Chapter One

The lost princess

As many good stories do, this one begins with a child of royal birth gone missing. Except of course, that's not the whole truth of it. A story has many beginnings, all of them equally important. And in this story, it has to be noted, a good number of events were just as essential as the king and queen finding the princess' cot empty one morning.

This story also begins with a seer who thought he could take it upon himself to decide who ought to live, and who ought to die. It begins with a magician rebelling against the horrible price he was forced to pay for his magic. It begins with the boy with the cursed eye. It begins with the soldier who woke up after one battle to find that an arm was the least important thing he'd lost. It begins with the crown prince kneeling by the monument to his lost sister, vowing to always stay true to both his people and himself, so that if she ever returned, she'd have reason to be proud of him.

One beginning of this story – perhaps the most important one – concerns a young priest acolyte's heart breaking, although it happened so quietly and so gently, that no one even noticed.

But for the purposes of telling this very story, which would undoubtedly be a horribly tangled mess if one was to attempt to pursue all parts of it at once, the princess gone missing is a good way to start.

xxx

It was said that Princess Sakura was a kind and gentle soul even as a small child, but then again, it is hard to tell with three-year-olds. And of course, that was hardly the point in any case. When a child goes missing, it's always a tragedy, even if it should happen to be an awkward, surly child.

Syaoran was one such child, but he would've found it hard to believe that anyone would call it a tragedy if he went missing. He had a hard time imagining that they'd call it anything at all, specifically because there was no "they". He had no one in the world. When he heard the little princess had gone missing, all he could feel was resentment that this useless little kid had a whole damn country caring about her.

He was seven at the time, although anyone who saw only his famished body would think he was maybe four, and anyone who saw only his eyes would think he was a hundred or more. He scrounged his living among the other street rats in the city slums, doing what he had to survive, and what he had to do included all manner of sins, some of which weren't his own.

It wasn't the sort of life that taught a boy to be good and kind, but he took a sort of fierce pride in at least not being any worse than he had to be. He never bullied money from kids who were smaller than him, and he never gave those who were worse off than him any trouble. That's about as far as his morals went. Any more of them would mean that he'd have to starve.

He certainly felt no twinge of remorse as he, twelve years old and desperate for food, snuck after the crippled man when he went into an alley. He was a big man, true, but Syaoran was better at fighting than his small size would suggest. Also, the man had no left arm, and the slight tremor in the right one combined with the small scars on his face from less-than-successful attempts at shaving said he was also a habitual drunk.

As soon as no one could see them, he darted forward, kicking the man in the back of the knee and tackling him hard in the small of his back, sending him tumbling forward. Using his momentum from the tackle, he swung a kick at the man's temple, wanting to knock him out as fast as possible so he could steal what money he had and be gone. But instead, his foot met with resistance, as if he'd just kicked a wall.

The sonova just grabbed my foot! How the-

He didn't even get to finish the thought before the man lifted his leg right up, bringing him off balance and throwing him into the wall. Syaoran managed to roll with the movement and break the fall, but his shoulder still received good thumping, and he grunted a curse as he straightened up. The cripple was on his feet too, but still slightly off-balance; it was probably trickier than it looked, getting to your feet with only one arm. Tough luck for him.

Syaoran was a bit more careful this time, feinting first toward the man's left side before kicking right, thinking that if he could put the bastard's arm out of commission, this fight was as good as won.

Except the stranger didn't fall for it. He smiled grimly, easily evading the kick and causing Syaoran to once more spin into a wall.

"You fight better than the average street brat," he commented in a rough voice. "But I've forgotten more about battle than you'll ever learn, kid. Sometimes it's best to just walk away."

Syaoran didn't deign this with an answer, other than swearing at the man, lashing out once more. This time, the cripple unbalanced him enough to make him fall, and before he knew it he was on his back with the man's boot placed on his chest. "How did a brat like you learn to fight like that, I wonder?"

Luck, that was how. A few years back, Syaoran had tried to pick the pocket of a strange-looking fellow in black clothes. He'd been caught, but the bloke had been very decent about it, giving him a few coins nonetheless. He'd been in quite a rush, and had probably not even noticed the letter slipping from his pocket.

