Title: Conspicuous Consumption
Author: Jordanna Morgan
Archive Rights: Please request the author's consent.
Rating/Warnings: PG for vampirism.
Characters: All five travelers, but the emphasis is on Kurogane and Fai.
Setting: Infinity Arc, soon after our heroes arrive.
Summary: Still haunted by the aftermath of Tokyo, the travelers share their first meal in Infinity.
Disclaimer: They belong to CLAMP. I'm just playing with them.
Notes: Written for Kisuru in the 2017 Chocolate Box Exchange. (With apologies for its slightly delayed uploading; I was set back repeatedly by a health issue.) Aside from being the usual study of vampire!Fai and Kurogane, this is also an attempt to explore the setting of Infinity, which was one of the suggested prompts. Since the travelers' entire first three months there are a blank slate in canon, I decided to portray the hours immediately after their arrival, when they must still have been adjusting to all of their new changes.
"We're back with food!" Syaoran called out as he and Fai entered the cheap hotel room the travelers had rented, each of them laden with a bag containing takeout boxes.
Kurogane rose from the sofa, where he had been polishing his sword. "About damn time. I'm starving." He waved a hand toward the bedroom door. "The Princess is resting, but she asked to be woken up when you got back."
The flash of hesitation that crossed Syaoran's face was not lost upon the warrior.
"I'll get her," Fai volunteered smoothly, smiling as he set down his bag. It was obvious that he had also noticed. "Kurogane, won't you make yourself useful and help Syaoran set the table?"
A disgruntled noise escaped Kurogane. For as long as he had been subjected to Fai's infuriating nicknames, it was still somehow unnerving for him to hear the mage finally call him by his proper name instead… perhaps because he understood just what it meant.
Ignoring the growl that (mercifully) only sounded like Kurogane's usual offendedness, Fai breezed out of the room. Kurogane shook his head and turned to Syaoran, who was suddenly, intensely focused on the task of laying out plastic knives and forks on the coffee table.
"I'm afraid we couldn't buy much," Syaoran deflected him quickly, with a casualness that rang all too false. "Not that we know much about the currency value in this world yet, but the prices seemed kind of steep around here. I think we were right about this being a popular tourist area. That always makes things more expensive. Anyway, we've got to save up as much of our money as we can, until we find a way to make more. Who knows how long we'll have to stay here while we look for the feather Mokona sensed."
Heaving a sigh, Kurogane allowed his attempt at a deeper discussion to drop. At least for now.
Only a few hours had passed since the travelers arrived in this world called Infinity. It was their first destination after the nightmare of Tokyo, where everything had changed—and after their mutual resolution to forge on in their journey, regardless. Even so, there was a lingering pall of uncertainty and awkwardness. In some ways, it felt like they were starting all over from square one, even to the point of getting to know each other again as if they were strangers…
But in other ways, each of them was more intimately and painfully exposed to one another than they had ever been before.
At that moment the bedroom door creaked open, and Sakura emerged, with Mokona perched on her shoulder. She steadied herself with a hand on Fai's arm as she limped slowly into the living room.
The Princess had always looked small to Kurogane, but in the frilly lolita-styled black dress she was wearing, she seemed entirely like a delicate little doll. It both suited her, and was faintly troubling at the same time, underscoring the unhealthy thinness she had been worn down to by her recent struggles and stress.
Most tragic of all, the short skirt exposed the wrappings she currently wore on her crippled right leg, wound tight over her stocking. Binding it with bandages to provide some support was the best they had been able to manage back in Tokyo, with the lack of medical resources there, and they hadn't gotten the chance to seek a better option in this world yet. The basic problems of clothing to blend in, shelter, and food necessarily came first. They had paid for their current wardrobe, lodgings, and meal in the way they often did, by selling some hoarded clothes and trinkets from other worlds at a pawn shop, but that money would not stretch much farther.
Syaoran was right. They would need more funds soon—to buy a brace or something that would better stabilize Sakura's leg, if nothing else.
"Yay, dinner!" Mokona cheered, springing from the girl's shoulder to the table in one gigantic bound.
Leave it to the furball to break the ice. Sakura smiled thinly as she came to sit on the sofa, looking over the spread on the table. There were small square things that looked like sausage-stuffed pastries of some kind, as well as large flat triangles of bread layered with melted cheese, chopped bits of meat, and a few limp slivers of vegetables. None of this looked appetizing to Kurogane; but beggars, as the saying went, could not be choosers.
"Oh, how nice! Thank you so much for going out to get all this food for us, Fai." Sakura's gaze slid from the mage who sat down beside her, to the suddenly red-faced young man kneeling across the low table from her. "…And you too, Syaoran."
