Thanks to cienna for the beta and encouragement. Tsubasa not mine. There are some notes on the historical background of this fic at my homepage. It's not necessary for understanding this fic at all, but I thought some people might be interested. Anyway, on with the fic. Comments and concrit much welcome and appreciated.
.A Thousand Offerings.
On the second day, Fai brought him what looked and smelled disturbingly like rotting grain mashed up in muddy water.
"What," Kurogane demanded, "is that?" He feared he already knew the answer, or that the answer would be worse than he thought, but asked all the same because he was strong and brave.
Fai hummed at him, smiling with a calculated imitation of complete fluffy innocence.
"Beer," he announced, and pushed the pottery cup in Kurogane's face. "Smell that yeast."
Kurogane really wished he couldn't.
"You want me to drink that?"
Fai swished the cup around a little, considering his reply, and Kurogane blanched.
"Everyone drinks it here, apparently. Full of vitamins and minerals I'm told. Hard workers have to keep their strength up, Kuro-tan," he sang, paused, smiled even more brightly and added, "I think it's more like eating anyway." This was torture, Kurogane decided, and wondered if Fai had been some kind of interrogator at home.
"Have you tried it?" he asked, eyeing the liquid with extreme suspicion.
"Of course I… have," Fai lied. No doubting it. That was one of the worst lies Kurogane had ever heard in his life. "Won't you have some, Kuro-pin? You really should. You won't be able to work if you don't, and then your children will starve and then how will you face your princess?"
Kurogane would very much have liked to shove that cup down the offending wizard's throat.
"Stop," he growled, "saying," his voice lowering dangerously, "weird shit like that!" It had exactly the same effect as any other response would have.
"Syaoran-kun tried some," he said airily. "He's very brave." A solemn nod of the head and a pointed look in Kurogane's direction. Kurogane scowled and snatched the cup from Fai's hands.
"This is what people drink here?" he said, looking dubiously at the thick, brown concoction, then at Fai, wondering if this could all possibly be some hideously unfunny joke at his expense. Fai folded his arms and nodded.
"You're not making this up?" Best to make sure.
Fai actually snorted a laugh at that.
"You think I could make that up?"
And Kurogane had to agree with his logic. For once.
"Fine," he grumbled, and took a swig, swallowing as quickly as humanly possible, feeling large, sickening chunks of…stuff…sliding down his throat. Fai stared at him curiously.
"So?" he asked. "What's it taste like?"
Kurogane didn't want to think about it.
"I thought you said you tried some?"
Fai raised an eyebrow in reply.
"Right," Kurogane said, and handed the cup back. "I'm going to try and sell you or something if you don't find something better to drink… eat…whatever."
Fai turned on his heels, smiling, and Kurogane was almost positive he heard Fai say, "I'd like to see you try," under his breath as he walked away.
By the fourth day Kurogane was beginning to wonder if it was possible for a person to sell themselves.
"Oh, Kuro-mi," Fai trilled as he busied himself cutting up onions in the kitchen. He was crying and smiling at the same time and Kurogane thought it looked decidedly freaky. "Stop being so melodramatic."
"That stuff," Kurogane ground out in annoyance, "that you seem to think is beer is making me sick." Fai sighed and put the knife down (for which Kurogane was strangely thankful) and turned fully to face him.
"It can't be that, Kuro-chi," Fai began, trying to wipe away tears with the back of his hand. "Syaoran-kun and Sakura-chan drink it all the time, and I don't see them complaining." Kurogane thought then that this picture could only be completed by Fai waving a finger at him. And tutting. Fai could do tutting. Kurogane was sure of it.
"You let them drink it?" Kurogane was incredulous.
"Yes. Why wouldn't I?" Fai asked. Kurogane threw up his arms in disgust.
"They're kids! You can't give them alcohol to drink every day!" Fai shrugged and went back to chopping.
"It's not like it's strong. And all the children in this world drink it."
Fai. Logic. There were days when Kurogane seriously wondered if the two words were antonyms.
"The children of this world run around mostly naked!" Kurogane fumed. "And I don't see those two doing that!" Fai laughed softly.
"They're shy," he said. And then Kurogane knew that if he didn't leave the kitchen right then he would throttle the mage.
On the fifth day, Kurogane worked so hard his fingers were red raw by the end of it.
5 and three quarters. (Work II.)
That night, Kurogane wished he hadn't when Fai tried to apply beer to the wounds.
6. (Work III.)
On the sixth day, Kurogane nearly got fired for starting a fight at work.
"If I hadn't arrived right at that moment, Kuro-mu," Fai clucked, "you would have lost that job and then there wouldn't even be beer to… eat."
"If it wasn't for you," Kurogane grumbled moodily, "there wouldn't have been a fight in the first place." Fai looked up from bandaging Kurogane's arm.
"What did I do?" he asked, and Kurogane was pleased to hear something like annoyance in Fai's voice.
"You exist," Kurogane growled spitefully. "Isn't that enough?" Fai frowned and sat back, folding his arms over his chest defensively.
"That's mean, Kuro-pon." And Kurogane had to admit it had been, and Fai did actually look a bit hurt.
"One of the others," Kurogane began quickly, "said something about you." Fai was still frowning. Kurogane wondered hopefully if this meant the mage would never bring him beer again.
"What?" Fai asked darkly.
"That you were…" Kurogane trailed off, realising his mistake much too late. Fai was scowling now, and after the day's events and the way Fai was looking at him, Kurogane wondered just when exactly the two of them had got married.
"Pretty." Kurogane almost spat the word. And Fai's expression went from annoyed to surprised to just-plain-evil in under thirty seconds. It was that grin, Kurogane decided. It never did bode well for him.
"Kuro-sama!" Fai's smile was expansive, eyes shimmering with untold and oh-so-suspicious joy, and then Fai threw himself at Kurogane, holding him tightly in over-long arms in what some would call an embrace but which Kurogane would call a vice. "You were protecting my virtue!"
Kurogane nearly choked to death.
"Virtue?" he roared, and couldn't decide whether to laugh or to shout. So he did both. "VIRTUE?" Fai pulled back, arms still hung loosely around Kurogane's neck. And he was pouting. Kurogane couldn't say he was surprised.
"Of course, Kuro-rin!" Fai said, then the pout morphed back into that wide grin. "And you cared enough to defend it." Kurogane snorted.
"Don't get ahead of yourself."
Fai's head tilted in questioning.
"That guy called me an idiot. That's why I hit him," Kurogane explained. Fai frowned.
"What's that got to do with me being pretty?" he asked. Kurogane shifted uncomfortably, and wondered if there was any possibility of escaping that question. Fai's arms dangling threateningly from his shoulders, and that look in the wizard's eyes told him there wasn't. Best just to get it over with.
"He called me an idiot for not sleeping with you," he breathed, and waited for it.
And Fai remained silent, an indiscernible look on his face. Then he stood up, patted Kurogane on the head lightly and disappeared off into the back of the house.
Kurogane thought for a while that he had actually made Fai angry or upset or something, until the four of them sat down to dinner and Fai gave him extra onions.
Eight days in saw Fai scrubbing Kurogane's back with an old rag a little way outside the town walls.
"This world is ridiculous," Kurogane complained, and tugged at the bandage on his arm.
"Leave it alone, Kuro-chi," Fai sighed. "Unless you want me to treat it with beer."
Kurogane ignored him and continued to scratch at the wound.
"Whoever heard of not taking baths? Ever!" he said instead.
"It makes sense though. There's not much water on this world so it's kind of a waste to wash in it."
Kurogane thought about that for a minute.
"But they never even drink water. It's all that disgusting beer," he argued, and maybe it was the intense heat (which Kurogane noticed the mage did not seem to much like) or maybe it was just him, but Fai seemed much easier to annoy on this world.
"Kuro-pon," he said, and scoured particularly hard at Kurogane's left shoulder. "What is beer made of?"
"It's hard to remember that when you look at it," Kurogane mumbled, then, "Are you done scouring the skin off my back yet?"
Fai just scrubbed harder.
"No, Kuro-mi, I'm not. You wanted a bath and this is the best I can do so you're going to sit there and take it."
"Hn," Kurogane assented, and they sat in silence as Fai washed out the cloth in the bucket of water beside him and started on Kurogane's arms.
"I'll do you after, if you like," Kurogane said at last.
"With the dirty water?" Fai laughed lightly. "How kind of you, Kuro-sama."
But Fai let him anyway.
When Kurogane got home early from work on the ninth day, slightly concerned that Fai hadn't brought him mid-day beer, he was greeted by Sakura at the door.
"What happened?" he asked, seeing the anxious look on her face.
"It's Fai-san," she began, and Kurogane rolled his eyes.
