He flexed his hand. The cuts along the knuckles still hurt, but that would fade, and as long as he could readily use his fingers, he wasn't worried. Any arm that Sari made would be rudimentary at best, so he would still need to have full control of the bike's switches with his right hand.

When he swung the door open, Fai was tugging the curtain that separated the room back into place. He turned around with a vaguely guilty look on his face.

"How are you feeling?"

A slight tremble in Fai's legs betrayed him even though he smiled and said, "Better. I didn't expect you to come back so soon, Kuro-tan."

Is that why you were fixing the curtain to make it look like you were still here? Kurogane thought about asking it, thought better of it, and crossed to his bed. "They want to keep me here in case there are any problems."

Faint relief shone in the back of Fai's eyes. "So, Piffle next?"

"Hn," Kurogane grunted in agreement.

"Good."

An uncomfortable silence fell between them. Kurogane wondered how long it would be before his bandaged hand drew some questions, and almost on cue, Fai leaned into his peripheral vision. Kurogane had actually raised his hand towards Fai before he noticed that Fai was staring at his shoulder instead.

Fai's fingers brushed over the skin, the concern in his face melting away. "Ink? I thought I'd..." He swallowed the last words. Given the placement of the markings, they'd probably looked like burn marks just around the attachments points. Fai's magic was certainly capable of charring skin, but something more conventional had marked up Kurogane's shoulder.

"Sari needed to take some measurements and photos for the replacement arm. Apparently, the contrast or something isn't good enough to see the attachment points." Kurogane rubbed his hand over the marks, trying to erase them. All he did was smudge them around a little.

"Arm?" The word was less of a question and more of an accusatory statement. "She's making you a prosthetic? Kuro-tan, we don't have any money in this world. I can get us to Piffle on the next jump and then we'll..."

"That's not soon enough!" Kurogane growled.

Fai held out his hands and smiled that blank comforting smile that he always used when he knew things weren't okay but wanted to pretend they were anyway. "I know it's hard adapting to something missing, but you can handle this for a few days..."

"Adapting? No matter how much adapting I do, I can't race with one arm."

"Race?" Fai's hands dropped. He glared.

"Yes."

"This is about pride, isn't it?" The words came out like chips of glass. Fai's eyes had gone flat with anger.

"Yes!" He snapped. Every nerve screamed at him to grab Fai and shake him, even if it was in only by the front of his shirt with the one hand Kurogane had available. Of course it was about pride. He was not going to lose Fai - not to anyone and certainly not to this asshole.

"You're impossible!" No softness and no smile this time; ire filled the eyes instead.

Kurogane recognized the shift in Fai's weight that signaled that he was about to flee and grabbed his elbow before he could. He had expected anger - had their situations been reversed, Kurogane certainly would have been angry. He had not, however, expected outright fury. The races were dangerous, but not usually life threatening. At worst, he might suffer some bumps and bruises, maybe a couple of broken bones, but nothing serious.

Had their situations been reversed, he would have worked up a righteous glower to be sure that Fai knew exactly how much he disapproved of Fai risking any sort of injury on his account, but this was something else.

"Let go." Fai stared at the doorway. Years ago, the grip Kurogane had on his arm would have elicited a fake whine of pain.

Kurogane pulled his arm closer, trying to force Fai to look at him. "No."

They'd been here before. They both knew how this conversation went.

In good form, Fai shoved it off its normal tracks. "You just can't stand to lose, can you?"

Surprise loosened his fingers and kept them loose even when Fai yanked his arm free and fled. Only after he'd chucked one of the medicine bottles across the room - he'd been cuffed for sacrificing his arm to save Fai's life, but he hadn't been yelled at and given that heart-rending disparaging glare - did it occur to Kurogane that he'd missed something crucial in that conversation.

OOOOOOO

The door was hard to wrestle open with her arms laden. Sari shifted the burden up into one armpit and yanked the hospital door wide. A brisk wind whipped through the open square. The clouds had cleared, and a bright sun overhead gave the impression that it should be much warmer outside, so she hadn't bothered to button up her overcoat. She should have known better.

