Nearly six months in Yama and they had made enough progress in learning each other's language that they began to search a little farther afield for words and phrases to exchange and practice with. They knew what they needed to in order to talk over the day's events, and began to talk of things that they had no real need to discuss. In addition to the summer heat, they gave each other the words for autumn and winter, changing leaf color, types of grain and vegetables only harvested as the year declined, methods for heating a home, and children's games that required freezing temperatures. Kurogane taught Fai all about tapping trees for their sap and how to render the clear, thin fluid down for syrup and sugar, and Fai taught Kurogane thirty-eight new words for "snow", and sixteen words for "ice". They discovered that both countries had short hooded capes made of leather that only went down to one's shoulder blades, but Nihon's were oiled and neatly doubled and stitched while Celes's were fur-lined and the edges turned and trimmed with more fur.

Describing different types of alcohol led into the trading of descriptions of various baked sweets and detailed methods of preparing seafood, which then turned into a competition of sorts. They went hard at it for four days running, keeping running lists of recipes to avoid repetition. It became half a contest to see whose country had the most numerous ways of feeding its citizens and half a competition to make the other person forfeit due to overwhelming nausea.

Kurogane was assaulted with lavish descriptions of desserts that oozed chocolate and honey until he felt as ill as if he'd been forced to actually consume them, but he got his revenge on the fourth day when Fai turned a sickly sort of pale over the ninja's descriptions of how to pack little silver-blue river fish in salty bean paste and let them ferment in clay jars buried underground, only digging them up again when one was certain the flesh was ripe enough to slough right off the bones. It had never been a favorite dish of Kurogane's but he thought with amusement that whenever he chanced to eat it again he'd find new enjoyment in it thanks to the memory of Fai's face all twisted up in horror and disgust.

And it was startling and strange, downright unsettling even - and that fact in and of itself was startling - to think of someday being at home again, eating familiar food but with Fai and the others cut out of his life. He still wanted to go home and it made no sense that any of his companions would join him there permanently, and yet he still wondered with a frown what it would be like to part again from these people - this fey, fair-haired stalk of secrecy wrapped in fluff and smiles especially - and never see them again, never even know what happened to them or how they would live on and in what manner they would eventually die.

What would it be like to have to wonder sometimes and not be able to simply write and ask how the brats were going on? He and the mage naturally thought of their absent companions often, but Kurogane's ponderings had evolved from simply wondering where in all hells they were to mild worries that they were in trouble and he unable to assist. The ninja found that he'd become more attached than he'd realized to his earnest young student and the desert princess they were all protecting as the days went by, and it was many days since he'd last rationalized his desire to meet up with them again as simply a means to the end of someday making it home.

Whether it was because his shift in attitude had been apparent or what it was, Fai had taken a full week once to spin and painstakingly communicate an elaborate theory that the two teenagers were trapped in a world where time flowed faster than in Yama, had lived through many fantastic adventures and were now celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary with the help of Mokona and their ten children who were mostly strapping young boys named Kuro-something.

It had been a ridiculous tale and most of Kurogane's response had been in snorts and rolled eyes, but he'd enjoyed it all the same. It was like being at home again in a strange way, sitting with the other ninja and listening to an old soldier telling an even older tale, a feeling of easy camaraderie steeping into one's body without even needing to take any trouble in actually interacting. Sometimes during the telling of Fai's ridiculous story Kurogane hadn't even bothered himself with paying attention; he'd just let the mage's clumsy but still melodic words flow over and past him while he'd sat back and taken more than his fair share of the evening's liquor.

Kurogane suddenly found himself getting muddled up in his desires. What had once been so simple - the wish to go home and resume his life and quest for vengeance - was now cut through with little dissatisfactions. He didn't want to perpetuate this strangely plush army life in Yama by any means, nor did he wish to spend the rest of his life traveling from world to world with this motley unit, and yet the thought of resuming his old life just as it had been when he'd been sent away from it was not as satisfying as it had once been. It was a strange sort of disappointment, like trying on a comfortable old coat and finding that he'd outgrown it or downing a draught of a long-time favorite wine and finding that it no longer suited his palate.

"Why are you..." Fai began, cutting into his musings, and then frowned himself as he searched for the proper word. "...forehead angry. Flan?"

"Frown. Frowning," Kurogane corrected, then switched to Celesian to reply as was their habit. He passed his inattention off as nothing, unwilling to admit he was growing attached enough to feel that someday he would miss the man, and then indicated that it was Fai's turn to share a recipe.

"No, no more," the mage laughed, throwing up his hands in defeat while also pretending to gag. "One more and you will say you enjoy to eat fish dead with worms, fish dead what hungry fox will not eat, fish dead what cat will bury." Kurogane growled at this disgusting accusation, but accepted victory fairly graciously otherwise, grateful himself to get out of this battle of stomachs.

"Now what?" Fai asked, and then went on to answer his own question. "No more of food. We'll exchange more words for...people with people." The blond dragged out the box containing all their acorn figurines, which he was fiddling with constantly, carving or drawing on features and faces so that in addition to generic soldiers and citizens they also had tiny approximations of many specific people. One cracker only remained; a tiny white button-shaped thing that Fai had added a dot of berry juice to and dubbed "Mokona".

