The End Of This Chapter

By Mystic Dawn


Notes: Spoilers for Chapitre 174.


It had almost been a week since Seishirou had appeared and had faced Syaoran in battle. The determined adolescent had managed to emerge victorious in the end, retrieving both Sakura's memory fragment and soul in the process. However, he had been forced to stay in bed for several days to heal, and Sakura had wounds of her own that needed to be healed. No one quite understood what had happened between them in the world of dreams, and neither one nor the other was willing to say.

Their silence worried Fay. He wondered if something else had happened in the dream-world that they didn't want to reveal. He looked at Syaoran. He had settled down in a corner of the room, his starch-white bandages bringing out his pale face, obviously lost in his own thoughts. Fay's gaze then drifted to Sakura, who was sitting by the sacred cherry tree in the courtyard, gazing up at the delicate blossoms. He chewed on his bottom lip.

"Stop that," Kurogane said shortly.

"Huh?" Fay turned back to the ninja sitting beside him.

"The way you twist your head around to look at the kids is distracting." He took a sip from his small teacup. "They'll be fine. They just need time."

"Daddy is so knowledgeable of his young ones!" Fay teased.

Kurogane's eye twitched, but he didn't bother to answer back. He trailed his steel finger along the rim of the teacup thoughtfully, trying to feel the outline. Then he held the hand over the surface to feel the heat rising from the drink. Nothing.

Fay's eye followed his movements, but he decided against saying anything. Instead, he asked, "Do you know where Tomoyo-hime is?"

He shrugged. "Probably doing whatever it is a princess does in the morning."

"Which is?" he prompted.

Kurogane eyed him suspiciously. "Listening to petitions, putting on smiles for the people, revising laws, having to put up with sniveling nobles and the like... just normal princess-like duties."

"Oh, I don't think I'd refer to all of my nobles with the term 'sniveling,' Kurogane," a light, melodious voice said behind him.

Kurogane sighed resignedly and turned to look at the figure that had just walked into the room and settled down beside Fay.

"You're hardly what I'd call a 'sniveling' noble," she continued with a small giggle. "More like a 'stubborn' noble, am I right?"

"More like 'disobedient' and 'rebellious,' Tsukuyomi," Kendappa remarked from behind her, closely followed by Souma.

Fay chuckled heartily at Kurogane's mortified expression. "No wonder Kuro-tan would react to my teasing so violently. I'm surprised he's still sane with the way you two torment him!"

"Ohohohoho!" Kendappa smiled maliciously. "And you don't want to know what we did to him when he was naughty, do you?"

"Oh, but I do!" Fay grinned. "That will give us new fun details to torture him with!"

"Mokona wants to know, too!" the white creature piped up.

"Will you guys stop talking about me like I'm not here?" Kurogane exclaimed.

"But Mokona wants to know what Kurogane did that was so naughty!"

"Then you obviously have a death-wish!"

"Ooh! Was it that bad?"

Kurogane stiffened and his cheeks flushed, causing the four mischief-makers to burst out laughing. He grumbled and turned back to his tea, trying to make himself look dignified. The effect wasn't the desired one, however, for Mokona scrambling on his head and declaring in its squeaky voice that it would discover Kurogane's 'naughty deed' totally ruined it.

"I suppose Kuro-rin really did have his hands full while he was traveling with you," Tomoyo grinned, glancing up at Mokona.

Kurogane nearly choked on his tea. "Not you, too!" he spluttered.

Tomoyo giggled her infamous, "Ohohohoho!" which was almost a mirror of her older sister's. "Fay-san taught me some of them yesterday. I find them very amusing. I'm sure they'll come in handy sometime!"

A deep growl issued from Kurogane's throat as he turned to the former mage with a murderous gleam in his eyes.

"Oh, stop it, Kuro-chan," Tomoyo giggled, waving her hand dismissively. "It's not Fay-san's fault."

"Tomoyo-hime asked," Fay added helplessly, trying not to laugh.

"Maybe I should learn some of those, too," Kendappa mused thoughtfully. "It looks like fun!"

"Wai!" Mokona cheered. "Then we can all have fun tormenting Kuro-pon!"

Kurogane groaned and slapped his forehead, wincing when he used his metallic hand to do so.