With a soft curse, she shoved the papers farther up so that she could pin them to her side and paused to complete the arduous task of fastening the row of buttons up the front of her coat. The waist one was particularly stubborn where the coat was stretched over her tool belt. She tucked her chin down so that she could see enough of it to wrestle with it. Just when she succeeded, the door behind her clattered. She looked up in time to see Fai burst out of it.

"Woah, slow down there, magician!" Sari caught his shoulder with one hand just before he could plow into her. "What's got you so riled up?"

"He's an idiot! A stupid, prideful idiot who should learn that winning isn't everything." The muscles in Fai's jaw clenched tightly, but he finally seemed to notice her. "Why are you making him an arm?" His tone was accusatory.

Sari blinked. There were all sorts of answers to that question, and most of them were emphatically none of her business. At this point, she didn't really care.

"Never mind." Fai waved the question off before she could answer. He set off purposefully in the opposite direction of the house.

What on earth...? "Fai? Fai!" Sari called after him, but he didn't she any sign of having heard her. She opened her mouth to shout again.

"Excuse me, ma'am."

She whirled and snapped, "What?" at the hapless nurse.

"You left your pictures on the front desk."

Given that the majority of her brain was occupied with lists and sketches and diagrams of Kurogane's prosthetic, it wasn't too surprising. She'd forget her own head if it was possible. "Oh, right. I'm sorry."

The nurse held out the envelope tentatively.

Sari tried for a disarming smile and murmured a word of thanks. By the time she'd tucked the photos safely into the front of her coat, she'd lost track of Fai. Luckily, she'd only introduced him to a limited number of places in their town, so he couldn't have gone far.

The arena was closest.

OOOOOOO

The main door of the warehouse was closed, but the smaller side door was propped open with a chunk of brick. "And the 24 gauge." Mika's voice echoed out into the street.

Fai could just hear Syaoran issue an affirmative noise. He slipped through the door and into the warm interior. He couldn't quite keep the gasp of surprise from his voice; he'd only seen the outside of the warehouse before the last race. Racks and racks of bike parts stretched into the depths of the warehouse. Mika's elegant bike sat to the side, the covering tarp partially thrown back, and the metal covers peeled away from the handles. A number of papers marked wires within.

Syaoran emerged from the far shadows with a box piled high with loops of wire and a number of bronzy toggle switches. "I only found a few scrap pieces of the 18."

The bike that Kurogane had ridden in the previous race was leaning heavily against its kickstand in the center of the floor. It had suffered little more than a couple of scrapes to the body during the crash. Mika was crouched by the side, feeding a long tail of wire through the scaffolding under the seat. He twisted to take the handful of wires from Syaoran and rested an elbow on the bike. "Should be fine. We don't need that much of the thicker stuff."

While his attention was elsewhere and possibly due to the additional weight on the bike, the front tire twisted and the bike leaned alarmingly away from its kickstand. Mika swore, leaping to catch. He just barely got his arms around the bike's barrel before it smacked to the floor.

Syaoran dropped the box on the ground with a crash. He shoved his shoulder against the lower side of the bike and helped Mika wrestle it back into an upright position. His eyes focused on Mika's confused expression and searching hands, which were currently feeling around underneath the bike. "What's wrong?"

Mika dove below the bike, rolling onto his back and aiming a light up into the workings. He only needed a couple of seconds to study it before he groaned out, "Oh, for fuck's sake. Get the crane."

The control box sat a little ways off to the side on a rickety table that Mika used as a workbench. Syoaran grabbed it and punched the buttons. "What happened?"

But Mika was just shaking his head and muttering away under his breath. He tossed the straps around the belly of the bike and hooked them over the crane, stepping back to let Syaoran lift it. As soon as it was at chest level, he pulled off the metal covers.

