A/N: A fic that's actually a bit funny! My word! What is the world coming to! As usual, I write about the characters I like. At some point, I'll write about Sakura and Syaoran as well. I love all of CLAMP's characters, actually. They're all wonderful. Although I fully approve of pairing Kurogane and Fai together, this is a completely platonic fic, so please enjoy it. Kurogane curses a lot. It's very amusing.

The Real Thing

Kurogane still wasn't entirely used to the little parades for the 'returning young heroes' that travelling with a bunch of do-gooders tended to incur. Where he came from, if you were happy that there weren't demons gnawing your shinbones off, you made offerings to the priestess, prayed thanks to the gods, and didn't annoy the bloodstained people coming back. Especially if they were Kurogane, because that was the path to certain death.

"How can we possibly thank you enough?" Himoto-san asked, clutching the princess's hand. Sakura smiled back at her friend. Syaoran smiled at Sakura. The mage and Mokona were grinning at each other. Everyone was smiling, dammit, and it was really starting to make Kurogane feel ill.

"You've already done enough…" Sakura began, and Kurogane nodded in approval. She at least had the manners of a princess, even if no one else around here had any idea of the proper way to do things. "We couldn't possibly—"

Not that the kid was so bad. If he trained a little more, he might make a fair guardian. It was just—

"Actually," Fai burst out, appearing behind Sakura to grin down in his singularly bizarre way at Himoto-san. "There is something you could do."

—It was just that guy.

"That," the mage went on gleefully, pointing to one of the flashing little boxes the people of this world had in hand and kept clicking at the returning young heroes. Kurogane was about ready to tear them all out of their hands and slice them into neat, thin slices of cheap metal, and he thought for one impossible moment that Fai agreed with him, before the mage actually asked for one of the bizarre things.

Himoto-san brightened considerably, and went off to fetch one. This wasted time. Further time was wasted while she showed Fai how to use it and the kids went off to see the city sights. Mokona was even pacified from its usual routine of 'we have the feather and we have liftoff' because someone mentioned beer and Kurogane hadn't seen the damned manju bun since.

Kurogane was absolutely certain this trip had taken ten years of his life. He tried to communicate this to Fai by facial expression when they actually did get around to leaving, but all Fai did was grin and flash the stupid box at him. "Himoto-san wanted to express her thanks," Sakura exclaimed, still smiling. "Fai-san is so considerate!"

Personally, Kurogane thought the magician just wanted the stupid box and decided to grab for it, like an exceptionally stupid three year-old.

When they landed in the next world Fai had a piece of paper in one hand that hadn't been there before, and on it was Kurogane's soul.

"Ah!" Kurogane screeched, sword out in a flash to cut the offending image away, but Fai held it away from him and laughed.

"It's a picture, Kuro-min!" He declared, and brandished the photograph forward. "See?"

Kurogane did see, and the mage was an idiot. The 'picture' fluttered to the ground in two halves as Kurogane breathed a sigh of relief. He turned back to the kids to say that they needed to be on the lookout for whatever had stolen his soul because it might go after one of them next. Instead there was Fai with the box, which momentarily blinded Kurogane, and by the time he had blinked his eyes clear, the mage had another piece of paper and another stolen image of Kurogane.

Kurogane made a grab for it, but Fai had grown wiser than the last time—or dumber, considering how you looked at it—and snatched it away just in time. "No, no," he scolded, dodging around the other attempts Kurogane made to take it back. "I'm keeping this one."

"You cannot have my soul, you damn mage!" Kurogane shouted in the clearest way possible, and was completely appalled by how funny the mage apparently thought this was.

"Your soul, Kuro-tama? I think not. Your soul would be a good deal scarier."

"Mokona agrees!" Piped up the peanut gallery. Fai nodded wisely.

"It would be black."

"With teeth!"

"And it would threaten to eviscerate innocent bystanders."

"Cut it out!" Kurogane demanded, grabbing for the picture again, and falling flat on his face. Fai peered down, and Kurogane seized the moment to grab the idiot's foot, knock him down, steal the picture, and tear it to shreds. Mokona giggled eerily, and so far the kids were where they had left them, looking a little scared.

And Fai had that damn box again.

This time Kurogane shielded his eyes before its attack, and saw the box ejecting a sheet of paper like the last two he'd destroyed. He watched in disbelief as the mage took it and flapped it in the air until his captured soul drew itself across the surface. Kurogane's mouth dropped open. "I can do this all day," Fai sang, and Kurogane started to grin. Suddenly the day was looking up.

