An Auspicious Year
By Diane Long
This story is set in Nihon, assuming all travels are over and Kuro and Fai have settled down.
February 3rd, which is one day before Risshun (the first day of spring according to the lunar calendar), is called Setsubun in Japan. It's not a national holiday, but mame maki (bean throwing) ceremonies are performed on Setsubun. Traditionally, people throw roasted soy beans at home, shouting "oni wa soto" (get out demons) and "fu ku wa uchi" (come in happiness.) These beans are called fuku mame (fortune beans.) It is believed that people can be healthy and happy if they pick up and eat fuku mame the number equal to their ages. - From Setsubun: Bean Throwing Festival/Mame-Make Festival By Shizuko Mishima, Guide
"Kore wa"- What's this?
Torch light danced upon the plain planks of pine that made up the low structure of the soldier's barracks.
Although it was nothing fancy, and rather cramped, the space gleamed with cleanliness and was always warm for the soldiers housed within.
Kurogane believed his troops deserved nothing less and made sure their living space was well maintained. Well cared for soliders made more loyal fighters who tended to stay alive longer.
On top of that, his men needed to know he was loyal to them. So Kurogane tried to be visible in the barracks during festivals. It usually wasn't that hard to show up, drink some sake and laugh at their jokes. He was a soldier too. He could dress casually here, just a navy hakema and white gi with a deep red quilted hapi coat to keep out the chill. A nice break from the fripperies he had to wear at the palace.
Tonight was Setsubun, the celebration of the lunar new year. All he had to do was keep his hand draped over his sake so none of the roasted soybeans flying through the air ruined his drink.
"Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!" A young solider shouted gleefully, throwing a handful of beans at a laughing sempai who returned the favor.
As the shouts and beans tumbled around him, Kuro chuckled. His personal oni, whom he had never been able to successfully expel from his life was outside playing in the snow.
Not surprising for a man raised in a wintery world, Fai was his happiest and most vibrant out in the snow. This was his first winter in Nihon, and after wilting in the summer heat, his return to vigor and cheer eased an unconscious tension in Kurogane's heart.
They had been living in their own rooms at Shirasagi castle for almost a year now, veterans from a war that beside themselves only his princess could appreciate.
A year of catching the mage giving him longing glances. Of just-barely-there touches as they passed in the corridor. Of late night drinking sessions and language lessons. A year of connecting.
Maybe this year one of them would find the courage to be open about their affection, to take the next step.
"What the...?" Kurogane muttered, thoughts shattered, as a bean bounced off the bridge of his nose and somehow into his covered sake. His men knew better than to throw one of those damned beans at him.
"Oi!" he thundered as two ice cold beans hit his neck and slid under his gi and lodged dangerously close to his belly button.
Used to respecting that particular tone, his men stopped what they were doing and directed their attention to their leader.
As another bean bounced of the back of his head, Kurogane guessed the identity of the culprit behind him even before amused whispers of "Fai-san" rippled through the room.
"Not a good idea," Kurogane growled. Did the mage always have to embarrass him in front of his men? He could only imagine what these increasingly frequent displays did to his authority.
A soft laugh preceded three more beans that also managed to slip under Kurogane's collar and roll along his torso.
"Those are cold, you idiot!" Kurogane muttered, refusing to turn around on principle.
"Kore wa?" Fai phrased carefully, heavy emphasis on the vowels, his tone lilting up into a question.
Kurogane allowed himself a quick glance over his shoulder to see the mage in his old traveling clothes complete with his fluffy white coat, posed dramatically with one hand on a jutted out hip, and the other displaying a handful of beans.
Getting language tips from the rank and file seemed to be one of Fai's favored past times these days.
"Mame maki!" an older soldier supplied helpfully, flipping a handful of beans judiciously over Kurogane's head to spray against the laughing magician.
"Don't encourage him," Kurogane said without heat. On festival days, he was less the leader and more a comrade in arms.
Fond laughter spread across the room, along with encouraging shouts for Fai to recite the traditional catch phrase. "Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi!" Which Fai happily obliged, mangling his new phrase just a bit.
To a man, the troops were charmed by the mage. Between his smiles, fighting skills and cheery disposition he had become their mascot. His shoulders hunched, Kurogane wondered if his men were hoping for a spring wedding.
Behind him, Fai sang out something in his mysterious Celesian tongue that seemed to be a mix of chiming bells and thick consonants. The sentence ended with "Ne, Kuro-chan?"
"You know it makes me nervous when you do that," Kurogane complained as Fai settled in the seat next to him. "Speak in Nihongo so I can understand you."
"You don't trust me?" Fai teased his accent heavy, letting his long bangs drift into his eyes. "Not after all this time?"
The wistful tone was not lost on the ninja. "I trust you to be up to something."
"So mean," Fai sighed, popping a bean in his mouth and crunching it loudly. "Even after asking me to live in your world."
"Hey, don't eat that," Kurogane corrected. "Those are for throwing. Besides, food makes you sick."
"But they are eating theirs," Fai protested, gesturing to the soldiers across the room. "A couple of beans won't hurt me."