Even from his position in the shadows by the door, Fai could see that something was definitely wrong with the gears on the bike. Spidery cracks split the smallest gear and merged in the center where it was mounted to form a deep chasm in the metal. The bits of the gears behind it that he could see had the same scattered fractures.

Mika dropped his head against the bike. "The gears are shattered. Can you pass me that wrench?"

The indicated wrench sat on the workbench just behind Syaoran's hand. He handed it over and leaned in to watch Mika remove the busted parts. "Do you want me to get the spares?"

"I don't have spares. Even the ones for my other bikes won't fit this chain. We may be able to scrap something together, but..." Mika chucked the gears into a corner and stepped back, gnawing at his lip and shaking his head.

Fai suppressed a small smile of relief. Even Kurogane couldn't argue against the lack of bike. Kurogane's insistence on racing baffled him. Even though Kurogane had made it abundantly clear through his silence that he didn't care if Yaro took Fai, he was still going to risk injury, minor though it might be, just because his personality hated to lose to anyone at anything.

He'd said it, and Kurogane had agreed. It was about pride and winning for the sake of winning. Fai wasn't about to let him do something that stupid.

"Maybe I can..." Mika trailed off. He'd started towards the door and finally noticed Fai's presence. "Fai?"

"Ah, sorry to intrude." Fai shook the thoughts away and pushed off the wall, trying to look like he'd only just arrived, but the look on Mika's face suggested that he was failing miserably. "I didn't get a chance to see the workshop before. It's spectacular."

"Thanks." Wariness fell away from his eyes, and Mika brightened visibly at the compliment. He shoved his hands into his pockets, grinning around. "It's a pretty good place."

The bronze body of one of Mika's older bikes was smooth and vaguely warm under his hand. Fai hadn't even spared a look at the bikes during the last race - Kurogane and Mika had vanished for hours beforehand, and the wreckage of Kurogane's arm had filled his vision afterwards. Being this close to them would have been a treat - he rather liked mechanical things and their capability of replicating magical abilities - if he hadn't been scanning them for spots of weakness.

"There's something wrong with Kuro-tan's bike?" He crouched down beside the bike and peered up at the inner mechanisms. After his experience in Piffle, he had a good handle on how machines worked. It took him only a few quick glances to understand it.

"Gears are broken." Mika grudgingly admitted, smile faltering.

"That doesn't sound good."

"No, it doesn't." The oily voice was instantly recognizable. "Well, it all depends on what side you're on. It sounds very good to me."

Mika rocked onto the balls of his feet, glaring at the intruder in his workshop door. "Get out."

Yaro waived the threat away. "No need to get all bent out of shape. I just want to talk to Fai."

"He has nothing to say to you." As an unnecessary emphasis, Mika moved to stand between Fai and Yaro.

"It's alright, Mika." With a gentle hand on Mika's shoulder, Fai pushed him out of the line of fire and closed the distance to Yaro. "What do you want?"

"A compromise"

"Compromise?"

"You really don't want to see him get hurt, do you? I can see it in your eyes." Yaro leaned in close. "I can see it in the way you were looking at the bikes."

He really should have broken Yaro's wrist when he had the chance. Fai gritted his teeth and stared at Yaro, his face expressionless. The comments were a good guess, but a guess nonetheless - no one, save for Kurogane, read him that well. Besides, no wife would want their husband to suffer.

"You could stop it, you know. Tell him to forfeit the race. He's got up until the race to decide whether or not he accepts the challenge."

No matter how hard he tried, Fai was unable to keep the flicker from his eyes. He'd thought that Kurogane had already forfeited; he had assumed that the conversation in the hospital had been about that. He shoved the confusion down. "How is that a compromise?"

"You get what you want - your husband in one piece - and I get what I want."

Fai levied an icy stare at him. "I suppose this is the point where you threaten to hurt him if I don't convince him to give up?"

"Hardly." Yaro smirked ever so slightly. "The course will do that for me."

"What are you doing here?" Sari had just shouldered the door open and stopped on the threshold, glaring at Yaro. Her voice cut across what Fai ha been about to retort with.

