couldn't get a clear picture more than a few feet out from the blond.

     Absent any detail on the Dragon of Earth, he studied Fai's face. His smile had turned thin when he'd talked to the man in the purple coat -- the one Death Shirou had called Fuuma when Kurogane last ran into this ship, the name he'd heard in the conversation His Majesty'd had on the balcony. Something hadn't been right with that kid. Kurogane could've sworn he saw the shadow of another face hovering over his features. Nothing he could make out.

     And he couldn't remember the kid's proper face when Fai walked off. The feeling wasn't natural -- he didn't forget things like that.

     Shivering despite the steaming water, Kurogane watched the King brush off a taller blond whose face he had no trouble remembering, then head to a stark room with a single berth. Hell of a luxury, getting a room to himself on two different ships, but perks would come with the title, and he seemed to like taking his callers behind closed doors.

     Although, this bed looked as small as the one on the Dragon of Heaven. Kurogane knew for a fact that two bodies couldn't have lain the night easily there. If he'd been arranging things for his pleasure, he could've had four more inches that'd've made all the difference. But with the way the blond shied away from tenderness, it made sense he'd sleep alone.

     Funny. The last two weeks, he couldn't picture the man without a bedwarmer. Looking at him now, Kurogane couldn't imagine him giving a lover the privilege.

     The painted-on smile broke to neutral once no one was watching. The boots came off. The coat didn't. Fai trailed his fingers down the placket like he meant to toss it aside, but pulled it to his neck again, holding it tight to his skin. Like feeling a knife slip under his ribs, Kurogane knew he was gone. He had too many opinions on how the blond smiled to pretend this wasn't turning personal. This smile was something Kurogane figured he'd never see when Fai knew someone was watching. It was too subtle, nothing but a lift of his cheek pulling his lip out of tired nothingness to something lighter. It couldn't even stand up to Fai looking in the mirror.

     As the pirate combed his fingers into his hair, riling it into disorder, a sadness fell on him that Kurogane could believe was the weight of two thousand years. He would've missed seeing it if he'd blinked. Fai tumbled into the bed the same instant, burying his face in the sheets.

     Pushing the water in a wave across the bath, Kurogane broke the scrying link. The man wanted privacy. So did a lot of people ninja spied on, but this one, this time, was going to get it. Besides, Kurogane knew he needed some rest of his own while he could get it -- and a chance to decide how much his feelings were compromising his judgement. The pirate may have warned him off, but a bad idea didn't get any better by acting like it didn't exist.

Chapter Text

  • Blend 1-1/2 oz. light rum with 2 oz. cream of coconut, 2 oz. pineapple juice, and 1 cup ice.
  • Garnish with pineapple and a maraschino cherry.
  • Or better yet, have someone else do it and bring you the glass.
  • Tip well.

     Kamui stared down a crowd of seals, who were either listening or trying to decide if he was food. Dawn had happened at least three hours ago, by his calculations, though he couldn't see the sun. Rain pounded on his hat, dripping off in puddles at his feet. At this point, he didn't care. The overcoat he'd declared "spoils" of his ninja encounter was warm, and he had the coal stove and the pile of rations Hikaru had "forgotten to take" stored in a hollow in the side of his stone tower. They'd be safe from the weather until he needed them, and if there was another wave he could always raise the ground.

     "Now this is important, so don't mess it up. Next time that ship disappears," he said, pointing at the Clover Belle that'd returned to the horizon, "I want you to swim for Chizeta as fast as you can. Do you know where Chizeta is?"

     One member of his audience rolled on his back. The others did nothing.

     "Bark once if you understand, and twice if you don't."

     "Ark! Ark! Ark!" the dark one on his left called out.

     "You're useless," Kamui answered. "How does Yuzuriha get Puppy to understand?!"

     "Ark! Ark! Ark!"

     "That was rhetorical!"

     He saw something move out of the corner of his eye. It came from the dry nook where he'd left his things, where there shouldn't have been anything to move, but those goddamned feathers had started again. That had to mean something.

     "Everybody stay here. I'll be right back," he told the seals.

     Kamui got two steps, then ran when he saw what'd happened. Letters in dark brown ink had appeared on the top page of his notepad -- which hadn't gotten any thinner despite how many notes he'd sent off. Better than anything he could have expected, Fuuma's handwriting was writing itself across the page.

