What if we just don't talk about how long it's been? I think that's for the best. Here, have a chapter.

Chapter Seven

Sticks and Stones

Kurogane wasn't sure what to believe. About any of it.

Ashura hadn't just told them, he'd shown them, projecting the images into their minds and striking a cold sense of fear within Kurogane as he realized what a powerful mage Ashura really was—and what Yuui could be. Right now, Yuui could comfortably do this with only Kurogane and Syaoran, the two people whose minds he was most familiar with, and only when he touched them. Ashura did it to all four of them from across the room. The images were blurry, as though seen underwater: Ashura's memories of what the witch had shown him, through her own visions of the older Syaoran's mind. They rippled and if you tried to look too close, they scattered apart into droplets like throwing a stone into a shallow pool. You could only watch them washing over you and try to make sense of them.

What Kurogane had seen of himself . . . Now he knew why Ashura and Sonomi had been afraid after the fight with Seishirou. That Kurogane, the older and angry version of himself, killed. Killed viciously and without remorse. Kurogane didn't feel it truly was him that he'd seen, but it was something like him, and he could understand that man. But the senselessness of it struck a chord of grief in him. He didn't want to be like that. Was that what they thought he was?

He looked at Yuui. Yuui, who had called himself Fai, whose every smile had caused anger in not just the projection, but in Kurogane himself—and torment, because he knew what that older Kurogane did not, knew how to help that false Fai, and could not reach him. The truth of that Kurogane's sacrifices rang deep within him, for he knew he would not hesitate if such things came to pass. He would give his life's blood to Yuui without question, right now if it was called for. Even if Yuui became that selfish lying Fai thing, he would do it.

But Yuui wouldn't, he thought, even as he was creeping closer to his friend, hesitant to touch but at the same time needing to touch, reassure them both. Yuui wasn't going to do that. Among other things, the witch had kept that from happening.

Among other things. The splitting of a person, and the seal upon the heart of another copy. Two princesses, both the same, both of them lost at the moment of their creation in a swirling melee of treachery and loyalty. The breaking of the world. Barely averted, and pieces left in ruin, with the warriors limping away from the battle burned and broken. They'd saved things at the end, but the cost was too high. So the witch, Yuuko-san the Witch of Dimensions, had stopped it. She'd found the moment to cut things off, after the clones went back and had their baby, and the witch had kept them all from happening. All the events were rendered null, ended up being only in the memories of the copies who had chosen to disappear.

Those memories were inside Syaoran, now. Who had turned seven, who had felt the tug of a destiny that wasn't his anymore. That princess whose kindness had moved all three of the embittered men around her when nothing else could, she couldn't exist. That boy who was meant to replace Syaoran, who loved the witch and loved another and denied his own heart, he couldn't exist either. Syaoran's own parents. But they were all there in Syaoran's head. He kept them in there and dreamed of them at night, and woke up screaming because of their pain.

Syaoran was hunched up on the floor, his arms wrapped around his knees and his face hidden. He wasn't crying, or if he was, he was making no noise or movement. Kazahaya was still coming out of his daze—even though he wasn't a player in this tale, he'd probably felt the grief as strongly as they did because of his abilities—and he was closest to Syaoran but couldn't seem to reach out to him, with his hands gripping his knees to find an anchor.

"Syaoran-kun," Ashura said softly. "Come here, child."

Syaoran didn't even look up, he just shook his head. Was he blaming himself for this? Kurogane started to get up and go to him, tell him not to be stupid. He was just a tiny kid and he hadn't done anything wrong, he'd done none of those things because he'd been here with them the whole time—

"Syaoran!" Ashura said sharply. "Come to me!"

Syaoran stood up jerkily, and so did Kurogane and Kazahaya. Tense, ready to snatch the boy away from the madman they'd seen with hands and robes streaked with blood. They did, but not Yuui.

Yuui watched Ashura's eyes close with grief, watched him cover his face with his hand. Yuui stood up slowly and went to him. He knelt down beside where Ashura sat, and he pushed his head and body into Ashura's arms. Ashura slowly uncovered his face, looking down with disbelief at the boy. Then he sighed, shaky and weak, and bent to press his face against Yuui's tousled hair.

"You always believed in me," he whispered. "Even when I . . . you still loved me. I don't know how— I can't even thank you, I—"

"I'm sorry," Yuui rasped. "I'm sorry I couldn't do it."

It took Kurogane a moment to figure out what Yuui was apologizing for. By the time he opened his mouth to argue, bristling with rage, Ashura was already answering.

"Don't, Yuui. Don't ever apologize for that."

"Okay," Yuui said, sounding peaceful.

"I am the one who must apologize," Ashura said, his face still pressed close and taking the redemption being offered to him. "How can I, after I broke your trust in me so?"

"Didn't," Yuui said simply. He sighed, quiet for a moment longer, then he lifted his head to look at his— his mentor, or his king, or his father, or what he was looking at, Kurogane wasn't quite sure. "You didn't. You're here. I like it here. And I love you."

Ashura choked on a cry and gathered Yuui into his arms, almost into his lap. "My heart," he murmured. That was all he said.

Syaoran was still on the floor, curled up tight in himself, but he spoke after that. "Where is Clow's magic?"

Ashura looked up in surprise. "Mmm?"

"It was supposed to go into— into—" Syaoran was clearly grieving the interrupted fate of his other self, unable to speak his name. "Now he didn't get born, and so I want to know where Clow's magic is."

A weighted pause before Ashura said, "It's here."

"It's not in this house," Kazayaha objected. "I would have felt it."

"No, not here the house. Here, all of it. Heian."

"What?" Kurogane spat out.

"All the power that should have been in the other, in Watanuki—it was funneled into this world. Syaoran's very existence is a paradox, and it's Clow's magic that stabilizes this world and contains the imbalance he creates. The witch made sure of it."

She'd given up everything for them, Kurogane realized suddenly, with a painful thump against his ribs. That night under the stars when she'd disappeared, it was the end of everything for her. She'd sacrificed herself in every way possible. She'd given them everything. He fought a hard lump in his throat and wondered why she had done that for them.