"What's he done now?"
Sakura shook her head.
"He was just about to start doing the laundry when he passed out! I tried to wake him up but I couldn't so I went and got Syaoran and Mokona because I know you said not to trust the doctor here…"
"Where is he?" Kurogane pushed past Sakura into the house, looking around for the mage.
"In the cellar…"
Kurogane rounded on Sakura.
"Well," Sakura explained, "Syaoran said he thought it was heatstroke, and then we managed to get Fai-san to wake up by throwing water at him, and he said it probably was too then went down to the cellar to sleep. He said it was too hot anywhere else."
Kurogane nodded and made for the kitchen.
"Do you think he'll be all right, Kurogane-san?" Sakura asked nervously.
"Hm" Kurogane said, picked up a pot of beer and descended the steps into the cellar.
It was dark and smelly, and he had to stoop down the roof was so low, but he could see Fai curled up on a mat in the far corner.
"Oi," Kurogane called, "The princess is worried about you." He went over and sat beside Fai's mat. Fai stirred and opened his eyes slowly.
"I don't think I ever want to leave this cellar again, Kuro-pi," he laughed quietly.
"You should have said something," Kurogane grumbled, and laid a hand on Fai's forehead. Fai sighed and took Kurogane's wrist in his hand.
"There didn't seem like much point," Fai said. "We can't do anything about the weather."
Kurogane withdrew his hand, Fai still holding lightly onto his wrist, and put the pot of beer in front of him.
"You have to drink," he ordered. Fai pulled a face that told Kurogane everything.
"Kuro-mu," Fai wailed weakly, "It's not nice to pick on sick people…"
"You're sick because you're not drinking," Kurogane interrupted, opened the bottle and held it out for Fai. "Don't make me force you."
Kurogane heard Fai laugh oddly, but he released Kurogane's wrist and took the pot.
"All of it," Kurogane said, and stood up in the small space of the cellar. "Then sleep."
He left, assured the princess that Fai would be fine but should be hounded to drink at every opportunity, then went outside and started on the laundry.
Kurogane was just about to leave the house on the eleventh day when Fai grabbed him by the shirt. (Not dress. Kurogane didn't wear dresses.)
"Kuro-tan!" he announced brightly, and Kurogane had to wonder if the Get-Fai-To-Drink-More plan had been too successful. "I have something for you!"
Kurogane's heart leapt in fear, and he swatted the mage's hand away from his shirt.
"I have to go," he said. "I'll be late." And tried to walk out, but Fai's deceptively powerful grip held him back again.
"No you won't, Kuro-sama," Fai said, tilting his head and smiling. "Anyway, this is important."
So Kurogane, knowing oh-so-well the futility of arguing with Fai, let himself be steered back into the house and pushed down to sit on the floor. And from the next room Kurogane could hear the clink of bottles and Syaoran making strangled protests about something. Sakura's soothing, pleading voice followed and Mokona cheered in delight. It set Kurogane on edge.
"You know what's going on in there?" he asked cautiously, carefully watching Fai as the man took an old box from the shelf and came to sit down in front of him.
"Oh yes," Fai grinned, and then Kurogane knew he was not going to like this.
Fai opened the box, and Kurogane could see small pottery bottles inside. Like a cornered rabbit, Kurogane prepared to bolt.
"You weren't earning enough, Kuro-tan," Fai explained, carefully selecting a bottle and holding it up for inspection. There were odd markings on its side that Kurogane recognised as Fai's writing. "Syaoran-kun needs new sandals, and I don't know how to make them, so I thought I'd better find something to trade."
"I can make sandals," Kurogane said, and was annoyed by Fai's shocked face. "What?"
"I just… didn't know," Fai replied, then smiled, "That Kuro-sama has so many secret skills. Just like Mokona!" He put the bottle back and picked up another. Kurogane noticed blue-black smudges on the lid. "What else can you do?" Fai asked.
Kurogane put on his most severe face. "I'm very good at murdering annoying wizards who make me late for work looking at pots." Which only served to make Fai giggle.
"Oh that's lucky," he laughed, placing the bottle on the reed flooring carefully and picking out what looked like a small stick from the box. "Because I'm very good at avoiding being murdered by vicious men who wear too much black and have burning red ruby eyes and…"
"Burning red rubies?" Kurogane sounded incredulous.
"Sounds romantic, don't you think?" Fai said, and Kurogane closed his (burning red ruby) eyes and wished he'd never asked.
"And I don't wear too much black," he argued instead. "I'm not wearing any at all now." Fai laughed again, opened the pot and stirred the dark contents with the stick.
"Only because we couldn't find anything black for you," then Fai paused, looked down at the pot and smirked. Kurogane found this highly suspicious, and was about to demand to know just what the idiot was up to when Fai added, "But I really think that dress doesn't suit you."
"It's a shirt," Kurogane snapped.
"Dress," Fai corrected.
"Shirt," Kurogane growled. "Men do not wear dresses." Then he paused, looked Fai up and down and added, "Well, normal men anyway."
Fai laughed softly and held up the pot and stick for Kurogane's inspection.
"Then you're really not going to like this, Kuro-rin," he smiled.
"And what is that?" Kurogane dared to ask.
"Like I was saying," Fai explained, "I was trying to think of what I could make, then the lady next door told me that eye make-up was in short supply so I went and…"
"Oh no," Kurogane interrupted, holding his hands up and shaking his head vigorously. "You are not trying out that stuff on me."
Fai advanced on him with the stick, heavily loaded with what looked like thick black slime.
"It's medicinal, Kuro-tan," Fai tried to argue. "It protects you against the sun and nasty insects. You don't wear it because it'll make you look nice."
"Why aren't you wearing any then?" Kurogane demanded.
"Ah! Sakura and I are going to put it on for each other after we've done you two," Fai laughed.
"You two…." Kurogane repeated, then remembered Syaoran's protests from the next room.
"You see. It sounds like Syaoran let Sakura put some on him." He looked Kurogane in the eye. "Syaoran's so brave, isn't he?"
"No, he's a kind-hearted fool!" Kurogane shouted, and pushed the ever-drawing-closer Fai and His Stick away from him. He stood and stomped his way angrily towards the door to the sound of Fai calling after him;
"Don't blame me if your eyes burn out of your head, Kuro-chi!"
The twelfth day turned out to be a festival. Kurogane would rather have gone to work.
When the four of them stepped out into the narrow town streets at sometime before noon, throngs of people were already drunk and rolling around laughing and giggling like maniacs. Some were already passed out.
"Well this does look like fun, doesn't it, Kuro-daddy," Fai cheered. Syaoran and Sakura looked scandalised.
A red-faced man Kurogane vaguely recognised stumbled towards them, a jug of something in each hand.
"Ah! Kurogane!" he slurred, "Are you out of wine?" He shoved one of the jugs into Kurogane's hands. "Here! Have mine!" Then he staggered sideways and bent down to look more closely at Sakura and Syaoran. "And these must be your children! Oh they are so cute." He pinched Syaoran's cheek, and Kurogane heard Fai and Sakura giggle.
"Um…" Syaoran stuttered, "Sir? What does this festival celebrate?" The man stood up straight and looked at Syaoran like he was a complete idiot, before pushing the other wine jug into the boy's hand and saying;
"This!" Then he wandered off. To get more alcohol, Kurogane assumed.
"Well?" Fai said brightly, taking the wine jug from Syaoran. "Let's try some, Kuro-rin!"
Kurogane thought this was a really bad idea.
"We can join in and because everybody's so drunk they might talk more and we can find out about the feather whilst Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun go looking at the tombs. Isn't that a great idea?" He smiled, and Syaoran nodded vigorously, looking like he wanted nothing more than to get away from the insane festivities going on around him.
"We'll be going then. Take care, Fai-san, Kurogane-san," he called, and pulled Sakura (still looking somewhat shocked) into the crowd, heading for the town gates.
And when Fai lifted the jug to his lips and drank, making appreciative noises, Kurogane had the distinct feeling that the day was not going to end well.
Might be still 12, or it could be 13, or it could be anything really… (Festival II.)
An indiscernible time and number of wine jugs later, Kurogane was beginning to think that maybe the festival wasn't so bad after all.
"Oh, you are so wrong," Fai was announcing to the small group assembled around their oil lamp. He listed sideways and sprawled across Kurogane's lap. "Kuro-sama hates me." Fai smiled and Kurogane nodded in complete agreement.
"You must have a really strange way of showing someone you hate them then in your country," one man laughed.
"Maybe the word 'hate' means something different where they come from?" a lady sitting the other side of Fai suggested.
"Ahhh!" Fai held up a finger. "But we're not from the same country." The crowd ooh'd and aah'd and Kurogane nodded again, still in complete agreement.