     What the hell is this, Kamui? Your note appeared out of nowhere. Fai poked his head in to say I should write back to you, then he disappeared again. Are you getting this?

     He couldn't grab the pen fast enough. If the magic paper was going to transmit their words, he wasn't going to argue. "Fuuma!" he wrote. "Thank God. I was trying to get the seals here to find you. I'll explain the paper later. It's complicated."

     Holding his breath, he waited for the paper to fold itself into another dragon and fly off, but instead more words appeared below.

     I'd leave the seals alone. We're five minutes out from Candelaria.

     "Is that where I am?" Kamui scratched onto the paper.

     That's where you'll be for the next five minutes.

     Penning down, "Have I ever told you that I love you?" Kamui tried not to think about Hikaru's advice. He didn't know if either Fuuma or Kotori would think of him as anything but a brother, but he was damn sure they only thought of each other as siblings. That was fine by him.

     It's come up once or twice. Is there a reason you haven't been sleeping? Kotori said you weren't dreaming, so she couldn't talk to you.

     Kamui turned to the horizon. The Clover Belle had come back as soon as Hikaru, Eagle, and the rest had gone. It never approached the island. It just stayed out in the deeps, down two members of its crew and fighting the demon's shadow. Watching it for so long, Kamui had started to think the ship was keeping the demon back from the island.

     Protecting him, somehow. Protecting them, if you included the ninja. Protecting here.

     But this was a fight they'd been living for six generations, one they'd played out off countless shores, and a-sail in the wide ocean with no land to be seen. He was going stir-crazy, that was all. Exhaustion playing tricks, and the ninja's senseless optimism rubbing off. Even so, his sense of impending doom was in a war with his moonstruck notion that the Clover Belle might clear the waters to let Fuuma's ship sail in. That was the hope, but he couldn't count on it.

     He spun the pen in his fingers and put it back to paper.

     "About that. I don't want to speak of the devil, but look out for other ships. Don't approach if you see one. I'll keep."

     I'll let the Captain know. Pack up. Stay safe till we get there.

     "Will do."

     No sooner had he written it but the paper turned to dust. Counting the seconds -- five times sixty was three hundred -- he packed what food remained into the knapsack it'd come in and laid his magic writing tablet on top. The ninja's coal stove he left for whatever soul might find themselves stranded here next, whether by Clow Reed's games or more mundane means.

     At about 136, he stopped counting. The same as they'd done minutes before Eagle had shown up, the crew of the Clover Belle made a cage of metal and glass around the demon, and a high wind blew them over the horizon, as if they were pulling the shadow instead of fighting eternally to get it off their backs. Once he could believe was lucky timing, but twice?

     If he ever convinced Nataku to talk to him, Kamui had some questions needing answers. The warmaster on the Dragon of Earth preferred solitude, and tended to reply to any conversation with silence, so it wouldn't be easy. Normally, Kamui wouldn't intrude, but the admiral of Lifan had to know more about the Clover Belle than anyone else did.

     For now, he watched the seas, and he held his breath. Soon a metal leviathan rose -- the Dragon of Earth, which he'd always thought was a stupid name for a boat, but he wasn't complaining right now -- breaching the surface of the waves. The top dome didn't even open. They must have been in a hurry. Good enough -- so was he. Every second seemed like an eternity, but the gangway lowered to the beach.

     Fuuma was standing at the other end. Kamui ran full-tilt, straight into his friend's chest, and buried his face in a purple brocade-covered shoulder. The whole past day and a half felt like a half-forgotten nightmare as soon as he felt Fuuma's arms around his back, or it would have if the combined fatigue of over thirty hours on a frozen rock, watching the Clover Belle haunt the horizon, hadn't hit him all at once. He felt like he could sleep for a week.

     "Fuuma..."

     Kamui didn't realize how choked his throat was until his voice cracked on its way out. He pulled back, and tried to ignore how weak his knees felt now that tiredness was taking him. His friend's dark eyes laughed under the mess of hair that even the rain couldn't beat down. As Kamui scowled, Fuuma's face melted into a grin.

     "Did you think I wasn't coming for you?"

     "What took you so long?!"

     "A little trouble keeping a ninja off our backs, so I'm told. His Grace took care of it."