"You should watch how you swing that arm of yours around," Kendappa snickered. "You could hurt someone with it."

"I'll keep that in mind," he grated, resisting the temptation to try it out on her.

"Your Majesty..." Souma said tentatively, glancing at the doorway.

Kendappa looked up to see two serving maids waiting just outside the room. "Ah, yes. I told them to bring us refreshments. Just place them here and be off." She gestured at the low table they were sitting at.

The two girls placed their trays upon it and bowed before they left the room. There were filled with several small dishes of colorful sweets and confections, accompanied by more tea.

"What are these peculiarly-colored balls?" Fay asked curiously, taking a skewer with three pieces on it.

"Dango," offered Tomoyo. "Rice dumplings. They're very tasty."

"Ittadakimasu." Fay nibbled on a piece and his face lit up. "Yummy!" He turned. "Syaoran-kun! Sakura-chan! You two have got to try these sweets!"

Kurogane frowned at him disapprovingly.

Fay shrugged. "They ought to eat," he murmured. He then immediately turned to Sakura, who had just sat down beside Tomoyo. "Here, try these... dango, right, Princess?"

Tomoyo nodded and offered Sakura a skewer with three rice dumplings.

"Ittadakimasu." She took a tentative bite. "Mmm! It's delicious!"

"Here, you too, Syaoran-kun," Fay grinned, offering him another skewer the moment he sat down beside Kurogane.

"Ittadakimasu." He bit one and chewed on it thoughtfully. "It's good."

"I thought you'd like it." Fay then smiled slyly at Kurogane. "And will Kuro-wan eat some too?"

Kurogane snorted. "Nope," he grunted. His eyes drifted toward the trays. "I think I'll eat this instead." He pointed at a round, white-colored confection.

"What's that?" Mokona asked curiously.

He smirked nastily. "Manjuu."

"Eeeep!" Mokona squeaked in fright. "Kurogane wants to eat Mokona!"

Sakura giggled a little. "I don't think Kurogane-san really meant it, Moko-chan."

"But Kurogane scared Mokona! Kurogane has to apologize!"

"There's no way in hell I'm apologizing!"

"Then Mokona's telling!" it said with childlike gusto. And with that, Mokona determinedly bounced away from him to the other end of the table.

"Where the heck are you going?" he grunted as Mokona slowly passed by Fay and Tomoyo and continued bouncing to where... Oh, shit.

"I'm going to tell the Mikado!" it squeaked, suddenly diving into Kendappa's arms.

"The hell?"

"Kurogane's being mean to me," it complained, pointing an accusing paw at the open-mouthed ninja across the table. "And he won't apologize!"

Kendappa looked up from the pouting Mokona in her arms to raise an eyebrow in Kurogane's direction. The ninja snapped back to reality upon meeting her gaze and closed his mouth, straightening in his seat in an attempt to look dignified. It was a difficult feat, however, to concentrate on ignoring Fay's giggles and Tomoyo's, "Ohohohoho!" ringing in his ears.

"Kurogane," Kendappa said slowly, "what have we said about you being naughty?"

The laughter died down and the silence that followed was heavy. Kurogane's eyes drifted slowly toward Fay and Tomoyo, and as soon his gaze met theirs, they erupted into peals of silvery laughter.

"Well, Kurogane?" Kendappa pressed.

Kurogane glanced at her darkly before looking turning back to the giggling duo, and, if it were possible, his face darkened even more as he watched Fay lean toward Tomoyo and whisper something in her ear, causing her to start giggling madly.

They're making fun of me! he thought angrily, his eye twitching.

Mokona found the scene greatly amusing from its comfortable perch in Kendappa's lap, for it had never seen Kurogane look so angry, embarrassed, and confused at the same time. Suddenly, its ears twitched. "Yuuko wants a word!" it announced in its characteristic squeak, the red jewel upon its forehead glowing.

Fay was still trying to stifle his chuckles, not noticing the way Tomoyo's face suddenly paled. Kurogane, however, did not miss it, and his eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Yuuko-san, what a pleasant surprise!" Fay chirped happily as soon as her image materialized in the room.

