Disclaimer: CLAMP understands the concept of "fanfiction" only too well.
Spoilers: Very, very brief reference to the Sharano arc; future chapters will have warnings as appropriate.
Pairings: May contain trace amounts of Kurogane/Fai (Sakura/Syaoran is a given)
A/N: I've been trying to wrap my mind around Fai's warped little psyche for a while now, and this is a much more fun way to get my thoughts in order than an essay would be. New chapters will come out rather (read: exceedingly) slowly, I'm afraid, partially because I'm taking summer classes, partially because I'm still debating an important plot point, and partially because I'm really just that slow a writer. Still, this is my first time writing an actual chaptered story, much less one with anything resembling a structured plot, so I'm committed to finishing it.
"Ugh!" Kurogane grunted as he landed in a somewhat undignified position on ground that was rather colder than he'd anticipated. He stood up, hand moving instinctively to rest on the hilt of his sword as he glanced around whatever world the white manjuu had landed them in this time.
It certainly wasn't Japan, Kurogane grumbled to himself, ignoring the small "Oof!" in the background as Syaoran hit the ground and the rather louder "OOF!" as Sakura hit Syaoran. They had landed on an icy plain, flat and colorless and completely unsympathetic. Kurogane would have been mortally offended if anyone dared suggest that he was the kind of romantic who would anthropomorphize his surroundings; he left that to the princess, whose excuse was that she was young and that the surroundings ended up talking to her half the time anyway, and to the wizard, whose excuse was that he was an idiot. Even so, he was aware of a vague, persistent feeling in the back of his mind that whether they lived or died would have no effect here at all; the area would remain unchanging even in the face of one of the feathers' power. The dead silence probably contributed to that impression, as did the cold; the air was so sharp that it was painful to draw breath. It would be nearly unbearable when the wind picked up, Kurogane noted, shifting his weight and listening to the crunch of ice and permafrost beneath him.
"Where's Fai-san?" Syaoran asked worriedly, interrupting Kurogane's assessment. Kurogane snapped his head around, taking in the scene – the kid holding the shivering princess protectively, both of them wrapped up in the kid's cloak as best they could, the white manjuu clutched tightly against her chest for additional body heat (though Kurogane being Kurogane, he had his doubts about the purity of the manjuu's intentions). It was just as the kid said, though; the wizard was nowhere to be seen.
Well, that explained the unnatural silence, anyway.
"Moko-chan?" Sakura asked, voice shaking in time with her shivers. Even Kurogane had to admit that it was unpleasant, and the princess's clothes were hardly suited for harsh weather.
"Mokona doesn't know!" Mokona whimpered, snuggling closer to Sakura (and only confirming Kurogane's suspicions in his own mind).
"Could he have been dropped somewhere else again?" Syaoran asked, calmly and logically, shifting a little so he could look directly at Mokona (and, indirectly, at Sakura's chest, but Kurogane wasn't suspicious at all, because this was the kid. The wizard had once suggested that it was about time someone gave the boy The Talk, and he would be glad to draw Kuro-myuu some diagrams to help his discussion along. Kurogane's reply to that particular suggestion ended up getting them forever barred from the shop they had been in and necessitated their staying in that world an extra three days to earn enough money to pay for the damages).
Mokona just shook its head. "Don't know," it repeated miserably.
"Ch," Kurogane growled, stalking off to the right. "That guy's more trouble than he's worth."
"Ah, Kurogane-san, wait!" Syaoran called as he and Sakura tried to untangle themselves enough to walk, shifting around in a futile attempt to find a position in which both of them could stay under Syaoran's cloak and keep up with Kurogane at the same time. "Where are you going?" he panted as they caught up.
"There's no point hunting around for him; we'd be able to see the idiot from miles away," Kurogane retorted, gesturing toward the unbroken expanse around them. "Meanwhile, we're all gonna freeze our asses off if we don't get some shelter soon."
Syaoran blinked and raised his hand to shield his eyes against the glitter of sun on ice. "I see – there's something dark on the horizon this direction!"
"Ah," Kurogane grunted affirmatively. He glanced at Syaoran, who nodded and drew the princess a little closer under the pretense of adjusting the cloak. They both knew that people were often shaped by their environments, and this one was hardly welcoming.