"Then how did you meet?" another asked, looking intently at Fai.
Fai sighed and looked up at the sky dreamily, his head laying pillowed on Kurogane's leg. "Oh, it's such an extraordinary story…" he said. The others sat forward expectantly. "We both had wishes that only a very powerful witch could grant," he began. "So we travelled to her, and she took from us the thing we valued most in payment for granting those wishes." And Kurogane nodded fiercely at the memory. "But she was mean and cruel and had tricked us," Fai went on, and through the haze of alcohol Kurogane thought that last sentence sounded decidedly odd. "And she captured me and held me hostage inside her great big castle…" Now Kurogane knew that wasn't right. "But then Kuro-pi came and saved me from her evil clutches…" And the gathered crowd gasped in mixed excitement and horror and were looking at Kurogane with such awe that he was almost tempted to hold his peace. Until the woman sitting beside Fai spoke again.
"Even if you say he hates you, Fai," she said softly, putting a hand on Fai's shoulder, "I really don't think Kurogane could if he did that." There was a murmur of agreement around the circle and Kurogane shoved Fai forcefully off him, almost smashing his half-empty jug of wine in his hurry to stand up.
"That idiot is lying," he shouted, pointing accusingly at Fai. "That never happened!"
"Oh there's no need to be shy, Kuro-tan," Fai said softly, patting his foot. Then he turned to the others. "He's just so modest." And the serious, reverent nods passed around the circle were the last straw for Kurogane.
"That's enough," he growled, and unceremoniously dragged Fai to his feet. "We're going home now."
"Oh, but Kuro-rin," Fai complained, "What about…"
"I don't care," Kurogane interrupted. "I'm not letting you tell anymore weird-arse stories to strangers about me."
"They're not weird," Fai retorted. Kurogane scowled dangerously.
"Don't make me carry you," he threatened, and in the second it took for Fai to process the warning Kurogane dragged him away from the circle by the arm.
"It was nice talking to you all!" Fai called back when he realised what was happening, and the others waved and shouted farewells in reply, quickly disappearing into the night as Kurogane marched Fai home.
There were only a few people still walking around now, and most of those were either half asleep or so drunk they were having problems staying upright. The rest of the town seemed to be passed out on the streets. Kurogane picked his way around the sleeping revellers as best he could.
"You didn't have to be so rude, Kuro-pin," Fai chided, and tripped over a sprawled arm.
"You were telling stupid lies about me," Kurogane replied.
"I was having fun," Fai sulked. "And they were good stories." Kurogane snorted and handed Fai the wine jug he was still carrying.
"Drink this and shut up," he ordered. Fai, unexpectedly, obeyed.
"It's better than the beer," he said, and leaned heavily on Kurogane's arm. They stumbled along in silence for a while until Fai looked up at Kurogane, his eyes unfocused and grin lopsided drunkenly. "Sleep with me in the cellar tonight, Kuro-mu."
Kurogane considered the prospect for a moment.
"Why?" he asked. Fai laughed softly and pressed himself closer to Kurogane's arm.
"Because it's dark and lonely in there," he said. And, in a bizarre moment of clarity, Kurogane knew exactly what he meant.
13. Probably. (Festival III.)
It was possibly the worst hangover Kurogane had ever had, and he had no idea how many days they'd been on that world anymore. All he knew was that it was dark and cool and he wasn't wearing any clothes. And there was an equally naked mage lying next to him.
"You awake?" he said into the blackness. There was a mumbled noise and shifting, which Kurogane took as an affirmative.
"Last night," he began, feeling his head pound harder with every word. "Did we…"
Kurogane felt an arm drape itself over his chest.
"You don't remember, Kuro-chi?" came a sleepy, amused voice. "I think I should feel offended."
"Then we did…" Kurogane trailed off, and tried not to think about the implications.
Fai hummed and propped himself up on his arm.
"Of course we did," he laughed, and trailed a hand down to Kurogane's wrists. "Look at all these bruises…"
"WHAT?" Kurogane yelled, and felt Fai chuckle beside him.
"I was just teasing you, Kuro-pon," he laughed, and lay back down, pulling away from Kurogane.
"Then did we…?"
Fai shrugged. "It's a mystery to me." He sighed and went on, "We should find some clothes I suppose. In case Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun come looking down here."
But Kurogane couldn't shake the feeling that Fai knew.
On what was likely the fourteenth day, Kurogane and Fai looked around in horror at the state of the house in which they currently resided.
Which Fai had called their house, their family home, their love nest. Kurogane shivered.
"I think I'm glad we decided to stay in the cellar yesterday," Fai sighed, and looked up at Kurogane. "I hope Syaoran-kun, Sakura-chan and Mokona are okay." Kurogane huffed and looked around at the empty jars and discarded half-eaten food littering the floor. Fai started picking things up and putting them back on shelves.
"Unless they had a party without telling us," he continued. "I think this must be left-over from the festival." Fai turned to look at Kurogane again. "Did we make this mess, do you think?"
"No," he replied. "There's no mess in the kitchen or in the cellar, and I'm pretty sure we were in there…" Kurogane frowned at the memory.
"Well you could at least help me clean up, Kuro-rin," Fai said, pressing something that Kurogane supposed was a broom into his hands.
"Sweep!" Fai commanded, pointing to the floor with an unconvincingly stern look on his face. Then he went back to sorting through the mess littering the sides of the room. "I hope nothing was stolen," he said, and Kurogane grunted an agreement, looking with some disgust at the broom-thing in his hand. "We'll have to sell your sword if we get any poorer," Fai went on lightly, sorting through an upturned basket now.
"The white meat-bun goes before my sword does," Kurogane huffed.
"Of course he does, Kuro-sama," Fai replied agreeably. "Now could you stop looking at the broom and use it?"
"Ninjas don't sweep."
"And magicians don't darn Ninja's underwear, but I seem to have done that last week," Fai retorted.
"Magicians use magic," Kurogane argued, "And you claim not to."
"Ex-magicians then." Fai paused and looked thoughtful. "Although it's very tempting to use magic so that I don't have to get near your underclothes."
"There's nothing wrong with my underwear!" Kurogane shot back, waving the broom-thing angrily in Fai's direction, then added, "You can do that?"
Fai looked at him, grinned and shrugged. "I heard there's a market today. We should go," he said.
Kurogane crossed his arms and stood watching Fai gather up pieces of broken jugs. Either he was oblivious or ignoring him, the latter being the more likely, so Kurogane shook his head and said, "I need a new chisel."
Kurogane was sure it was the fifteenth day because he had to go back to work. What was worse, he was accompanied by Fai.
"Why are you here?" Kurogane groaned, and hefted his bag of tools onto his other shoulder.
"I wanted to see the tombs," Fai replied, pulling his linen scarf further over his head.
They were climbing the last steps to the crest of the valley when Kurogane noticed Fai's face turn abruptly to his left as though he'd just seen something appear there. But there was only sand dunes and steps and narrow, rock-cut doorways leading to deep tombs.
"What is it?" Kurogane asked. Fai had an odd frown on his face.
"I thought I… saw something," he replied, shook his head and smiled. "It's nothing."
"Whatever," Kurogane growled, and pointed to a huddle of workmen further down the valley. "That's where I work."
Fai nodded happily and followed Kurogane down a rough-hewn path towards the others.
"I brought beer for all you hard workers!" Fai called in greeting, and Kurogane was surprised (and disturbed) when they turned to them, smiling, and called Fai's name in reply. Not Kurogane's. Fai's. And Kurogane wondered just how exactly Fai had got to know them, and just when exactly he had become so popular. They all looked far too pleased by Fai's arrival. Kurogane couldn't imagine why.
"Fai!" one particularly keen individual said, (then he nodded a greeting to Kurogane. As an afterthought). "Did you make it yourself?" And then Kurogane tuned out their over-enthusiastic chatter about the best beer jugs and spices and Kurogane really couldn't believe how much Fai had learned in fifteen days.
"You know, Fai," the keen one was speaking again, "You shouldn't be out in the sun like this. It's a long walk back, and I heard from your neighbour that you passed out the other day." He looked sincerely concerned. It made Kurogane feel slightly ill.
"I'll be fine!" Fai announced gleefully, and some of the gathered workers were looking at Kurogane scornfully now as though he could do something about it. As though he was responsible for making the idiot mage dehydrate. Perhaps they thought he was sucking Fai dry somehow, and that thought was almost too lascivious, leading down the slippery slope to what Kurogane hoped were memories of warm lips and pale skin in dark cellars.
"Kuro-chi?" Fai's voice, light and curious, stopped him short.
"What?" Kurogane shook himself and knew Fai had noticed.
