EROSION[i-ro-zhun, n. the process of wearing away; to destroy by slow disintegration.
They had been there for three hours. Kurogane had counted off every minute since they had set foot in the new world. He could sense that something was wrong, though there was no tangible proof that anything was amiss at all. It was purely gut feeling, but he thought that it would be safer to use caution in the long run. After all, his senses were trained, and it was better safe than sorry.
The others were behaving well, for the most part. Mokona had immediately located Sakura's feather inside a nearby shrine. From what they could gather, the shrine was a place of sacrifice, and when the feather had landed, it had immediately been offered up to the Gods of that land. Syaoran didn't seem worried that the Gods themselves would be a barrier, and for the most part, made it clear that the only thing standing in their way were the guards. Still, they had asked to be let in, and as expected, they were only allowed to enter halfway. The door that the feather's energy radiated from was shut off completely.
The lot of them had exchanged glances and silently agreed to return and steal it later. They had converted their money and paid to stay the night at a dreary looking hotel with wide rooms, sliding doors and tatami-like mats that reminded Kurogane very strongly and of his home world.
He was vaguely surprised to find he felt no nostalgia because of it. The mage had attached himself to his arm and happily announced in his sickening, overly enthusiastic manner that he thought it would be best if they shared a room, with Syaoran and 'Sakura-chan' sharing another together as well. The two children had looked at each other, blushed furiously, and immediately looked away.
Kurogane narrowed his eyes, took in the faces off the other three and the manjuu bun perched on Sakura's shoulder, and was almost relieved to notice that they weren't as calm as first glance had betrayed after all. It was faint, but he could see the doubt in their eyes – even in Fay's, who was a constant masquerade on his own. They knew something was amiss as well. They probably were too unsure of what it was to bring it up yet, for fear that the others would reject them.
He wanted to sigh aloud, but Fay was already leading him into their shared room, smiling as usual, and humming unskillfully to himself.
"Ne, Kuro-chi, if we push our beds together we can cuddle up!" Fay exclaimed excitedly, leaning against one of the bedposts and doing his best to strike a cute pose.
Kurogane opened his mouth to lash out at the smaller blonde when the sound of somewhat shattering had frozen them both where they stood. Fay dropped his cute look immediately and replaced it with one of utmost seriousness and concern. Kurogane took him roughly by the arm and sped into the room where the noise had come from - Sakura
She looked up at him with wide eyes as they both came to a halt at the doorway. The dark light cast miniscule shadows on the broken pieces of what looked like a detail-rich painted vase. "Kurogane-san…" she said, and a faint, shameful blush began to rise in her cheeks. "I…I've been very shaky, and my hand slipped w-when I touched…"
"It's okay." he said quickly, kneeling down beside the mess and beginning to pick the shattered pieces off the floor. She watched him, several shades whiter than usual, a frightened look in her eyes that was not unlike the expression of someone who had been backed into a corner. By the time Kurogane had gathered up the fragments, her lower lip was trembling, and Fay saw the ghost of a tear fall and darken the fabric of her white gown.
It unnerved him. Something was wrong, and what was troubling him was eating away at her in turn.
"Thank you." she said to him, and then she fixed her eyes on Fay. "Is Fay-san alright?"
"I wasn't sure when we first arrived here." she began, looking between the two of them seriously. "But now I'm positive something's not right. This place is under some sort of influence, I can feel the power of it more and more the longer we stay here. I believe…that it is some natural power, or even a spell, that bears down upon our minds as long as we are here."
"You're sure." Kurogane said. It was not a question, but Sakura nodded. "Yes. The quicker we leave here, the better. I don't want to keep us at risk, especially not for something so unimportant."
"Your feathers are not unimportant, Sakura-chan – "
She tried to smile. "Tonight," she said, "I'll head out to the temple to find the feather. I've already talked about it with Syaoran-kun, and we've agreed that it would be best if the two of us head out together, find it, and quickly leave."
"Only you and the kid – " Kurogane began, looking disturbed.
"Mokona will be with us. If you and Fay-san keep watch outside, then I know Syaoran-kun and I can do it."
Kurogane's features darkened, but he nodded regardless. Beside him, Fay stiffened, his features faltering before returning back to their forced mask. As if on an instinct, he edged a little closer to the ninja. Their hands brushed, and Kurogane tightened his fingers into a fist instinctively.
"Is half an hour enough for you and the kid to prepare?" He asked curtly.