Syaoran didn't know how to read, but he'd held on to it because there had been gold print on the envelope, and he liked the way it glinted in the sunlight. And a month later, a man called Seshirou was suddenly asking questions about someone who sounded a lot like the guy who'd dropped the letter. Syaoran had sought him out, thinking he might fetch a decent price for it, but he'd happened to walk in right in the middle of a bar fight, and he'd realized Seshirou was in possession of something a lot more valuable than money.

The ability to fight.

Of course he'd been clever enough to hide the letter before he went asking, not trusting someone who sounded pretty damn desperate for information to not just take it off him and piss off. The fellow had been surprisingly kind, though, and had agreed to his demands, staying there a month to train him. For a short while, it had almost been like having a friend.

Syaoran remembered crying when he went away.

Not that he was going to tell this jerk about all that. "How does a crippled drunk like you know how to fight?" he spat back, trying unsuccessfully to get free.

The man snorted. "You ain't very clever, are you, kid? How d'you think I lost the arm in the first place?"

Syaoran glowered. Admittedly, he'd walked right into that one on his own. After all, it made sense, now that he thought about it. The man was a war veteran. Pretty much all of them were drunks, as far as Syaoran knew – although what it was about war that made them that way, he really couldn't tell.

The cripple suddenly shook his head, removing his foot. "You're just a kid," he said decisively, and then laughed dryly when Syaoran glared even harder at him. "No shame in being just a kid, at your age," he said. "Believe me, I've met men twice as old as me who were still just kids. Noblemen, they call 'em."

This actually surprised a reluctant snigger out of Syaoran, and the man grinned. "The name's Kurogane. Now, let's get you that meal that you were trying to kick out of me. What do you say, kid?"

Syaoran was instantly on his guard again, jumping to his feet and backing off. He'd learned the hard way where trusting charity could get you. "If you want something, you'll still have to pay for it," he informed the man with a scowl. "A meal won't be enough."

At first, the cripple just stared at him, as if he really couldn't understand what Syaoran was talking about. Then his eyes suddenly narrowed, and he looked angrier than Syaoran had ever seen a person look before. He flinched, but strangely enough, he still wasn't very frightened. It didn't seem like the anger was directed at him so much as the world at large, a sentiment that Syaoran could definitely get behine.

"No, kid," Kurogane said in a voice that was rough with anger, but also something else. Sadness? "I don't want nothing out of you." Then, after a moment's struggle, a smirk stole over the man's face once more; the rage disappeared, but Syaoran had a feeling that it was still there, only hidden. "Come to think of it, there's one thing I do want. I want you to promise me you ain't gonna try to rob me again. I'd hate to have to knock all the stuffing out of you."

xxx

Little Cat fell asleep quickly, warmed by the fire and calmed by the fact that their last heist had been so very successful. There was going to be no sleeping under the stars with the frost creeping over their blankets this winter, no worrying about her father because she couldn't help noticing how he kept giving her almost all the meager food there was. They were safe for a while, and Little Cat slept better for it. Her father, watching the restful smoothness of her forehead, vowed to himself that he'd try to keep it this way.

He wondered what the people who used to know him would say if they saw him now. He'd given up on his luxurious, flamboyant clothes in favor for a more somber garb that better suited his lifestyle. Pure white didn't do very well for someone who relied on hiding in shadows. He also wore his hair longer and braided, to keep it out of his face. The difference wasn't huge, because the flaxen mess of it seemed to rebel against all constraint and defy all laws of gravity and common sense, but at least he'd made the effort. He smiled a bit more seldom, but when he did, the smile was usually more genuine. And of course, he no longer used magic unless he had no other choice, which meant the blue was slowly fading from his eyes.

Nowadays, whenever he had a chance to look in a mirror, he saw the green color they'd been meant to be. The color he remembered seeing when he looked into his brother's eyes. The color of Fai's eyes.

That's what he called himself nowadays. Yuui was a name fraught with death and pain and guilt, so instead he'd taken on his dead twin's name. Another pointless gesture in a series of pointless gestures, none of which would ever bring his brother back.

He shook his head, dismissing these thoughts with a cynical smile, because they wouldn't bring Fai back either. Nothing would, so dwelling on it was pointless.

As if she could sense his distress, Little Cat extended a hand toward him in her sleep. He'd noticed that the girl sometimes seemed to know a lot more of what was going on in his heart than he was trying to let on. There really was something strange about her, something special, although he still wasn't quite sure what.

He wondered a bit wryly what the people he used to know would say about her. What would they say about the little stray cat he'd picked up on the way? What would they say about his adoptive daughter? About his partner in crime? About his sudden and unexpected raison d'être?