Yuuko's face was bathed in the eerie glow of their form of contact between dimensions. She arched a brow. "You're looking exceptionally cheerful," she observed.

"Well, you kind of caught us in the middle of a great laugh," he admitted sheepishly, scratching at his cheek.

"Yuuko-san..." Syaoran said slowly, looking up at her with worry clearly evident on his face.

"There's no need for you to worry," she said. "Watanuki is going to be fine."

Syaoran sighed in relief, noting that Sakura likewise visibly relaxed.

"Tomoyo-hime." Yuuko's gaze shifted to the princess. "It is time for you to pay the price we agreed on."

Tomoyo lifted her gaze to the shimmering sphere, determinedly not making eye-contact with any but the witch. "I understand."

Fay's brow creased in confusion as he looked from one to the other. "But... I thought Tomoyo-hime had already paid her price." He looked at Tomoyo, swallowing. "Didn't you?"

"The price she paid for you to be transported to Nihon after Celes has already been paid," Yuuko pointed out. "This is irrelevant to the price for the transportation."

Fay turned to Tomoyo with a concerned expression. "So there's more?" he asked quietly. "More that has to be done?"

All she did was smile at him kindly.

He swallowed uneasily. "Tomoyo-hime?"

Kurogane's eyes narrowed once more in suspicion. He never did find out what they had discussed during Syaoran's duel with Seishirou, but he didn't like the look on Tomoyo's face one bit. He felt that she was hiding something, and something important. And the fact that she was confiding more in Fay than in him was what unsettled him the most.

Tomoyo made to rise and take a step forward to the witch, but Kurogane had beaten her to it, his eyes burning determinedly. "She's not going to give you anything unless you tell me what it is first." His voice was low, yet firm and unyielding.

Fay blinked as he stared at Kurogane. You still don't know, do you? he finally realized. That she has given up so much for us?

Yuuko's flat gaze settled upon him. "This is not a matter that concerns you, Kurogane."

"Of course it concerns me," he snarled impatiently. "It wasn't by coincidence that Tomoyo-hime was in contact with her counterpart. It wasn't by coincidence that she warned her about the feather. And it wasn't by coincidence that she now sends me an arm," he added, brandishing the newfound artificial appendage. "Just as saving me that night when I lost everything and later on sending me to you wasn't a coincidence." He narrowed his eyes dangerously and lowered his voice to whisper as he hissed, "Nothing was by coincidence."

"You're right," Tomoyo said softly, her gentle gaze joining with his frigid one when he turned to face her. "I dreamed that your home would be attacked that night. And I dreamed that you would have to face a difficult journey when you grew." Her lips formed a small smile. "So I did everything in my power to help you on your journey. I traveled through dreams to warn my other self. And I also traveled through your awareness to tell you how to escape from Celes."

Fay's eye widened. He did not know that Tomoyo had offered her assistance in that dire moment, as well.

"It's better this way," she added, her eyes downcast, that small smile still on her face.

"Please... Tomoyo-hime," Sakura said softly. "I don't want anyone to make any more sacrifices for my sake."

"It's all right, Sakura-hime," she smiled warmly at her. "You don't need to worry about me."

Everyone's gaze was on Tomoyo, curiosity and concern evident on their faces. Kendappa's face was stony and expressionless, but she said nothing. Souma and Syaoran both stared at her in confusion. Fay's hand clenched momentarily, his brow creased in worry.

Kurogane's eyes flashed. For some reason, it angered him to see Fay look so concerned for Tomoyo. He couldn't help but think that it wasn't possible for that skinny bastard to be more concerned about her than him. His anger had been steadily boiling inside of him and he had been trying to keep it in check, but with that careless thought he finally cracked.

"To hell with that!" he snapped, focusing his blood-red gaze upon Tomoyo. "You're not making any sense!"

"I don't need to make any sense," she deferred. "I've already made my decision."

"There's no way I'm going to let you give anything up!" he shouted. "Not unless you tell me what it is first!"

Tomoyo fell silent, averting her gaze. "Yuuko-san..."

Yuuko closed her eyes and nodded with an understanding smile. "I'll contact you later."

The jewel upon Mokona's forehead shimmered and the image of the witch dissolved. The little creature hopped over to Tomoyo concernedly, who stood up at that point. "I'll take my leave."

