Notes on this story:

This is a one-shot. No chapters, no sequels. Bottan drew this beautiful picture, and I immediately wanted to write the story behind it. It's short, and cute, and nothing much happens in it. As far as where along the journey this story takes place, it's definitely after Yama and definitely before Tokyo (since Fai still has both eyes). I just love the picture, and I got inspired to write this silly story. The names are a very weird and completely random mixture of Slavic and Old English, chosen by me basically at whim. I didn't really look up the meanings.

The picture: konnichipuu (dot) deviantart (dot) com/gallery/#/d38bj3t

The Knight and the Princess

They arrived in their usual way—dangerously. Mokona dropped them precariously close to the ledge of whatever they were standing on, and it was only Fai's nimble reactions that kept both him and Syaoran from falling to their deaths.

"You damn meat bun!" Kurogane roared.

"Hyu!" Fai called, looking down the tower of stone they were standing on. "This is a big castle!"

"Eh?" Kurogane cut off his shouting to look at their surroundings.

They were, indeed, standing on the watchtower to a large stone castle. Spreading out in front of them was farmland as far as the eye could see, and there were people and livestock dotted through it. When they turned around, a grand forest spread out the other direction. There was a river that cut the forest off and turned it into fields.

"It's beautiful!" Sakura said, clasping her hands together.

Syaoran smiled at her. "It is," he agreed.

But not as beautiful as she is, right? Fai thought. It made his heart ache to see those two this way. They were so pure and innocent, thinking they had all the time in the world to blush and hide their love for one another and slowly come together. They didn't have time. But Fai could hardly tell them so.

As he always did when such thoughts passed through his mind, he looked at Kurogane out of the corner of his eye. Mokona was bouncing toward him to take refuge from Kurogane's wrath, so he snatched her out of the air with another "hyu" noise—it was instinctual, by now, to smile and snuggle Mokona and hide everything. Not that Kurogane was likely to be fooled, that bastard with his keen eyes.

But Kurogane wasn't looking at him. He had his head tilted back and his eyes on the sky. His lips were parted and he had a wondrous look on his face. Fai knew he ought to be looking up at the sky to see what had Kurogane so enraptured. But for a moment, he stared at Kurogane's face and felt his heart pounding. Parted lips and shining eyes and a softening to the hardness he always carried—damn it, no! He was not going to think like this! Things had happened in Yama because the kids were gone and they couldn't speak to one another and they'd become rather desperate. Things they had agreed not to talk about. Things that were never going to happen again.

Fai looked up. Oh. No wonder Kurogane was so distracted.

It was a dragon.

Above them, a mighty dragon was flying past, with sunlight gleaming over blue and gold skin. It suddenly swooped downward, and Fai immediately tensed up, wondering if it was attacking this castle and the inhabitants. Kurogane's hand went straight to the hilt of Sohi. But the creature did nothing of the kind. It dove down to the river and opened its long jaw, revealing rows of razor teeth, and began to drink. It skimmed the surface of the water and scooped it up into its mouth, guzzling thirstily.

The people working in the field cheered and called out to the beast as it rose up again and began to fly away. Fai relaxed and Kurogane released his sword. A peaceful dragon? Who would have guessed?

"Hello!" a voice called out from behind them, and they all turned in surprise. A man in a heavy red robe with a fur collar was mounting the stairs that led up to where they stood. He was flanked by five men in simpler clothes, of earthy colours, with swords on their belts. "I don't know how you arrived in such a manner, but welcome, strangers! Welcome to Iden!"

"Ah, thank you," Fai called out. "As for how we got here, you'll have to talk to this little one," he smiled, holding Mokona on his outstretched hands. If they had dragons, they weren't likely to be surprised by her.

"Sorry!" Mokona giggled. "I always pick places up high so we can see the view!"

"My court magician informed me of your arrival. I am Andrick, the king of Iden."

The king and all his people were looking at him. Well, it made sense. His clothes were the most similar to theirs, and they all seemed to have blond or red hair. Fai immediately felt a deep sense of unease. He was not the leader of their group by any means, and he didn't like being in a world that had such similarities to his own. Not at all. At least the king was this large blond man named Andrick and not—well, not something else.

