A/N: This chapter is dedicated to bloodyindy for her encouragement! Also to all of you reviewers and your obvious awesomeness. ;D So, uh, I really don't have an excuse for taking so long. Mostly because other fandoms have been pulling at me (Kuroshitsuji, Reborn, Code Geass, xxxHolic)- but I can't leave my dear Kurogane and Fai even if I wanted to (and I don't). Oh my god, my chapters are getting longer and longer. ._.

Okay. Now that there's plot, you guys have to tell me if it gets too confusing and whatnot. Of course, reviews, comments, and concrit are much loved, annnnnd uh, I don't know if anyone actually read the authors notes (good for you if you're reading this now! :D) so in your review, tell me who your favourite manga/anime character EVER is. If you can't choose one, just list a bunch. c:

WITHOUT FURTHER ADO...


Fai's POV, set in Nihon (Japan).

Threadbare Excuses

III.1

--

I am staring at my reflection, and it is identical to me in all sense of the word save for the fact that it has two eyes, not one, and that it is dressed in robes different from the one that I am presently wearing.

It opens its mouth, this strange, altered double of mine. Blue eyes flash, and my body lurches forward involuntarily as fatigue takes its toll. My head stings with pain. I want to spit the remains of blood out of my mouth, (disgusting in comparison to his, his-), but wouldn't that be impolite of me?

The not-reflection speaks. "I believe you. What now?"

(Yes, yes, that's a good question. What now? I don't have a single fucking clue.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.


On my frantic search for the stables, I have the sense to stop by Syaoran's room. It seems to me that locks do not exist in this world- flimsy, decorated paper is all that divides me and the inhabitants on each side of the walkways. What a sense of security the Japanese people must have! No one answers my hesitant knock on the screen, and I can't help but feel like a criminal as I slide open the door and look around inside.

Syaoran is asleep, not on the cushioned mat laid out for him on the floor, but sitting by a lone lantern, a scroll unrolled in his lap. The markings on the scroll are in black ink, unfamiliar and flowing. The smoothness of the lines makes me think of a serpent, or a river.

(I wonder, will I ever be able to read those words? Ever be able to communicate with Kurogane and Tomoyo in their tongue, without the help of Mokona?)

Mokona. I'm here for Mokona, and quick glace reveals that the creature is dozing comfortably in the crook of Syaoran's arm. Inching closer, I try really hard not to disturb anybody.

(I fail miserably.)

"Fai-san?" a semiconscious Syaoran mutters, his voice thick with sleep. "Is that you?"

Removing Mokona from his arm, I whisper, "Yes. You should be dreaming by now, it's late."

The boy's eyelids flutter closed obediently, and his next words are so quiet that they are almost incoherent. "Are you going somewhere?"

For some reason, that question makes me feel almost guilty. "Yes," I repeat. "I'm just going to borrow Mokona for a bit, alright? I'll be back soon."

I receive a non-committal "nng" as my response. Seeing him this tired makes me realize he isn't the only one; I am going on almost sixty hours without sleep, having stayed awake on guard last night in Celes, and even before that I had problems sleeping in Infinity.

Restful sleep had eluded me all through Infinity, in fact.

(No big surprise there, if you consider who I had to share a living space with; my habit of sleeping face-down in pillows became quite useful for filtering out a certain someone's scent…)

That's all in the past now, thankfully. Pure adrenaline is the thing that has kept me going for so long, and coupled with an unhealthy dose of fear it's enough to keep me on constant overdrive. Fight or flight. Now, I'm running on only anticipation; a nice large cup of caffeine wouldn't do me any harm.

Stepping back out into the walkway, I try to orientate myself. I can smell the stables on the wind- the dryness of hay and the musk of animal- but it is faint. I guess my heightened senses are meant more for prey of the human variety.

It takes me some whole five minutes of focused walking before I sense a person following me.

(I'm losing my touch, alas, although what's left of my logic tells me that my reactions are dulled from blood loss and tiredness and that I should really get some rest; but you should know full well by now that logic and I don't exactly go hand in hand.)

I slow my pace until I come to a halt. The presence doesn't slow or stop; it comes closer, and it reminds me so much of Kurogane that I almost turn around. I restrain myself in time.

"May I ask what you are doing out at this hour?" A high, steady voice.