"Tsukuyomi?" Kendappa said questioningly, looking up at her sister.

"It's all right, Onee-sama." Tomoyo forced a smile on her face. "I know what I'm doing."

Kendappa closed her eyes and nodded. Then Tomoyo turned to leave the room.

Kurogane, however, had already beaten her to the doorway and was now barring her way, his gaze steely.

"Please, stand aside." She avoided looking at him.

"No," he said strongly. "I'm not letting you leave until you sit down and explain what's going on!"

"This doesn't have anything to do with you," she said, her voice firmer than before.

"You can't just leave without a proper explanation!" he shouted. "Don't I have a right to know what's going on?"

Tomoyo raised her head at those words to look up at him, her gaze colder than usual. "No," she whispered. "You do not have a right to know."

Kurogane froze, his eyes widening in shock; then looked away and clenched his metallic fist, breathing heavily. "So that's how it is, huh?" he spat scornfully. "I'm just a lowly ninja—yourservant—when you need me to back you up?" He shook his head in disgust and moved to the side to let her leave. "Be that way then."

He refused to look at her when she passed by him.

"Kuro-sama..." Fay said quietly, coming up to him and laying a concerned hand upon his shoulder. "Try to understand how Tomoyo-hime feels. She—"

"Stop it!" he roared, brushing away his hand angrily and grabbing the front of his robes with an iron grip, shaking him slightly. "I don't want to hear anything you've got to say!"

Fay's golden eye widened in surprise. "But Kuro-sama... you don't understand..."

"Stop acting as if you know her better than I do!" He snorted at his own words and shook his head incredulously. "But of course you understand her better than I do. You two're exactly the same!" And with that, he shoved him aside and stormed out of the room, not bothering to look back over his shoulder.

Kurogane fingered the metallic appendage experimentally, gauging its strength by the feel. It was almost as hard as the metal of a blade, perhaps even harder. He clenched it into a fist, pleased with the ease it obeyed him with. It would be a trusty weapon in battle, sturdy and reliable.

Its appearance wasn't so bad either. Certainly, it was peculiar; a strange, almost otherworldy design, not really surprising considering its origins, though. All in all, he liked it. He let the fingers of his right hand drift upon it lazily. It was cool against his touch, as cool as steel.

He let a heavy sigh escape from his lips. Although he was quite pleased with the substitute for his arm, it didn't sit well with him to just take it freely. He didn't like being in debt to the witch, especially with Fay being the one to pay for him to attain it and Tomoyo being the one who constructed it.

Well, it wasn't as if it were Tomoyo who actually made it. Her counterpart in Piffle did. Or rather, it was on her counterpart's orders. He doubted if she had the knowledge to construct something so complex without the aid of magic. The thought made him think of another possibility, a possibility that he didn't like. He exhaled wearily and eased his elbows onto his knees, supporting his chin in his hands and looking out at setting sun beyond the horizon. The chill of his artificial arm would take some getting used to.

To be frank, it had shocked him when he heard where the metal appendage had come from. He had turned to stare at Tomoyo in wide-eyed astonishment, the same words repeating over and over again in his head: What price did she have to pay? And now that the witch had reappeared again, announcing that Tomoyo had yet another price to pay... it had been almost too much.

And when Fay had come forward and had offered the last remaining power inside of him in exchange for it, he began to feel suspicious of their intentions. Yes, what Fay had been trying to convey was that he wasn't a fool who would give up his life anymore, revealing that everything he'd been telling him hadn't fallen on deaf ears, but Tomoyo had also played her part in this charade. But why? Why were they willing to sacrifice so much for him?

"Kurogane?" he heard a small voice say from below.

He frowned and peered down from the edge of the rooftop to stare at Mokona. "Ah... it's you."

The little creature skipped up and tried to scramble the wall to reach him. Kurogane rolled his eyes and bent down to scoop Mokona up and place it beside him on the rooftop.

Mokona did not seem to want to talk to him at first, even though it obviously had something to say. Its ears were drooping, it was lightly scuffing the shingles of the rooftop, and it was determinedly not looking up at him. Kurogane didn't say anything either. He knew that when Mokona was ready to speak, it would speak.