"So that's the source, eh?" He growled, preparing to get rid of some pent-up frustration on the stupid box. "Allow me…"

"Camera!" Syaoran shouted suddenly, and the two of them looked up to see him trotting over, leading Sakura by the hand. Syaoran looked excited—and not in a way that communicated fear or approval of Kurogane's actions. This excited was like that time they found a book by a man named Haruka Li devoted to the study of one of Sakura's feathers. It had taken days for the group to convince Syaoran that life existed outside of its pages, and Kurogane wondered if this too was license to kill the box in Fai's hands. "I've heard of them before, but I thought they only did black and white and ah— they were much larger!" At Kurogane's blank look, he added, "Tomoyo-san had one in Piffle World, remember? Only it took moving pictures. This one must take still pictures, like the ones in Clow."

"Hyuu," the mage said, sitting up with a protective arm slung over the evil Kam-u-ra. "Your world sounds amazing!"

"May I see it?" Syaoran asked, and to Kurogane's complete disbelief, took the malevolent contraption from the mage, who was now giving Kurogane a sly, smug look. Kurogane looked back and forth between the two of them suspiciously.

"It doesn't take souls?"

"It uses light," Syaoran explained distractedly, pulling out a newly snapped photograph of their surroundings. "The way the light reflects into the lens leaves an afterimage…"

"No, Kuro-pip, it doesn't take souls," Fai added helpfully. "And if it did, you'd know. Because your soul would be all dark…"

"And with a big meanie face!" Mokona described, with an imaginative interpretation.

"And it would wave a sword around—"

"ALRIGHT ALREADY!"

At the time Kurogane had been happy that they weren't being pursued by some monster that could suck their souls out of them (although in that contingency one of their number would be just fine; Kurogane was convinced that Fai had no soul to take), but now he was beginning to wish it had just gotten things over with. For one thing, it did not sit well with him when Fai wasted time arranging the group in various odd positions in front of various odd things and made them sit still while he burned their eyes out of their sockets. For another, Fai wouldn't leave the stupid thing alone.

For the past three worlds, Kurogane hadn't seen the sinister Kam-u-ra leave Fai's wretched fingers. Twice he had stopped in the middle of important missions to take pictures of—of some flower that caught his attention, or something equally stupid. When he wasn't making them stand like idiots in front of other people's property, then Fai was sneaking up on Kurogane and finding new and inventive ways to blind him and make him cuss violently for the next three seconds. Few things were so deeply disturbing as finding the mage in his room in the middle of the night, leaning over him with a creepy grin and then—

FLASH!

Kurogane was going to have to kill someone. It was just going to need to happen.

To make matters worse, no one else seemed to care. They didn't care that it was wasting time and silly and slowly driving Kurogane ever closer to psychosis. Sakura just smiled and said she thought it was 'great fun'. Fai, when Kurogane even mentioned that perhaps they should throw it into a fire and watch it burn, clutched it to his chest like a woman and scolded Kurogane for about half an hour.

"How could you, Kuro-ri!" Fai wailed. "This is a compilation of all our precious memories together! It's not stupid!"

"Why do we even need that?" Kurogane demanded, crossing his arms and huffing. "That 'compilation' thing?" He paused, and then glared. "And what 'precious memories' you creep? I don't recall precious anything with you! I'm just trying to get back home!"

And help the kids. But he would never, ever admit it in a thousand years.

Fai pouted at him. It was the most terrifying thing Kurogane had ever witnessed. Grown men ought not pout like that. It wasn't right. "Because," Fai said a little quieter—small favors—"this journey isn't going to last forever. Sakura-chan will get her feathers back and go home with Syaoran-kun, and you'll go home to your princess."

Kurogane's eyes narrowed at the smile that crossed the mage's face. He hated that—when the mage smiled but wasn't smiling. There was a huge difference and there really wasn't supposed to be, but the mage just had to make everything so damn complicated.

Fai was looking down at the Kam-u-ra now, running his fingers over the surface. "So with this, we'll have something to remember our travels together by." He glanced up at Kurogane again, smiling slyly. "And you have some precious memories. Admit it, Kuro-puu!"

Kurogane turned his head and scowled. Fai seemed to take this as a confirmation and giggled gleefully until Kurogane asked, "And you?" Fai's laughter died away then, and his eyes went wide even though the smile stayed in place. Kurogane sighed. "What are you going to do when that happens? Where are you going to go?"

"Me?" Fai shrugged, and then brandished the Kam-u-ra triumphantly. "I'll have this!" He grinned and Kurogane found himself becoming unreasonably annoyed. So annoyed, in fact, that he couldn't stand being in the same room with the mage for another moment. He stood up abruptly.