"We even had some thought that later on, in many years when Syaoran passes away, Watanuki might be born in this world after all. Yuuko-san won't be here, but I cannot say how long I might live. I may be here to guide him." Ashura looked at Syaoran and gestured with one arm, keeping the other one around Yuui. "Will you not come to me, Syaoran-kun?"

Syaoran untangled himself and crept forward with a look of stubborn nothingness on his face. Ashura pulled him by the arm and directed him into Yuui's embrace, Yuui catching him with a startled look but plenty of fervor, wrapping his arms around Syaoran so tight it would be a wonder if the kid could breathe. Ashura put his own arms over both of them, together. That was when Syaoran-kun finally began to cry.

Kurogane eyed Kazahaya uncomfortably. It wasn't his tale, but they'd had little choice about including him, after what he'd seen. What was he thinking? Kurogane felt an aching that called him forward into the embrace with the others, but he couldn't do it when Kazahaya was looking at him. So he stayed where he was and set the mask on his face that he seemed to need so often.

Later, when Ashura was leading Kazahaya from the room to talk to him in private, or maybe to give the three of them privacy, he stopped and put his hand on Kurogane's shoulder and squeezed. Kurogane didn't react, but when he turned and saw Yuui curled up on the sofa with Syaoran, he dove in next to them without thinking. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at his lap, soaking in the warmth of Yuui pressed against his side and feeling the tension in him beginning to leak out.

"I will."

The words hung suspended in the air.

"I'll get big like that and really strong, like I was supposed to. I'll protect you guys."

Yuui sighed and leaned into him, letting him catch the trail of his thoughts.

was the point, so don't have to, you dope—

"Hey," Kurogane muttered, but he was leaning against Yuui, too. "Maybe not from the same things, but I'll still protect you."

"Kuro-daddy," Yuui said with a rusty chuckle.

"Don't even start, you air headed moron."

Syaoran was leaning on Kurogane, too, the both of them were, and Kurogane didn't move because they were supposed to do that, lean on him, that was what he was for

don't want to dream anymore, want Oniisan to make it stop

Both of the older boys jerked in shock, looking at each other before their eyes traveled down to Syaoran. The boy hadn't sucked his thumb in probably three years, but he was doing it now. His head leaned on Kurogane and his legs were sprawled over Yuui's lap, and his troubled-looking eyes were on his own hand, the fingers flexing over and over. Magic, he was thinking about that magic he'd done in those visions. They hadn't been able to see it closely enough to replicate. Yuui's power was able to bridge their close connection and let them hear these snatches of the boy's thoughts.

Yuui's hand closed over Syaoran's fingers and held the small fist tight. "The dreams will go away soon," he whispered, then grimaced and cleared his throat. "I'll stay with you at night until they go away. You won't be afraid of me anymore?"

Syaoran shook his head, sucking his thumb ferociously and frowning. He was blinking a lot, but it wasn't enough to stop the big, fat tears that were waiting at the corners of his eyes.

"What?" Kurogane asked him gruffly.

Syaoran pulled his thumb out. "I'm not the right one," he said.

Kurogane and Yuui took a moment to try to figure out what he meant, but Syaoran was already trying to struggle away from them, to run away. Kurogane snagged him by the shirt and dragged Syaoran right into his lap, locking him there with his arms.

"The hell are you talking about, brat?"

Yuui smacked his arm for that.

Syaoran's full eyes were looking determinedly forward. "I'm not the right one. You weren't friends with me."

Kurogane whuffed out a breath, mostly because he was worried Yuui was about to start crying. "Don't be stupid," Kurogane scolded the boy. "We're not those guys, either. You're the right one here, with us. That stuff isn't even going to happen, so stop worrying about it. Just worry about Heian. In Heian, you're our little brother so that's good enough."

Syaoran blinked too hard and those waiting drops spilled over his cheeks. Yuui reached out to wipe them away, and suddenly the kid was wailing like a siren and cuddling up to them and being all slobbery and disgusting. Kurogane didn't let go, though. Something told him if he did, Yuui would kill him.

After Syaoran cried himself into an exhausted sleep and Yuui needled Kurogane into carrying him upstairs, they went out to their field. They didn't spar with each other. They just leaned against the trunk of the tree and turned their faces up to the warm summer breezes and were silently together.

Kurogane had always felt grateful for the fact that Ashura and Sonomi chose to care for a handful of orphans. Now that he knew the full of it, he could finally do something he had never thought he'd be able to do: be grateful to be in Heian. This place was the only reason it was possible for them to be together like this, in peace and quiet and without a threat that they would pit their bodies and very souls against. The faded scar on his shoulder was nothing when he considered that he very well might have lost the arm attached to it.

He reached around the rough bark of the tree and found Yuui's fingers digging into the grass. When he felt Kurogane's warm hand upon his, he turned his palm up. They didn't try to communicate, although a few warm swells of affection buffeted between them. They sat holding hands without speaking until the sun went down.

"Kurogane?" Souma knocked on his half-opened door.

He was filling out a bunch of forms. Kendo studio, soccer club, job applications . . . He'd written down his name and address so many times that the words were starting to blur and turn into a meaningless jumble of characters. Souma had offered to help, but Kurogane had declined. After everything that had happened, he was still feeling a little raw. He was spending a lot of time alone in his room, trying to avoid talking to anyone.

Seishirou was in a coma.

They'd thought he was going to be fine, and then two days ago he'd fallen asleep and hadn't woken back up. They'd thought he was getting better, and then suddenly they were shouting about pressure and swelling and they'd missed a spot of internal bleeding . . . He wouldn't wake up. Subaru barely left the hospital, the scent of all that blood not even stirring him into hunger. His face was thin and lost and he didn't seem to hear Kamui's desperate pleas to go get some rest.

Ashura had spoken to him. None of them knew what he said, but it certainly wasn't a demand that he come back to the house or forget about Seishirou. He'd gone to the hospital and sat with his arm around Subaru for a while, or so said Kamui who'd been relegated to the waiting room, and then he'd come home without the young vampire. Neither Kamui nor Yuui knew what Ashura and Subaru talked about.

Nobody said it was Yuui or Kurogane's fault. Nobody had said that.