     Kamui couldn't help scoffing -- as if Fai took care of anything but fooling around and sending other people off to risk their necks. Although the man had a way of showing up in the middle of solutions to problems no one saw coming, now that Kamui thought about it. Like this tale about a ninja who could chase down the Dragon of Earth. The image in Clow Reed's cavern haunted Kamui, too. Six people sealing away a demon -- Clow Reed himself, the Dimension Witch, the damned Barrows-Guard, the green-eyed man who'd loved the Barrows-guard and lost his sister, the Dreamseer who reminded Kamui that he had no idea where Kakyou came from, and the Snow Fox who legends said captained the first pirate ship.

     If that turned out to be Fai (and Kamui wasn't ready to believe it yet), he'd need a way to go back two days and smack himself for being an idiot. No wonder Fai had laughed at him claiming people would notice immortal warriors out of legend. They were right under his nose.

     "Now what's this about a ship we should avoid?" Fuuma asked, calling Kamui out of his thoughts. All of his friend's smiles had turned serious. "It wasn't--"

     Kamui ran his finger across his throat, miming the chopped off head of the fairy on the Clover Belle's bow. "The gray lady was sailing." No pirate would tempt fate by saying that ship's name on board a vessel of the living. On a more friendly shore, he'd ask his questions.

     Fuuma's grip on his shoulder tightened. "If you need to sleep, take my bunk. No one'll bother you there. I'll get to the bridge and tell Lord Kigai we need to leave."

     "Thanks." A bed sounded like heaven.

     He stood as if frozen, hand in a tight fist around his knapsack straps while Fuuma walked away. The hatch to the outside closed behind him. He was safe. The Autozam-built metal halls around him weren't as much like home as the wooden beams of the Dragon of Heaven, but it was plenty. Visions of Fuuma's bunk dancing in his head, he plodded toward the fifth door on the right. When he saw Fai sitting in the mess, though, he decided sleep could wait two minutes.

     "Your Grace. I got what you sent me for," he said, pulling the writing desk out.

     Fai put down the ledger he was holding and studied the wood and paper. Kamui wanted to see what happened when the Pirate King touched it, but Fai smiled and kept his hands away.

     "Finders keepers, Kamui. Take it. You and Fuuma can play pen pals on lonely nights."

     His finely tuned bullshit alarms said Fai knew how the orb behaved when it changed hands, better than people knew from hearing stories. Maybe the trickster Snow Fox didn't want his mask ripped off, or maybe someone pretending to be him didn't want to get outed as a fraud. Either way, Fai looked like he'd never wanted this thing for himself at all -- only to put it in Kamui's hands. Kamui didn't know how he felt about that.

     Maybe that he'd give anything for Clow's mural of the end of the world not to be his future.

     Kamui set his jaw and slipped the writing desk back into his bag.

     "I heard there was trouble?" he asked. "Is everything all right in Chizeta?"

     The blond smiled, then went back to copying sums from an abacus to his ledger. "No casualties, and a little bird told me Sorata has negotiations in hand. All's right with the world!"

     "But Fuuma said..." Kamui narrowed his eyes at the faded, threadbare coat Fai had on, suspicions growing about what ninja could've put the Dragon of Earth on alert. "Why are you wearing Kurogane's jacket?"

     "Because it's mine," His Grace sang back.

     Marching toward the table, Kamui saw that the ledger was, indeed, the one for tracking everybody's carnal conquests, and that their very own Pirate King had 113,700 totted up on the abacus, like the blond bastard was doing projections for what he needed to win the year (Eagle's nine and a half million notwithstanding, since he wasn't turning them in even if he would bury the competition). If he was figuring how many 12,000-point dates he needed with Kurogane to...

     Oh no. No, no, no.

     Someone was going to pay for this. Right next to the ledger line, there was a fucking sticker portrait of Fai snuggling up to fucking Kurogane's shoulder, verifying everything he'd assumed about who the foppish fuck had been 'taking care of'.

     "This was your ninja emergency?! You were having sex with Kurogane?!"

     "He wanted to breach the ship's defenses! Luckily, he settled for breaching mine."

     "What the fuck goes through your head?!" Kamui yelled, then thought better of the question when Fai grinned. "Don't answer that."