"...Are you still angry with Fay and Tomoyo?" it finally asked him quietly.

Kurogane exhaled wearily. "Yes... and no. I'm not angry with him. I know he was only trying to help." His brow furrowed. "I shouldn't have treated him like that."

"And Tomoyo?" Mokona pressed.

Kurogane shook his head and looked up at the faint crescent moon that was still overshadowed by the sun's setting rays. "I just don't understand..." he murmured.

"Tomoyo's price?"

Kurogane half-shrugged, not willing to show how much it bothered him.

The small creature did not speak for several moments. "Yuuko... Yuuko told Mokona what the price is."

Kurogane's eyes widened and he turned to look at it in disbelief.

Mokona began scuffing at the shingles again. "Yuuko usually doesn't tell Mokona these things..." it continued timidly. "So Mokona thinks there must be a very important reason why." It looked up at him almost sadly. "Mokona will tell Kurogane... because Mokona thinks that Kurogane has to know..."

Kurogane's fists clenched. "Then what's... the price?"

Mokona bowed its head. "Tomoyo... she has to give up her memories... of you."

Kurogane inhaled sharply, feeling his blood run cold. "But... no! She can't do that!" A million unanswered questions began to swirl in his mind. He shook his head dazedly, only managing to voice one: "Why... why would she do such a thing?"

"Mokona doesn't know. All that Mokona knows is that Tomoyo asked Yuuko to do it. At least, that's what Yuuko said."

If it were possible, Kurogane felt even more astonished at that than before. "Then... it's not something she's forced to pay?" he asked weakly. "She's willingly going to give her memories up?"

Mokona nodded. "Mokona doesn't know why. But Mokona can feel." It placed a delicate paw upon its chest. "Tomoyo's heart hurts... just like your heart hurts for Tomoyo and Fay."

Kurogane gripped at his forehead with his steel hand, grinding his teeth together. So that was the reason behind Tomoyo's behavior. He felt so stupid for not realizing it sooner. "But why me...?" he whispered.

"Kurogane?" Mokona asked curiously.

There was nothing but silence for several long moments.

Finally, Kurogane exhaled and shook his head. "Manjuu... I need to talk to the witch."

"All right."

The jewel upon Mokona's forehead began to glow and Yuuko's image materialized in the twilight sky before him.

"I see Mokona told you,"the witch said in a form of greeting."I hoped it would."

"Another part of your plan, after all," Kurogane hissed between clenched teeth.

"You could say that," she admitted. "Though I wasn't expecting you to contact me so soon."

Kurogane's mouth was set in a firm line of distaste. "I promised myself I wouldn't give anything to you again ever since..." His voice fell silent and he clenched his iron fist. "I'll have to break that promise."

Yuuko smiled knowingly. "What is it that you want me to do then?"

"I want you to take something from me instead of Tomoyo-hime."

"Well, Kurogane..." she said slowly, her voice sounding unusually solemn. "She asked me to. It was her decision to make."

"She shouldn't have to give you anything," he growled.

"It's not that shehasto," Yuuko explained. "The problem is that shewantsto."

Kurogane frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

"It is Tomoyo-hime'swishfor me to take her memories of you from her."

"Then... then what's the price?" he demanded, his eyes wide.

"You'rethe price, Kurogane." She fixed her gaze upon him. "You aren't going to return to Nihon if you leave with the others. And Tomoyo-hime would rather forget you than know that she'll never see you again."

Kurogane looked down at his hands. He was stunned beyond belief. He couldn't think of anything to say or do in answer to that statement. "So... she'd rather end up like the princess... rather than know I'll never be back?" he finally managed to ask.

"Now do you understand?"

"Isn't... isn't there still something I can do?" he asked desperately. "Something... to ease the price of her wish?"

"I'm afraid not," Yuuko said softly.

Kurogane's mind was working quickly. "But what if... it went both ways?" he asked. "What if you took something from both me and Tomoyo-hime? Wouldn't that lighten her part of the load?"

Yuuko pursed her lips. "...It's possible," she said slowly. "Depending on what you can give in exchange."

"Anything," he said determinedly.