"Fai D. Flourite," he said, with a deep bow. "I would love to meet your magician, as I am one myself. This is Kuro-chi, our knight—"

"It's Kurogane, you obnoxious mage!"

"Syaoran, a traveling warrior, and this—" he waved grandly at Sakura, "is Sakura, the princess we protect."

"Ah," the king said in surprise, startled by the cuteness and stature of their royal companion. "My Lady."

She curtsied politely, a trick she'd learned when they'd been in Oto. "Pleased to meet you, King Andrick."

"Well, we welcome all of you to our country. Will you please follow me?"

They descended the stairs, and Fai had to laugh at the way all five of the king's men kept their eyes on Kurogane, the most obviously dangerous one. Shouldn't they be watching him? Perhaps their own court magician didn't know harmful magic. Not that Fai was going to use any, but they didn't know that.

"Tell me, lady, what brings you to my country."

"We're searching for something," she said, completely comfortable with the way the man tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow while they walked. She'd been raised as royalty, and no matter what kind of rough living they'd been doing, this sort of thing still came as naturally to her as breathing. "It is a personal matter for me. I apologize if our presence causes you any inconvenience." She looked back with an anxious frown to where Mokona was perched on Syaoran's shoulder. "Mokona? Do you sense anything?"

Mokona shook her head sadly, making her ears flop dejectedly around. "No feather in this country. Mokona is sorry."

"It's okay," she said with a smile. "I think we could all use a night of rest before we continue our journey. If we have your permission to find a place to stay tonight, King Andrick," she added, turning back to the man she was walking with. "If it is troublesome for you, we'll leave immediately, but if you'd allow it, we'll seek out accomodations—"

"No need for that!" King Andrick declared. "You'll stay here in my castle tonight, and as long as you need to, princess."

"Oh!" she said, turning up her charm to its maximum. "Thank you very much! As long as you're sure it's no trouble to you."

"None at all," he said grandly. "I will have my servants begin preparing a room for you immediately. If you would prefer to have your men stationed with you, I will arrange for that, otherwise my men will make room for them."

Sakura looked deeply uncomfortable with the idea of being alone in this castle. Well, Fai supposed there was a way to do this that would make him look like a suspicious jerk and Sakura could still appear gracious.

"Her men would prefer to be stationed with her," he said, turning up his own charm to its maximum, too. "Such is our devotion to her that we can't be parted with her."

The king squinted at him suspiciously, but Fai just smiled like an idiot, and Syaoran didn't even have to do anything because in his case it was just so true. Kurogane was glaring at Fai, but even he grunted his agreement.

"It's settled, then," the king said heartily. "Dragomir, see to it."

A particularly broad-shouldered and red-haired specimen nodded and grunted in agreement, and broke off from the group to take a different passageway.

"Dragomir! Speak to the cook, as well! We will give them a small feast tonight!"

"No, please, don't go to so much trouble!" Sakura said in dismay.

"It's no trouble at all," the king assured her, patting her hand. "Nothing exciting ever happens in this country, unfortunately. Visitors such as yourself are something to celebrate!"

Fai watched Andrick like a hawk after that. He didn't like men patting Sakura on the hand like that. The king seemed to be sincere about welcoming them, innocent of ill intentions, but heaven help him if he got too familiar with their princess.

They were all given clothes to wear so their own could be washed. Since they'd been sleeping on the ground in the previous world, it was much appreciated. They were escorted to the dining hall by a very cute young servant girl who blushed at being allowed so near a visiting princess.

The hall was mostly filled with Andrick's men and servants, but he was joined by his wife Ida, Ida's cousin Janek, and Janek's wife Mila. That put Fai (and Syaoran, he supposed) much more at ease regarding Andrick and their princess. The court magician was also in attendance, and now Fai knew why Andric's men had not thought of Fai as much of a threat. Andrick had brought Armand here from far off, just for the novelty of having a magician. He was very fat and magically useless. If he could so much as draw a kekkai, Fai would be stunned. (Almost as stunned as he was to realize he'd started calling a ward a "kekkai." When had he started translating words into the language of his companions?) It had probably been a complete accident that Armand had even noticed their arrival.