"Kurogane?" Sonomi said softly as she entered the room. "Ashura's downstairs. He says he's ready."

The Tsukyomi had reached out into Sonomi's daughter to ask if Ashura would prepare a connection for an audience. It seemed the empress would like a word with all of them. Kurogane in particular, but she wanted Sonomi and Ashura as well.

Kurogane stood up and wiped his sweating palms on his pants. He didn't know what the Amaterasu wanted and he was afraid to find out. If she knew about Seishirou . . . Maybe she had some more serious punishment in mind. And for all that he lived here, she was still his empress. He would bow to her will.

He bowed in truth, going to his knees when he saw the severe face gazing at him through the portal, like a face rippling underneath the surface of a pond.

"Kurogane of Suwa," she said.

"Your Highness," he said carefully, keeping his head lowered, heart hammering.

"I understand you are being punished for a grievous injury you caused during a fight."

"Yes, Highness," he mumbled. He hadn't been given permission to raise his head, so he didn't. He'd rather not look at those sharp eyes, anyway.

"Tell me," she commanded.

Kurogane recounted how Seishirou had hurt Yuui years before, and recounted his own shameful part in picking the recent fight. But he couldn't keep the heat out of his voice when he said, "He was trying to kill me, he honestly was. Yuui and I did the only thing we could do to stop him. But now he's . . ." Kurogane felt something clench in his stomach. "He's going to die, I think."

And Yuui wouldn't talk to him about it.

"I am sorry for the responsibility I bear," he said carefully. He didn't know what she wanted from him, but he knew his pride and feelings mattered little when speaking to the ruler of his country.

The empress was looking down on him with her brow carved in half by a frown. Kurogane was only risking small glances up toward the portal.

"I have been willing to leave him in your care to raise him as you see fit," she said, and her eyes were cutting behind Kurogane's kneeling form. "But in this I must interfere. Kurogane. You have seen for yourself that you made bad judgment in choosing this fight. I think the punishment you have been set must stand, to drive home the lesson of discretion and fighting wiser battles. But I would also say to King Ashura and to Sonomi: what child do you think you are raising?"

The hair stood up on the back of his neck when he heard that frosty tone.

"Do you think you have some common boy from Heian, destined to become a bank clerk or a restaurant waiter? No. No, you are raising the son of Suwa, the only son of Suwa. He has many hardships and battles in his future, and I would not have you send me some weakling boy afraid of bloodshed! Afraid of his own shadow! This is my subject, and he will be a true man of Nihon. What do you think you are making of him?"

"A man of many worlds," Ashura said quietly. He didn't bow to her, never had. Kurogane was still reeling with the idea that Ashura had been a king in his world, and it raised goosebumps to see him stand with head held high before the woman to whom Kurogane knelt. "A man of wise counsel who chooses diplomacy over warfare. I wasn't trying to make him fear bloodshed."

"And yet you would have him cowering at the mere idea of a man dying at his hands? This man Seishirou will not be the last life Kurogane takes by the sword. If we include demons, he is not truly the first. Kurogane has killed already, Ashura of Celes. As have you."

Ashura looked more grieved than chastised by the empress. He looked so sad at the thought of anyone's death. Sonomi, for all that she was so confident and bold, didn't understand the ways of Nihon and was staying silent, her eyes watchful and wary.

"Kurogane, lift your head and look at me."

He did. He met her eyes and saw her calculating and judging.

"You are not a boy anymore," she said, her voice going softer. "Your mother's cousin is growing weary of managing Suwa's affairs on your behalf, few that they are while we wait for you. I've half a mind to bring you home now. You would spend a year or two here at the castle of Shirasagi, and then I would send you back to Suwa to see what can be salvaged. She is waiting for you, that province. Waiting for her rightful lord. Perhaps it's better for you to return now, and not wait any longer." She tapped her lip with her finger, thinking.

"Your Highness," Kurogane said breathlessly. His heart was pounding. Go home? Leave school, leave these restrictions, leave the toothless sword lessons? Leave behind this world that was not his and go home, to what was real and right and his?

Tumbling down the riverbank into a cool stream. Spring breezes cooling their sweat as they brushed away the horses' winter coats. Fields of grass waving merrily at the clouds scuttering across the sky. A tree shading a long wooden verandah. Music winding through the paper screens at night, chasing soft firelight.


He wanted it, wanted it so badly. But it wasn't there. Suwa's fields had burned and the tree over the veranda had fallen and caved in the roof. Suwa was empty but for the rubble.

Remake it. It's time. There will be men who will come with you to put up the walls. There will be women who will roast the fish from the stream near the house. And you will be there, their young lord, on the tallest horse and with Ginryuu on your back. You will . . .

"My apologies," Kurogane rasped, feeling it like a punch in the gut. "I am not ready yet, Your Highness."

"Not ready?"

"I have things still to learn here in this world," he said, boldly meeting her eyes again. "And people to whom I am not ready to say goodbye."

Men, and women, and horses, and home . . . But not him.

In the day or two after the talk with the Amaterasu, Kurogane thought extensively about Suwa. He'd sit down to his summer studies and come to an hour later with the realization that he'd been doing nothing but gazing out a window.

He wasn't the right man to be the leader of Suwa, not yet. He had to be brave, yes, and a warrior. He had to be fair and just and noble as well. He had to think about the future of his province and be ready to hear disputes and go over quarterly profits in addition to honing his skills with his sword.

He rearranged his schedule to include his school's optional course in justice studies. And he signed up for a course in creative writing. Just because Suwa was pretty much the uneducated backwater of Nihon didn't mean he shouldn't possess the skills of a gentleman, so he should know at least something about art or whatever. Who knew where he might be able to take Suwa in the future? The empress had taken a special interest in him due to the fate of his parents, and his loyalty might lead to a rise in Suwa's standing. He had to be prepared for that, as well.

Overnight, the three years of school he had left began to seem like not nearly enough time.

And he decided there was something he needed to do.