I look up and see a female figure perched on the roof. "Ah." I recognize her face as she leaps and lands lightly in front of me, soundless as she bends her knees to cushion her fall. "You must be the exquisite Souma-san."

That explains why I mistook her for Kurogane. They're both ninjas. They both move like shadows.

Surprise replaces the initial wariness on her features. "How do you know my name?"

"We met you in another world," I tell her, watching as the surprise gives way to full-blown disbelief. I recall the memories of Outo fondly. How long ago was that? A year? Two? There is no solid definition for time between worlds.

(The Clover Bar. The sharp pain of a twisted ankle, the crisp tang of an emerald-coloured martini, the song sung by a voice of windchimes, the strong shoulder that supported my weight, arm around my legs to keep me in place.

The city of Elsewhere. Far away.)

I shake my head to clear it and return back to the task at hand. Souma tails me, skirting the edges of lamplight and looking very much like a part of the darkness, stealing glances at Mokona who is still asleep in my hand.

"Where are you headed?"

"The stables."

This is greeted with a brief pause, then: "Why?" The unasked question in her mind: How the hell do you know where it is?

"I need a horse." Innocent smile, albeit a bit strained.

"…And why is that...?" Who gave this permission to an uninvited guest like you?

"I'm going to a village. In the west, about twenty miles away," I say.

(I'm going. As in, don't you dare try to stop me.)

She doesn't object, but she asks for the reason again.

"Because I need to confirm something."

Souma looks at me as if she thinks I was absolutely insane, but she does it in a respectful way, like how teacher might look at a cooing mother with an obnoxiously spoiled child. And I can guess the other questions that she has- who the hell I think I am, for one. Right now, I don't think I can provide her with an answer. I'm not sure either.

(If this world already has a Yuui, already has a Fai, then what does that make me? An extra. A person who, quite frankly, isn't supposed to exist.)

"I will come with you," she announces suddenly, and it's my turn to be surprised. "I cannot leave an honoured guest unaccompanied, and you will need a guide to find your way."

I'm not sure if she is trying to be kind, if she thinks it's what Tomoyo would do, or if she plain just wants to keep an eye on a suspicious character like me- but I'm happy for any help she is willing to offer.

We reach the stables with me wondering silently how I'll manage to ride a horse in a kimono.

That becomes the least of my concerns when the night air is shattered by bellowing whinnies, getting increasingly shriller as I draw near- oh, shut up, the sentries will hear! The horses know that there is a predator among them and they stare at me with eyes white with fear. Souma immediately goes around calming the steeds before they can wake anyone and I try to suppress the vampire blood as much as I can. It works: my eye turns blue, and I promptly lose my ability to see in the dark. Hmm. That won't do.

I conjure up an image of Kurogane in my mind, ah, the Thirst, and voila, my night vision is back. The horses are inconsolable- they snort wetly and paw at the dirt with great hooves, keeping close to corners and walls and away from me.

(I wonder if I should be offended. Oh, you silly ponies, I have no intention of eating you! Wasting precious time…)

There is one white stallion that seems less affected by me than the rest, and I approach it cautiously, just in case it decides to rear, but it stays in one spot tossing its mane.

"That one is the Princess' personal steed," says Souma in clipped tones as she bridles a chestnut-coloured horse, and she adds reluctantly, "You are allowed to ride it if you wish. There is an exclusive sidesaddle the princess usually uses as well."

Well, that's unexpected. I decide not to question her out-of-nowhere generosity, but I suspect that Tomoyo has a large part in it. That also explains why Souma offered to guide me.

(A spiteful voice in my head calls attention to the fact that riding Tomoyo's horse on her saddle in a silk kimono she gave me probably isn't the best way to show thanks.)

I will have to repay the princess back in someway later.

We depart quickly. As the landscape rolls by- low shrubbery with the rare spindly tree- a metronome forms: the steady clip-clop of hooves. Not slowly, not yet a gallop. A brisk trot. Stars titter above our heads and play hide and seek through the navy clouds, while I just try to get used to riding sidesaddle after a lifetime of riding astride. It feels like I'm about to fall off. Mokona snores soundly on my lap.