Yaro stepped back from Fai, cocking his head to one side and then the other. "Your cheek's still looking a little banged up."

"It wouldn't be if you actually had any balls!"

"Please, I'm not the one who hit you."

"Hit?" The word was snarled out from between clenched teeth, and Mika turned to Fai, looking for an explanation.

He could only shrug, as perplexed as Mika. Now that Yaro had mentioned it, though, he could see a slight shadowing across Sari's cheekbone. Fai couldn't manage to piece the scenario back together. Had it happened while he was unconscious?

"What that hell did you do to my wife, Yaro?"

"I didn't do anything," Yaro replied, rather haughtily. "Why don't you talk to the man you've let into your house."

"Kurogane-san would never!" Syaoran broke in for the first time, his dark eyes wide with indignation.

Sari put a steadying hand on Syaoran's arm and shook her head slightly.

A prolonged eye-roll spoke volumes for exactly what Yaro thought about that. "He knocked a woman halfway across the floor. That man's little better than a self-absorbed brute."

No one saw Fai move; he had been fighting for longer than most of them had been alive after all. His fist made solid contact with Yaro's nose, the force knocking him backwards a couple of steps. Fai's hands, still fisted, dropped to his sides and shook. "Kuroi is twice the person that you could ever aspire to be! He has fought and sacrificed more than you could ever imagine for all the people he travels with, and I will not let you speak ill of him."

Yaro raised the back of his hand to his nose, pulling it away after a minute to study the blood that was on it. "You're remarkably loyal for a wife who's willing to walk into my arms." He leaned towards Fai almost as if he was goading him into hitting him again. Long seconds stretched between them while he leaned and Fai remained trembling but stationary. "You'll defend the slightest insult to him, but not yourself?"

"That's it." The concrete floor practically creaked under Mika's stomping gait. He grabbed the front of Yaro's shirt and dragged him towards the door. "This is my workshop, and you're not going to stand around harassing my guests." Despite protests and dragging of feet, he shoved Yaro out the door, kicked the doorstop out and yanked it closed.

The entire room let out a collective sight of relief. Sari planted her hands on her hips. "Is it locked?"

Mika nodded. He caught his wife's chin in his hands and tilted it up until the light spilled fully on her cheek. "Kurogane hit you?"

"Not intentionally. He was trying to hit Yaro, and I kind of got in the way." The corner of her lip hitched up into a sheepish but unapologetic smile.

"He really tried that?" Mika scrubbed a hand over his face. "Lord, I'm glad you were there."

"Me too."

The line of the conversation escaped him. Out of everything that had happened in the hospital, Fai didn't remember Kurogane getting violent with Yaro. Quite the opposite, in fact. "He wasn't trying to hit Yaro. I heard what Yaro said, and Kuro-san didn't care."

"Tell that to the counter he punched a hole in after I dragged him out of the room." Sari snorted. "You must have missed the beginning of the conversation and the punching part. I made a bit of a racket when I hit the floor; you wouldn't have missed it."

"Hit the floor?" Fai couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. Kurogane hit her hard enough to knock her down?

"He's got a pretty good arm on him, and Yaro really pissed him off. Wish I could have stepped aside and let him beat the snot out of Yaro. Would have served him right for talking about you like that."

"Wh-why?" His brain stammered on the word, repeating it. Why?

"Look, if the husband does anything against the challenger - sabotage, bodily harm, or anything you can think of - then the challenge is void. Another one of those archaic rules we've got." Mika paused to wrap his arm around his wife's shoulders and hug her tightly. "If Sari hadn't jumped in, you'd already be in Yaro's bed."

That wasn't what he'd been asking about, but it explained another source of confusion.

"But," Syaoran protested. "Fai-san just hit him."

"Oh no, the wife isn't held by the same rules." Sari waved the concern away. "Believe me, we would have done something."

"Tried." Mika clarified.

"Tried to do something. Good point. Where did you learn to fight like that? Or did you just sort of 'magic' your fist into his face?" She sketched quotes in the air around the word. A certain wildness around her eyes suggested that the lack of sleep last night was beginning to beat her down.