     "Would you be happy if I said I tried drugging him and resorting to violence before calling on my sexual wiles? He's just better than me at violence," the blond said with a sunny giggle.

     "Oh my God. Stop talking."

     Even he knew that holding Kurogane back in some way that didn't embarrass Chizeta might have been the difference between war and peace. That didn't mean he wanted to hear about the Pirate King's methods. He already knew more than he wanted from the scores written in the ledger, like that Fai had found time to screw the jackass not once but twice.

     And... 113,700 wasn't his projection till the end of the year. That was one score.

     Even with Kurogane rating 100 and His Grace having fucked him enough times to get a 3x combi modifier, that just couldn't happen!

     "How the hell is your event multiplier almost four hundred?"

     The King's pout looked as fake as his smiles. "You can't think I left you sitting here without working every second to come get you safely! Subduing a hero of legend isn't easy."

     "You were... since I left? But..." Kamui did a rough estimate of how long he'd been gone, minus time for the Dragon of Earth to travel. "That's more than twenty-four hours."

     The blond looked far, far too pleased with himself.

     "You can't have sex for a whole goddamn day!"

     "Maybe you can't."

     "You are un-fucking-believable."

     "That's so sweet of you!"

     "That wasn't a compliment!" Kamui snarled.

     But he was too tired to stay angry long. He felt the ship moving through water, and the creak of the metal as they sank deeper under the waves felt like it went all the way to his bones. Was the FTO still out at sea, he wondered? With Eagle driving, Hikaru and her friends were probably safe, but...

     He turned back to Fai, the two tracks of brain colliding. "Is ninja sex really that good?"

     "Are you considering having sex with a ninja?"

     "No." As Fai waited with his eyebrow cocked for him to speak, Kamui dropped into a chair and tried to rub the frustration out of his eyes. It wasn't working. "It's just... Captain Doumeki is dating one, you're suddenly as happy as Karen and Aoki..." For once, Kamui saw a serious expression on the blond. It was enough to make him think he could finish without being laughed out of the fleet. "And I saw Eagle. He came to pick up Hikaru. Turns out, he's been missing from Autozam for four years because he's living with two of Yuuko's people."

     "Remind me to send him a postcard."

     "So ninja sex is worth turning your back on your whole life?! On your crew?!"

     Fai's tight-lipped smile looked like that was a harder question than it should have been, but His Grace answered, "If it were, I wouldn't be here, would I? And if I know Eagle, what he left for wasn't the sex."

     "Well, he's having a lot of it."

     A deep chuckle from the doorway raised chills in Kamui's neck. He hadn't heard footsteps, or sensed anyone approaching even though boots on hollow metal floors betrayed every move. That man had shown up as silently as a ghost -- or maybe a demon -- and although he didn't want to, Kamui knew that voice too well to think it was anyone else. Feeling his blood boil, he watched the Barrows-guard walk in and throw his coat over a chair.

     "Fai means that Eagle fell in love," Sakurazuka said. The black-haired bastard's smile looked genuine, not like Fai's, but that only highlighted the cold edge shining from both the amber wink of his good eye and the white marble of a glass eye in his empty right socket.

     The desire to shout, 'I could tell that, you enormous asshole!' shook through Kamui's body, but he bit his tongue. This wasn't the place to pick a fight. He didn't leave that island just to destroy this ship, and everybody on it, giving the Barrows-guard the death he deserved.

     Instead, he counted down from ten while Sakurazuka in his shirtsleeves and gold-embroidered waistcoat measured coffee grounds into a french press. Because apparently, even demons like coffee, and this one took his with a splash of condensed milk.

     Fai didn't say anything either.

     As if he couldn't hear the furious silence, Sakurazuka sighed over the aroma of hot water mixing with the coffee grounds and said, "Certainly Fai remembers how love can change people. I've seen it alter a man's dreams, his priorities... even the fabric of his soul, once. That was an extreme situation, of course."

     A man.

     He meant Subaru, Kamui was sure. He just knew it. That bastard was standing there, brewing coffee, chatting about how he'd hollowed out Subaru's heart like it was some experiment he'd done on a whim just to see what'd happen. His voice was light, as if it didn't matter any more than mowing a blade of grass.

     Kamui heard the metal walls twist before he felt his fingernails cutting into his palms. In the same instant, he felt Fai's hand on his wrist.