Tired. It feels like my eyelid is being dragged down by deadweight; every movement is me trying to function at the bottom of an ocean, the pressure of the water pressing down on my head, clogging my ears. Whenever I start to slump in my seat though, I remember.

(Yuui. Fai.

Fai.)

Souma tries to suppress any hostility she has for my special treatment from Tomoyo by making polite conversation. "I apologize if Kurogane caused any trouble for you on your journey. He can be a handful sometimes, and awfully rude as well."

I laugh out loud. "Not at all! I mean, he can be rough, but really, Kuro-tan is just a big softie on the inside."

(Welcome distraction. I'm worn out and the Thirst is a persistent, infuriating fly and oh, I don't want to face what I might find, who lives in the village, what it might mean for me.

But at the same time, I spur my horse on faster.)

The look on Souma's face is positively scandalized. "Kuro-tan? I hope for your sake that you don't call him that to his face."

"But I do, Souma-san. Frequently. Among other nicknames. Like Kuro-sama, Kuro-chi, Kuro-daddy… And I'm still alive."

"Kuro-daddy." Her voice is faint.

"Yes, he's a very good father." I nod reassuringly. "Two lovely children. And this here," I prod Mokona lightly, "is the, er, family pet."

Souma is past the point of trying to make sense of me, trying to figure out whether I'm joking or not. I'm not, but there's no way to prove it. I'll make sure to tease Kurogane right in front of Souma next time. I wonder what kind of expression she'll wear then.

"So who's the mother?" she asks slowly, as if she isn't sure if she wants to know the answer or not. Probably not.

(I've questioned to myself what type of relationship Souma has with Kurogane on several occasions throughout our travels. Curiosity.

Mostly.)

"Well…"


I don't even realize we've almost arrived until Souma points it out to me, half asleep as I was, but as soon as I hear her voice I jerk fully awake- how long have we been riding? Not sure. But because Mokona's still with me, I can still communicate with her.

(Aha, see how prepared I am!)

She asks me what I'm looking for.

I reply, "Myself."

She starts to take that as she takes everything I've said so far- with a generous helping of salt and a strained "I see", but then her eyes widen and her mouth forms an 'o' as she makes the connections in her mind.

"You're here to find the Twins of Misfo-"

"You've heard of them?"

"Ninjas are intelligence collectors," she points out with the raise of an eyebrow. "I was told the twins have hair the colour of the moon and eyes the shade of the sky and that their happiness curses the people around them. You think that one of them is you?"

I am about to answer when I crash bodily into what feels like a huge brick wall. That's on fire. And that has thick thorny vines growing all around it.

(Damn, ow, that hurts.)

The Thirst flares up inside me, raging and shrieking and throwing a tantrum as I sit stunned and in a great amount of pain. It's like someone decided to splash a tub of boiling wax on me and then chip all of it off with a fucking needle. I'm on the ground, pushed right off my horse. There's nothing in front of me, though. Nothing that could've hit me like that.

And what's more is that the horses and Souma seem absolutely fine. Mokona is still curled in the saddle. Souma swings off her steed and grabs both of the reins, coming towards me with a worried look. She asks if I'm okay.

No, but I've taken worse pain than this. "Thank you, I'm fine. What was that?"

"You just rode into a kekkai. A very strong one as well."

(A spiritual barrier that keeps demons out. Great.)

Ignoring the splitting headache that has formed, I stand up and brush myself off.

"But in the castle…"

"Princess Tomoyo is priestess of Shirasagi Castle. She is the one who keeps the kekkai in place. She has dropped the barrier temporarily due to your… condition."

Now that Souma mentioned it, I can feel a faint pulse of energy emitting from the house just beyond the barrier.

It feels achingly familiar of wind-songs and family and the quivering ribbons of colourful radiance above icy nothingness, and I immediately know this is it. Maybe it's because my soul recognizes itself in its entirety, but I swear by whatever omnipresent deity there may be in the sky, I can feel an echo of my heartbeat.

(I need to get to that house.)

Its walls are grey and cracked and the thatched roof has arrows sticking out of it, making it look like a wild pincushion- oh, just beyond that door, just-

Raising my hand, a stream of light pours forth from my finger as I write Open on the barrier that separates me from my destination. But I don't finish before I turn my head to the side in a coughing fit, my body shaking as I hack up a mouthful of blood. Souma shouts something unimportant at me as she tries desperately to support my weight.