Subaru had been forced to go home to rest, by not just Kamui but the nurses and doctor in charge of Seishirou's case. They said they didn't need an extra patient right now and they'd have to admit him for treatment if he wouldn't take care of himself. So he came home and slept for about fourteen hours, and Kamui called Kurogane when he woke up, as requested. Kurogane went over to the orphanage with a feeling of weight on his shoulders.

Yuui wasn't home. Probably studying with the people in his advanced lit class. Syaoran attached himself to Kurogane the second he came in the door and started to babble about some kind of stupid kiddie argument he was having with Kinomoto's little sister. Something about a race at school. Kurogane wasn't really listening. He ruffled Syaoran's hair and pretended he was while the boy followed him upstairs, but he used the hand in his hair to tip the boy's head back when he got to the twins' door.

"Hey. I've got to talk to Subaru right now, okay? You can tell me the rest later."

Hurt sparked in Syaoran's eyes, which, yeah, ouch. Kurogane already felt like an immature child and a total asshole and possibly a murderer and he really, really missed talking to his best friend, who'd been MIA ever since they'd gotten the news about Seishirou's coma. He didn't need to also feel like a total heel for ignoring the kid.

"Okay," Syaoran said, ducking his head to hide the fact that he was getting all wibbly. "Can you come over again soon, because you haven't forever and I wanted to tell—" this was around the point that he dropped his head so low that it practically cut off his air supply and the mumble became unintelligible.

"Hey," Kurogane said gruffly, still palming the back of his head. "I promise."

Syaoran darted away, and Kurogane took a deep breath before knocking on the door. Kamui opened it and Kurogane tried not to wince. He looked tired and heartsick. The toll this was taking on Subaru was coming out of him, too.

"Hey. Can I . . . have a minute?"

Kamui looked back over his shoulder at Subaru, who was curled up on his bed and—wow, whoa, hell. He had his claws out and was dragging them slowly over the pale skin of his opposite arm, not hard enough to open a wound, just enough to leave faint lines.

"Just . . . I'll be downstairs," Kamui said with pain. And then as he brushed past Kurogane he muttered, "fuck this up and I'll bury you, Daidouji."

"Love you too," he muttered in return.

Subaru didn't even sit up when he came into the room, although his eyes at least expressed interest. It made it clear that Kurogane wasn't being overdramatic in coming here and doing this. Well, maybe he was still being a little dramatic. But he'd never seen Subaru like this. It was true. To him, Seishirou was . . .

Kurogane dropped down to a knee, his eyes never leaving Subaru's face. "I've taken something important from you. I'm here to ask what I can do to make up for it."

Subaru gaped at him, finally sitting up. "What?" he asked in bewilderment. His claws retracted.

"I remembered that I'm going to be governing a province in my homeworld soon enough. I need to start figuring out how to pay for it when I make mistakes, so I make them less often. And, um. You're. My friend. So. "

Subaru just blinked at him.

"I've taken . . . Probably the most important thing in the world to you," he guessed. It was a toss-up. That might be Kamui. But still. "I really doubt I can give you anything in return, but I want to try. What do you want me to do?"

Subaru's face slowly twisted and he looked away. "Kurogane . . ."

"I'm serious, Subaru."

"Would you at least get up?"


"Don't you get it?" Subaru whispered, still stroking his fingers over his arm even though his claws were sheathed. "The only thing you could give me that would pay for it is Yuui."

There were several problems with that. One, he couldn't actually give him Yuui. Two, that while Yuui and Subaru were friends, he was hardly an adequate replacement for the person Subaru wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Three, that if . . .

If Yuui was the actual price demanded, Kurogane would say to hell with restitution and fight to his last breath before giving him up, his honor be damned and fuck his friendship with Subaru, too.

His breath was sharp as a knife in his chest, so he held it for a moment.

"But you wouldn't ask for that," he said, assured. Subaru wouldn't.

And Subaru shook his head, agreeing. "Because I couldn't do that to a person. Take something like that from them."

"It was an accident," Kurogane said, almost begging. "If I'd known he was . . . What he was . . . To you . . . I . . ."

And he supposed that was the point of all this, after all. That any life he took was the most important life to someone, and he had to judge every time whether or not he was willing to face the consequences of taking it.

"I know," Subaru said gently. "That's why you don't have to make it up to me. I don't want anything, Kurogane."

So he was supposed to let this guilt sit heavy on him forever? That even without his intent, he'd taken Subaru's entire world? It was his decision to start a fight, his decision to goad the man on, when he knew, he knew that Yuui was too fragile to be able to handle it. Yuui had fought, too, but it was for Kurogane to take responsibility this time.

Kurogane looked at him incredulously. "Don't you at least want to set me on fire or something?" If someone killed Yuui, he'd burn the whole world down around the bastard. "Subaru, I—" he choked, suddenly feeling like he was going to start sobbing any moment.

Subaru's hand covered his mouth. Little choking noises of his own. Kurogane's head and eyes were swimming with his determination not to cry in this moment when he was trying to be a man, and he didn't realize what Subaru was doing, at first. Then Subaru's hand slipped, and a helpless giggle issued forth. He stared at Subaru in shock.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Subaru was laughing. Well. Maybe he wasn't, really. He was giggling hysterically and tears were sliding down his cheeks. Maybe he'd just finally broken. Maybe he'd just gone nuts or something.

"Oh, Kurogane," he said, when he could. "I'd just about decided that I wouldn't do it. I was going to tell them to pull the plug. Do you know that he had a living will made up with me as the one who could make decisions like that? He couldn't stand the thought that it would be his dad. Me. I had to decide. And I had almost decided . . ."

He stood up from the bed. He reached down and took Kurogane's hand and squeezed it.

"This might ruin everything, and I hope you don't end up hating me, but I . . ."

He looked like such a slight little thing. But he was a vampire, and he hauled Kurogane to his feet without even seeming to try.

"Kurogane . . . You can't give me anything that would make up for losing Seishirou, you know that. But you don't have to worry about that. Because I think you just gave him back. I know what I'm going to do now."


He was a vampire.

Subaru, with his claws and his fangs and his . . .

"Fuck, Subaru," Kurogane said, his voice strangled with a combination of disbelief and awe.

Subaru grabbed a clean shirt and quickly swapped it out for the wrinkled shirt he'd slept in.