"Honey." Mika's tone of infinite patience wearing thin would have been entertaining in any other situation. "Kurogane's arm?"

She shook her head as if the action would clear the fatigue. "Right. Are you going to be able to transfer the controls? If we can do that..." She and Mika put their heads together over the bike, standing far enough away that all Fai could pick up was faint murmurs.

It didn't matter; he wasn't listening to them anyway. He was focused on the space Sari had occupied up until a few minutes ago.

She'd read the situation wrong. She'd misunderstood. She must have. That was all. Kurogane was just fiercely protective of his companions. He would have done the same thing if it were Syaoran and not Fai who'd been insulted. Kurogane's reaction couldn't really mean...

Could it?

OOOOOOO

Empty stands looked down over an equally empty racetrack. Machines had groomed the worst of the divots out of the track after the last race, and Kurogane dug his toe into the soft dirt just behind the start line. He'd gotten word to meet Mika and Sari at the track only thirty minutes before the race was scheduled to start. Even working all night, his prosthetic was likely still in progress, but they simply couldn't wait any longer.

There was still no sign of Yaro, which was probably a good thing. Without Sari or Mika as a buffer, Kurogane wasn't sure if he could control himself.

"Kurogane!" Sari's voice vanished into the huge dome that enclosed the arena. She was dragging a long box behind her, the corners drawing twin lines in the sand.

"You finished it?"

"Naturally." She bowed and touched two fingers to the side of her head in a snarky salute. "Even managed to get the new engines in and everything. Course, without properly mounting it to your shoulder, it'll just mean that that it's amplifying the movements of your shoulder muscles. If I've done it right, you should be able to bend and extend your arm, move your wrist and flex a couple of your fingers."

Kurogane walked through the gestures with his right arm as she was talking. When he moved his wrist, Sari shook her head and flexed her hand up and down in the same direction that the throttle moved. It would be good enough.

The case rattled when it hit the ground, and Sari flipped the top open, running her hands over the outside of it with all the pride of a master craftsman finishing something against a deadline. Her lips curled up at every dent and bit of scratched metal.

"Looks good."

Sari made one last face and hefted the prosthetic into her arms. "It'll do." She pointed a finger at the row of benches set out for riders to sit on before the race. "Sit."

Even as he moved over towards it, a deep rumbling emerged from the dividing wall between the main and practice track. Mika idled his bike up the slight incline, followed by Fai and Syaoran.

"Why did Mika bring his bike?"

"Yours was more damaged in the crash than we initially thought. We couldn't get it fixed in time. Don't worry!" She insisted when Kurogane made a face. "If something happens, Mika will have a field day putting it back together. Believe me."

"You could have lent me one of his older bikes."

"And risk Yaro winning because you just didn't have enough umph? I don't think so." She pushed Kurogane to the side and balanced the base of the prosthetic against his shoulder. She wedged the hand against her stomach to hold it tight against his skin. "Try moving it."

He obliged. The fingers moved hesitantly, scratching against Sari's leather apron. The wrist was even more jittery. He waited for Sari to adjust the placement, but her attention was on the group surrounding Mika's bike. "I don't think it's quite right."

The edges of the base hadn't lined up with Kurogane's shoulder perfectly, but that was unsurprising given the rush. Sari put the heel of her hand against the armpit and pushed, twisting the wrist as she went. She kept looking at Fai out of the corner of her eye.

"You're worried about him." He could have made it a question, but the prosthetic twisting sharply and melding to the uneven surface of his shoulder cut off the last word. He stared down at it in surprise and tentatively flexed his shoulder muscles. The appendage responded in a remarkably natural way. "Huh."

"He couldn't have said more than two words last night, and he's been so talkative up until now." Sari dug a marker from the front pocket of her tool belt and drew a thick line across the front of the prosthetic and onto his skin. Then she pushed Kurogane's head to the side, forcing him to look at the dirt, and marked the top of his shoulder and the back.