The boy mumbled an acknowledging noise, without meeting her eyes.
"Mokona wants to pick the first slice of pizza!" the furball chattered, bouncing up and down.
Chuckling, Fai passed over the triangle of topping-covered bread Mokona chose. Sakura and Syaoran also proceeded to help themselves. With far less enthusiasm, Kurogane picked up one of the floppy pieces of "pizza" in both hands, grimacing at its greasiness.
Then he froze with the food raised halfway to his mouth, his eyebrows rising as he watched Fai delicately select one of the meat pastries and bite into it.
Considering the terrible transformation Fai had undergone in Tokyo, this was something the warrior had not expected.
Sakura and Syaoran both glanced furtively at Fai as well. They might have looked just a little surprised, but not nearly to the degree Kurogane was. Perhaps their preconceptions were not like his, if the folklore about certain things was not so grim in their own native world…
Or perhaps the reality of what Fai was simply hadn't sunk in for them—because he hadn't permitted them to see it.
Kurogane had seen it, of necessity. Twice now since Fai's change, in strict privacy, he had submitted to his grim new duty of sustaining the mage's life. For all he accepted it, actually insisted upon it, his first experience of the transaction was inevitably an unsettling shock. After that, it was almost hard to rationalize the sheer normalcy of what Fai was doing now, chewing on ordinary food instead of—
"So did you learn anything more about this world while you were out?" Sakura asked suddenly, as if there had been no momentary flicker of a question in the air.
Watching very carefully, Kurogane most definitely saw Fai swallow his mouthful of meat pastry before he replied.
"Infinity seems to have fairly advanced technology," he noted. "But it doesn't exactly look like the most cheerful world we've ever been to."
"It sounds as if there's a lot of crime here," Syaoran agreed.
Kurogane growled. "Then we'll have to watch ourselves." He wasn't done with the subject of what he had just witnessed, but he realized it was just as well to let it be glossed over in the presence of his two younger companions.
"At the stall we bought food from, there were people talking about making bets on some kind of tournament," Fai added. "That might be worth looking into."
Sakura blinked at him. "Are you saying we should use what money we have left to gamble?"
"No. But they mentioned that it's a fighting tournament." The tiniest sliver of a smile crossed Fai's lips, but the gleam in his narrowed eye made the expression into something uncharacteristically dangerous. "I'd say we have a little experience. Why bet when we could win the grand prize instead?"
Beside Kurogane, Syaoran quietly choked on his pizza.
The warrior couldn't blame the boy for such a reaction. Coming from himself, an idea like that may not have been so startling. But coming from Fai—the one among them who had always been the embodiment of evasion, obfuscation, and altogether non-confrontation…
"We should gather more information before we decide what to do next," Kurogane said quickly. "We still know far too little about this world to make any decisions yet."
Fai rose suddenly from the sofa.
"I saw some newspapers downstairs. I'll go and get copies of them. At least we might learn a little more about Infinity that way."
He was on his way out the door before any of the others could say a further word.
Only a few minutes went by before Fai returned, carrying copies of five different local newspapers and magazines. The travelers passed a quiet evening after that, handing the publications back and forth between them, occasionally reading some noteworthy item to each other. Syaoran's grim first impression of Infinity was borne out by the large number of crimes the papers detailed—sometimes violent ones. Reading between the lines of the carefully-worded journalism, Kurogane detected more than a whiff of political corruption as well.
There were no references to the fighting tournament Fai and Syaoran had heard talk of. Kurogane wasn't surprised. It didn't sound like the sort of practice that would welcome media attention; although, since the locals who discussed it evidently had no concerns about being overheard, the secret was probably a very open one indeed. Most likely it was just one more thing the local officials were well-paid to look the other way from… which did not bode well for its being a safe or fair sport.
Not that this would be a deal-breaker. Kurogane doubted it was particularly fair for any normal person to go up against him to begin with.
…And there was Fai, who had proposed the whole idea with such unusual alacrity. Kurogane wasn't quite sure what the mage was capable of now—but the way he had spoken earlier, there was definitely something new in his mind that he wasn't letting on yet.
This time, when his companions already knew the full facts of his current condition, perhaps he was less determined to shield it from them than the other mysteries he still kept buried.
In any case, if information about the tournament could only be had through word of mouth, the only thing to do was discreetly ask around the next day. For this evening, the travelers could best serve themselves by resting. They would need their energy in the morning—and Kurogane, for one, wanted to sleep off a cheap and greasy dinner that was lingering rather queasily in his stomach.
But first things first. When Fai helped the Princess limp away to the bedroom for the night, Kurogane took the opportunity to send Syaoran off to the corner drugstore near the hotel.