     "Kamui..." the blond cautioned.

     The Barrows-guard poured his coffee over the milk in his china cup, an annoyingly musical laugh ringing out of his throat as he met Kamui's glare direct.

     He wasn't going to give that man the satisfaction. Kamui took slow, deep breaths, ignored the warped ridges of the metal walls and floor around his chair, and turned to look at Fai, who was still holding him by the wrist. But all the things he'd seen today flashed behind his eyes while the Barrows-guard's words whirled in his ears.

     What was that line Clow had carved next to his portrait of eight lovers?

     'Taking that which is eternal conveys into your heart the burden of eternity'?

     And his last reason for thinking Subaru hadn't been one of the Heavenly Twins, that the Twins made feathers appear like he did while Subaru caused showers of sakura to fall. Like the Barrows-guard. He never would have called that the 'fabric of his soul', but after the sheets of flame he'd seen follow Hikaru, Kamui couldn't be sure there was no parallel.

     He didn't have words for what he was thinking until he saw the questions in Fai's eyes. Then he hissed in a three-inch voice, "Subaru didn't always make sakura petals, did he?"

     The blond face-faulted. Not much. Just a twitch, but it was enough.

     It was all true.

     Kamui tore his arm away and stormed toward the door.

     "I'll be in Fuuma's room. I don't want to see anybody's face till we get to Chizeta."

     He was alone in the hallway, but it felt full to bursting with sights and sounds and feelings he didn't have the wherewithal to name. His feet froze as a soft, chuckling voice murmured, "Was it something I said?"

     "I wish I thought it were possible for you to be less of a dick," Kamui heard Fai whisper.

     He'd heard a whisper. Clear as a bell, from most of the way down the hall. Kamui tried to convince himself that Fai had been speaking loud enough to carry, but the sounds of pen on paper were audible now. This wasn't possible. He wasn't imagining it -- he was hearing it.

     First Hikaru had told him he was seeing like a ninja, and now he was hearing like one. For a second he wondered if deciding not to hate that particular ninja was changing him from the inside out, but that couldn't be right. Not hating someone wasn't the same as caring for them so much it dyed your soul.

     Besides, he'd worked out the sight trick before, on his own.

     Maybe the world would make sense again when he woke up.

~//~

     An hour from Chizeta, Fai ordered the Dragon of Earth to surface and raise sail. He told Yuuto it was to make them look like an ordinary vessel, to keep the secret of Autozam's submersible ships, but honestly he'd wanted to look at the stars. Their empty infinity whispered that, no matter what, the universe would go on tomorrow as it had always done. Fai had seen nations crumble, friends die, and generations remake the world, but the stars were constant. The unforgiving creatures bleeding into the human realm as distant light never let him forget that -- like them -- he could watch the world but never move with it.

     It shouldn't have surprised him that Kamui would realize someday. As rosy dawn burned the stars to ash, he still wished they could live their peaceful lie a little longer before the world crashed down.

     He'd ask what Yuzuriha and Saiki had seen before asking Kamui about the island. The boy deserved to rest and get his feet.

     Fai pulled his eyes down from the skies. This ship seemed so empty compared to the Dragon of Heaven. With Satsuki able to run the vessel by engine or sail from her network of gears, there was no need for deck hands. Right now, only Yuuto and Kusanagi were on watch, and Seishirou had returned to the wheel to bring them to shore. None of them spoke. Yuuto was amusing himself by using his talent as a watermaster to make the ship's wake dance in spirals. Kusanagi was checking the ropes for wear.

     The roll of the sea was as constant and comforting as the stars. Fai breathed in the scent of brine with the music of splashes and groaning beams. The ocean never failed to swell in his bones and make him feel alive. Although today, every pitch made him shiver. In the warm Chizetan air, it recalled the undulation of near-slumbering moments, lying on a lover's breathing chest, letting the world fade to oblivion. The wind brought shuddering back the memory of sighs on his skin, his Kuro-puu's face buried in his hair.

     He couldn't even pretend he was remembering Ashura. Stars didn't sleep. The Demon King had always left him to curl into the warmth of their sheets alone, saying he didn't want to disturb Fai's rest. They'd never had memories like this.

