'I'm going where to do what?' Kurogane rumbled ominously, half rising from his knee as his scowl grew darker.
The Two Aspects were unperturbed. They had seen far more explosive displays of temper from him over the last three years.
'Now, now, Kuro darling, don't get all upset,' the precognitive trilled, her long black hair swirling sinuously around her as she floated in the psi-fluid. Her red eyes, nearly a match to his own, seemed to see entirely too much as she smirked mockingly down at him. 'This is a very important mission, you know, so you don't exactly have a way to refuse.'
'Even more important than you may realise,' the retrocognitive said calmly. Unlike her sister, there was only serenity in her eyes, but the hint of urgency in her voice was unusual and – to Kurogane, who had spent years with her – unmistakable. 'These feathers are far too powerful to be left unsealed, and they have scattered across the Endless Black to many other worlds. Their existence is destabilising the dimensions – the threads that link us all across time and space are being severed. People everywhere are being driven insane by the power of these feathers. They will destroy everything unless you stop them.'
'And there's one other thing, Kuro darling,' the precog said, an evil gleam in her eye. Kurogane's eyebrow twitched at the name. 'Some people are gathering feathers for themselves, hoarding them to gain more power. These are the rare few whose will is strong enough to withstand the feathers' force and subjugate them.' She stopped for dramatic effect, and Kurogane fought the urge to yell at he as he waited. 'The most powerful of these was the man responsible for the death of the city of Suwa. And, as an extension, of your family.'
Kurogane was on his feet before he knew it. 'Who. Was. It.'
'We don't know yet,' the retrocognitive said, violet eyes sympathetic. 'He is powerful enough already to block my powers, and Yuuko's as well. Unless we seal the feathers before he gathers too many, we fear he will gain control over all the threads of all the dimensions.'
'Why me?' Kurogane snapped. 'I'm only an assassin. I'm no world-saver.'
'You're not only an assassin,' the precognitive observed. 'You wield Souhi's power.'
Kurogane's hand twitched instinctively to his hip, where the sword rested, bound to him physically, magically and spiritually. Souhi drew her strength from her wielder and magnified it. In essence, he gave the sword life – not that that stopped her from whispering in his mind all the time, chipping away at his sanity.
What little had been reconstructed of it.
Blood everywhere. That was his only clear impression of that final massacre. Running, running, the screams of the people, people he had known all his life, his mother falling slowly, gracefully to the ground as bright red spilled from her; unable to do anything but howl in fury and dismay.
And then Souhi.
Glittering blade, dazzling magic, materialising in his hands from her resting place deep within the treasury of Suwa – the sword only his father could have wielded, and realising even as his fingers closed around her hilt that he was now orphaned twice over, and then blood – so much blood – as his muscles moved automatically, unleashing destruction on the ruins of Suwa.
He couldn't remember much of that day. In fact, he couldn't remember much of the decade after that, either.
'Your control is not yet complete,' the retrocognitive said quietly.
Kurogane snorted. Understatement of the century.
He'd wandered for years through the forests and mountains of Suwa, his personality and will subsumed and warped by Souhi's; the enchanted sword punished those who could not control her, and his young mind had been woefully unprepared for it.
'But it could be,' the precog sang with obvious relish.
'You told me it was impossible,' Kurogane said hoarsely. 'If you've been lying to me, you bitch, I'll kill you all.'
'I never said it was impossible,' Yuuko purred. 'Did I ever say that, Tomoyo?'
'Don't tease him, sister,' the retrocognitive chided gently.
'Oh, very well then. You're such a good girl. Kuro darling, you have got to learn to listen. I never said it was impossible, I said you would never be able to pay the price. Buuut,' she smirked, 'a job like this…why, it would get you very far towards paying for that wish of yours.'
'I don't need that wish,' he whispered harshly.
'It took that man two years to force your personality to emerge after the last time you ceded control to Souhi,' the retrocognitive said. 'Would you like to go through that again?'
Two years of training – and Fai, the bounty hunter who had dragged him back from Suwa to Nihon, to the Institute, had taken charge of it. He had stayed with him the entire time, until Kurogane had been restored to something approaching his former self, manipulating and forcing and coaxing and guiding him towards achieving at least partial control over his power.
And just when he had actually begun to trust someone else, Fai had left – left without any notice whatsoever, leaving him at the tender mercies of the Institute.
'You talk like I'm your puppet on a chain,' he spat. 'Do this, do that, roll over, play dead.'
'If you say so,' Yuuko said, and he was reminded again that he was exactly that. 'Remember, we're not forcing you to do this. But it would free you of Souhi, and you would avenge your parents, wouldn't you?'
The hate surged up in him again, and he could feel Souhi react before the sword became quiescent again, having decided there was no threat to his life. 'If I find him,' he grated, 'this job is off. And I will kill him.'