After an interminable walk (Sakura and Syaoran had to half-trot to keep up with Kurogane's long stride), the dark smudge revealed itself to be a wide clump of stunted, dark-leaved trees that gnarled in on themselves until the trunks appeared twice as thick as they were. By mutual unspoken agreement, the group paused in the relative shelter of the scraggly grove to rest for a moment.
Mokona, who had had a rather more pleasant journey than the others, bounced ahead to scout out the area but came back almost immediately, losing its footing on a particularly large patch of ice along the way and careening into the back of Kurogane's knees, almost taking him out (Kurogane just knew the manjuu had done that on purpose).
"A town, a town!" Mokona chirped happily, completely unconcerned by the fact that Kurogane had grabbed its ears and was seriously contemplating whether or not a muff would have any effect against the pervasive cold. Probably not, he decided regretfully, tossing Mokona carelessly over his shoulder and heading in the direction it had indicated. Besides, if it turned out that the wizard had already made it into town and had spent the last few hours drinking in some nice warm tavern, he was going to have something much larger to skin.
The group reached the town in record time (Mokona still crying to Sakura about being abused), and Kurogane lost no time in going up to the first building he saw and pounding on the door. He waited a few seconds, but when there was no answer he began hitting it more insistently. "OI! Open up!" he called threateningly, but his practiced glower was wasted on the closed door. Syaoran had already moved on to the next house and was knocking somewhat more politely but every bit as urgently.
Sakura, meanwhile, had somehow managed to end up the sole possessor of Syaoran's cloak and had warmed up enough to wander up and down the main street, looking around curiously. "Ne, it's beginning to get dark, wouldn't you say?" she asked no one in particular.
"Ah, so?" Kurogane barked impatiently, finally giving up on the house as a lost cause and turning back toward the others.
"In that case, it seems a little strange that all of the buildings are dark too," Sakura commented hesitantly.
Syaoran abandoned his futile efforts as well and stepped back to the road, taking in the circle of buildings surrounding them. "You're right – by now there ought to be at least a few lights."
"...Hn," Kurogane allowed. After a moment's consideration, he strode up to the nearest doorway and calmly smashed his fist into the door, popping it off its hinges.
"Ku-kurogane-san!" Syaoran stuttered, sounding vaguely scandalized (though he lost no time in shepherding the princess inside, Kurogane noted with an internal smirk). "Are you sure...?"
("Kurogane's so cool!" Mokona squealed over Syaoran's protests, bouncing up and down in Sakura's arms.)
The ninja hmphed, instinctively glancing around the room for possible danger. "If it's this dark and there aren't any lights, either the people don't want to draw any attention to themselves, in which case they'd have already made it obvious they didn't want us here, or –"
"– Or there aren't any people at all," Syaoran finished. "Still, we don't know the culture. It's possible that –"
"Maybe you want to freeze to death, but I'd just as soon be inside before night really falls," Kurogane interrupted irritably, effectively ending the conversation. Syaoran glanced over at the princess, who was already in the process of searching for something that all three cultures would define as "food", then nodded and busied himself at the fireplace while Kurogane checked out the building.
It was obviously built with practicality in mind rather than comfort – there was only one room, with two smaller alcoves that proved to be a pantry and bathroom, respectively. The only real furnishings were basic kitchen equipment and two large wardrobes; thick, furry rugs evidently doubled as seating. There were few windows and only the one door, which luckily hadn't actually broken when Kurogane hit it; after eyeing it for a minute, he was able to fit it back into the frame with a minimum of swearing.
Meanwhile, Syaoran had managed to get a respectable fire going and had moved on to helping Sakura and Mokona hunt through the pantry. Fortunately, most of the food seemed to have been designed for storage – dried meat, dried fruit, bars made of something Mokona cheerfully assured them was almost certainly edible, and so on.
"So where are we starting tomorrow?" Kurogane asked brusquely as they settled around the fireplace with their makeshift meal.
"We have to look for Fai-san and the feather, of course..." Syaoran said distractedly, too wrapped up in making plans to pay much attention to whom he was speaking or to what he was eating. Kurogane had the distinct impression that if the wizard were there, the kid would probably already have been fed several things that hadn't originally been on the menu. Kurogane would have been horrified to realize that he was learning to think like Fai, but luckily for everyone involved, the ninja's subconscious had a healthy sense of self-preservation and was rather good at blocking out threats to its well-being.