The dragons had more magic in one claw than Armand seemed to have. Dragons, they were told, were quite common in Iden. The one they'd seen today lived nearby, and appeared often, but there were others that periodically flew by and sometimes even landed. They didn't eat humans. Armand was knowledgeable about dragons, and told them all kinds of things about the dragons' habits, but it was clearly book learning and not personal experience.

Armand seemed terrified of Fai, in fact. He refused to make eye contact and he kept dropping things when Fai spoke. Sakura and Syaoran both seemed to think the man was a little bit soft in the head, and kept speaking to him very kindly. Fai didn't know how he was going to make it through dinner without falling onto the floor howling with laughter. But Kurogane kept glaring at him, so that kept him in check.

There was a drink called mead that was being served liberally tonight. It was incredibly delicious, but Fai pretended to drink a lot more of it than he actually did. All three of the men in their party did. They laughed and enjoyed the beautiful music of the bard Andrick had employed and pretended to be in high spirits, but they were all careful. It was a new place, and they didn't know these people. They had to be alert. Mokona, of course, drank plenty, and eventually fell asleep in Sakura's lap.

Still, the evening went on very pleasantly, and they did lower their guards a bit. The end of the feast found Sakura gossiping with Janek's young wife Mila, Fai patiently pretending he didn't already know the symbol Armand was demonstrating for him, and Kurogane and Syaoran were down with the men showing off their swords to Dragomir and another big blond guy. Fai could tell how tired Sakura was, though she smiled and acted gracious. Fai was surprised she'd lasted this long.

"If it would please the king," he murmured to Andrick, "the lady is tired after such an eventful day. We would beg your permission to retire."

The king squinted at him again in that suspicious way. Fai didn't really care if Andrick liked him or not. He just wanted to take care of the princess. They were leaving tomorrow, anyway.

The king was a good host. He announced that the entire royal party was going to retire, much to young Mila's disappointment, and he and Queen Ida both escorted Sakura to the rooms they'd prepared for her. Fai, Kurogane, and Syaoran followed behind, along with Dragomir and a few of the other men.

And just as Fai had been worried would happen, Sakura had suddenly had enough. She collapsed about halfway back to their rooms, and Syaoran immediately leapt forward and caught her before she could land on the cold stone floor.

"Princess! Are you all right?"

"Sakura!" Mokona wailed, bouncing down from Fai's shoulder to go to her.

"Sorry," Sakura slurred.

Syaoran cradled her close and seemed at a loss for what to say to the king and his retinue, who were staring in shock.

"What's wrong?" Queen Ida asked. "What should we do?"

"Our princess is unwell," Fai answered gravely. "She has been unwell for some time. Our journey is in search of a way to cure her." It wasn't the truth, but it wasn't a lie, either. Good enough.

Ida looked distressed and wrung her hands, and looked meaningfully at Andrick. Fai perked up at that. They had something? Maybe Mokona was wrong, maybe there was a feather.

"What?" Kurogane grunted when no one spoke. Bless him for his uncouth ways, Fai thought with fondness. Sometimes his disdain of manners was just what the situation called for.

"We have a phoenix," the king said slowly.

Fai couldn't help his gasp of surprise. The phoenix was extremely rare, more legend than reality. His tattoo had carried connotations of the phoenix, because its symbolism was so powerful. His kudan in the Hanshin Republic had been the closest he'd ever come to seeing the real thing. All he'd seen before were drawings in books. And while he knew that nothing but Sakura's own memories could cure her . . . The tears of a phoenix couldn't hurt. They might strengthen her.

"It makes its home somewhere in the forest. None of us have been able to approach its nest, because it's fiercely protective. But perhaps . . . With a mage like yours, princess, you may be able to approach it."

Ah. So the king had noticed that Armand was a joke and Fai was not.

"I shall get some men together," the king declared. "We'll leave first thing in the morning and search for the phoenix. With any luck, the princess's illness will be cured tomorrow."

Fai wanted to explain that it was unnecessary. But he'd always wanted to see such a creature. And he wanted its tears to strengthen Sakura. And that heartbreakingly hopeful look on Syaoran's face . . . He couldn't take it from the boy.

"We would appreciate that more than you know," Fai said softly, speaking once again for their group. Really, since when was he in charge? He didn't want to be.