"You looked a million miles away, Kuro-mu. Are you all right?" he said softly, and out of the corner of his eye Kurogane could see Fai's hand wavering just below his elbow as though unsure whether to touch him or not.
"Fine," Kurogane replied, mumbled something about getting to work and headed towards the tomb entrance. He passed oddly posed creatures with unrecognisable animal-heads and thick black line drawings he had been told were writing as he descended down dark stairs.
The writing, thin and elegant and mysterious, reminded him of magic. And it reminded him of Fai.
16. (Letters II.)
"Dear Kuro…pon," Syaoran stuttered late in the evening on the sixteenth day. He looked up at Kurogane, whose only response to the nickname was a deeper furrowing of his already deeply furrowed brow.
"I thought so," he mumbled. "Stupid weird language of his makes my name look like a bunch of chicken scratches." Then louder; "Go on."
"I've just gone to that man with the big scar on his leg's house to deliver some…" Syaoran shuddered, "…make-up. He really likes it and says I'm the best… I don't know that word… in the village."
"He's the best what?" Kurogane demanded, leaning forward to get a closer look at the cloth scrap the note was scrawled on.
"I… I don't know. His language is very unusual…" Syaoran tried to explain. "I'm not even sure what I'm saying is right."
Kurogane huffed and leant back against the wall.
"It sounds like him," he said. "What else does it say?"
"I'll be back soon and then I'll…" And as Syaoran's eyes ran over the words that followed he felt himself choke, then blush furiously, and when he looked up at Kurogane he could see deep deep suspicion in his eyes. And Syaoran was afraid.
"Well?" Kurogane was looking at him with such intensity that Syaoran wished he could just sink into the floor matting and disappear.
"Um…" he tried. And failed. And looked around the room desperately hoping for a means to escape. He could feel Kurogane's eyes on him, watching.
"Just say it, kid," he said. "I know it's not you."
So Syaoran took a deep breath, and read;
"…and then I'll give you another bath out in the desert where we can be alone and maybe this time you won't complain when I'm too rough I even got something like soap at the market so it won't hurt as much There's a new…"
"Enough!" Kurogane roared, and Syaoran stopped immediately, wondering why Fai, who had always been so kind, had forsaken him this way. Then more quietly, "I get it." And Kurogane took the cloth letter and shoved it viciously into a crack in the wall.
"I can find something useful to do with this at least," he mumbled furiously.
Then he stood up and stamped his way out of the house.
When he returned later that night with Fai and a bag of grain, Syaoran could have sworn Kurogane smelled of herbs and spices.
17. (Letters III.)
On the seventeenth day Fai wrote Kurogane another letter.
Kurogane found it when he got home; an old scrap of browned cloth with black, blotchy scrawls across it left on his pillow. He stared at it for a long time, weighing up the pros and cons of asking Syaoran to translate again, weighing up the pros and cons of ignoring it and finding another crack in the plastering to plug.
Then Sakura appeared beside him, looking curiously at the rag.
"What is that, Kurogane-san?" she asked.
"It's from that idiot wizard," Kurogane replied shortly.
Sakura's eyes widened in surprise.
"You can read that?" she said, and carefully took the cloth from Kurogane's hands to examine it closely.
"Not a word." And then Sakura's eyes lit up and Kurogane knew he was doomed.
"Then we should go and find Syaoran-kun! He'll know what it says!" she declared gleefully, and ran down to the cellar where the boy was checking the grain to fetch him before Kurogane could stop her. For a fleeting moment Kurogane thought he felt sorry for Syaoran.
"A…another message?" he said, appearing at the kitchen doorway, cloth held tightly in his hands.
Definitely felt sorry for him.
He almost looked pale, and certainly harried and Sakura was bouncing at his arm.
"What does it say, Syaoran?" Sakura asked excitedly.
Anxiously, Syaoran's eyes fell to the writing, and Kurogane knew it was bad when after a moment of reading Syaoran's breath caught and he let out what sounded decidedly like a sob. He looked up, eyes pleading mercy, at Kurogane.
"Just read out the… relevant parts," Kurogane sighed, and saw a confused look cross Sakura's face, but she knew better than to ask. Syaoran nodded.
"My…dearest Kuro…mi," he began, and Sakura nodded intently. "Please forgive me for yesterday… Err… he says he hopes I wasn't too embarrassed."
Kurogane snorted in disbelief.
"I'm glad you liked the soap and I did too. I especially like it when your strong, manly hands…"
"HOW IS THAT RELEVANT?" Kurogane bellowed. Syaoran and Sakura quailed.
"Um…well…it has to do with…um…the next part…" Syaoran stammered. Kurogane sagged in resignation, put a hand to his aching aching head and waved at Syaoran, indicating for him to continue.
"So…err…" Syaoran skimmed his fingers across a couple of lines of text that Kurogane hoped he never had to understand. "He says then: I have gone to that lady who makes really pretty cushions' house to get some cream she says works really well for…err…smoothing calloused hands…" Syaoran paused, skimmed along two more lines then said, "love, Fai."
Kurogane stood in stunned silence.
"Isn't that nice of Fai-san," Sakura giggled. Then Kurogane turned on his heel and stormed out again, wrath and murder on his face.
Syaoran had long since gone to bed when Kurogane and Fai returned in silence that night.
On the eighteenth day Kurogane wrote Fai a letter.
"Fai-san?" Syaoran approached, apprehension and perhaps resignation in his face and a large piece of broken pottery clasped in his hands. Fai looked up from grinding.
"What is it, Syaoran-kun?" he asked, smiling brightly and sweat beading his brow.
"Um…" Syaoran looked down hopelessly at the shard in his hands. "Kurogane-san sent me with this," he said, and leant forward to pass the pottery to Fai.
"For me?" he laughed, sounding inordinately pleased, then studied it curiously. "But I can't read it."
Syaoran sighed heavily, even though he had known it would come to this and Kurogane had promised there would be nothing like that in his letter, Syaoran still felt somewhat like a tiny tiny insect caught between two giant, cruel insect-eating, green, scaly lizards.
Fai handed the letter back. Syaoran took it and followed Kurogane's beautifully calliagraphed handwriting across the pot's rounded surface. It could, Syaoran reflected, have been worse.
"To…the Idiot Wizard," Syaoran began, and Fai giggled. "As you seem to take some perverse and disturbing pleasure in writing me notes containing far too much information, I thought you might enjoy a poem I wrote just for you…"
"For me!" Fai exploded, and clapped his hands together. "Kuro-pipi is such a romantic!"
Syaoran really didn't think so.
"Um," he said.
"Yes, yes, Syaoran-kun!" Fai smiled. "Read me the poem!"
"Okay." Then Syaoran continued;
"Write me any more notes
And I'll kill you
Fai sat for a moment, apparently contemplating Kurogane's verse.
"It didn't rhyme," he said finally. Then reached up and grabbed the pot shard from Syaoran's hands. "I'll have to show him how you write a real poem." And Fai started rooting about behind him for his ink and pen.
"You wouldn't mind taking this over to him and translating it, would you, Syaoran-kun?" Fai asked, mixing up the ink with a stick. "No, I thought not. Thank you," he added before Syaoran had a chance to reply. "And could you take those cakes next door too? That would be really helpful."
And it was with a heavy heart, a large bag of cakes and that accursed pottery shard that Syaoran left the house for the second time that morning.
18. (still. Poems II.)
"Oh Kuro-chi, how fair you are,
Oh Kuro-pon, so strong,
Oh Kuro-rin, though quick and brave,
Still gets his poems wrong."
Syaoran bowed low, the offending note offered from outstretched arms.
"I'm very sorry, Kurogane-san," he apologised. "Fai-san said your poem didn't rhyme."
"It wasn't supposed to," Kurogane grumbled, took the pottery and in an empty corner began to write. It was then that Syaoran realised this was going to be a long day.
19. (Poems III.)
There were no more letters or poems on the nineteenth day. There weren't even words. Kurogane, it seemed, had chosen to verbalise his final sonnet on the eighteenth night, and Fai hadn't spoken to him since.
At first, Kurogane had thought this a great thing, until he remembered food and warm bodies and temple walls.
The twentieth day marked two weeks since they had arrived in that country, spat out into the burning desert just beyond the village walls. Fai celebrated by making bread.
"It's got sand in it," Kurogane complained.
"Everything's got sand in it here, Kuro-pon," Fai remarked. "It's not my fault." And he lightly brushed the mat they were all sitting on, disturbing the thin layer of sand there. "It's even in the beer…"
"I…I think it tastes good though," Sakura offered, and took a large bite in demonstration. Syaoran and Mokona nodded in agreement and Fai smiled.
"You see, Kuro-min. Our children think it tastes good."
Kurogane ground his teeth. "They're being polite."