"Right now?" Kurogane asked weakly.

"Before I lose my resolve."

Kurogane followed him. They slipped out quietly, not letting Kamui know. Kamui might try to stop this from happening, Kurogane didn't know. But he didn't want Subaru to make the trip back to the hospital by himself, for some reason he couldn't explain. Maybe it was just that if Subaru really thought Kurogane was somehow responsible for this, he needed to see it through. He didn't know why Subaru thought this could ruin things. He didn't know why it might make him hate Subaru. But he felt like he ought to be there to find out.

The air was hot and thick. Both of them were silent.

Kurogane felt like each footstep was a separate thing. This wasn't exactly a thing that happened every day. This was a thing with repercussions. He wasn't sure if he wouldn't stop Subaru at the last second. But then Subaru would probably kill him or something in some kind of berserk vampire rage. He walked at Subaru's shoulder all the way to the door of the room where Seishirou lay, then he hung back in the door while Subaru went in.

He looked smaller, laying there like that.

Subaru turned around for a second. His eyes had gone to yellow and his fangs had slipped out, little points stark white against his lips.

"Hey," Kurogane said suddenly, wondering why this had never occurred to him before. "Where have you been feeding, all this time?"

Subaru raised his eyebrows.

"I mean, I know you guys are purebloods and you don't actually have to feed . . . But you do. I've seen you after. Your eyes are red for a few hours, and you move kind of . . . like a snake, actually. Just for a few hours."

Subaru shrugged. "Ashura," he said, the words distinctly maimed by the encumbrance of his fangs.

Seriously? Kurogane almost blurted out. But he didn't, because why would that be surprising? Ashura didn't do anything by half-measures, not even adopting magical kids.

"Who will he feed from?" Kurogane asked, because he was an idiot.

And then he saw the wavering sadness in Subaru's eyes, the reason he'd decided not to. He didn't know. He didn't know if he would be able to control what he was about to do. But facing the alternative, the not having him, even if it caused trouble . . .

Kurogane wouldn't stop him from doing this, he decided, and leaned against the doorframe with his arms crossed. Get on with it. He'd make sure nobody tried to come in.

It wasn't any kind of spell or flashy magic or glamorous ceremony. All Subaru did was sink his fangs into his own bottom lip until blood welled up bright and glimmering on his skin, then leaned down and kissed Seishirou. His hand caught the man's chin and squeezed his cheeks to widen his mouth. He kissed him hard and full, and slowly stood back up to survey the bloody smear he'd made of Seishirou's mouth.

Nothing happened for a long time. Well, it felt long. A minute or two, maybe.

Then it all happened at once.

Seishirou's eyes slammed open, desperate and slanted and yellow. His whole body went stiff, his fingers clawed and his arms flailed. Tubes and wires that were attached to him were jerked around and a couple of things went crashing to the floor. He cried out, his back arching up. His fingers dug into the bed and he screamed horribly, over and over again.

Kurogane kind of wanted to comfort Subaru, because the vampire was hugging himself and weeping silently. But he was busy trying to hold back the nurses who were trying to get into the room.

"You can't come in here!" he shouted, and pushed them back. "Seriously, don't, it's dangerous! We've got this handled, okay? Just back off! You need to stay out!" he bellowed, and swept his arm out in a move that should have used a sword but somehow knocked them all back a few paces nonetheless. They all froze for a moment, gaping at him.

Subaru appeared at his elbow. "I'm doing magic," he said sweetly. "Please don't interrupt."

Silence. Three people just stared at them both in shock.

"Don't you have other patients or something?" Kurogane growled. "Get out of here."

They scurried away, no doubt to call security or something, with Seishirou's shrieks echoing after them.

"Does it hurt that bad?"

Subaru grimaced. "It's re-making his whole body," he said.

"Oh. Yeah."

An uneasy feeling came over him, the after-images of the ghostly, watered-down Yuui screaming and clawing at stained sheets welling up in his mind. . .

"It should be almost over. I think. I'm honestly not sure. I haven't exactly done this before."

And just like that, the screams tapered off into whimpers, and then silence. Subaru went back to the side of the bed, and Kurogane continued to hang back in the doorway with one eye on the hallway to get rid of whoever came to interfere.

Seishirou's eyes were yellow and gleaming. Two weeks in the hospital had wasted his body, and his skin had gone sort of pale, making the hollows of his face more pronounced. He lifted his hand to stare at the claws poking from his fingers, and his whole arm trembled.

"It might take a day or two to get all your strength back," Subaru said softly, his face so wide open that it hurt to look at. "And it brought you back, but it's not perfect, it wouldn't have healed any injuries you still had . . ."

Seishirou had a weird look. Maybe it was just weird that he wasn't angry. He was just staring at Subaru, and he seemed kind of scared. That was really weird. Since when was Seishirou afraid of anything?

"S-something," he stuttered. "Something's wrong. I-I don't— something's . . . who are you? Where am I?" His voice pitched upward, his eyes widened and his breathing was shallow and desperate. "I don't know what—who am I? What happened? I don't . . . What am I?" he gasped, looking at his claws again.

Subaru's devastated eyes met Kurogane's.

"Shit," Kurogane whispered. "Shit shit shit shit shit."

"I don't know what's happening," Subaru whispered.

Kurogane thought fast. "You—you just said it wouldn't have healed anything— he had, his head, Subaru I think he's got brain damage—"

Subaru whirled around with a cry, staring at the shaking mess of the man in the bed. Then Kurogane saw him take a deep breath and let it out. In that moment, Kurogane would have sworn Subaru's spine turned to pure steel. He reached out a hand, caught Seishirou's and kept him from clawing up the bedding any further.

"Please try to relax," he said softly, warmth in his voice. Friendly. Soothing. "You had a terrible injury, and it may take time to recover, but you will recover, I promise." It wasn't a promise Subaru could make, but in that moment Kurogane could believe anything the other boy said. His voice was pure conviction and drive. "I'll be here to help you. You don't know me now, but we've been friends for some time. And there's something—" That strength in him wavered, for a moment. "There's something that only you and I know, and I need you to remember it, or at least believe me when I tell you. Because I'm sure Kamui is already . . ."