I swallow.

(Nothing like Kurogane's at all- it's coppery and salty, disgusting in its taste and wrong in its texture and the Thirst feels cheated.)

My knees struggle to support my weight, and fatigue threatens to pull me under, but it doesn't matter, I just need to get past the barrier. I have zero magic left, it seems. Except- oh-

(Hitsuzen. You've brought me Syaoran and Sakura and Kurogane but I hate you.)

"…Fai!"

Hearing your own voice call your name is a very strange experience, especially when you're not the one saying it.

(I look up into a mirror that isn't a mirror.)

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out except for a thin trickle of blood that I don't bother to wipe away.

"But-but you're dead!"

He's standing in the doorway, wearing a plain blue robe, his hair tied back like mine with twine, two blue eyes wide open. On the ground beside him there is a sheaf of scattered paper strips, as if he just dropped them. He walks towards me and then stops when he notices Souma, as if he's afraid to come near.

(Hitsuzen just picked up my already unstable present, my uncertain future, and turned them upside down and shook. Until anything and everything falls out and apart and I'm left with the husks of unanswered questions and oh, it's Yuui goddamn it, it's me.)

Yuui is crying now, crumpled like a puppet with its strings cut, fisting the fabric of his robe like he's trying to physically stop himself from running to me. "Fai, Fai, tell me it's you, I love you, I'm sorry, I love you."

(What cruelty is this, for Fai to be denied a life in this world as well?)

I want to lie, I want to pretend to be my twin just to stop the anguish in Yuui's (my) voice, I want to comfort, and for one second I grasp that I have the extraordinary ability to resurrect the dead.

I can bring back Fai by being Fai. I told Kurogane that I am no longer Yuui- that I have taken up a new identity.

But what comes out of my mouth is nothing but pure truth, for once. "I'm… not Fai."

My chest clenches as Yuui makes a heartbroken noise between a hiss and a wail.

"…I'm actually you," I say.

And so I tell him. I tell him the story, and how easily it flows from my mouth now, the shameful secrets that they are, when I've been hiding it so long from the others! I tell him about Valeria and the curse and the tower and Celes; I tell him about my journey, the return to Ashura, the fear, Fai. I explain how I took Fai's name, tell him about the memory-feathers and the vampirism and the closing world and now he isn't crying anymore, his tears gone and his eyes abruptly dry as if someone had turned off a tap. There isn't any shock on his face, only drying tear-streaks. Yuui's eyes are hollow and his face is blanched, pale and still as ivory.

( -only briefly mentioned Kurogane as a person I travelled with, I don't know why, maybe because I'm even more selfish than I claim to be, that and just because I don't want to deal with the real reason. The real reason, which my damnable logic is underlining and highlighting and bolding with a thick, red pen.

I've always taken for granted the fact that my fate, for better or for worse, is intertwined with Kurogane's.

This is a fact. It's a given. It's undisputed and never once since the day I perceived it at the Witch's shop have I denied it.)

Souma isn't as seemingly impervious as Yuui. Her face betrays emotions as easily as Kurogane's does- amazement, horror, wonder, disgust, awe- in successive order, one after the next.

(The real reason is blindingly obvious. Now I know a Yuui exists in this world, while I have no world. He is supposed to be here, alive, while I am by all means not. And what's more, he has the exact same soul as I do.

…Do you see what I'm getting at?)

My head is starting to hurt again, great black tidal waves of pain, my mouth rusted over with the aftertaste of blood. When I finish telling the severely abridged version of my life up to this point, Yuui, who I was so happy to see, who was so moved to see me, is staring at me with something borderline anger.

(If, theoretically speaking, I never left Celes. Never met Kurogane. And Kurogane remained here in Nihon. There is not a doubt in my mind that he would have met this Yuui someway or another, because that is the way hitsuzen works. That is the way souls are connected.)

"I believe you," Yuui states, and I can imagine how he is feeling right now. Dead. I have taken the brilliant, shining hope that his brother is somehow alive again, and I have killed it mercilessly with my words. Not only that, but I have destroyed what his life used to be. I suspect that he already knew about the existence of different worlds and soul-connection, but still-

"What now?" he asks, his voice empty of emotion.