"After you throw them to chase out bad luck, you pick up the same number as your age off the floor and eat them for good fortune," Kurogane explained, leaning down to pick up 20 beans from the floor. "Do it correctly."
"Oh," Fai replied, his face oddly closed. "Oh." The un-thrown beans slipped through his fingers, clattering to the floor.
"Well, pick up some," Kurogane groused, grinding down on his own snack.
Fai glanced at the beans scattered about the floor. "I'm not quite that hungry," he said softly.
The vitality Kurogane had been enjoying was suddenly gone, leaving behind a blank version of the mage that had not been seen since their early acquaintance.
"Well." Fai stood up. "I'll leave you to it then."
Stunned, Kurogane cold only watch him go. What had just happened? The accusing glances of the other men in the room were not helping him think either.
Finishing his sake, floating bean and all, he pushed up from the table and headed towards the courtyard that connected the barracks to the main buildings of Shirasagi proper.
The cold hit him sharply as he exited the building, and he was happy to not have to go far. Fai was a few feet away, standing next to a whimsical snow sculpture of Mokona and the princess wearing her piffle racing costume, the fading sun casting a violet tint on the snow.
Coming to a stop behind the mage, Kurogane placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "What was that about?"
Fai smoothed the snow of Mokona's head with a gloved hand. "It was getting a little warm in there," he said lamely. "My old clothes are best for the outside."
"Bullshit." Red eyes narrowed.
Fai tilted is head back, wispy strands of blond hair catching the cold breeze. "What, is Kuro-mame worried about me?"
It was an old, transparent tactic. Tease and deflect by embarrassing the person getting too close. Kurogane was done with it.
"Yes. I am worried about you."
Fai stiffened, back ramrod straight. "You don't play fair," he whispered to the snow sculpture.
"This isn't a game." Kurogane's firm words cut through the freezing air.
"You picked up 20 beans," Fai sighed. "Only 20."
Ah. So this was about their ages. Kurogane decided to face it head on. "How many years were you in that valley?"
Fai wrapped his arms around himself. "We'd need to go to the granary to get enough beans to count it out."
Hating himself a little for pressing into the topic that pained Fai the most, Kurogane continued. "But you stayed a kid, right?"
Fai shook his head negatively, his posture slumping forward.
"I saw you in the ice shards," Kurogane pushed, "you looked ten years old. You can't be that much older than me."
"It's just like you to over simplify this." Fai turned around, looking infinitely sad, his eyes large and empty. "It's true, my body aged very slowly, but my mind...hundreds of years..." he trailed into silence.
As his hand dropped away, Kurogane's fingers clenched into a fist. The images King Ashura had shared about that damned valley filled his mind's eye. A starving boy with matted hair and broken, bleeding finger nails sitting atop a mountain of corpses. It had been a unending death without dying.
And had lasted for much longer than he had realized. Countless years that made Fai feel lost in time, even at the end of the journey. Made him feel too old to really fit in.
Finally he understood a piece of what made the mage continue to hold himself apart.
As a man of action, he wanted to vanquish this demon for Fai. To undo all the pain and damage, to stop it from happening. To make it so that Fai and his brother were the ones saved by the witch, and let it have been himself that had become a pawn of Fei Wong Reed.
"Kurogane?" Fai asked gravely. "What are you thinking?" He raised an arm as if to touch Kurogane, the tips of his fingers peeping out from the furred cuffs of overlong sleeves.
His focus coming to the present, the ninja took in the lovely and pained face of his companion. The man who had somehow become his most important person. Any attempts to alter the past would likely mean that they would have stayed in their own worlds, that their paths would not cross.
Despite everything, he wasn't willing to give that up. And he wasn't going to lose him to time, either.
As the twilight deepened into an indigo darkness, he looked into those eyes and resolved that he would make up for all the horrible things in Fai's past. He would make him safe and happy.
"Kuro?" Fai queried again, sounding concerned, and dropping his arm.
Kurogane had no words for the feelings in his heart, so he said, "How can you still like snow that much? How can you even stand it?"
"Ah," Fai sighed, a slight fondness animating the empty planes of his face. "Celes and Ashura-Ou. They showed me a new perspective."
Latching on to an easy opening, Kurogane stepped closer. "Then let me do that too," Kurogane said urgently, digging into his pocket and pulling out two fuku mame. "Open your hand."
Fai held out a hand with one black gloved palm up, looking off balance and lost.
Kurogane placed one bean on Fai's gloved hand and curled his fingers around it.
He took the other bean and held it by his own mouth between his thumb and index finger. "Like I've told you before, your past doesn't matter to me. We've been home for one year, so we'll have one bean each." He popped the bean into his mouth and crunched it.
Hope lit the mage's features while he clutched his single bean. "Home?"
"Our home," Kurogane clarified. "Us. Together," he added embarrasedly just to be sure the idiot got the message.
"Us? Together?" Fai echoed faintly as if he couldn't believe it, his eyes growing impossibly wide.
"Yes, together!" Kurogane barked. "Are you stupid or something?"
Fai blinked. "I think I must be."
"Just eat the damn bean!"