There was a noise in the doorway, and Kurogane whirled around to find someone he barely knew standing in the doorway. Fuuma, he remembered. Fuuma, who was well-liked even if he was a bit arrogant, one of the school's top athletes. He was a senior this year, wasn't he? Kamui always made this face when he was mentioned, like he'd just stepped in dogshit, so Kurogane had always assumed Fuuma was either a total asshole or Kamui was totally in love.

There was a Fuuma in a world where the rain turned to acid, where Kurogane had begged for Subaru and Kamui to do this to Yuui. Fuuma had been there.

Kurogane gaped at the older boy.

Was he . . .?

"Kamui called you," Subaru said softly.

"I . . . yeah," Fuuma said hoarsely. His eyes were flickering around the room, but always going back to Seishirou's yellow eyes. "You did it, huh?"

"Yes," Subaru said simply. "If you're here, then I suppose you know, too."

"Yeah," Fuuma muttered, a wry smile on his face. "He just told me. Because I'm going on with school, I'm taking college entrance exams soon, and he said he was going to help me pay for it."

"Who is he?" Seishirou asked Subaru.

For a guy who didn't remember, he sure seemed to like holding Subaru's hand, Kurogane noticed. His claws had retracted and he was holding onto Subaru's hand like his life depended on it. Hah. It sort of did, after all.

That twisted smile dropped off Fuuma's face so fast Kurogane wouldn't have been surprised to see the thing hit the ground and shatter.

"His mind is a little scrambled right now," Subaru said slowly, taking it with grace when Seishirou reached up his other hand and started clinging to his whole arm. He just sat down on the edge of the bed to make it easier for the bastard. "He'll be okay."

Fuuma looked . . . odd. On the verge of something desperate and angry and grieving.

"I don't give a shit about him, he doesn't look important," Seishirou said suddenly, nodding at Kurogane, "but what's he doing here? Who are you?" he demanded of Fuuma.

Yeah, not much had changed with the head injury then.

"I'm your brother," Fuuma muttered. He looked away, toward the wall, as if this whole thing was nothing but a bore to him. As if they didn't all know better. "But, uh, it's supposed to be a secret. You only told me where my mom was getting the money a few weeks ago. I thought it was from my dad. I guess it was you the whole time. You said you didn't want our dad to even know about me. You don't remember that, huh?"

Kurogane felt something hot buzzing around his head as that knowledge sank in. With Seishirou and his father both about to die, tongues had loosened about what a sack of crap the father was. It made sense that you wouldn't want him to know he had a kid, if you could help it. So it looked like Seishirou had found out on his own and supported his little brother, somehow. The knowledge made Kurogane feel completely embarrassed. He shouldn't know this. He shouldn't even be here. He'd just come to make sure Subaru was okay.

"I'm gonna go," he blurted out.

"You do that, sport," Seishirou drawled. He was still holding Subaru's hand, the sap.

Kurogane made it as far as the doorway before he turned around, the realization smacking him in the face and leaving him slightly short of breath.

"But they're them," he said, looking at Subaru with wide eyes. "You're . . . you and Kamui, you were going to be . . . I knew that. These two, if they're really brothers, then . . . It's them. Not a copy. They're the hunters."

Subaru's face looked pinched and miserable as Kurogane blurted it out, looking at Fuuma with new eyes. He'd grow up. He'd don a really stupid pair of sunglasses. He'd make a deal with a witch and bring Kurogane a mechanical arm—

But no, he wouldn't, would he? There was no witch, now.

"Don't you see?" Subaru was saying softly. "Ashura told me that it could still be important. This, I mean," he said, lifting the joined knot that was his and Seishirou's hands. "All of this. Could still change things, somehow. Some of the players acting out their part might be . . . But I couldn't leave it like that," he said desperately. "I couldn't leave it with you feeling guilty for the rest of your life. And I didn't— didn't want— Fuuma to be alone."

Seishirou sat up, suddenly, finding the strength somehow, and put his arm around Subaru and all that unhappiness he carried so tightly coiled in his chest.

"I thought you didn't remember," Subaru whispered.

"Don't need to," Seishirou said without concern. "I can just tell I like you."

Fuuma just looked impatient. "Somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on?"

Kamui appeared in the doorway, and Kurogane dragged him forward with relief. "That's your cue, buddy," he muttered, and swept past him out the door.

As he left the hospital and started mulling it all over in his mind, he started to piece it together. Ashura had talked to Subaru, alone. He must have been telling him about their interrupted future. He must have told him about the world with acid rain. And from what Subaru was saying, it seemed that by saving Seishirou, he might have screwed up the pocket of safety that Heian held them in. Ashura must have told him that it might happen. Subaru had planned to . . . To let Seishirou die. To protect the rest of them. And then he'd saved him instead so Kurogane could sleep better at night.

Kurogane wanted to turn right back around and go punch that pretty little vampire right in his pretty little face. What a stupid reason. If he was going to save Seishirou, it should have been because he wanted to and nothing else. When this all settled down, Kurogane was going to punch him so hard. What was Heian for except to make people take care of themselves better? Kurogane was beginning to feel a lot more sympathy for Kamui. That kid had his hands full with those three jokers.

He went straight to the orphanage.

Ashura was in the kitchen, putting away some dishes from a dinner that he'd probably eaten with just Kazahaya and Syaoran.

"He did it," Kurogane muttered. "I don't know what you're afraid's gonna happen, but don't worry about it. I'll keep an eye on everybody."

Then he stomped upstairs and found Yuui, who'd come home from his study group and was sitting at his desk filling out the forms for the soccer club. He jumped to his feet when Kurogane strode in without knocking, looking alarmed.