"I'm going outside," he said, and wasn't at all surprised when for once Fai left him alone about it, smiling in an empty room and hugging his Kam-u-ra.

Fai was such an idiot.

He was so much of an idiot, in fact, that when one of the worm demons they were fighting in the caves of Shikomi knocked it out of his hands, Kurogane had known to grab him by the collar and drag him back, because the idiot was already trying to run after it. Fai struggled against this exercise of goodwill, squirming in his grip until Kurogane nearly lost his balance and got eaten himself. Kurogane cursed, throwing the angry mage over his shoulder and racing back to join the kids at the mouth of the cave. Syaoran looked relieved to see them—his arms had been understandably too filled with the unconscious princess to help much with their retreat—and a little less relieved when he saw the fact that Fai was repeatedly elbowing Kurogane in the gut. Kurogane was only too happy to fling his burden at the kid, if only to save his stomach from being ground into a pancake, before he saw the look Fai was giving him.

It was like murder solely reserved for the eyes.

Kurogane glared back, cursing him for every kind of idiot that ever lived, and when Fai made a move to dart back into the cave, Kurogane knocked him right back down with a well-placed flat of the sword to his stomach. Fai winced. Kurogane sneered. "Knock him out if you have to," he told Syaoran, who was instantly looking back over at him, face serious. Kurogane glared at him too, because he was feeling supremely pissed with the world at the moment and couldn't do anything about it. "And DON'T leave without me. I'll be back in a few minutes."

And then, grumbling loudly to himself, Kurogane stormed back into the cave, sword drawn, ready to face a nest of venomous, gigantic slugs to get the mage's stupid Kam-u-ra back for him.

SUCH AN IDIOT!

It didn't help that Kurogane felt obligated to kill every last one of the demons because they were eating village children in this world. The kids were rubbing off on him. It wasn't his business or his problem or anything Princess Tomoyo was making him do, but he still felt obligated to help, and clambered out of the hellhole in an incredibly foul mood, slathered in worm entrails. Wisely, no one chose to comment on it as Kurogane cleaned his sword and ignored the mage's gaze.

"Couldn't find it," he said, and Fai said nothing. Kurogane glanced up sharply, expecting to see the mage doing something irritating and embarrassing, like bursting into tears over his favorite toy. Surprisingly, this was nothing so dramatic. Fai was standing a little ways away from the kids and when he saw Kurogane looking at him, he stood. Fai walked over to him, plucked off his blood-smeared helmet, and shook the worst of the gore off of it before presenting it back to Kurogane with a smile.

"Thank you, Kuro-myu," Fai said softly, and Kurogane scowled at him. Thank you was right. He snatched the helmet back and jammed it securely back onto his head.

"The nest is clean," Kurogane declared grumpily, mostly for the princess's benefit, as she had just woken up and looked confused. "Village is safe. We've wasted enough time here, so let's just go."

Mokona obligingly spread its wings and the mage rejoined them in time for the world to start dissolving. He strode up to Kurogane who glowered and dared him to start whining, but Fai just sighed once and then said, "I don't mind." He waited then until Kurogane looked over and then added, "The real thing is still here in front of me, after all. As Kuro-sama would say, it would be foolish to waste this fleeting time on taking pictures!"

Fai's face disappeared before Kurogane could make any comments, which was actually not a bad thing. He probably would have said how that was stupid just because Fai had said it, but it wasn't. It was the closest to not being such an idiot that Kurogane had ever seen Fai get.

In the mists of time and space, Kurogane cracked a smile.

He'd changed.

When they landed, Fai had apparently fallen into a tree and decided to nap there. Kurogane, when he found him, threw his burden expertly into the mage's lap and watched as Fai's eyes opened. They were on Kurogane in a flash, mouth hanging half open in such obvious surprise that Kurogane had to roll his eyes and scowl.

"I couldn't find the Kam-u-ra," he explain irritably. "Just the film. You can probably develop it if we go back to that other world and get another."

Fai stared at him. "We… already have Sakura-chan's feather from there," he pointed out, and Kurogane shrugged awkwardly. Fai picked up the roll of paper, and then smiled again. No—he didn't smile—he was smiling. He hopped down from his perch still smiling, just simply happy, landing in a pile of robes at Kurogane's feet. "The plot thickens!" He proclaimed brainlessly. "Whatever could this mean for our heroes?"

"It means you're an idiot," Kurogane replied bluntly, turning and stomping back to where he'd found the kids. "Come on. You've been making everyone wait."