"Yes." Sakura rose to her feet, still a little shakily, but she smoothed out her hair and straightened her back, a determined aura gathering about her. "Thank you." she said to them both.
"Of course." She headed out through the opposite door, sliding it back into place gently before pattering away. For a moment, the two were alone, neither of them sure of what to say. And then Fay put on his best smile and shrugged his shoulders easily. "That explains why we've been so strange lately! Was Kuro-wan feeling bad too?"
- - - -
The irritating glare he received might as well have been a knife slitting his throat.
Inwardly, Fay cringed, and the suffocating sensation started up again – again, he thought, again and again - only this time it felt as if a large, iron fist had closed over his heart.
(He doesn't want you, he never wanted you..)
It was strange, Fay thought shakily. Sakura had said there was a force against them, weakening them. Of course it was only understandable that the weight of it might cause him to think such things…but he hadn't expected himself to begin believe them.
- - -
Sakura and Syaoran were descending the first steps into the shrine, vanishing behind more sliding doors, when the guards turned their eyes to the unmoving, mismatched pair narrowed them in suspicion.
"We're waiting. The kids wanted to take another look around." Kurogane said gruffly.
"You're a visitor?" the man gave him a strange look, then turned his eyes to Fay in a way that made Kurogane's stomach twist strangely. "We don't get many visitors. But you sure as hell don't look like you're from around here, that's for sure." He leaned in closer, taking a lock of Fay's blonde hair between his fingers. "Strange looks you have here. People would kill for this light hair, or your eyes, kid…or your frame."
- - - -
"Really?" Fay forced a smile, wondering how he should take that. "How sweet of you."
"Heh. They'd probably pay for it, too." The man grinned slyly. "Pretty little thing like you."
A shadow fell between them as Kurogane stepped in front of him, making the man drop his hand and stammer a single apology. But as Fay stared, a ghost of the man's face seemed to appear before him, dripping, elusive and strange, as if someone had painted it into the atmosphere around him with translucent liquid.
"Why the surprised face?" the ghost hissed. "You're not a stranger to it."
Fay smiled uneasily, setting his mask back into place, and then sent a panicked look at Kurogane's back, willing him to see it, simultaneously wondering if he should speak up and mention it, or if this was just another punishment sent by….
"Oh?" the thing's voice was changing, slowly, morphing into something more strange and sinister. "What about your precious little king, hmm? Somebody saves you from death and you're happy to be their whore?"
"How do you know...about Ashura-ou?" he breathed, his heart skipping a beat as he spoke the words aloud.
"Am I wrong?" he leered. "And he wasn't the only one, was he?"
"Was he?" Mockingly, he waited for an answer. "No, you had your fun with everyone in the castle. As long as they kept you warm, you'd do whatever they'd like. Don't lie to me, kid, I can see right through you."
His eyes were turning red.
"Are you…stalking me?" What a stupid thing to say, his mind supplied, what a damn stupid thing to say to a ghost whose not really here right now, he's not here right now, he's not here r-
"Oh, I see." the stranger said.. "How cute… you've has fallen in 'love' with the 'handsome stranger', is that it?" he sneered, his blood red eyes flickering to Kurogane's unmoving back. "Perhaps if he ever gets you, he'll be surprised to learn you aren't the innocent thing he took you for. But don't count on it. From the looks of him, your Kurogane isn't one to mess with whores."
"I'm…a whore?" Unconsciously, he wrapped his arms a little tighter around himself, the man's words ringing in his ears. It was true, what he said: Fay could remember it, if he looked back far enough. Ashura-ou's judging eyes, his white hands…he could still feel them on him, ghostly and cold. The others he had gone to, looking for comfort, giving in, because there was nothing better to do than give in….
He looked up suddenly, and the ghost melted away into nothingness. Kurogane was looking down at him with mixed frustration and surprise. "What's wrong with you? You look like someone slapped you."
And then he realized. Sakura-chan said there was a force here, pressing down on us…
"I'm fine." he said, pressing his mask further into place until it slipped routinely where it needed to be. The ghost's words pressed themselves into some secret cupboard in his head and stayed there, still and ominous, as Kurogane began to lecture him.
- - - -
Kurogane first saw her sometime after Fay's strange little change in expression, and immediately his brooding over it fell out of place.
She was standing directly behind one of the guards, tiny and fragile looking, her hair reaching her ankles, the color of death, but lush and beautiful, nothing like how blackness should be. Her white moon face peered up at him innocently. His breath hitched.