Syaoran picked Sakura up in his arms and led the way to their rooms. They said goodnight, and the three men stationed themselves outside Sakura's door only until they were alone and away from curious eyes. Then they gathered up the rushes they were meant to make their beds in, and spread them around Sakura, and lay down around her. They all wanted to be able to see her, they couldn't rest from the other side of a heavy door.

Kurogane grabbed his arm before he could follow Syaoran into the room, though.

"It won't help, will it."

It wasn't even a question. Kurogane was too smart for his own good, sometimes.

"It won't cure her, if that's what you mean. But yes, it might help. Even the sight of a phoenix should lift her spirits!" he said enthusiastically. He'd been too serious tonight, he'd better fix that.

"Don't waste our time, mage," Kurogane said gruffly.

"I would never do such a thing. I wouldn't want to make Kuro-pu angry," he said, mincing past him into the room. He seriously couldn't help the slink in his walk. The things that happened in Yama weren't going to happen again, but that didn't mean he couldn't make Kurogane think about them sometimes.

"Idiot," Kurogane grunted.

Yes, Fai thought as he closed his eyes, I am.

They were provided with armour when they were outfitting themselves for their search. None of it fit perfectly, but they made it work. It was lucky they were in a country that produced such large men, since it meant there was armour that fit Kurogane. Poor Syaoran, being so much smaller, settled for a leather brigandine and a set of gauntlets. Fai supposed he was lucky that there had been someone so slender among Andrick's men in the past, or he'd have been clunking around in armour twice as wide as he was. Mila was a similar size to Sakura, and had loaned her a beautiful green dress that matched Sakura's colouring perfectly. She said that a lady on a quest ought to wear something beautiful. Fai felt sorry for Mila. That romantic spirit wouldn't last long with so many rough men around her.

They set out on horseback into the forest. It was the quietest, most relaxing quest one could have wished for. Sakura was the only woman in attendance, and she didn't know how to ride, so they put her in front of Fai on his horse. He wasn't an expert on a horse, but he'd gotten used to the dragonets they rode in Yama—don't think about Yama you idiot—so he was comfortable. Sakura actually was so lulled by the easy rhythm of the animal's movements, and by Fai's arms around her, that she fell asleep. It was a struggle for Fai not to cry. She trusted him so much, and he was not the man she thought he was. But he was beginning to love her. He'd realized when he still was a child himself that he'd never have children of his own, but she was as good as his own daughter in his eyes. And he would destroy her. She would smile at him in trust, and he would ruin everything.

He didn't think anyone noticed the soft kiss he pressed into her hair, but when he looked up, Kurogane was looking at him. Damn that man. How did he always manage to see everything?

Then a keening cry cut through the air, and the king and his men shouted in excitement. The phoenix. The bird of legend had saved him from the possibility of something incredibly painful passing between him and Kurogane. Fai was already in the creature's debt before even laying eyes on it.

"Well, Mage Flourite, now it's up to you!" Andrick said excitedly.

Fai smiled brightly to mask the grumble in his soul. Why did everyone around here keep assuming he was in charge of anything?

"Syaoran, come here."

Syaoran scrambled to help Sakura down from the horse, and kept his arm around her while she attempted to rouse herself from her nap. Fai dismounted as well, scanning the skies for the source of the elegant cry he'd heard.

There! A flash of bright colour, and it wasn't the sun. Fai sprang to the nearest tree and climbed it, deciding it was just about time for him to do something silly and childish.

His breath caught in his throat. It was beautiful. It was massive and powerful and magical and beautiful.

"Hyu hyu!" he called down. "I found it!"

It was perched on the rocky outcropping a cliff that the trees had been hiding from view. Sharp golden eyes looked straight at him. He took a deep breath, and looked back. They just stared at each other for some time, and Fai was too lost to keep track of how long it was. He remembered the feeling of bringing out his kudan in Hanshin, remembered all that his magic had in common with this bird, and he carefully dragged it to the forefront of his thoughts so he could show it to the phoenix. If he did anything wrong, the phoenix could kill him. And he couldn't die yet. Not yet. So he had to be more honest with this bird than he was with any of his companions, and he had to allow it to look into him.

A trickle of blood ran down his wrist. He was gripping the tree branch so hard that he'd snapped a little twig and stabbed himself in the hand.