Kurogane slapped his hand onto Yuui's forehead and let everything spill out into him, wondering if any of it made sense. He was too tired and confused to sort it out, so he left that to Yuui. Everything he'd seen and heard tonight. The possibility that their future might be threatened. His own determination to protect them all no matter what.

keep Syaoran away from that creep was running through his mind right alongside cut it off anyway even if nobody can travel and get me a new one don't care and his thoughts kept going back to that sharp, clear moment in which he'd realized that for all his integrity and desire to pay for his mistakes nothing takes you away nothing you're my best friend won't leave you not yet they can't take you

It all whirled around in a jumble until Yuui pulled his hand away, fingers closing in a tight circle around his wrist and tugging sharply. His face was screwed up with pain, and Kurogane realized he'd dumped too much all at once and left Yuui with a headache. But Yuui didn't say anything about that. He just pushed him over to the bed and made him sit down.

"It's going to be okay," he whispered. His voice sounded worn out. "We'll do whatever we have to do to protect Syaoran. I don't mind if something happens. I don't want Subaru to give up someone he loves for our sake. We can take care of ourselves."

It sounded so much like something Kurogane himself would say, albeit softened, that he found himself grinning. "Heh. Yeah."

Yuui opened his mouth, then closed it, and looked sad and angry about something. Then he shook his head violently.



"Don't give me that crap."

"Nothing I want to talk about yet," he amended. Then he touched his hand to Kurogane's head softly, nothing like the assault Kurogane had battered him with a moment ago. A feeling of being sick and scared and exhausted welled up between them. Kurogane wasn't even sure which of them was the one needing comfort, but it didn't really matter.

Without a word, Kurogane toed off his shoes and stripped off his shirt and laid down on the bed. The images and feelings in Yuui's mind were asking him to stay the night. He wasn't about to argue, not about it being too early for bedtime or how they were too old to be sharing a bed anymore. The entire concept that you could get too old to want your best friend beside you after something big happened made him feel prickly and angry anyway.

Yuui turned out the lamp on his desk, changed clothes in the dark, and crawled in beside him. Neither of them said a word about it only being eight-thirty. Neither of them said a word at all. They just lay beside each other, listening to Ashura bringing Syaoran upstairs and settling him into bed, sharing their thoughts about what might happen now that Seishirou was a vampire by simply pressing their heads together onto the same pillow.

He'd forgotten how comfortable it was, to fall asleep when he could hear Yuui breathing and feel the brush of his clothes. It was never that easy for him to fall asleep, normally. But he felt more at peace this way. He drifted off in mere minutes, and wished the two of them could get away with this more often.

It didn't take long before things started to fall apart.

For one thing, high school sucked.

They were avoided by the nicer kids at school because they were labelled troublemakers, and the real thugs hated them on principle. It was only by Yuui's quick thinking that they avoided a couple of serious scrapes with some dangerous upperclassmen. But they'd already set themselves up as weirdos, as the kids who almost killed that guy. They were isolated for the first month, restricted by their suspension, and they were looking glumly at finishing school with no friends and whispers trailing behind every step they took. They'd survive, but the prospect was a little daunting all the same. Yuui, at least, had hoped to make some real friends.

It got a little better when they showed up for soccer practice, at least, and found Touya and Yukito waiting for them. Yukito greeted them as cheerfully as he had when they were kids, waving and calling out as they approached, and while Touya wasn't exactly as effusive as his best friend, he too welcomed them to the team and immediately dragged Kurogane out to start drilling him to see what he remembered from their casual play years before. It was nice to have at least a couple of people who still liked them. They didn't even ask about the trouble over summer.

And boy, was he glad to be done talking about that.

Kurogane and Yuui had helped the twins pack up their stuff to leave, but none of them had said much about it. They wanted to keep Seishirou with them at all times until he had a better handle on his thirst for blood, and they obviously couldn't keep him in the house with Syaoran. If for no other reason than because Kurogane and Yuui would have pitched a fit if they'd tried. So they were moving into their own place, and Fuuma was going with them, so they were all transferring to a different school for their final year. Fuuma had shown up to help with the boxes, and all of Kurogane's questions were answered when he saw the bruising and scabbing on Fuuma's neck and at his elbow. It was his turn to take care of his brother, it seemed.

They said Seishirou had gotten a few snatches of memory back, but not a lot. It was probably better that way, and Kamui made faces in the background when Subaru explained shy and awkward that he and Seishirou were reading all the letters they'd written each other together so Subaru could remind him of things. They kept finding weird little things that had resulted from the injury. He didn't know how to fight anymore, it seemed, but he suddenly had this enormous love for ice cream that he never had before.

The orphanage seemed a little empty without them, though.

Not that Kurogane would know. He wasn't there as often as he used to be. The reason had a name, and it was Mizuki.

It wasn't like he blamed Yuui. They'd seen themselves, bitter and angry and violent men, and they'd seen themselves together and suddenly it seemed really unclear what they were supposed to be. That day under tree they'd been grateful that they were both alive and whole, but that was the last day that the world made sense for what felt like a very long time. And really, he should have seen this coming.

Mizuki, she of the short hair and long stockings, ignored all the drama swirling around them and all the rumours, and kept being friends with Yuui. As Kurogane had thought, the two of them started dating seven weeks into the school year. It was nothing dramatic. They just ate lunch together and Yuui walked her home after school.

Kurogane didn't ask him about it and Yuui didn't volunteer any information. They never had a legitimate conversation about Mizuki. It was just that one day Yuui said he was walking her home and he'd see Kurogane tomorrow. Kurogane watched them go with a feeling of loss so deep that all he could do was ignore it entirely. Yuui wasn't just his anymore, and Kurogane had no response for that. That was the way it had to be. He knew that.

He just . . . hadn't wanted it to happen yet. It was too soon. They still had three years, didn't they? Couldn't they just have a year or two to keep being the world to each other before they had to do this?

He didn't know what to do. So he just filled up his days until he was too busy to think about it. Since his weekdays were filled up with homework and soccer and kendo, he had to get a job that was okay with just working on the weekends, and he wound up at a warehouse for a furniture company. It was hard work, but he kind of liked it that way. He always felt less manic when he could move and work up a sweat and wasn't left with his thoughts. Thoughts about how he and Yuui were great additions to the soccer team, how they worked so well together, how there was something important about that. Thoughts about how he hated seeing the two of them together, Yuui and Mizuki, two heads of short blond hair leaning together over Mizuki's phone and giggling at something, and why he had started studying at lunchtime and eating alone. Thoughts about how Yuui had deliberately signed up for a different time slot at the kendo studio and they never saw each other there and he didn't know why and he was afraid to ask, truly afraid to ask why Yuui didn't ever touch his forehead and tell him anything anymore or—

No. Hard work, being busy, that was better than thinking.