     Blinking away tears before they could form, Fai pulled his jacket up against the wind and remembered too late whose jacket it was. Quivers ran down his spine from the remembrance of the ninja's hands on his skin. But he couldn't have gone too far, not yet. Nothing felt wrong. There was nothing wrong with enjoying a little afterglow. Maybe, just to be safe, he'd be extra careful next time not to get cozy, and he'd drop the jacket when he left.

     Maybe. He'd decide when the time came, because he wasn't going to think about it.

     "Your Grace?"

     Fai turned to Yuuto, who let out a practiced laugh.

     "I'm sorry, Your Grace. I didn't see you come up."

     With an equally practiced smile, Fai said, "I was being as one with the ship."

     "That sounds like a delightful way to spend the morning."

     They were spared any further chit-chat. Just then, a squawking gull landed on Kusanagi's shoulder. He listened to what it had to say, but they all knew what it meant before their sea-master strode over to ring the ship's bell and call to everyone below.

     "Land ahoy!"

     "Raise colors," Fai told Yuuto, "And a courtesy flag, so Chizeta knows we mean peace."

     He swung into the rigging, climbing to the top of the foremast to check the shore. With the Barrows-guard at the wheel, they'd be sailing straight for their comrades. The hunter was nothing if not precise. Focusing in on the shore, Fai heard them: slow drums and flutes, the strains of Subaru's violin, and a chorus of drunk voices singing an old fo'c'sle ballad.

     "No more can I walk on alone. Too strong the winds o' time blew! I thought to bear all the wounds I have known, but this moment has wounded me true..."

     Fai followed his ears to a stretch of beach off the dock. The people who were still awake lounged around a bonfire, looking like they'd been dancing all night. Peace talks, he assumed, had either gone well or been forgotten. Chizetan locals and deckhands from the Dragon of Heaven were clasping each other about the shoulders, lifting mugs as they sang, "Let me in your embrace to bide. My flooded heart you may cure!" (or la-de-dahs if they didn't know the words). Goodness knew how much they'd drunk, to get as maudlin as this.

     It must have been quite a bit. Tarta and Tatra had joined in, dancing behind the flickering fire while everyone crooned, "I'll weather this ever-changing tide as long as your love is sure..."

     Sorata was less rowdy than the rest, probably because Arashi was sleeping gracefully by his cookstove (hands curled around the sword hilt tucked to her cheek by the coat she was using as a pillow, probably unaware that Sorata's shirt was draped like a blanket over her shoulders). Fai grinned, watching the Dragon of Heaven's captain manage a brace of sailors who were dicing up an octopus the size of a theater hall. He kept them in line so that not a bit of flesh nor drop of sauce flew in his coveted lady-love's direction, but even he found a few moments while he spun batter in his pan to add his voice to the choir.

     "Will you hold my heart?" he breathed, "And will you catch my tears? I'm sure of breaking all my heart, and I'm sure that moment nears."

     Everyone joined on the refrain, belting, "Forever love! Forever dream! This blown longing is all that I know!" so loudly, even Yuuto, who hadn't trained to hear sounds so far off, caught it. He laughed, singing along as he spun a sphere of water like a top on his finger.

     "Fierce as the gale, like a knife-edge is keen, and so all my hours do go..."

     It was funny how they sang sad songs so happily. There were a hundred and one ballads of broken hearts and dead lovers Fai had heard on decks filled with laughing, drunken sailors, but the sight filled him with an odd warmth every time. Some of them sang like children at ring-a-rosy, but not all of them. Not Karen, singing, "Will you stay with me until the wind blows by?" like a lullaby as Aoki rested his head on her knees. Not either of them, with the tempered smiles of pain that healed, telling each other and no one else, "I feel the weight of all my tears again upon my eyes."

     Fai had to look away. It hurt his heart just to see them. Instead he watched Yuzuriha cavorting with her pet seal and what looked like a tiny animal flitting around her head. It was Kerberos, he was sure of it -- the familiar Clow had fashioned from a bit of the Sun. So this was where he'd been hiding. That'd explain the strange fire that sent Kamui to the far side of the world. Poor Kero! He had to be exhausted if he was in his small form instead of full size.

     He wasn't acting tired, of course. The handful of golden fluff and wings zipped through the air like he hadn't seen sky in lifetimes. Perhaps he hadn't, if Clow had kept him in that volcano, guarding the way to the orb. It begged the question of where Yue had been when the other orb was found, but that wasn't an answer Fai planned to seek in a crowd.