"Mage! What's going on up there!" he heard Kurogane shouting impatiently.

Golden eyes and blue eyes. Sharpness and old wisdom looked deeply into pain and old fear. But Fai was doing this for Sakura. For the princess. For his daughter, even if he'd never say such a thing aloud. "Mommy" was a joke and nothing more. It was a joke that mocked his true feelings, and so it made a good disguise for them.

The regal creature broke eye contact. It spread its wings, and swooped downward. Fai's heart hammered, and he ignored the possibility of injury to himself, swinging himself down from branch to branch as fast as he could and dropping to the ground from far too high. Was it going to attack the girl?

The phoenix landed right in their midst. All the men shouted in surprise and the horses backed up respectfully, giving the creature plenty of room. Fai rushed to Sakura's defense, even though Syaoran and Kurogane were already taking up stances in front of her.

The phoenix looked at Fai again, and those sharp, dangerous golden eyes looked calm. Fai had to remind himself to breathe. It had decided to help them. The creature had believed him and had decided that Sakura was worthy of its time.

"It's okay," he said cautiously. "Sakura, bow to him."

Sakura did, looking entranced. "You're so beautiful," she said to the bird.

Of all things, the phoenix began to preen, ruffling its wings happily. Fai held back a laugh. Even a phoenix could be enchanted by this girl, it seemed. Sakura stepped forward, lifting her hand slowly and cautiously. She ran her fingers over the gleaming feathers.

"I'm so happy I got to see you," she said to the bird. "You're gorgeous."

The bird ruffled its wings again and let out a soft little keening noise.

"You must love to fly," she said wistfully. "I would fly if I could. It looks so wonderful."

It did look wonderful. Fai had once dreamed of doing that kind of magic. But his destiny was destruction, not healing. He'd given up on those kinds of dreams.

The phoenix turned its head, just a bit. Then it bent its legs and made another keening noise. Fai gasped in shock.

"Would you really let me?" she asked, her eyes shining with wonder. "It would be such an honour."

The phoenix turned its head to look at Fai.

"M-me?" he stammered. No, it couldn't mean . . .

"He wants both of us," Sakura said with joy. "Oh, Fai, he's going to let us ride him!"

Fai couldn't believe that. It was a mistake. He shook his head and took a step backward. "No, I'm sure it's just for you, princess. I . . ."

A hand on his back shoved him forward. Kurogane. Kurogane, that bastard, was always exactly where Fai didn't want him to be, seeing things he wasn't supposed to see.

"Hurry up. I'll kill you if you make her cry."

Fai looked at Sakura and saw the anxiety on her face. She wanted him to go with her. Numbly, he stepped forward. He locked eyes with the phoenix one more time to be sure this wasn't all some horrible mistake. But the bird was calm and waiting patiently. Slowly, disbelievingly, Fai's hand closed in the feathers on the phoenix's neck. With a smooth motion, he jumped up and threw his leg over its back, cursing the heavy armour that made his usually lithe movements so difficult.

Syaoran boosted Sakura up behind him, and she immediately wrapped her arms around his waist. She was nervous, but when he looked back at her, she looked eager and joyful.

"Okay, let's go," Fai said to the phoenix.

Then he shouted in surprise and held tight as the creature took him at his word and immediately bounded forward and launched itself into the sky. Sakura screamed, but she was laughing at the same time, clutching her arms around him to steady herself. They climbed into the sky, higher and higher, and Fai felt as if his stomach had been left behind somewhere.

This close, that beautiful shrieking cry of the phoenix was deafening. They leveled out, and the creature tilted slightly to take them out of the forest and fly over the river. The sun was sparkling off the water, and in the distance Fai could see the blue and gold dragon that inhabited this area, giving the phoenix plenty of space in the sky.

"Oh, Fai," Sakura said fervently, squeezing him. "Thank you."

He didn't feel like he'd really done anything. She'd been the one who'd walked right up to the bird and stroked it without any fear. But hearing in her voice just how happy she was . . . Fai stopped thinking about the future. Damn the future. He was riding a phoenix. He was soaring through the sky on the back of a legendary creature, and his princess was as happy as he could ever make her.

Later, everything would come crashing down around them. But today, Fai would let himself be happy. Just this once.