'That would be acceptable,' Tomoyo said calmly. 'In the meantime, you will be required to return to the Institute periodically to relinquish whatever feathers you may have acquired. We will also be monitoring you to see if you will require rehabilitation once again, as your powers have shown signs of growing in the last few months.'
Rehabilitation…Kurogane shivered. Locked up in a little white room, locked away from Souhi, waiting for enough of the sword's influence to disentangle itself from his mind for the wards to be reinforced…the only time they had done it had nearly killed him, and he would be dead if it hadn't been for–
'This may not be necessary, of course,' Tomoyo continued. 'A mage will accompany you on this journey, and we believe he can prevent any, shall we say, unfortunate incidents?'
'I don't need a watchdog,' Kurogane spat.
'But you will need assistance,' Yuuko interrupted his imminent rant with the ease of practice. 'You're very good at breaking things, but sealing and manipulating objects of power is far beyond your talent. You're taking him along, and that's final.'
The Aspects' eyes began to close, signaling the end of the audience. 'Be safe,' Tomoyo said quietly, and something in her voice reminded him of the little girl he known so long ago, but that little girl was gone now, become one of the most powerful psychics ever to lead the Institute.
'And do try to be nice to your partner,' Yuuko purred, one lip curling in a smirk. 'You might find this trip very interesting indeed, Kurogane, Lord of Suwa. Be well.'
When he stepped out of the audience chamber, Fai was waiting for him.
A peculiar sort of jolt ran through Kurogane. It had been three years since he had last seen the bounty hunter, but Fai still looked exactly the same – ageless, almost; a mark of those who had power. Black eyepatch, eerily bright blue eye, blond hair that spilled untidily over his face and neck, severe black clothing. The only addition was a standard-edition channeling staff, one the Institute handed out to anyone, even idiots who could only set their fingers on fire with magic. He was still dangerously thin; Kurogane would have said frail, except that he knew that Fai's lean body was a result of endurance athletics and not underfeeding. The man could outrun him effortlessly.
'Kuro-chi!' he trilled and bounced across the room to him.
And his personality was as irritating as ever.
'What the hell are you doing here?' Kurogane growled as Fai wrapped an impudent arm around his waist and reached up to ruffle his spiky hair. 'Get the hell away from me!'
'Oh, you're so mean,' Fai pouted. 'Didn't Yuuko tell you I was supposed to join you on this little trip?' He eyed Kurogane sideways, a cool piercing gaze that belied his flippant words. 'You did accept, didn't you?'
'You,' Kurogane said incredulously. 'You're the mage they assigned me?'
'Bingo!' Fai chirped, and Kurogane felt an insanely strong urge to strangle the man. He had a serious side, Kurogane knew it, so why did he feel the need to constantly grate on his nerves? 'You're as quick as ever, Kuro-chi!'
'I told you not to call me that.'
'Call you what, Kuro-pon?' Fai asked him, blue eye wide and innocent. Kurogane made an incoherent noise of fury. 'Well, come on, there's no time to lose. I've already put your bags in Mokona, so we can leave right away.' Without waiting for a reply, he turned and trotted off down the pristine white hallways of the Institute, forcing Kurogane to follow quickly or be left behind.
'You still go around in that crazy 'car of yours?' Kurogane asked him.
'It's not a car, it's Mokona!' Fai said, waving a finger in his face. 'Really, you have such a bad memory. Mokona will feel very hurt that you don't remember it.'
Kurogane could feel the skin of his eyelids twitching madly. 'It's a bloody hovercar. It can't feel anything.'
'Ssshh!' Fai looked convincingly scandalised. 'Mokona might hear you!'
'You're completely crazy, mage,' Kurogane grumbled half-heartedly. 'I don't even want to know why they sent you on something important.'
'Oh, that,' Fai said cheerfully as they entered the 'car park where "Mokona" was apparently being recharged. 'I promised Yuuko dirty pictures of you if she gave me this assignment.'
'Just kidding,' Fai said with a hint of a leer, and Kurogane didn't know if he was serious or not. Most probably not, but he was never ever going to let his guard down where the precog was concerned – she was a gigantic, voyeuristic pervert and sadistic to boot.
It was official. No naked around Fai.
Which, Kurogane admitted reluctantly, might be a little difficult. Only a little, but Fai had a fine grasp of timing, and could be damned convincing when he wanted. Not that Kurogane had needed much convincing, those last six months they had been together.
'Ah, here we are!' Fai said happily about two inches from his ear, and Kurogane jumped.
The 'car looked the same as it had when Fai had hauled Kurogane into it the first time – sleek, white, and somehow plump-looking for a rectangular machine. It really did look like a well-fed cat, he thought, and shook his head. Only fifteen minutes around the mage and he was already going nuts.
Fai vaulted the low door and slid into the driver's seat, somehow tucking his impossibly long legs into the narrow space, and Kurogane stepped reluctantly into the passenger seat. 'Where are we heading?' he said, feeling unaccountably irritated at how soft the plush leather seat was.