Souma looks between us awkwardly, as if seeing us with new eyes. "Well, if you two are really the same person, it makes Yuui-san a guest of the palace as well. You can come reside in the castle for the time being. There's room on my horse, the trip won't be too long if we hurry."

The faint anger that darkens Yuui's face erupts suddenly into full-out indignation. "I'm never riding on the same horse as a dog of the Empress." He starts picking up the falling bits of paper shakily.

The ninja is so insulted that she can't articulate properly. In one swift motion, she pulls a kunai out of nowhere and points it at Yuui. I shout and try to stand in front of her, but my legs still aren't cooperating. "Speak against the Empress again," Souma says in a tone carefully controlled, "and I'll kill you."

Yuui holds up a thin rectangular piece of paper in front of him like a shield, and I can see now that there is writing on it, wait, hold on- paper can't protect you from sharpened steel- but Yuui seems oblivious to it, and he whispers, "That Empress is the reason why Fai is dead."

(…What?)

"What do you mean?" I ask.

"She knew us. She knew we were being attacked." Yuui shrugs. "She couldn't be bothered in her castle- all the royalty is corrupted to its core. Fai was stoned to death trying to shield me from the villagers. Trying," raising his voice, "to save me! When I should've been the one protecting him! It was partly my fault as well-"

"Why were you being attacked?" Souma lowers her weapon ever so slightly.

"Because we killed six civilians, plus leader of the village."

"How?!"

"I don't know. By being born?"

(Yes. The cursed children.)

I can't take this anymore. The parallels- they are noticeable even to Souma. The sky isn't as dark as it was a moment ago, we need to go, I need to get back, there's a promise I made.

"Ride with me then, Yuui," I offer. "Tomoyo-hime is kind, and life in the castle can't be worse than a life in a shack, harassed by villagers." I know now why there are arrows sticking out from the roof.

Yuui watches me, and it's unnerving, just a bit- he has a detached, calculating look on his face, but then it's gone, and for the first time since I've seen him, he smiles.

(I don't like it. I've worn that very smile on my face countless times before, and those are the very smiles that Kurogane hated me for- fake, flimsy as the paper Yuui tried to defend himself with, but as impenetrable as a fortress.)

"Alright, if you put it that way…" He hesitates. "…Fai."

The ride back is tense and relations between Yuui and Souma are pulled tighter than a piano wire, but I take no notice. Mokona, who I've forgotten about in the saddle somewhere along the line of everything that happened, is still asleep, the lucky thing. I can only hold onto the reins loosely, blearily taking note of Yuui's arms tightly around my middle, even my night vision failing as my sight blurs into swirling shades of grey.

The stars are gone by the time we arrive, and the edge of the sky is golden syrup. The horses' steps are laboured- they must be tired, but I bet not half as tired as I. I practically fall off the white stallion, and I guess Souma must take pity on me, because she suggests that I go rest while she tends to the horses and brings Yuui to Tomoyo. I thank her and tell her to wake me if anything important happens, and bid goodnight (good morning) to Yuui. He waves once.

Holding Mokona, I let my feet carry me down a walkway that is already becoming familiar to me, and slide open one of those pretty, decorated doors. Mokona stirs slightly- what a time to wake up, after the entire night.

It's Kurogane's room, of course, and I collapse in an undignified heap beside his mattress, completely devoid of my usual grace, dropping Mokona on a pillow, and Kurogane wakes. He sits up and stares at me blankly.

"You look like shit," he comments in typical Kurogane fashion.

"Mm. I sure feel like it." On the brink of slumber, I mumble, "By the way, Kuro-chan. I brought a Yuui back from my midnight expedition. I won against the sun, though. Like I promised."

"Uh huh. Go to sleep."

A blanket is draped over me gently. It's already warm.

I dream of blue-eyed boys running barefoot through fields of a vivid green, cherry blossom petals circling wildly through the air. The petals turn to washed-out snowflakes, each one intricately detailed, and then they turn to drops of blood. I dream of the redness, of dashes of deep scarlet, of eyes the same colour. I dream of soft sighs and softer touches, of wine bottles filled with liquids other than wine. I dream of bandages and crowns made from the textiles of heaven. I dream of two people meeting, then three, then two again.

And then I dream of nothing at all.