He started to feel hungry all the time. Sonomi laughed and said it was from all his hard work, and re-filled the cupboards every time he emptied them with good-natured teasing. And Kurogane grew. Too quickly for him to keep up, sometimes. He'd thought going through puberty was bad, with his voice cracking and his cock developing a mind of its own—this was even harder, forgetting that he'd shot up in height until he bumped his head on a low doorframe, or forgetting how broad he was getting through the shoulders until he ran into someone in soccer practice and they had to go to the nurse with a concussion. Touya and Yukito teased him about that for weeks, and he just hunched his shoulders and tried to pretend it was funny.

This gigantic body made him feel so awkward and stupid and conspicuous. That image, that once upon a time idea that maybe, just maybe things with him and Yuui would be . . . No, of course not, not now. Mizuki was small and cute and blond and soft and plump. Kurogane still growing, made of nothing but sharp bones and the lean muscles building up in his shoulders and arms, and he was too tall to sit at his desk without his legs cramping in pain. It made sense, right?

Kurogane's grades were consistently among the top in the class, that year. He didn't have anything but homework to distract him, and suddenly the support Sonomi had always given him was the only thing he had left so he wanted to make her proud of his hard work. Tomoyo started creeping into his room sometimes and quietly doing her own homework or drawing pictures, sprawled out on his bed while he sat at his desk. She never said why she did it, and Kurogane didn't bother her about it. The sound of pencils scratching on paper behind him while he studied would soothe his often frayed nerves.

He didn't know if it was her own idea, or if the Tsukiyomi had told her to do it, or maybe even her mom. He didn't ask. He'd rather just let the little brat do whatever made her happy. She wasn't even as much of a brat as she used to be, honestly. He hadn't found a frog in his bed in ages.

The orphanage got even more empty when Kazahaya left in the spring. The vampire twins wrote and called once in a while to say how things were going, but things were always quiet, and then Kazahaya left, too. He was going back to his own world, to join the people he was meant to be with. Kurogane came to say goodbye to him, and Syaoran clung to him the whole time he was there. He felt guilty for that, even though he knew from Touya that Syaoran spent three quarters of his free time at the Kinomoto house now, anyway, because Syaoran was his little brother and he ought to pay more attention to him. But he couldn't bring himself to keep coming to the orphanage when he wasn't sure he was welcome anymore. Seeing Kazahaya leave just felt even more like something had come to an end. He looked excited to be going, cheeks pink and hugging Ashura with all his strength and thanking him with tears in his eyes for everything he'd done. He had a destiny waiting for him.

Kurogane was starting to hate the word destiny.

He was starting to wonder if he'd made the wrong decision. Maybe he should have gone home when the empress had asked him to.

Ashura had put a hand on his shoulder when he was leaving, after he'd sent Kazahaya off. He'd made sure only Kurogane could hear him. All he'd said was "Be patient," and he'd left Kurogane irritated because he didn't know what that meant. He had to get to work, so he hadn't stayed to find out.

So that was what he had. A little midget who drew pictures in his room, a foster mom who kept feeding him even though he felt like an idiot about it, and homework he could pile up to the ceiling. The only thing he still felt good at was his sword lessons.

Home was an ache in his chest. He could call them and tell them he was ready, but he didn't. Even when things were like this, he still wasn't ready to leave him.

There was one good thing that happened, if you could call it good.

Kurogane had been sitting on top of a desk at lunch, his stupidly long legs crying with relief at being freed from the confines underneath. He was reading some stuff about Nihonese economics that someone at court had written recently and the empress had sent him. Yuui and Mizuki were feeding each other bites of their lunches and Kurogane was so disgusted by it that he wasn't even eating his own.

Then he looked up, because he felt eyes on him. The eyes he found were dark and calm as deep water at night, and he immediately felt sort of soothed by them. She had long dark hair that fell in shining sheets over her shoulders, and she started blushing very prettily when he looked up.

They'd worked on a project together once. He thought very hard and produced her name. Akane. She was petite and slender and she played the flute.

He probably shocked the hell out of the entire class, but no one more than himself, when he set down his book, got up and walked over to her, and asked her to go see a movie with him on Saturday afternoon. The even bigger shock was her saying yes.

They enjoyed the movie, at least, even though he spent the whole afternoon feeling like an idiot, not knowing if he was supposed to buy her a snack or take her out somewhere afterward or what, and he was terrible at making conversation anyway. Akane didn't seem to mind. She could talk enough for both of them, it turned out, and she thought it was cute, apparently, when he flushed and tried to cover his embarrassment with a scowl. So then they were dating, even though he didn't remember asking her if she wanted to. She came over and met Sonomi, even. Tomoyo seemed to think she'd found her new best friend and monopolized the conversation the whole time, but Kurogane hardly minded.

It wasn't that bad, but he felt weird the whole time they were going out. She was so comically smaller than him than holding her hand felt like holding onto a child. But she assured him she liked how tall he was and she certainly didn't seem like a child when she grabbed onto his shirt and dragged him down for a kiss, which she did rather more often than Kurogane really cared for. And it was nice for a while. Because Akane talked too much and it filled in the silence. Because she found him attractive and it filled in the doubt. Because she was someone walking in the empty space at his side. For a while, that was better than nothing.

Akane was the one who broke it off. Gently. Saying she could tell that kissing her wasn't doing anything for him, and she ought to have guessed that. Him sitting there in silence with his ears burning deliberately biting his tongue and not saying What do you mean you ought to have guessed? Saying it was okay, it wasn't his fault. Saying they'd still be friends, even though he knew they wouldn't be, because by the time it stopped being awkward he'd probably be gone.

He'd felt confused and embarrassed and unlike himself the whole time they were dating, but in the end that's what made him think it was a good thing. Now he knew better than to think he could talk himself into anything other than what he really wanted. And he knew what he really wanted now.

It was just that he couldn't have it.

High school sucked so much.