Yuuko would no doubt say that it was no coincidence that he'd found her in the middle of the forest, all those years ago. That it had been inevitable that he'd heard her cry and decided to go investigate. But she would probably say that his decision to pick the girl up, to comfort her and take her with him… this decision had been entirely his own. And then she'd smile that smile at him which suggested that she knew more than he did, that she always had and always would, but she would do nothing to change what would happen. No matter the outcome, she would just watch, because that was her job.

He wanted to hate her for it. One day, he'd learn how to.

For now, he would pity her instead.

He sat up a bit straighter and stretched. This particular area was too unsafe for both of them to sleep at the same time, so it wasn't good to get too comfortable. If he fell asleep on his watch, they might be robbed of their newly acquired booty, and that would mean having to start out from scratch – and that was if they were lucky. In the case of a robbery, it was just as likely that they'd never wake up again. And even if things didn't turn out quite so grim, he was sure that Little Cat wouldn't pass up on such an excellent opportunity to tease him endlessly. Sometimes, he really thought he'd taught her too well.

Then again, he was quite proud of his handiwork with her. If you disregarded his magic – and most of the time, he did – Little Cat was every bit as dangerous as he was. Maybe more, because no one seriously believed that her pretty little face and petit frame belonged to a lethal fighter. She was small, and her reach was limited, so he'd taught her to throw daggers – and the sharp edges of her knives also served very nicely to make up for what she lacked in strength. His preferred method was simply to clobber people over the head with the plain wooden staff he carried. But of course, what they both did best was not to hit others – it was to avoid others hitting them.

They made a lovely, if unexpected team. Big Cat and Little Cat were pretty well-known in certain circles by now, as two of the best – if perhaps not the most subtle – cat burglars in the business. It had gone so far that people actually had tried to hire them for assassinations as well. But those missions Fai had flatly refused, and he hadn't even told Little Cat about them. Maybe it wouldn't surprise her, or even upset her, but he still didn't want her to know. That much innocence he still wanted to grant her.

It was one thing to fight if you were cornered, if you had no other choice. Taking another's life on purpose was an entirely different matter, and Fai had vowed never to do it, no matter how noble the cause. He knew far too well what happened when people started thinking that the end justified the means.

Besides, he had a good life. Why would he want to change it? As long as he kept moving, the people in the Circle of Mages wouldn't be able to find him. Thanks to Little Cat, he was never lonely. There were times when he even forgot what he was, how he'd ended up on the roads in the first place; times when he thought of himself as an eternal drifter, born that way and destined to live out his days that way. In a way, it saddened him. But it also set him free, if only for a little while.

xxx

It was amazing, Touya thought dully, how Lord Rondart's soft voice could grate so in his ears, until he wanted to shove his fist down the man's throat, and maybe that would make him shut up. He'd really thought the man was such a kind, unselfish fellow when he'd been introduced to him. He smiled all the time, was kind to children, never kicked the two large hunting dogs he kept, and donated large sums of money to the poor and destitute. He had a gods-damned orphanage named after him, for crying out loud. Touya remembered thinking, upon finding this out, that the man was almost too good to be real.

Well, he was. The more the prince saw of him, the more he was convinced that the man was a self-serving, scheming, manipulative bastard. It was the perfect disguise, he supposed. Being nice didn't cost him much, and what he gained was everyone turning a blind eye whenever he did something that didn't fit the pretty picture they had of the Lord in their heads.

"…and I have to say that the situations is, quite plainly, unacceptable," he said with a apologetic little smile that Touya didn't buy even for a minute. "You know there are always unscrupulous people ready to take advantage of a situation like this, your Majesty."

What, you mean like you, you pompous little twat? Touya thought bitterly, but of course he bit the words down. He didn't want to make the situation any worse on his parents. Even if he'd never agree that this was his fault, because he knew he was doing nothing wrong, it was definitely his responsibility. This was no time to act like the spoiled, selfish brat that Rondart was implying he was with every word that slithered out of his mouth.

And he wasn't the only one with that opinion either.

"I know of quite a few persons that match that description, yes," Fujitaka said mildly, and Touya was pretty sure that it was meant as a jibe. At least he was aware of what kind of creep Rondart was, although he probably knew better ways of dealing with him than the ones Touya was currently devising in his brain for his own private enjoyment. None quite as satisfying, though, if Touya knew his father right. "But what are you suggesting we do about this, as you call it, 'unacceptable situation', Lord Rondart?"