"Also... I'd like to know what happened here," Syaoran added suddenly, looking puzzled and more than a little worried. "For a whole town to be empty like this, it must have been something terrible. I mean, I know they might just be nomadic or something, but..."
"But with our luck, it probably has something to do with the feather," Kurogane agreed. "Oi, manjuu!" he growled suddenly, as a thought struck him. "There is a feather here, right?"
Mokona concentrated for a moment, then shook its head uncertainly. "Mokona can't tell. There's lots of reeeeally strong power here, but it's all concentrated and layered. Mokona can't separate it."
Syaoran nodded, accepting the news in stride. "Then first thing tomorrow we'll have to cover some ground and see if you can get a better feel for it."
"Ah, if we're getting up early, we'd better get some sleep!" Sakura piped up from where she had been sitting quietly, staring into the fire and absently petting Mokona. "I'll go find some bedding!" She got up quickly and ran over to one of the wardrobes. Talk of the feathers made her uncomfortable, Kurogane knew; it was a reminder that three perfect strangers were, in her mind, risking their lives just to help her. No matter how often he and the wizard talked about their own motives for the trip, it didn't keep her from feeling indebted to them – and moreso to Syaoran, who had no such excuse. It was also a reminder of how even those precious few memories they'd recovered were fragmented – something important always missing, something she remembered not remembering. Kurogane hmphed quietly to himself, then deliberately turned his head and closed his eyes. Not his business.
It didn't help that she was small and slight and had kind, gentle eyes that were uncannily like his own princess's, though. He wondered sometimes whether it wasn't a requirement for being a princess – a sort of inherent defense mechanism to attract their knights, like a sweet scent attracted bees to flowers.
Then Kurogane remembered Tomoyo towering over him in a way that should have been impossible for someone half his height, brandishing some weird hooked sticks in one hand and a fistful of brightly colored yarn in the other, insisting that it was high time he learned something useful, like crochet, and amended the flower to a flytrap. He shivered involuntarily before a sudden thud caught his attention and made him realize that Sakura was having difficulty with the bedding.
Syaoran had already leapt up and was helping her untangle the mass of fabric that had all rolled out of the wardrobe at once – housekeeping had obviously not been a high priority with the owner. As Syaoran worked on tugging a blanket out of the mess, a dangling sleeve caught Sakura's eye. She pulled on it carefully, trying not to rip it off, and finally succeeded in removing a coat from the knot. She moved a little closer to the fire and spread it out for a better look.
Syaoran's head shot up immediately. "What is it, Princess?"
"This..." Sakura gestured at the coat, too surprised to get the words out. She paused, took a breath, and tried again. "This is Fai-san's coat!"
Kurogane sat up abruptly. "Huh?"
Sakura ran her hands over the fabric as she spoke, pointing out each detail as Syaoran knelt down next to her, Mokona popping up in between them to get a better view. "Not the big floppy one, but the one he wears under it. It's not exactly the same – Fai-san's is a lot longer, plus he has some sort of armband, and there are big buckles to fasten it shut at the bottom. But the cut and colors are the same, and so is the black sash. Also, the…" Sakura's fingers ghosted over the pattern as she tried to find the right words to describe it. "The loopy, flowery design on the sleeves is the same as on the sleeves of his floppy coat!"
"Sakura's right," Mokona added, nodding fervently enough to send its ears swishing every which way. "Mokona has ridden on Fai's shoulders a lot, so Mokona would know!"
Syaoran poked at the cloth gingerly, as though he were half-expecting it to vanish if he looked at it too hard. "It's a distinctive pattern. You're right – it's too similar to be a coincidence. Fai-san did say that his country was very cold.""
"But that means..." Sakura's voice trembled just a bit as she clutched at the coat. "If what Fai-san wanted most was to avoid coming back here and now he's all by himself somewhere..."
Syaoran bit his lip. "We can't go too far tonight – it's dark and Fai-san never told us anything about this world; we don't know how dangerous it is. But I'll go look around town and see if I can't find..." his voice faltered. "Well, something, anyway," Syaoran finished lamely. Yes, it was obviously futile – the likelihood of actually finding anything helpful was ridiculously low – but it was still infinitely more appealing than staying in the house until morning, pretending to sleep while worrying about Fai and watching the princess fret herself sick.
Kurogane snorted. "Brilliant plan." He stood up, grabbing his sword from where it had been lying at his side. "Try to find another coat. I'll make a couple of torches."