'On Flyway 85, towards Nihon IDS,' Fai said. 'Yuuko told me there was evidence of a feather there. Do buckle up, Kuro-woof.'
'Of course I've buckled up, I've seen you drive before,' Kurogane snapped.
Fai laughed, unaffected, and powered up the engine. Mokona purred contentedly under them as it started to move. They drove through the elegant tree-lined avenue that joined the grounds of the Institute to the rest of the world, and Kurogane heaved a mental sigh of relief. Being around so many magic users unsettled him, even if he was one himself.
Fai maneuvered Mokona in a hair-raisingly precise manner through side streets and alleys, cutting and weaving through the suburbs and seedy docks that lay between the Institute and the spaceport. Kurogane, who was accustomed to if not approving of his driving, simply held on for dear life. At least this was better than a coniferous forest. (And, he supposed, he was in a more appreciative state of mind now that he wasn't magically paralysed, clutching Souhi, dirty and ragged from living in the wild and cursing Fai in all the six languages he knew as the blond tossed him unceremoniously into the trunk and slammed it shut on him.)And for all that it looked ridiculous – who owned a white 'car these days? – the hovercar handled beautifully. The CLW-3400 was a good model, all right. It was a pity they were so rare…and how, exactly, had Fai got hold of one? He always seemed short of money.
'So what do they have on you?' Kurogane asked him finally, once they were back on a highway and his heart rate was almost back to normal.
One blue eye cut to watch him. 'Hmmm?'
'You damn well heard what I said, so don't act like an idiot. I refuse to believe you just decided to pick up an assignment like this – nobody does. So why are you here?'
'You haven't changed a bit, have you,' Fai said almost sadly. 'Silly Kuro, you're as blunt as ever.' He laughed, mirthless. 'The truth? This is an opportunity for me to pay off my own debt to Yuuko.'
'I was a criminal,' Fai said, and though he was still driving Kurogane knew his sharp sight was registering his every movement. 'When the Institute captured me, they were nearly unanimous in their decision to have me put to death for what I had done. Yuuko intervened on my behalf, but I…even so, they required me to give up a significant portion of my power before they were satisfied that I was no longer a threat to them. A token of my loyalty, such as it is.' One long hand fingered his eyepatch almost absently.
'What good are you to me at half-power?' he demanded.
'Half-power?' Fai chuckled darkly. 'Yes, I suppose so. But make no mistake, Kurogane – even at half power, I have more than enough left to equal the best the Institute can find.'
'What the hell did you do to get them to strip your power?' After all, the Institute's judiciary branch was pacifist in outlook – too much so, by his standards. And they were too forgiving to the higher-ranked mages.
Instant hundred-watt grin. 'Why, I took dirty pictures, of course!' Fai said, performing another of his infamous 180 degree mood-swings.
Kurogane slapped a hand to his forehead. 'Can't you be serious for even one moment?'
Mokona passed the outer limits of the city, heading west, and the faint shimmer of the psi-shield the Institute always had up passed through the air around them. It was immediately replaced by a curious new scent – something almost like ozone. He had never felt it before, but he knew what it had to be.
'Can you sense it?' he asked Fai.
Fai nodded. 'The power of a feather, and close. Probably within a week's worth of travel. They say you go mad if you're exposed to the power of the feathers for too long, you know. Or if your will isn't strong enough.'
'Yuuko said that too.'
'Oooh, so it must be true.' Fai blinked innocently at Kurogane's glare. 'What? She doesn't actually lie, you know.'
'Go nuts and I'll kill you,' Kurogane grunted curtly.
'How very poetic,' Fai mused brightly. 'Considering that I was ordered to kill you if you showed signs of breaking free of your wards again. It seems we'll have to watch each other very closely.'
'Those bastards,' Kurogane said bleakly.
'Indeed,' Fai said lightly.
'Why tell me this?'
'Because I have no intentions of following the Institute's orders. I owe Yuuko, not the Institute – in fact, I owe the rest of them…in a different way. And I am very particular indeed about who my allies are.' Without turning to look at Kurogane, Fai ran a finger from his temple to his shoulder, bared by his tanktop.
Kurogane jumped and swatted his hand away. 'I,' he said firmly, 'am not getting involved with you again.'
'We'll see about that,' Fai said, and his expression slowly changed from mocking to slightly…predatory. 'I think I'll find this trip very interesting indeed, Kuro-rin.'
Kurogane stared at him, wondering if his choice of words was a coincidence.
There is only inevitability, Yuuko said cheerily in his mind, and he groaned at how realistic his imagination of her was. Having the mage with him and her annoying sayings in his head was inviting insanity with a red carpet. Still, there was wind in his face, he was away from the teeming mass of Nihon City, away from those blasted mages and psis, one lead closer to being able to afford his wish, and he even thought he could get used to Fai sitting next to him in Mokona. It did seem oddly appropriate.
He flipped the sunshade down, protecting his eyes from the glare of the setting sun, and smirked.