There was silence then, until Kurogane added, "And they're not our children." He paused. "Especially the white meat bun." Mokona pouted and sat sulking and chewing on the bread, occasionally throwing offended looks at Kurogane.
Fai laughed and spooned more vegetables onto Kurogane's plate. "The whole town thinks they are."
"Don't these people have any concept of biology?"
"Ah…no, not really," Syaoran cut in excitedly. "There seems to be the belief here that men are solely responsible for the production…of…children…" Syaoran trailed off, noticing Kurogane's scowl, Fai and Mokona's amused grins and Sakura's surprise. "Um…"
"Well I certainly didn't know that, Syaoran-kun," Fai laughed. "What have you been talking to people about!"
Syaoran blushed visibly and busied himself picking the bones out of his grilled fish.
"It seems strange though," Fai mused, "Seeing as they don't think Kuro-mu and I are sleeping together…"
Kurogane's plate dropped to the floor matting with a deceptively gentle thud.
"That is not something we need to discuss here, you idiot," he growled, leaning forward menacingly.
"But I thought Fai-san and Kurogane-san were sleeping together," Sakura said then, looking somewhat perplexed. "Down in the cellar…"
It was, Kurogane reflected dolefully, one of their more normal dinner conversations.
There was an odd smell in the air on the morning of the twenty-second day, and soon after the sun had fully risen rain began to fall.
There was widespread shouting and wailing and when Kurogane stuck his head out of the front door to see what all the commotion was about their elderly neighbour screamed bloody murder and demanded he stay inside, lest he be drowned.
"I think they're scared of the rain, Kuro-chi," Fai said, looking out onto the deserted street from behind Kurogane.
"What for?" Kurogane said, closing the door and turning to Fai. "How is rain supposed to drown me anyway?"
"Well it seems like they hardly ever get rain in this world, so they think it's frightening," Fai explained. "I suppose that means you get the day off, Kuro-tan. You can cower in fear of the rain with me!"
"I do not cower in fear of anything," Kurogane insisted, and sat back down on the floor to finish his breakfast.
"Oh, I'm sure there's…" Fai began, then paused, a troubled look passed over his face, cursed once then turned and ran towards the back of the house.
"What?" Kurogane called after him, making to stand.
"Nothing, Kuro-rin," came Fai's hurried reply. "I've got it." Kurogane frowned but sat back down.
A few minutes later Fai returned, dripping wet but looking relieved.
"The hell?" Kurogane said. Fai pulled open a basket at the side of the room and pulled out a towel.
"That was refreshing," he laughed.
"You're dripping all over the floor," Kurogane said, standing up and making his way over to the wizard. "What happened?"
"I had to put some mats up over the kitchen," Fai replied, rubbing at his hair with the towel. "I didn't want my oven to get washed away.
"Hn," Kurogane said, and took the towel from Fai's hands. "Get out of those clothes."
Fai looked at Kurogane for a moment in surprise before a wide, lecherous grin spread across his face. "Why, Kuro-sama…" Fai began.
"Not like that," Kurogane cut in, and roughly scrubbed at Fai's hair.
"Ow…" Fai tried to push Kurogane away. "You could at least be a bit more gentle…" Kurogane didn't reply, just kept on rubbing at damp hair and Fai gave up trying to stop him.
"So what shall we do today, Kuro-tan? If we're going to be here alone together." Fai's voice was oddly neutral.
"We're not alone," Kurogane replied.
"Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun are still asleep though." Fai turned to face Kurogane and leaned in closer.
"They might not be for long." Kurogane stopped attacking Fai's hair and looked down at him, a light smile on his lips and unreadable eyes searching his face. Fai shrugged.
"We can't sneak out and kiss behind the temple today," he laughed softly, reaching up to place one hand on Kurogane's jaw. "You know," he added, "I always wondered why we did that. It's very teenaged of us."
"You started it," Kurogane retorted.
"No, I think you did, Kuro-mi," Fai argued, and gently traced Kurogane's lips with his fingers. "Not that I'm complaining, but we do have a perfectly serviceable dark cellar…"
"It smells down there." Kurogane let the towel fall to the ground, and his hands fell to Fai's waist.
"But you still sleep down there with me," he smiled, hands trailing down Kurogane's neck now. Kurogane frowned, wondering if perhaps he was getting soft, but then Fai was kissing him and he didn't much care if he was.
And then, right then, just as Kurogane was discovering just how much he liked kissing the idiot mage, and just how much his hands were drawn to pale flesh hidden under linen shirts, there was a sort of strangled cry from the corner of the room.
Kurogane drew back abruptly, and Fai turned his head, and they both saw a flustered, red-faced Syaoran frozen by the doorframe.
"I'm…I'm…I…was…I'm…" he stammered, his eyes roaming everywhere but at the two adults who still stood somewhat in each other's arms.
"Ah, Syaoran-kun," Fai said cheerily. "Good morning! Just let me finish this with Kuro-pin and I'll get your breakfast."
Kurogane didn't know how the mage could act like that, as though everything was perfectly normal, and thought he probably looked about as mortified and embarrassed as Syaoran did.
"No…No…it's okay," Syaoran said, perhaps an octave too high. "I'll get it myself…" And with that he disappeared from the doorway with what Kurogane thought was commendable speed and agility.
"I think we may have scared him," Fai mused, turning back to Kurogane. Kurogane thought traumatised might describe it better.
They didn't see Mokona, Syaoran nor Sakura until dinner time that day.
It was late morning on the twenty-third day, and Kurogane should have been at work. Instead, he was in the kitchen kneading dough.
"You're not doing it right, Kuro-chi," Fai admonished, and cuddled up against Kurogane's back, taking the ninja's hands in his own. "You do it like this," he said, pushing both their hands slowly into the dough. "You don't need to be so violent. It's already dead, you know." He laughed lightly, and Kurogane felt warm breath against his skin.
"There is nothing wrong with my technique," Kurogane griped. "You just wanted an excuse to letch."
"Hmm," Fai said, and Kurogane could feel the smile against his arm. "But you like it when I letch."
"No, I don't," Kurogane retorted and shoved Fai away with his elbows. "Now go and do something useful. Don't you think you scared that brat enough yesterday?"
"Oh, I see," Fai smiled. "You're shy." He stretched up and placed a light kiss on Kurogane's cheek, whispering in his ear, "They won't be back all day today, Kuro-sama…"
Kurogane growled and pushed Fai away from him with doughy hands. "You said something like that yesterday. Now get off me."
Pouting and mumbling something about cruel-hearted ninjas, Fai went back over to the oven and began petting it lovingly.
"Even if Kuro-mu doesn't love me, I know you still do. And even though we're probably going to have to part ways soon, please make Kuro-tan's dough rise properly because he won't listen to me at all, and…"
"How is that doing something useful, idiot!" Kurogane bellowed, turning furiously towards Fai.
"You see how he treats me, Oven? Sometimes I wonder if he hates me." Fai sighed dramatically and gently brushed sand off the oven's surface. "He just doesn't understand how I feel about you," Fai went on, eyes flickering momentarily over to Kurogane. "I think he's jealous."
"I am not jealous," Kurogane huffed. "And how many times have you been burnt by that thing anyway?"
"No, no, Kuro-pon," Fai said, "that was just me being clumsy. Oven didn't mean it."
"You might be crazy, but you're not clumsy," Kurogane argued, turning back to the dough and wondering just why exactly he had felt the need to get into this argument.
"Are you saying Oven burnt me on purpose?" Fai asked, mock-outrage in his voice and eyes wide.
"No," Kurogane growled, glad for the dough in his hands. He sighed heavily in defeat. "Fine. Show me how you think I should do this, if it'll stop you being a crazy idiot."
Fai smiled brightly, patted the oven one last time and went back to stand beside Kurogane. "Oh, I don't think anything could do that," he laughed, then took Kurogane's hands in his own again.
It was late on the twenty-fourth day when Syaoran, Fai, Kurogane, and Mokona, hidden deep in Kurogane's clothes, left the house and made their way out of the east gate.
"I heard the temple is dedicated to a goddess represented by a feather," Syaoran explained. Fai hummed thoughtfully.
"So you think the feather is there?" he asked.
"I don't know. It might be a coincidence…"
Fai chuckled, "You know what the Dimension Witch would say about that, Syaoran-kun." The boy smiled and nodded, then added;
"We went around all the tombs and couldn't find any clues, so it seems most likely."
"So why are we here?" Kurogane grumbled, and squirmed as Mokona moved about under his shirt. "And why," he hissed, "Is the meat bun in my clothes?"
"Mokona likes you, Kuro-rin," Fai giggled. "And we're here because it might be dangerous."