     Subaru was the first to notice the Dragon of Earth. He must have felt them coming miles off, though -- he'd traded his usual kid gloves for black ones with no fingers so he could play his violin without showing the scars on his hands. The star-shaped marks Seishirou used to track him would be flushed crimson by now. That was one story Subaru took pains never to share.

     The navigator met Seishirou's gaze with his mouth in a hard line and his eyes flickering to broken edges. The Barrows-guard's smirk never changed. With the steel of centuries' practice, Subaru turned himself away. Notes shuddered from his violin with a bitter sadness that reached into Fai's chest and squeezed. The other musicians sitting rapt around him felt it, too. The tears Subaru wouldn't cry rolled down some of their cheeks as they stared at him playing. Even if they'd never realize with conscious mind, those who loved music always seemed to know in their deepest souls what Subaru was. They'd probably tell their grandchildren about the man who played a violin strung with moonlight that sang with the voices of the stars.

     The strings were ordinary catgut, actually, but Fai never begrudged musicians their exaggerations when, practically speaking, they were sitting in front of their god.

     "How I wish this all could end," all the pirates sang, their voices lifted by the strains of the violin. "Though tonight's a sea with no shores!" Whether subconscious or deliberate, Fai could sense Subaru's peculiar talent resonating the sound so those on the Dragon of Earth could hear as if they were on the beach already, echoing keen and clear, "There's naught I've lost I care to mend, save the scrap of life that's yours."

     That brought the crew up from below decks faster than any bell. Satsuki was the first, appearing through a trapdoor along the port side. She shrugged off Yuuto's attempt to serenade her, but let him wipe the machine oil off her nose.

     "Forever love! Forever dream! I'd have you here at my side, a heart a-quake at daybreak's gleam in your embrace to hide..."

     Fuuma led Kamui by the shoulder (who was still wiping the sleep from his eyes). From so high up, Fai felt safe watching them cross the deck. He couldn't see the smile on Fuuma's face that'd belong to Kamui and no one else, but he knew it was there. It teased in his voice when he leaned to Kamui's ear to sing, "Will you stay with me until the wind blows by?"

     Dropping his head against his friend's cheek, Kamui picked up the harmony.

     "There's none upon the land or sea I need more by my side."

     The whole world was far away, as if the moment had closed around everyone and left Fai standing alone. He knew it wasn't true, but he felt like, if he reached out, his hands would pass through sail and sailor alike, as unnoticed as a ghost. Even Kakyou as he hid in the shadow of fo'c'sle seemed more part of the scene, gazing at the portrait of Hokuto he kept in a locket on his fob chain. The only odd one out was Nataku. The Dragon of Earth's warmaster was alone at starboard, looking over the dark water as if to be sure the Clover Belle hadn't followed them. Who could blame one who'd lost a childhood over that ship?

     "Forever love! Forever dream! And I shall walk no more..."

     The chorus thinned as people on the beach stopped to yell, "Ahoy!" and Sorata to add, "I got takoyaki for all as want it! Get it while it's fresh!"

     As the sailors on shore waved at Kamui, or Kusanagi, or the other, various less terrifying crew of the Dragon of Earth, the strains of, "Tell me why, oh tell me true! What am I living for?" still echoed -- softer -- like the sea and the shore were singing it for them. High above their greetings, hidden in the ship's wind-filled shrouds, Fai thought for one bright moment like he could fade completely. He could disappear, and take everything with him before it began.

     Even though he knew the world didn't work that way.

     "Forever love! Forever dream ..."

     Then he saw a shadow, silhouetted by the rising sun. In a tree at the edge of the beach, a man crouched on a high branch, watching him. Fai's heart hit like a storm wave. It knocked the breath out of his chest, leaving him feeling as if his lungs had punched his throat. Then Kurogane stood, hand to sword, and flicker-stepped somewhere far away. The ninja might as well have been waiting to see the shock on his face, or to say goodbye.

     Fai held the rigging, and he knew he wouldn't fall despite how the moment and the music tried to weaken his grip. He knew he wouldn't fall.

     "...Till in my breaking tears, a passing season's shining beam lights on eternal years."