"Kurogane." Tomoyo said, and at once he knew that it wasn't her. The way she said his name was wrong, very wrong, totally and completely wrong, and her dark eyes seemed too dark, like endless pools of black abyss. Her lush hair held the beauty of the supernatural, the vampiric seduction of the unknown. "I am glad to see you."
"What are you?" he breathed, forgetting Fay was ever there to begin with.
"What are you?" she asked back, simply and kindly, for her words could be described as nothing other than kind. She juggled the two – cruelty and kindness in her hands, as she continued – "I never knew what you were. Why were you not good enough? For me? For him?"
"You're not Tomoyo." he said firmly, even as his mind shrank away.
"No." she agreed sweetly. "I'm not. But does that matter to you, precious Kurogane? All you want is a face to return home to, all you want is a pretty face to look up to you, all you want is a pretty china doll to hold in your hands and pretend it's real ---"
He felt a hand on his shoulder, strange and disconnected- it didn't add up. His brain was moving too quickly. Fay. Fay was there. Fay…?
The voice was trembling. He blinked, and the not-Tomoyo was gone.
His blood was like ice.
"Kur-" Fay's voice began again, but the broken, scared, raw quality to it was grating and he silenced it immediately; "I'm fine, get the hell off me!"
Fay scrambled away obediently. From the corner of his eye, he looked very pretty, like a china doll –
…to hold in your hands and pretend it's r-
"What happened?" he whispered. "Did you see something?" more tentative, more hesitant. "Kuro-tan?"
- - - -
Syaoran and Sakura didn't walk out of the shrine – Syaoran dragged his feet heavily, and Sakura was carried delicately in his arms. She seemed to way a thousand pounds to him, but her appearance was dainty and fragile. Her white face looked like that of a sleeping child. They had sussessfully found the feather.
"Come on." muttered Syaoran, who looked as if he had seen a living nightmare. "Let's get out of here as quickly as possible."
Mokona, perched on his shoulder, jumped down and opened his mouth wide, and in an instant the now-familiar sensation of being transported returned, as if they were being sucked into a wind tunnel, their hair and clothes rustling, holding unto each other for dear life.
- - - - -
'Rest' as a wonderful word to Kurogane now. It was all he wanted to think about – but his mind was drifting, even though they were out of that hell hole of a damn country – back to the not-Tomoyo and her tragic smile, even as he lay, staring up at the ceiling on a comfortable new bed in a comfortable new country with Fay laying face-down a few feet away, supposedly asleep.
You just want a china doll to hold in your hands and pretend it's real…
That wasn't how he felt at all. Tomoyo…he respected his princess. He would never think of her as just something to hold on to, regardless of how she felt. He would never…
He looked over. Fay had rolled unto his side now, but was not facing him, and he could do nothing but stare impatiently at the back of his head and ignore the feels of annoyance at having his thoughts intruppted and relief, for the same reason.
"If a person…" Fay's voice broke for a moment, and Kurogane raised an eyebrow, a little surprised. But Fay was the type to wear his heart on his sleeve, even if he was trying his best to do just the opposite. He was easy to read, and it was just that that frustrated him so much. He was weak, and that's what was showing in his voice right now – weakness.
"Get on with it." he growled.
"….if a person goes to others for comfort and….it never works…" Fay continued, his shoulders hunching slightly. "And that person keeps on doing so…does that make him a whore?"
Kurogane blinked. Where had that come from? Surely he wasn't implying….
He didn't want to think about it. That past country had done too much to his mind, and he still had Syaoran and Sakura's conditions to worry about. So he spoke the first words on his mind, wanting to drop the topic as quickly as possible; "That makes him….lonley, I guess."
"Lonely." Fay repeated in an unreadable tone, and then he promptly flopped back over on his stomach and lay still.
Kurogane wanted to reach out and touch his shoulder. He wanted to get up out of the bed and turn the idiot over and shake the truth out of him. He wanted….
…all you want is a china doll to hold…
…a pretend it's real…
….he wanted to sleep.
Sleep. Yes, sleep. Sleep for a long, long time. And then when he woke up Fay's words would be just a thing of the past and the not-Tomoyo would seem less important, taking the backseat to their new adventure for the princess's feather.
Kurogane closed his eyes, the word 'lonely' still echoing in his mind, and drifted off unto a sleep full of elusive dreams, dreams of tiny fingers curling against the hands of strangers, and white waters eroding polished blue stones.