"And you know that do you?" Kurogane asked suspiciously, watching the mage from the corner of his eyes. Fai shrugged.
"It might be dangerous," he repeated.
So they approached the temple slowly, Syaoran holding the oil lamp before him and leading the way. It was dark and deserted, and to Kurogane was the place he and Fai kept coming to push each other against powdery brick walls and kiss and feel and was not the place to go with kids looking for feathers.
And inside, where they had never been before, Syaoran's lamp threw long orange shadows over walls adorned with static, mystical figures and pitch black, curved writing.
"Mokona," Syaoran whispered. "Can you feel anything?"
Mokona appeared at the collar of Kurogane's shirt. "There's a lot of magic here…"
"Like before…" Fai murmured. Mokona nodded and Kurogane and Syaoran looked at him.
"What do you mean, Fai-san?" Syaoran asked, and Fai smiled weakly.
"I felt it at the tombs, and Mokona did too."
"It's like lots of different magic all at once," Mokona explained. "But I can't tell if it's the feather too."
They looked around, and Syaoran tried to read the walls for any clues they might give, but as the moon rose to its peak, and Syaoran's lamp flickered as it burned the last of its oil, they decided it was hopeless to search this way and made their way home to devise another plan.
25. (Cutting Hair.)
Kurogane marked the twenty-fifth day with the twenty-forth scratch in the wall beside the bench that had once been his bed, and wondered how the idiot mage had ever convinced him to sleep on a dirty old mat in a dark, dingy cellar instead.
Fai appeared at the doorway yawning widely and scratching his head.
"Good morning, Kuro-pon," he said sleepily, and sat down next to Kurogane, leaning heavily against his arm. Kurogane mumbled a greeting.
"Why didn't you tell me about the magic at the tombs?" he asked then, frowning, and tapped Fai lightly on the back.
"Kuro-chi," Fai whined meekly, "Don't start that again. I only just got up." Then he scratched his head again.
"And you'd better not have lice," Kurogane said, pushing Fai off him and taking his head in his hands. He pulled the mage down and started rifling through light-coloured hair.
"I do not have lice," Fai insisted, but held onto Kurogane's knee and didn't seem to mind him looking through his hair anyway.
"You've got too much. You should cut it off," Kurogane said, and at that Fai pulled back and shot Kurogane a horrified look.
"No!" he cried.
"I'd cut it for you," Kurogane smirked. Fai responded by throwing a dusty old cushion at him.
"And maybe next time," Fai said slowly, standing up, "somebody wonders why we're not sleeping together, I'll tell them it's because you're really bad in…"
And Kurogane lunged for the mage, missed by an inch and wished he had his sword at hand.
"You dare and I'll kill you," he warned, standing up himself, fingers twitching in irritation. Fai was backing away into the corridor, laughing airily.
"Hmmm." He waved an arm at Kurogane. "You always say that, Kuro-sama, but you've never even caught me." And childish or not, noisy so early in the morning or not and dangerous to children sleeping on the floor in the next room as Kurogane stormed after Fai's flighty steps or not, Kurogane just couldn't let Fai get away with that.
26. (Cutting Hair II.)
The twenty-sixth day was burning hot and blindingly sunny and the house became so stuffy and uncomfortable that Sakura and Syaoran and Mokona went to doze on the roof, and Fai and Kurogane sat out on the street in the shade of their house.
And death by Fai and a pair of screeching scissors was not how Kurogane had envisioned his ultimate demise.
"I know what I'm doing, Kuro-mu," Fai reassured him, and ran thin fingers through black hair.
"What, you were a barber as well as a mage in your world?" Kurogane mumbled. Fai giggled but made no reply, and Kurogane heard the scissors squeak ominously somewhere above his head.
"I thought I was supposed to be the one cutting all your hair off." Kurogane fidgeted, his stool rocking on the uneven earth ground.
"I wouldn't let you near my hair, Kuro-tan," Fai laughed, and Kurogane held still as he heard a snip and saw hair fall to the ground. "You'd make it look awful."
"I would not!" he retorted, heard more snipping and saw more hair fall and wondered why he had ever agreed to this. "I trust you to do mine," he added more quietly. Fai paused for a moment, then said;
"But you don't, Kuro-pon. You're scared."
"I told you; I am not scared of anything!" Kurogane growled, and held himself still, really trying to trust Fai. "I just don't trust you to not do weird things."
Swift trimming and cutting and hair falling around him, and Fai seemed to be thinking.
"Alright then," he said finally, and stood back a little from Kurogane, leaning this way and that.
"What?" Kurogane watched Fai out of the corner of his eyes, apparently inspecting his handiwork.
"You can trim my hair," Fai replied. He stepped forward again and lightly brushed stray hair from Kurogane's shoulders.
"Seriously?" Kurogane asked, turning to look at Fai and running a hand through his own (shorter) hair to ensure there were no bald spots at least.
"Seriously." Fai smiled at him. "But if you cut too much off or make it look stupid I'll put poison in your beer," he added cheerfully and handed Kurogane the squeaky scissors. Kurogane stood up so that Fai could take his place on the wobbly stool.
"Just a bit shorter, please, Kuro-barber. It's very hot today, after all," Fai chuckled and Kurogane stood behind him, scissors in one hand and the other in fine light hair and he suddenly wished he hadn't offered to do this.
"You trust me?" he asked Fai, and he really had never expected Fai to agree.
"I suppose I do," Fai replied, still amused. And Kurogane frowned, and cut Fai's hair more carefully than he'd ever done anything in his life.
28. (Well Water.)
It was the twenty-eighth day, and the beer store was running low.
"Do you think the children have been raiding mummy and daddy's stash?" Fai looked around the cellar perplexed, oil lamp held in his outstretched hand, then turned to Kurogane. "Or maybe Kuro-daddy secretly likes the beer…"
Kurogane snorted a laugh. "Or maybe idiot wizards have been too lazy to make more," he suggested. Fai hummed disapprovingly.
"I haven't had time." He signed and turned around in the small space, crouching to climb the stairs out of the cellar.
"You going to buy some more?" Kurogane asked, following him out.
"No," Fai replied, lightly shaking the large water pots lined up against the kitchen's back wall. "I'm going to make some. I don't mind drinking my own as much as the nasty stuff other people make."
"Yours tastes horrible too," Kurogane said, folding his arms, and watched Fai heft an empty-sounding pot onto his shoulder.
Fai laughed. "Well yes, but if you think you can do better you are welcome to try. And help me get water would you?" He pointed to another jug.
"Why do I have to help?" Kurogane complained, but picked up the pot anyway.
"Because Sakura and Syaoran are too young to lift them, and Mokona is too small, and I can only carry one at a time and I need more than that to make more beer, and you're a big strong Ninja who wants to help his family," Fai trilled, smiling, and led the way through the house and out onto the street.
Only a few steps beyond their door Kurogane had to navigate his way around a group of women sat chatting and spinning right across the way, enjoying the light afternoon breeze and the shade of the houses. Fai greeted them amicably, and they laughed and waved and offered to teach him weaving or embroidery or anything he wanted and how was the brave Kurogane today? And wasn't it kind of him to help around the home? Fai laughed with them, then waved goodbye and Kurogane was glad when they turned down an alley to the right, heading towards the north gate.
"Friends of yours?" Kurogane asked.
"They taught me to make beer," Fai replied, and Kurogane thought that made them sound more like cruel-hearted evil harpies than friends, and said so. Fai just laughed and turned down another alley, Kurogane following impatiently behind.
"Where are the kids anyway?" he said. He could see the gate a little way ahead, and two dozing men sitting beside it. If he were their commander, Kurogane thought, he'd have them exiled for such negligence. The thought cheered him.
Then Fai said, "They went back to the temple. Syaoran is trying to get the head priest to teach him about the mythology of this world."
"He needs to hurry up and find that damn feather," Kurogane huffed. "This world is annoying."
"You think all the worlds we visit are annoying, Kuro-pi," Fai chuckled. Kurogane shrugged as best he could with a large earthenware jug balanced on his shoulder.
"That's because they are."
"All except for yours?" Fai asked, voice amused and eyes sly. Kurogane didn't answer and they walked past the sleeping guards in silence.
Outside the town gates the wind blew stronger, throwing sand against the walls and in their eyes and mouths.
"Are you really," Kurogane spat, tossing the jug to the ground as they drew level with the well, "saying you like this place?"
"No," Fai laughed. "I was saying you didn't." He lay his jug down and unhooked the well bucket so that it fell into the hole with a splash. "Although," Fai went on as he and Kurogane used their weight to draw the bucket back up, "It is peaceful here. Maybe a bit too hot. But peaceful." And Fai smiled almost dreamily. Kurogane thought he might like that smile.