Fai not talking was never a good sign. It usually meant that Fai was thinking, and prolonged periods of thought almost always guaranteed that Fai was going to come to a solution to a problem that was harmless to everyone except for himself.

A foreboding trickle crawled up the back of his spine. Kurogane was not prophetic, not in the way Tomoyo had been, but you couldn't become an excellent fighter without developing some sort of sixth sense. When it came to Fai, Kurogane was very well attuned to the prickling hints that something was about to happen.

When it came to Fai, something happening almost invariably meant that something bad was going to happen.

"I can attach the straps, if you want."

Sari nodded, still using her body to brace the arm. "Just buckle the main two, and then he can stand up."

Fai reached around Kurogane to loosely do up the chest and neck straps before helping Kurogane to his feet.

After a brief look at the prosthetic, Sari nudged the top of the case closed with her foot and jogged across the soft dirt to her husband and his bike.

The silence stretched almost uncomfortably long. Kurogane studied Fai's face, trying to read his plan from that expressionless mask. He raised his arm to allow Fai to adjust the straps around his chest.

Fingers smoothed the straps down, adjusting metal fastenings and buckled leather until it sat without pinching Kurogane's skin. Even after the arm was properly adjusted, Fai's hands lingered. One pressed against the main strap that bisected his chest, and the other rested on the metal swell of his bicep.

Kurogane instantly missed the Piffle prosthetic. He would have been able to feel Fai's touch if he still had the high-tech machine. He might have even been able to pick up something in the almost unconscious flicker of fingers.

"Last chance, Kurogane."

They both jumped. Neither of them had heard the approach of the bike, but both turned to stare at Yaro.

He'd parked his bike a few feet away and swung off it, leaning on the saddle with an irritated expression on his face. He clearly hadn't expected Kurogane to have either a bike or an arm. "Do you accept the challenge?"

Fai was gnawing on his lip and had turned back to stare fixedly at the straps. "Here's your chance to get rid of me, Kuro-myu." When the last word passed his lips, the blue eyes snapped up to stare at Yaro again.

Kurogane recognized that tone. It was the tone that Fai always used when he was being painfully cautious in choosing his words. That tone made Kurogane listen especially carefully, and he heard what he was supposed to. This was not a question of his protection - that had never and would never be questioned - but rather of his desire to remain together with Fai. "Idiot. Hasn't that chance passed several times? You can't leave me that easily." Kurogane pinned Yaro with his gaze, brows drawing down the minute Yaro's eyes rose to meet his. Every possessive ounce of him begged to be released, and Kurogane was more than happy to oblige. He smirked when Yaro quelled slightly under his glare. "Say what you really want for once."

Out of the corner of his eye, Kurogane saw Fai's hand clench unconsciously on the metal casing of his arm. Again, he wished for his old prosthetic; he just wanted to feel...

Fai's magic?

Electricity climbed up his skin, lighting the sliver of air between himself and Fai. He knew this feeling. The hairs on his arm stood on end and his heartbeat quickened to match the inherent pulse in Fai's magic.

He was going to knock him out. He was going to destroy Mika's bike. He was going to sabotage the arm, or the straps, or any handful of other things that would stop the race and spare Kurogane any pain save for the raw agony of surrendering Fai to this bastard. Even though Fai had asked carefully, even though Kurogane had answered with even more care, Fai was going to insist on his ridiculous version of self-sacrifice. The thoughts tumbled over each other in Kurogane's mind as he leapt from one plausible explanation to another for Fai ramping up his magic.

A dim corner of his mind noticed Fai's hand lift off his arm, one finger extended to inscribe a single complicated sigil in the air.

Yaro's bike disintegrated.

To be more specific, it exploded outwards, each part pulling away from the others until all of Yaro's bike hung in the air with little more than a centimeter of air separating each gear, each bolt, and each hammered piece of metal. Then the magic ended, and the parts crashed to the ground in a massive heap. One gear pinged off the solid upper casing of the bike and bounced into the dirt by Yaro's feet.