"Ashura-ou and Yasha-ou are enemy, Yasha-ou and we are ally, Inoue-taichoi is superior and Kusanagi-san is subordinate," Fai began, listing off some relationship words that they'd long ago established. He then separated the acorns that represented three brothers under Inoue's command with whom they were friendly from the other acorns and looked inquiringly at the ninja.

"Brothers," Kurogane told him, repeating the word until Fai had it right, and then learned himself the Celesian word for it.

"If woman?" A slender finger tapped one of the acorn-brothers.

"Sister. If born first, older sister and younger brother. If born last, younger sister and older brother. If two born together, twins. If three born together, triplets." It seemed that Celes did not have specific words denoting birth order, and used the same word for "brother" regardless of older or younger. Instead of addressing children born at the same time, Fai then went on to explain that there were honorifics given to the first-born if the family was noble.

The mage switched from acorns to paper then, sketching out little groups of people such as a man and woman with an infant, and then children of various ages. Husband and wife, father and mother. Infant, toddler, child, youth, and adult. Both languages shared all these plus "uncle", "aunt", "nephew" and "niece". When it came to the word for "cousin" Celes left Nihon far behind in complexity. Kurogane had to make notes on the different words for "cousin" depending on whether the family connection came from the paternal line or the maternal and the gender of the child.

After exhausting blood relationships they began exchanging other ties, and after a few false starts successfully traded the words for "stranger", "acquaintance", "friend", "best friend", "lover", "betrothed" and "married". It turned out that Celes had gradations for "lovers" which Kurogane eventually classed as "bedmates", "courting" and "lovers" in his own language. Fai amused himself by sorting all their acorns into corresponding clusters, making some very broad assumptions in many cases. His choices were understandable, but Kurogane knew many of them to be wrong simply because he'd overheard snippets of conversations or outright endearments and propositions and all manner of things he really wished he hadn't been privy to.

"These two," he said firmly, picking up a pair of acorns out of the cluster of bedmates, "are maternal cousins, and they are not that close." Too fond of jokes sometimes, especially salacious ones, and so well matched in timing and breath and winks for nods that it was no surprise that the mage had thought them lovers. He moved a few more acorns between various relation, friend and romantic categories. One trio in particular was moved from "best friend" to "lover" with a quick grin at the look of surprise on Fai's face.

"Three together?"

"Three together," Kurogane confirmed, wondering if such things weren't done in Celes. Fai gave an appreciative "hyuuu" and then laughed, however, seeming to take it in stride after just a moment or two. Another few adjustments were made, and then in a final visual sweep of the various groups, Kurogane finally noticed that Fai had placed their own acorns separately, in the "father" and "mother" groups. One particularly large acorn with the top cut into jagged spikes and dyed black with ink stood a little apart from an acorn that had a fluff of pale yellow yarn glued on top.

Kurogane snorted and picked the acorns up, giving Fai a speaking look. The mage had refused to teach him the Celes equivalent of various insults no matter how Kurogane persisted. Sometimes Fai had pretended to capitulate only to teach Kurogane something completely different, giving away at the end of their lesson the fact that he'd had the ninja reciting lines from cradle songs or romantic poems. If Kurogane wanted to growl at Fai, he had to do it in his native tongue.

"No?" Fai asked cheekily. "Husband and wife?"

"No," Kurogane snorted, and repeated himself a few more times as Fai bounced around the categories, selecting "best friends" and then "enemies" and even suggesting "god superior" and "priest subordinate". Fai handed the acorns off to him then with a dramatic pout.

"You do," Fai demanded, declaring with reproachful gaze and huffily crossed arms that he found his companion entirely too picky and not at all enough fun to be borne with.

Kurogane rolled his eyes and glanced over the remaining groups, continuing to dismiss this one and that in a matter-of-fact manner. An impulse took him then, a long time building and suddenly rising up all demanding, and he quickly tossed out all except for two categories.

"Friends. Or bedmates," he said in the end, noting the remaining options, and then dumped the two acorns in front of his companion who'd gone utterly quiet and still. Fai almost flinched as the little figurines clattered and spun on the table before him and then looked at the ninja, a bit more wide-eyed than usual but his face otherwise carefully neutral and graced with a faint, careful smile. But in that hastily cast up mask, Kurogane could now see little cracks. Fai was barely breathing.

"It's up to you," Kurogane said.

Author's Notes: If you'd asked Kurogane five and a half months ago if Fai could help alleviate the homesickness that Yama was creating in him, he would have given you a flat negative. And yet here he is, spending hours and hours relaxing with the mage, "familiar scents and sensations drawing the tension out of his shoulders while letting a well-known voice wash over him without needing to pay much attention to the words." Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Kuro-pun.

I ended it here and left it open-ended because 1) CLAMP and 2) I wrote the story as a gift for another person, and in their "likes" they had mentioned canon compliance. I felt like putting these two in bed together would change the private conversation that Fai has with Yuuko in Tokyo, because really, after being naked with someone it's hard to keep up the lie that you're keeping things professional and impersonal. I was afraid that I was pushing it even by letting Fai know that Kurogane desired him, but thankfully my giftee seemed to really enjoy the story. *phew*

In my head I like to think that Fai caves to his own increasing desires but makes Kurogane agree that it will only be in Yama that they'll be bedmates, and when they move on to the next world they'll revert to being friends. Kurogane doesn't agree to this at first, but later accepts the condition. He growls, "Guess I'll have to make it so good you'll be the one to break the agreement later" as they begin to drag each other's clothes askew, but he says it so quickly that Fai doesn't understand.