"Well," the man said, raising one eyebrow in a gesture that was too restrained to be an insult to the king's intelligence, but only just. "There's just one thing that can be done, after all."

"The laws of this country," Nadeshiko said softly, but with something like steel in her gaze, "state that every citizen is free to do as he or she wishes with their life, as long as they harm no one else. This includes princes, I'm afraid. I hope you are not implying that my son should be forced into something he has expressly refused to do?"

"Oh no, of course not." The slimy bastard had the impudence to keep smiling. "I was merely hoping to talk some sense into him. No offence meant, of course, your Highness."

No offence, my beautifully sculpted ass, Touya thought poisonously, but he once more swallowed the words. "None taken," he replied icily. "So what is your definition of 'sense' then, Lord Rondart?"

"You marry," the Lord said simply. "No, listen," he added when Touya opened his mouth, and angry retort on his tongue. "You marry some woman, whomever seems the most suitable, and you get at least one child with her. And then, you can have as many male lovers as you feel like, but the country would be safe. Forgive me for speaking so bluntly, my lord, but you must agree that it would be better if we stopped walking on eggshells around this whole business."

"And what of the woman?" Finally, Yukito spoke up, his voice as soft and sweet as ever, his face carefully expressionless. But Touya, who knew what to look for, could see both his fear and his scorn quite clearly. "What kind of a life is that to sentence someone to?" Touya saw his mother nod, and his father's eyes narrowed imperceptibly, and he could swear he'd never loved the three of them as much as he did now.

Lord Rondart smiled pleasantly at Yukito, but his voice when he spoke was pure poison. "I'm not sure I think it's appropriate for someone who has self-interest in the matter remaining unsolved to participate in this meeting."

"My lord, please," Fujitaka injected with a wry smile. "If I was to dismiss everyone speaking out of self-interest from every debate in court, I'd have to send everyone out of the room, including my wife and myself. I'd say it is reasonable for Yukito to remain here, since the matter at hand concerns him as well."

You're one to talk about self-interest, Touya silently seethed, glowering at the Lord. The only reason you are pushing for this, you vile little snake, is because if my father is overthrown, it would mean that you've been betting on the wrong horse this entire time.

"Very well," Lord Rondart said with a shrug, as if he really wasn't furious about the turn of events. "In any case, I will have to agree with the Venerable Brother that it would be a most unfortunate situation for the poor woman. But I ask you to consider what is most important. The potential unhappiness of one woman, or the welfare of thousands."

Yukito's cheeks colored, and Touya felt, if possible, even more inclined to wring the man's scrawny neck. He'd used the old term used for priests on purpose, he knew he had. It was a nasty reminder that until a couple of years ago, all the priest and priestesses had been sworn to absolute celibate and chastity. Nadeshiko had put an end to that oppressive old custom, but not before Yukito had managed to break his vows with Touya more than a few times. But Lord Rondart couldn't have known that, it was impossible. So he must've been guessing. But then again, did that really matter now? The pleased smirk that flitted over the man's face said he'd seen Yukito's reaction, and was storing away the information for later. The bastard.

"You mean to say that the ends justify the means?" Nadeshiko was saying calmly, raising one eyebrow in an imitation of the Lord's gesture just a few minutes ago. "That's a fairly bold statement, Lord Rondart."

Rondart shrugged. "I am merely saying what needs to be said, your Majesty."

"Well, that is truly admirable in that case," Nadeshiko replied, and Touya was impressed by how truly nasty his mother could sound while still being every bit as lovely and charming as always. Slimy little fakesters like Rondart couldn't hold a candle to her.

The king hid a smile behind a cough. "Indeed," he agreed. "And we will give your words due consideration, Lord Rondart. Thank you for bringing your concerns to us."

Rondart bowed silently, and then excused himself. At least you had to give that to the little pissant. He knew a dismissal when he it was thrown in his face. Fujitaka watched him go with a scowl, and as the door slammed shut behind him he sighed deeply. "I am sorry about this, boys."

"Don't apologize, father," Touya said quietly. "He does bring up a valid point. Not about the marriage, of course," he hurriedly added, when three pairs of eyes stared in sudden horror at him. "I mean about the unrest we're causing. Something needs to be done."