"What did you do?" A note of awe filled Sari's voice.

Fai looked slightly sheepish, as if the spell was one that he knew but was usually only used by only thirteen-year-olds with nothing better to do than to prank their neighbors. "I returned it to its original parts."

"You son of a...!"

Yaro's rush was fast, but not fast enough, Fai ducked under a fist thrown wild in anger and smashed the heel of his hand into Yaro's throat, collapsing his trachea and choking off the end of that curse. After he struck, his cupped palm under Yaro's chin was the only thing holding the limp body up. Contact lasted only a couple of seconds before he jerked his hand back.

Without the support, Yaro dropped bonelessly to the dirt at Fai's feet, gripping his throat and trying to draw in fragmented breaths.

"I am not yours. I will never be yours." Fai's fingers traced the edge of one of his beads.

I belong to someone else.

The words weren't spoken. They didn't need to be.

OOOOOOO

"Did you see the look on his face?" Sari hooted and practically skipped over the threshold into her house. "Serves him right!"

"That it does." Mika grinned brightly. "I've never seen quite such a surprised expression on anyone's face."

Sari shoved the prosthetic case into a narrow opening behind the door before pushing Syaoran and Mokona in front of her. "I think a celebration is in order!"

"Alcohol?" Mokona asked, hopefully.

"I believe we can arrange that."

The long walk back had been full of similar discussions. Sari had spent almost the entire time laughing at Yaro, and Kurogane couldn't really blame her. He'd been as astonished as Yaro at Fai's actions, although he suspected that he was slightly more pleased with them.

At least he was pleased after Mika had reassured him that Fai's actions didn't violate the challenge. Whether Fai had known or whether it had been a happy coincidence was unimportant - Yaro could not race without a bike, and he wasn't going to be moving quickly any time soon. The attack had left him with a painful sounding rattle in his throat.

The long hallway that twisted through their house crossed the stairs before it reached the kitchen. With the rest of the group leading the way, Fai and Kurogane were left at the back. Kurogane caught Fai's elbow and tugged him towards the stairs.

Fai stumbled along behind him. "Eh, Kuro-tan? The others are celebrating downstairs."

Kurogane pulled Fai into the room despite his protests and kicked the door shut behind them with an idle foot. He caught Fai's shoulders and pinned them to the wall next to the door.

"Kuro…?"

"No more." He watched the color drain from Fai's face and bit out a curse. "Damn it mage, why are you so determined to misunderstand me? No more running. No more confusion. No more doubt."

He waited for Fai to lift his chin, waited for Fai to look up at him, waited until he was completely disarmed and distracted by whatever he was about to say, and then pressed his lips to Fai's. The kiss was soft and gentle, but definitely not chaste.

No more doubt.

Fai's fingers skittered over the raised ridges of scar tissue that marked his back, the touch flicking away almost before it had even occurred, as if Fai was afraid that real contact would break the moment. Kurogane growled and pushed him against the wall. Every inch of their bodies contacted flush, but Kurogane leaned even harder, not willing to give Fai any course of escape.

A shuddering moan escaped Fai's lips even as his hands caught and held Kurogane's shoulders.

To hell with the bed that stood only feet away, Kurogane had waited long enough; he was not going to waste another second. He tugged at Fai's shirt wanting, needing... Ah, there it was. His hand spread across the narrow expansion of Fai's stomach. The skin trembled under his touch.

Every nerve in his body was screaming at him to bring this to a frenetic close of ripped clothing, sweat and satisfaction, but only one thought filled his mind. It's about damn time.

OOOOOOO

"Here you go." Sari handed the bottle of wine over to Mokona. A brief discussion about the possibility of Mokona managing a wine glass had ended in Sari and Mika pouring themselves generous glasses and surrendering the rest to Mokona. Sari waited for it to wrestle the bottle around into a drinking position and then raised her glass. "To a good day. Cheers!"