30. (Unmoored from the Shore.)
Dawn on the thirtieth day was alive with wailing and shouting, and Kurogane, dragged by the din from sleep, marvelled at the volume of their voices and wondered if it was raining again.
A pale hand landed haphazardly on his face and a sleepy voice drifted up from somewhere at his side.
"Kuro-mu," Fai murmured. "Tell them to be quiet." And he snuggled closer, nose pushed against Kurogane's arm and hand falling to rest on his chest.
The wailing got louder, and then there was banging on the front door.
"You tell them," he grumbled, and turned his back to Fai, pulling the thin blanket over himself and, judging by Fai's indignant cry, off of the mage.
"Hey!" he protested, draping himself over Kurogane's side. "Kuro-chi's so mean this morning…"
There was banging on the door again, and now Kurogane could hear there was sobbing and howling and someone was calling their names. Fai sighed.
"Do you think they'll go away if we just ignore it?" he asked, only half jokingly, and lightly brushed sand away from Kurogane's neck.
"Doesn't sound like it," Kurogane replied. He laid a hand on Fai's head for a moment then sat up. "Come on," he said, and watched Fai with amusement as he felt around in the dark for his clothes.
"To your right," Kurogane instructed, and laughed when the mage finally found his shirt and tried to put it on as trousers.
"Kuro-chi really is mean this morning," Fai mumbled, pulling his leg out of the sleeve. "Just because he can see in the dark…"
They heard feet running across the mat flooring above them, and the volume of the wailing increased exponentially as the door was opened and Syaoran cried;
"What's wrong? What's going on?"
"Oh child! Oh child!" the wailing voice cried. "Our beloved neighbour! Oh our beloved neighbour is unmoored!"
Pulling down his shirt, Kurogane hurried up the cellar steps and to the front door to find a bemused-looking Syaoran and an expectantly miserable-looking woman with puffy red eyes and clenched hands. Fai rushed to join them at the door, and upon seeing him the woman rushed into the house and grabbed Fai by the shoulders.
"Oh Fai! Oh Fai!" she bawled. "Our beloved neighbour, the Ancient Weaver, she is unmoored!" And she emphasised the word as though Fai knew what it meant.
"Well…that's…awful…" Fai tried, and twisted his face to something approximating unhappiness. The howling women nodded her head fiercely and then wept on Fai's chest.
"Woman," Kurogane bellowed, "That idiot doesn't understand what you're on about any more than I do. Now tell us what happened? Some old granny got stuck in a boat?"
The woman turned to Kurogane with a look of pure horror in her eyes.
"How could you say such a thing!" she said, her voice quivering, and she walked over to where Kurogane stood. "This is not the time for jokes, you cruel cruel man!" she shrieked, and starting slapping Kurogane on his face and chest so fast Kurogane had to bring his arms up in defence.
"It's not a… What the hell…" Kurogane sputtered, and seriously would have liked to hit the woman back.
"Ah, my friend, my friend," came Fai's voice then. "Stop, stop…" The woman halted her attacks, and turned to Fai, a quizzical expression on her face. "Kuro-pon is cruel, it's true," Fai smiled, "But he really doesn't know what you mean."
She looked between Fai and Kurogane and back again and then down at her feet.
"Oh…" she sobbed, and bowed at little. "I'm sorry…" she said. "I mean she's dead. Our dear neighbour is dead. But she was old, and liked shouting, but still we will miss her."
They all stood in silence with the howls of the other neighbourhood women bleeding through the open door, and Kurogane remembered how the Ancient Weaver had nearly deafened him that day it rained, chastising him for trying to step outside, worried that he would drown himself.
On the thirty-third day Fai and Kurogane got up long before dawn and walked the distance to the market, carrying a box of Fai's make-up and a bag of Kurogane's sandals. They came away that evening with a donkey, which Kurogane could have sworn Fai paid for in smiles, a map for Syaoran, and a bag of grain and vegetables.
"Your sandals were a great hit, Kuro-rin!" Fai applauded, swinging the pot of beer he held dangerously in his hands. "You're amazing!"
Kurogane grunted in reply.
"And I have enough grain now to make more cakes," he went on, oblivious to Kurogane's lack of interest. "Oh! And we need to name our donkey." He patted the animal on the head, grinning widely. "We should call him Kurogane."
Then Kurogane's head snapped up, and he turned to Fai in surprise.
"Did you just call me by my real name?" he asked, eyes wide. Fai laughed and shook his head.
"I said we should call the donkey Kurogane, Kuro-tan" he repeated, and laughed harder as he watched Kurogane's expression turn from surprised to irritated in a split second.
"We are not calling it that," he said gruffly, and yanked at the animal's rope.
"Why not?" Fai teased, "Are you afraid people will mistake the two of you?"
"No!" Kurogane roared, and turned angrily away from the mage, glaring daggers at the sand under his feet and the low limestone hills around them. "And if you think so, you can go and kiss that Kurogane instead," he mumbled moodily, which only made Fai laugh even more.
"Oh but Kuro-miiiii," Fai sang. "You're the only one for…" Then his voice cut out abruptly, and Fai gasped in what sounded like pain. Kurogane looked around to see him bending down and grasping his ankle.
"What is it?" He drew the donkey to a halt and took a step towards Fai.
"It feels like I was bitten by something…" Fai replied, and looked up at Kurogane.
"Let me see." Kurogane let go of the animal's rope and crouched down beside Fai, swatting his hands away. There was a little blood, which Kurogane wiped away with the hem of Fai's shirt, revealing two small puncture wounds on his ankle.
"I hope it wasn't something with deadly poison," Fai laughed humourlessly, leaning heavily against Kurogane's back.
"How do you feel?" Kurogane asked, quickly calculating how far they had to go and how long he'd been told the most deadly creatures' poisons killed.
"Um…" Fai stood thinking, and Kurogane thought his face looked a little red, but then that might have been the sun. "My ankle hurts, and feels kind of hot, but that's about all," he said finally, and looked down at Kurogane. "So, am I going to die?"
Kurogane frowned and took Fai's pot of beer from his hand. "It's not one of the most poisonous or you'd be dead by now," he said, and pulled the stopper from the pot.
"What are you doing, Kuro-chi?" Fai asked, then found out when Kurogane poured beer over the bite.
"That hurts, Kuro-rin!" Fai hissed, and tried to pull his foot away, but Kurogane held it still and poured more.
"Good," he said flatly, and Fai squirmed in his grip in discomfort. "Tell me if you feel worse." Kurogane inspected the ankle, the bite already inflamed and sore-looking. "Can you walk?" he asked, finally releasing Fai.
Fai tested his weight on his foot and grimaced, but then nodded. "More or less."
"Then we should get back as fast as we can," Kurogane said, took up the donkey's rope again and pulled Fai's arm over his shoulders so that he could lean on him.
It was slow going and, Kurogane could tell, increasingly painful for Fai. He watched him, breathing heavily and tripping over his own feet, and was surprised that the idiot didn't whine or complain. Just set his eyes to the sand and let Kurogane guide him. It was…disconcerting.
Then, just as the sun was beginning to set, Fai stopped walking and gripped Kurogane's shirt tightly.
"What is it?" Kurogane turned Fai towards him to look at his face, ashen and beaded with sweat.
"I'm…" Fai breathed, and looked like he was going to collapse right there and then, but he held on to Kurogane and took deep breaths and Kurogane thought this was really too much.
"You have the worst luck of anyone I have ever known," he grumbled, and picked the mage up carelessly, throwing him heavily over his shoulder. "Next time, you can carry me." Fai breathed out a laugh, and patted Kurogane's back lightly.
"Of course, Kuro-pon," he agreed. "Of course."
34. (Board games.)
It was the thirty-fourth day, and for the first time since he'd woken up in a cellar with a naked mage beside him, Kurogane was beginning to doubt the wisdom of being with Fai. Like this. Like two people. Together. Or something.
He wondered at how he'd never considered this before.
A warbled call from the front room. Then again;
Kurogane sighed, waited, counting to ten, then twenty, then...
"Kuro-sama! How could you leave me alone at a time like this!" A sad, sonorous whine, piercing Kurogane's eardrums and patience. "Don't you love me?"
And he didn't care what state Fai was in, or if he was dying or in pain, and he didn't care that he'd agreed to look after him, he took it all back. He took it all back right now.
"No I don't," Kurogane barked, stomping his way into the room, glaring viciously at Fai. "And will you shut up! I am not your damned slave!" He threw the beer bottle down in front of Fai and sat down heavily on the other side of the room. "You happy now?"
"Yes, Kuro-pin! Thank you." He uncorked the beer and took a sip, grimacing slightly. "I thought I might get used to the taste…" he sighed, then shrugged, turning his eyes back to Kurogane. "Can you give me that massage you promised me now?" he asked, laughing and wiggling the toes of his bandaged foot.