Yukito nodded in agreement as the king and queen glanced uneasily at each other. "It plagues my conscience too," he said softly.

"Ah, boys," Nadeshiko said softly, sadly. "You're right, of course. But what can be done?" And then, softer still, so quietly that it wasn't words so much as the shapes of words: "If only Sakura…"

There was nothing to say to that.

xxx

Kurogane leaned back on the porch and closed his eyes, soaking up the golden autumn sunlight. The air was starting to get cold, gaining that knife-sharp edge which took so many lives every winter. But it was still pleasant outside on cloudfree days, and Kurogane was determined to enjoy it while it lasted. Winters always made his left shoulder ache something powerful.

From the yard came the steady thwack of the axe cleaving wood. He was glad Syaoran had taken the task upon himself unasked, because he'd never really gotten used to doing it one-handed. But he hated having to remind the kid and himself how fucking useless he was.

At least he felt no shame letting Syaoran bring in money for them both, doing odd jobs all over the place. The money they kept sending him for his services in the war was for shit, and it wasn't his fault people thought he couldn't do a decent share of work just because he only had one arm. Besides which, there had been a time when he was younger, when Syaoran had relied on him for charity. There was nothing dishonorable about a fair exchange.

The kid had grown up a fine young man, and Kurogane decided that he deserved at least some of the credit for it. He'd set the brat right before he'd managed to turn into a right bastard. Sure, he was still a cheeky little sod at times, but the man Syaoran was today would never dream of trying to kick down a cripple in an alley and steal his money. Hells, the little idiot still kept apologizing for it, as if Kurogane didn't know he'd been starved half out of his mind, and robbery had been the less humiliating alternative. But he'd seen it back then, the same thing he saw now, six years later. There was something… fundamentally decent about Syaoran that had shone through the filth and the anger and the bad attitude…

He'd never thought the world could be perfect, but now he saw it was. The small waterfall gurgled happily, telling a never-ending bedtime story to the nodding heads of white flowers and the sleepily cooing doves. The body next to his was warm and secure; it was happiness he'd never dreamed about made solid, and he reached out to stroke the cheek of the man he loved, to reassure himself that he was real-

-but there was no one there. His hand met grass that was warm and wet and sticky. Blood. There was blood in the grass and-

-and then the hand he'd reached out was gone, nothing but aching emptiness remained and he could hear the sound of swords clashing and he knew-

-he knew-

He couldn't tell when he drifted asleep, lulled by the sunlight and the rhythmic fall of the axe. But when he woke up, he knew exactly what it was that had interrupted his slumber. There was no way he'd ever forget about the sound of battle. He heard footsteps approaching at a run behind him, and soon Syaoran was at his side, wild-eyed and nervous.

"What's that sound?" he demanded.

"Fighting," Kurogane said shortly. "Boy, fetch my sword, and get your own while we're at it."

Syaoran blinked, and then went a bit pale under the tan. "Why?" he demanded.

"I ain't a soldier no more, kid," Kurogane growled, getting to his feet and rolling his one intact shoulder to get the circulation going, "but there's some things you learn. And one is that running from battle ain't never done anyone any good. Running toward battle is what gets you through most of the time, because at least then you know what's happening, and you'll get to the bastards attacking you before they set fire to your roof. Now get me that sword."

xxx

When they got to the square, they were met by the strangest sight. A large group of soldiers in white-and-blue livery were all standing in a circle around two slim figures dressed all in black. A few more soldiers were strewn about on the ground within the circle, some of them groaning and stirring, and a couple lying very still. It appeared as if the soldiers had moved in on the two, thinking they were going to be easy prey, and had gotten a rather brusque lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Now they were keeping a safe distance, muttering among themselves, and the lieutenant in charge was looking a bit flustered.

All around, people were clustering, watching the display as if it was some kind of street theater. Kurogane motioned for Syaoran to follow him, and then slowly started to circle the group, sticking to the walls and keeping himself as inconspicuous as he could.

"Now, see here," the lieutenant was saying, trying to sound haughty and not quite succeeding. "Our lord only wishes to speak to you two. All in all, you should be grateful he is being so lenient with outlaws like yourselves. He might not be so kind if you don't come with us quietly now."

The taller of the two figures let loose a loud whoop of laughter. "Thank you, kind sir, but I think I can do without your lord's particular brand of kindness." He tucked a few tresses of wispy blond hair behind his ear, grinning like a maniac. "Besides, I already know what your lord wants from us, and I have already told him exactly what he can do with his offer. In great detail, too, as I recall."