"You can't pay just anything," Yuuko disagreed. She frowned in thought for several moments. "...Your memories of each other," she finally said. "If you were both willing to give up your memories of each other, then you wouldn't necessarily have to forget each other. Just the memories of your times together. The basis of you relationship."

Kurogane's eyes widened. He couldn't help but think, Just like the kid and the princess.

"It would be different from Syaoran and Sakura's case, however," she continued. "You'll still remember each other. You just won't feel the same for each other anymore." She looked at him dubiously. "Are you willing to do that?"

Kurogane swallowed uneasily. As simple as it sounded, he wasn't sure he was prepared to give up such a thing. But then he remembered that Tomoyo had already made her decision. Their 'relationship' was already condemned.

He drew in a deep breath and moistened his lips. "On one condition," he finally managed to utter.

"I'm listening."

"Tomorrow," he whispered. "Take our... memories... of each other tomorrow."

Yuuko's lips formed a small, almost melancholy smile. "Very well." And with that, her image flickered and vanished.

Mokona looked up at Kurogane with tears in its eyes. "Mokona... Mokona shouldn't have said anything!"

"Huh?" he demanded incredulously.

"Because of Mokona, Kurogane will forget about Tomoyo!"

"Manjuu..." He shook his head and patted the top of its head. "It's not your fault. It was my decision." He inhaled the night air deeply, gazing at the faintly star-studded horizon. "Just like everything else was my decision..."

"Kurogane...?" it squeaked timidly.

"I have to go." He got to his feet, stretching his arms above his head.

"Go where?"

"Well..." He hesitated and scooped Mokona up in his arms. "I need to do something... if it's not too late."

"Mokona thinks it understands," it said once Kurogane had leapt to the ground. "So Mokona will give Kurogane a good-luck kiss."

Kurogane snorted and rolled his eyes, but nevertheless he let the white creature give him a quick peck on the cheek. "Now get lost," he said gruffly, setting it upon a stone bench.

"Good luck—!" Mokona squeaked before it hopped away into the night.

Kurogane shook his head fondly before striding back into the castle.

Tomoyo raised her head from its resting place on her pillow upon hearing a soft knock at her door. She got up, drawing a heavier robe around her shoulders, before going to the door and sliding it open.

"Kurogane..."

Kurogane let himself inside without even waiting for Tomoyo's invitation, sliding the door shut behind him. "I... I wanted to talk to you."

Tomoyo shook her head. "It's late. We should talk in the morning—"

"This can't wait."

The urgency in his voice was enough to cut her short. "What is it then, Kurogane?"

"I know about the price... which isn't exactly a price." He avoided looking at her as he said those words.

Tomoyo's eyes widened for a split second before she got a hold on herself. "...Who told you?" she asked quietly.

"The witch," he said. "I contacted her."

"I told you that it's nothing you should be concerned about—"

"Is it?" he interjected quietly. "You wanted to forget about me because I'm not coming back. In my book, your wish seems to concern me more than you let on."

"It's not that," she disagreed, sitting down upon her futon again.

"Then what's the deal?" He leaned his back against the wall so he would be facing her from across the room. He crossed his arms over his chest. "I'm waiting."

Tomoyo exhaled softly. "You wouldn't understand."

"You'd be surprised at just how much I can understand."

When she didn't answer him, Kurogane shook his head.

"Just because you know I won't come back, you made the decision to forget about me," he murmured thoughtfully. "I know you too well to know that it's not the whole story." He fixed his gaze upon her. "So you probably knew what I'd do when I found out."

She clenched and unclenched her hands in her lap. "I didn't know..." she whispered. "The price Yuuko-san took from me to transport you to Nihon after Celes was my dreamseer powers." She looked up at him and their eyes locked. "So, no, I don't know what's going to happen. Not anymore."

Kurogane nodded to himself. "I thought as much." He sighed. "You were right, in a way," he mused thoughtfully, gazing ahead. "Remembering would hurt too much."

She blinked. "Kurogane...?"

His lips twisted to form a tight-lipped grimace. "I guess I didn't even realize it myself at the time..." He shook his head and looked at her again. "I offered to pay, as well."

"What?" she gasped, looking up at him in horror.