Syaoran looked around. "Cheers? Shouldn't we wait for Kurogane-san and Fai-san?"

While pointedly not looking at the ceiling, Sari took a long swallow from her wine. "I'm sure they'll be down later."

Mika smirked knowingly into his drink.

OOOOOOO

It was nearly a week before they moved on. Kurogane was infinitely grateful that Fai hadn't spent that time in Yaro's company. Any society, no matter what, took a dim view of dismemberment, and he was sure Fai would have defended himself. He'd rather not have spent the time trying to break Fai out of jail.

When Mokona started getting antsy, Fai had tried to pay Sari back for the labor and parts that she'd given them.

She'd simply held up an insulated box that was packed full of heating tokens and had shook her head. "More than repaid." She'd finished the first proper prototype of her new arm scarce hours before they left and had tried it out on Kurogane. The results were remarkable, and she'd clutched the arm to her chest, grinning like a mad woman.

Mika had rolled his eyes at his wife exuberance. "She'll have more work than she knows what to do with, you know."

She had hugged the arm just as tightly when Mokona's wings exploded outwards, filling the vaulted ceiling of her workshop. Her lips parted and might have formed the word, 'unbelievable.'

Fai's hand on his arm was all the hint he needed. Kurogane grabbed the back of Syaoran's cloak and braced himself for Fai's magic to wash over him. He felt the familiar tug of Mokona's teleportation tinted with a dancing spark across the back of his eyes. Just before the world vanished, he saw Sari and Mika raise their hands and wave goodbye.

Mika may have shouted, "Don't wear him out!" at the last moment, but Kurogane couldn't be sure.

Tomoyo had raised an eyebrow at the two of them when they arrived in Piffle but had not asked for an explanation of either Kurogane's arm or Fai's new look. She had, however, taken the arm completely apart and had spent several days pouring over its inner workings.

Had they stayed for another couple of days on Piffle, Tomoyo would have been able to skin it. When she'd asked if it was all right, Fai had nodded and touched Kurogane's arm with a slight smile playing around his lips. Kurogane had to agree - with skin it would be nothing more than another strong limb. The goal was not to torture Fai with his sacrifice, but rather to always remind him of what he was willing to do in order to keep Fai at his side.

Time had passed, as it was want to do. Fai's dreads grew out, and the world that they had never gotten around to naming - though both Syaoran and Fai rather affectionately referred to it as 'Mika and Sari's place' - was replaced by a myriad of other worlds with other strange customs and other entertaining people.

When his dreads were little more than matted ends and his hair was getting too long to be manageable, Fai cut them off.

That night, Kurogane stretched out his arm to brush back the loose strands of hair off of Fai's sleeping face. He should have missed the symbolism of the dreads, but somehow he didn't.

Bright moonlight glinted off the mix of crimson and blue beads strung around Fai's neck.


Thanks so much to everyone who's been reading this and has stuck through all of the lulls! I hope you enjoy this chapter and the conclusion of this story. I've had a great time writing it. For all of you who were hoping for a Kurogane-Yaro showdown, I'm really sorry. Please don't kill me! This is where the whole thing has been heading from the beginning because I really, truly wanted it to be Fai who cleared everything up without a lot of dialogue explanation because, well, they're not really a pair for dialogue or I wouldn't have a story here.

Fun fact 1: I've suddenly discovered that I picture Sari as Karen Gillan (Amy Pond in Dr. Who) in my head...

Fun fact 2: Anyone notice my writing change between the last chapter and this one? Or am I just hypersensitive? This is what happens when I start reading something other than textbooks in the middle of writing a story. My writing style is so influenced by what I'm reading at the time.

Cloverfield: My dear, thank you so much for all of your support and faith. *hug* I hope this lives up to the rest of the story and all of your hopes! Oh, and remember when you said you'd be happy if the ending was as simple as Fai punching Yaro in the groin and eloping with Kurogane (and Syaoran with a confused look in the background). Taadaa! I'd just like to say that I laughed hysterically when you sent that, because the ending bit was already plotted out...