"I never promised you anything like that!" Kurogane growled, folding his arms. Fai pouted.
"Then how about singing to me?"
Kurogane balked at the idea, shouting, "No!"
"Then read to me?"
"But I'm bored, Kuro-mu! You won't let me go anywhere!" Fai argued, flopping down to lie on his back.
"You can't walk on that anyway!" Kurogane argued back, pointing to Fai's inflamed foot resting on colourful beaded cushions. Fai turned his body towards Kurogane and smiled.
"You could carry me?" Fai offered hopefully. Kurogane snorted.
"It's your turn to do the carrying, remember?"
Fai huffed then, lay back down and frowned.
"Being an idiot looks tiring," Kurogane smirked, and really, Fai did look exhausted. Kurogane would have preferred it if the damn mage had just consented to stay down in the cellar and sleep, and not only because that would have made his day infinitely less irritating. But this was Fai. And Fai never did what Kurogane wanted.
Fai ignored the comment, saying instead, "Play a game with me?"
"NO!" Kurogane shot back, more out of principle than anything now.
Fai threw up his arms in frustration and sat up again, turning to face Kurogane. "Then let's have sex."
And Kurogane was going to say no, but then he realised what Fai had asked and stopped dead.
"What?" he asked cautiously. Fai smiled playfully.
"Let's have sex," he said again.
And Kurogane couldn't fathom why, when he had meant to fume and refuse because Fai was being manipulative and Kurogane did not exist for the exclusive purpose of relieving the boredom of certain idiot mages, what he actually said was, "What, here?"
"Why not?" Fai's smile widened, and there was that mischief in his eyes. "There are more cushions." He reached out an arm towards Kurogane.
"You're a bastard, you know that?" Kurogane snarled, but stood up, walked over to Fai and took the proffered arm. Fai smiled brightly.
"I'm injured, Kuro-chan," he laughed, "You're not allowed to be say things like that!"
Kurogane frowned and sat down on his knees beside Fai. "I'll say what I like," he said, then kissed him- all thin limbs and hot skin in his arms, and really hoped that this time, no kids would disturb them.
On the thirty-eighth day, Syaoran found the feather.
"That tomb," Syaoran said, and took the offered jug of wine from Fai's hands, "it was beautiful."
Sakura clasped her hands together and sighed. "Oh, I wish I could have gone with you to see it," she said, then paused, looking embarrassed and added quickly, "Not that I minded staying behind and looking after Fai-san…"
Fai laughed lightly and sat down next to her. "That's alright, Sakura-chan. I would have liked to have gone too."
"You didn't miss much." Kurogane threw another log on the fire between them and shrugged. "There wasn't anything to fight."
"Ah, but Kuro-tan," Fai smiled, and took a drink from his own wine bottle, "Didn't you think it was beautiful too?"
"It was… weird," he replied simply.
Sakura looked from Kurogane to Syaoran and asked, eyes wide, "Was it scary? It was so far underground and it must have been dark and was there… a… a dead person down there?"
"There was a coffin," Syaoran said over the soft crackling of the fire, "in the deepest room. There was that picture writing they use here all over it. It said it belonged to the feather goddess."
"Did…did you open it then?" Sakura looked entranced and afraid, and stared at Syaoran with eager eyes.
"I thought your feather would be inside, so I did…" Syaoran trailed off, remembering yellow and blue decoration flickering dully in the light of his oil lamp, unthinkingly taking a swig of wine.
"It wasn't there," Kurogane said, and frowned as he watched Syaoran drink. "And the lid to that thing was damn heavy." He glared at the sleeping Mokona on Sakura's lap. "And that was no help."
"But I bet Kuro-sama looked so cool," Fai cooed, and shifted himself around the fire, moving closer to Kurogane.
"Idiot," he mumbled, but didn't even try to push Fai away when he attached himself to Kurogane's arm.
Sakura was still staring at Syaoran.
"And then what happened?" she asked, "If the feather wasn't in the… the coffin?"
"Mokona told us it was definitely there somewhere, so I guessed that it was under the coffin, and when Kurogane-san stepped into it he…"
"In the coffin?" Sakura exclaimed, and looked at Kurogane. " Wasn't there a… dead person in it?"
Kurogane shrugged and nodded. "I don't think they minded me…" And then Fai hit him on the arm, frowning.
"Kuro-pon!" he reproved, "Don't be so insensitive!"
"What?" Kurogane argued. "It was mostly dust anyway…"
Fai shook his head, and it seemed to Kurogane as though he couldn't decide whether to laugh or look angry.
"So… what did you do, Kurogane-san?" Sakura said.
"I made a hole in the bottom of the coffin," Kurogane replied. "And stop drinking so much," he added, turning abruptly to Syaoran.
Syaoran blushed, looking both guilty and surprised, mumbled an apology and put the wine jug down. Kurogane could feel Fai chuckling softly beside him.
"Um," Syaoran said, "So, there was another room below the tomb. It was the most amazing thing- all golden and… and… shiny. Your feather was there."
"And that was it." Kurogane stood up, pulling the mage up with him. "Now go to bed so we can leave tomorrow."
"Oh, but Kuro-mu!" Fai whined, and leaned heavily on Kurogane's arm. "It's such a nice night out and who knows what the next world will be like." Fai released his arm and sat back down. "And we have a nice fire and wine and our children are having fun!"
"You want to spend another day in this heat that you've been complaining about ever since we got here?" Kurogane asked incredulously, folding his arms and glaring. "You want to drink more of that beer?"
"That's not it, Kuro-pi," Fai laughed, tugging at Kurogane's shirt hem and offering his wine jug to him.
Syaoran and Sakura were looking at him with half-drunk, curious eyes, and the sand had been soft, and the wine good. And their fire burned, insignificant, as though it was the only light in that world beneath brilliant stars. So Kurogane sat, and saw mischievous promise on Fai's face.
39. (The Place Of Truth.)
There was a strong breeze on the thirty-ninth day, which Fai decided was a good portent.
"Do you know, Kuro-myu," he called, shaking black fabric and watching droplets of water splatter across scorched sand, "that your cloak is one of the dirtiest things I have ever had to wash."
"And how much washing have you done in your life?" Kurogane retorted.
"Enough to know that the water running out of clothes shouldn't be brown." Fai hung the cloak on a rope strung between the village wall and an old, weathered pole. The pole bent dangerously.
"And why is it so heavy, anyway? This line will never hold my coat with your cloak on it too."
"I doubt it would hold your coat anyway," Kurogane commented, taking Fai's coat from the basket beside him and holding it up. "All this fluff holds a tonne of water." He squeezed one arm thoughtfully and a stream of water came out. "Is this even going to dry before tomorrow?"
"It will in this sun, won't it?" Fai said, and Kurogane grunted a reply. They worked in silence then as Kurogane squeezed water out of thick blue fabric and Fai tried to balance Sakura's dress on the pole.
"Did you see Syaoran-kun this morning, Kuro-pu?" Fai spoke finally, an amused grin on his face.
"He looked green." Kurogane shook his head. "I told him not to drink so much." Another squeeze of an arm, and water splashed to the ground. "And you didn't help- always giving him more of that wine. I think he was trying to keep up with you."
Fai giggled. "You'd think he'd learn."
They lapsed into silence again, balancing and squeezing, until Fai had hung up the last bit of clothing and sat back against the wall rubbing his ankle and watching Kurogane wring the life from his coat.
"I wonder if the next world will be like this," he said, and Kurogane could tell from the strange look on his face and the lilt of his voice that Fai wasn't really asking about other places.
"We'll be like this," Kurogane answered plainly. He didn't need to say anything else, because Fai was smiling.
40. (A Thousand Offerings.)
"Breakfast tasted really good, Fai-san. Thank you," Syaoran said, closing the town gates silently behind him.
"And even the beer wasn't so bad," Sakura cheered and Mokona, held in her arms, concurred.
"The beer was definitely just as bad," Kurogane disagreed.
And then, as the sun rose on the morning of the fortieth day, the travellers left that ancient world behind in a flurry of sand and magic.
The villagers said, "Maybe they were ghosts," and "Maybe they had to go home," or "Maybe the witch kidnapped Fai again and the others had to go and rescue him."
They talked for months and months, and remembered their strange clothes and loud pets and odd ways. And then, much later, the villagers set up a stelae to their disappeared friends.
It said: "A thousand of bread and cloth and beer," and other spells to ensure that whether they were dead or alive, they would at least be fed and clothed. They made offerings to them, just as they had done when the four strangers had lived in their village. And they offered bread and cloth and beer. Lots of beer.