He shrugged. "This way, we'll both forget. Isn't that what you wanted?" He fixed her with his blood-red gaze. "The way you so conveniently put yourself out of the way..." He snorted incredulously. "I can't believe I didn't notice it sooner."

Tomoyo looked down at her hands. What could she say to that? He had read her like an open book.

"It's just..." He shook his head. "When you first sent me away," he began again, stronger, "I was so sure of what I wanted. Everything in my mind was clear. But now, after everything that's happened..." He sighed heavily. "I just don't know anymore. It's all so confusing... I don't know how to say it." Then, he added a little dryly, "Or, for the matter, what to say anymore." His eyes drifted to her face, but she was determinedly not looking at him. "Things are different... and yet so many things are still the same."

He kept staring at her until she finally lifted her gaze to his crimson eyes.

"Such as?" she asked in little above a whisper.

This time, he was the one to lower his gaze. "Like you," he murmured, closing his eyes.

Tomoyo didn't manage to mask her surprise at his words.

"I desperately wanted to return to Nihon," he continued, his voice thicker. "Not so much for it being my homeland, but because of you. And when I met your other self in Piffle, I was more determined than ever to return."

"I know," Tomoyo said softly. "She told me."

"I knew she would. And as you can see, I kept my promise." He shrugged, adding wryly, "In a way."

"You most certainly did," she smiled, though this time Kurogane clearly saw that it was somewhat forced.

"It's just... how should I say this...?" He paused, looking down at his hands, absently noting how their size and shape were exactly the same but for the fact that his left hand was made out of steel. He moistened his lips before finally saying, "You're very important to me. I can't imagine my life without you. But..." He fell silent, unable to find the proper words.

"I'm not the only one," Tomoyo supplied after several moments of silence, that awkward, self-mocking smile still on her face.

Kurogane sighed once more and shook his head. "I didn't mean for things to turn out like this..."

His usually unreadable expression was replaced with one of still sadness—the guarded look of a man willing to take an assault without attacking in return or raising a defense. Tomoyo did not recall ever having seen that expression, the weariness in his eyes, or the sudden vulnerability.

She smiled at him sadly. "No one ever means for these things to happen." She got to her feet and crossed the room to stand before him, raising her hand to clasp his cheek gently. "He needs you, Kurogane. And I'm not selfish enough to get in the way."

Kurogane could only stare at her in surprise. Then he exhaled, shaking his head. "Then that's it?" he asked bitterly. "We barely even started and we're already at the end?"

"It does sound doomed phrased like that," she giggled half-heartedly.

"...It doesn't have to end yet," he whispered. "We still have some time left."

"Kurogane..." she sighed, shaking her head.

He closed the last remaining space between them and reached out his metallic hand to finger a lock of her hair. "All these years..." he said quietly, amazed that he could actually feel the tendrils of her hair between his fingers. He brought the lock to his face and inhaled the scent before bringing it to his lips and kissing it, her wide eyes following his movements.

Almost with bated breath, his left hand crept down slowly to her waist, drawing her closer to him, as his right hand cupped her face, tilting her chin up. Her gaze was so innocent, so startled... she even trembled in his embrace. But just once, he wanted—needed—to know, and he only had to look into her amethyst eyes to know that she felt the same.

"Kurogane..." she murmured breathlessly, trying to draw away.

"Trust me," he whispered, touching her lips with a forefinger, understanding finally with a cold certainty that she did not want to ask, had never wanted to ask, and had waited year after year for him, while he had waited for her.

He closed his eyes as his lips touched hers, and her hands found him.

Despite the heat building between them, between skin and skin, the sense of time dropping forever through an hourglass that would never be turned, each touch tingled, and lasted, lasted and tingled, as they moved together, clothes falling apart, as if in slow motion and freefall.

When the last shudders had died away and her hands hesitantly traced his body as if to store him within her fingertips, he traced her cheekbones with the forefinger of his left hand, marveling at how smooth her skin was and at the fact that he even had a sense of touch.

She sighed, regretfully, once, twice. "Perhaps it's better this way."

"Better?" he asked.

"I don't think I would have had the strength to send you to the Dimensional Witch if this had become a habit." She laughed lightly, but with an emptiness behind the teasing tone.