He didn't tell the boy what he wanted antiseptic and a roll of gauze for. He didn't have to. For that matter, Syaoran was far too perceptive not to know the real reason Kurogane asked him to go.
Fai returned to the living room to find Kurogane alone on the sofa, feigning interest in one of the newspapers he had already read.
"…Sakura is settled into bed now," Fai reported needlessly. However, his usual veneer of lightness was subtly absent. From his tone of voice, the words might as well have been: What are you waiting to ask me?
Kurogane obliged him with the answer. His voice was deceptively casual as he badly refolded the paper—even after encountering those things in several worlds, he still hadn't figured out how to do it right—and tossed it aside on the cushions.
"I didn't know you could still eat anything."
Only then did he glance up to see Fai's gaze tilt to one side, looking faintly abashed. His bone-china complexion was impossibly paler still since Tokyo, but the warrior thought he saw the merest hint of pink struggling to creep into it.
"That one bite of meat pie tasted like a stone. Sat in my stomach like one, too…"
Kurogane pointedly waited. The mage's expression dropped.
"…And if you must know, it wouldn't stay down for very long. When I went out to get the newspapers, I had to go and cough it up again." Fai grimaced abruptly. "Maybe I shouldn't have wasted even a little of your food right now, but…"
"But you wanted to act normal in front of the Princess and Syaoran, and even Mokona I suppose."
Fai winced, his eye still downcast.
"You're a fool, Fai." Kurogane leaned forward. "They all know what you've become—and they understand what's necessary for you now. Do you really think that after everything we've been through, something as trivial as your not eating would be such a shocking reminder to them?"
The word was a whisper. Fai looked up at last, folding his long thin arms over his chest. The last trace of his mask of frivolous evasion had now vanished, leaving his face drawn and darkened by new kinds of shadows that Kurogane alone had the privilege to witness. In the sleek black clothing that was the apparent trend in this world, he suddenly looked very much like what he was… or what Kurogane had condemned him to be.
"They might be better off if they were afraid of me… but I know they'll still refuse to be, no matter what I do."
A disapproving growl rumbled in Kurogane's chest. "Fai—"
"So you see, it wasn't really about that, anyway." The mage's tone crept a little higher, sounding almost bemused at himself. Something gentler faintly softened the bleakness of the pain in his face. "It was just that I didn't want them to be sad—for the things I can't really share with them any longer."
Kurogane had no answer for that.
"…Well," he murmured at last, belatedly pulling gruffness back into place over the surprise and dismay his face had momentarily betrayed. "I suppose that's understandable.—But don't go on pretending like that if it's going to make you sick, idiot."
"You're becoming such a mother hen." Fai's lips curved very slightly. It was the tiniest strained glimmer of his old teasing. "I'm really alright."
"Except that you haven't had what you actually need yet."
The burgeoning trace of a smile disappeared instantly. Once again, Fai looked away… but when Kurogane reached down to grasp the sword he had set aside hours earlier, his dependent sidled closer, feet shuffling as if drawn unwillingly by some magnetic pull.
Unflinching, Kurogane drew the edge of the blade across his forearm. Fai slipped to his knees at the warrior's feet. His head sank down, his lips closing over the shallow cut just as a thin line of red welled up.
Kurogane didn't watch, but he heard the soft gulps of his blood passing down Fai's throat. He felt the tiniest scrape of a fang-tip as Fai's head tilted to gain better access, and the warmth of Fai's tongue gingerly tracing the length of the cut.
In all the old legends he knew, vampires weren't supposed to be warm.
Less than half a minute passed before Fai pulled away, demurely rubbing his thumb across the spot of red that came away on his lips. He didn't meet Kurogane's gaze as he stood. It was his third such feeding, but he still looked as troubled as he had after the first. Kurogane wondered if his blood was now the only taste that was pleasant to Fai—yet incapable of being any pleasure to the mage's guilty heart.
That guilt was unwarranted… and it made Kurogane question whether Fai deserved the guilt he cherished for unspoken past sins, either.
Frowning distractedly, the warrior pressed two fingers over the cut on his arm. He really didn't need the supplies he had sent Syaoran for. The cut was practically closed already, and Fai's own saliva seemed to have gained some antiseptic properties.
"Were you really serious about the idea of entering a fighting tournament?" he asked.
He still couldn't see it. Not from someone like Fai. Not from a man who inflicted worse pain on himself than he ever could on anyone else.
Fai's solitary eye continued to burn gold as he glanced up from beneath pale bangs, his hand still raised to his mouth. Before he answered, his tongue flicked out across his thumb, hastily licking away the small smear of transferred blood.
And for a moment, Kurogane thought that just maybe he could see it now, after all.
2017 Jordanna Morgan