"Maybe if this had become a habit, I wouldn't feel the way I feel," Kurogane said softly, his metallic fingers trailing lower, following the curve of her neck. "How is it possible for someone's heart to be split in such a way?" he wondered helplessly.

Tomoyo didn't reply. She merely followed his movements with her eyes.

"It's painful for me, too," he whispered. "You don't have to hide it."

Tomoyo looked up at him with a watery smile, her violet eyes brimming with unshed tears. Then the tears began to flow unabated, and he drew her into the circle of his arms as she cried against his chest, and he kissed the top of her head tenderly.

It took him several moments to take note of the own wetness in his eyes.

"It's almost time," she whispered, looking up at him.

"I know," was all he could say.

He locked his gaze with hers. All he had told her and all he couldn't reveal was apparent in his crimson orbs. She returned his gaze, and then her lips formed a small, almost sorrowful, smile. And he was grateful that she understood. She was the only one who truly understood.

He bent his head, and she lifted hers, but only their lips touched, sharing salt and sadness. His hands slowly crept up to cradle her face, the coldness of his steel hand hardly noticeable to her anymore. The only thing that mattered was just to be close, for their last remaining moments together.

"Thank you," he murmured against her temple before drawing back to look at her. "For everything."

They just stood there, looking at each other, reluctant to break apart and face their destiny. It was almost as if they could feel the flow of time passing by them, ever so slowly. An entire eternity lay in wait for them, but they would be doomed to face it without each other.

Tomoyo looked up at him for the last time. "It's time," she whispered after several more moments of silence, drawing a deep breath.

He understood the unspoken plea and took her left hand in his right, squeezing it reassuringly. "I won't let go," he promised.

She smiled in gratitude before turning toward the door and pushing it open.

Everyone had gathered in the throne room on an unspoken agreement, all aware of what was to follow from Mokona. Syaoran met Kurogane's gaze with a look of compassion, and the ninja felt grateful that he realized, at least in part, what he was going through. Sakura avoided looking at them, her eyes downcast and sorrowful. Kendappa and Souma were also there, their expressions hard to read, especially Kendappa's, but he didn't really care when her eyes narrowed slightly in disapproval at their intertwined hands. He had made a promise and he had every intention to keep it.

At last, his gaze rose to meet Fay's. His golden eye glinted in the morning sunlight, his crisp blond hair brought out all the more because of the sun's rays, almost as if a halo of light surrounded his face. Kurogane could see his eye finally settle upon their clasped hands, and he felt his chest tighten, but he dared not let go.

He opened his mouth slightly, as if he wanted to say something, but he had no time to justify himself, even if he had wanted to, for Mokona suddenly came forward, its expression unusually solemn, the red jewel upon its forehead shining.

Yuuko's pale face shimmered in the inter-dimensional sphere, her crimson eyes reflecting their images in their swirling depths. "Are you ready?"

Tomoyo's small hand flinched momentarily in Kurogane's, but when she replied, "We're ready," her voice was steady.

Kurogane could only nod. An obstruction in his throat prevented him from speaking properly.

"Very well," Yuuko said, raising one long-fingered hand toward them. A beam of pure white light shot from her forefinger and enveloped them in its brilliance.

Kurogane swallowed and firmly closed his eyes, his heart pounding in his chest. Tomoyo did likewise, her frame trembling slightly. Little did they know that they were both repeating the same mantra over and over again in their minds, as if it would serve as a shield from the pain to come.

But the pain never came. Their joined hands tightened for a moment as a nonexistent breeze ruffled their hair and clothing. Then the breeze died and the light surrounding them shimmered once and dissolved.

"The prices have been paid," Yuuko said, almost solemnly, as her image flickered and vanished just as soon as it had appeared. As if she didn't want to see what would happen next.

Kurogane and Tomoyo opened their eyes, their gazes meeting. Nothing was apparent in their eyes. No feeling, no emotion... nothing. It almost tore Fay's heart to see their hands break apart from each other, as if there had been no reason for them to be joined together in the first place.

The former wizard dropped his gaze. Not that he had to, but because he understood, though he wanted not to understand, and because all he could do was watch as Kurogane joined his side and Tomoyo walked away.