This was apparently not the answer the lieutenant had expected, and now a faint blush rose on his cheeks. A few of his men stifled sniggers. "He told me to tell you that…" The man nervously licked his lips. Whatever this was about, it was clearly not something he felt comfortable discussing in front of an audience of commoners. "That the offer might be more lucrative this time around. Ah. A lot more lucrative."

"Oh my stars," the blond man said, covering his mouth daintily with one leather-clad hand, his expression of shock so faked that it made Kurogane snort in disgust. "Well, do you hear that, Little Cat?" He turned theatrically to his companion. "The Lord has an even more lucrative offer for us. What do you say?"

Syaoran gasped at Kurogane's side. "She's a girl."

"I can see she's a girl, you ninny. Now shut up."

The girl in question was short and looked fairly young, with messy brown hair and large green eyes. The man with her also had green eyes, and they both moved the same way, sinuous and flowing. Kurogane wondered if perhaps they were related, an impression that was strengthened by the girl treating her companion to an annoyed scowl of the kind Syaoran usually employed when he thought Kurogane had been treating him like a child. But then, after a moment, she turned instead to smile sweetly at the lieutenant.

"Fuck. Your. Lord," she enunciated cheerfully. "We're no damned hired killers, and we won't be doing his dirty work for him."

The man next to her made a disgusted little noise. "Really, Little Cat. That kind of language doesn't befit a lady at all."

"Which is why you don't use it, Big Cat," the girl replied placidly, causing her companion to chuckle, looking pleased. The lieutenant, meanwhile, had turned white, then red, then white again at the girl's words, and now he was glancing around uncomfortably. So the offer in question had really been blood money. Kurogane nodded grimly to himself, laying a hand on the hilt of his sword as he kept watching in silence.

"It seems you won't be swayed by common courtesy," the lieutenant snapped. "Very well then. Let's see how you reply to the kind of language your kind of people understand. Men!"

If he'd been hoping for a dramatic charge, it didn't happen. It appeared the men had learned their lesson from their comrades' mistakes, and they advanced carefully, watching every move the pair in black made. Then one man darted forward toward the girl. Syaoran made an involuntary movement, but Kurogane drew his sword in one swift, fluid motion, blocking the kid's path with the gleaming blade.

"Wait," he growled impatiently, nodding at the girl and the soldier. She'd jumped easily out of his way, and now she was dodging his every stab and swipe with the ease of a little girl playing hopscotch. The man was not bad at handling his blade, but he didn't even seem to inconvenience her. She was smiling widely, giggling, dancing around and clearly enjoying herself – and then she suddenly fell back into a crouch, shot forward, and before the soldier could react, she was standing on her hands with her heels planted firmly in his face. He collapsed slowly backwards. Everyone in the square breathed out an awed sigh. Syaoran's eyes were large as soup-plates, and Kurogane chuckled dryly.

The girl landed on her feet with a soft tap, smiling serenely.

"Hyuu!" The one called Big Cat made a strange sound, as if he was trying to whistle but couldn't quite manage it. He made a huge, flamboyant gesture toward their audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, Little Cat! Isn't she talented?" People actually started applauding, the gods help them for being idiots. Kurogane stiffened, waiting.

And then, pandemonium happened. Realizing that they would never beat the two of them if they challenged them one-on-one, the soldiers quickly gathered into formation after a barked command from their sergeant, and then they crashed in a wave of roaring mouths and metal toward the pair in black. They had regrouped too, standing back to back, but Kurogane could see that the blond man wasn't smiling anymore.

"Now!" he barked at Syaoran.

Neither of them might've been able to run around on their hands or bend like they didn't have bones in their bodies, like the two outlaws. But Kurogane had trained himself to fight with a one-handed sword, trained himself to perfection just so he could beat the ever-loving shit out of the asshole captain that'd had the nerve to dismiss him from the army, citing the damn arm as the reason. He'd challenged him to a duel in front of everyone, a duel he couldn't refuse because how could he look his men in the eyes if they thought he'd been afraid of a cripple? And as the bastard lay there with Kurogane's boot against his throat, Kurogane had known for sure that he hadn't been dismissed because of the arm, and the captain had known that he knew, and maybe the men watching them had known it too. He hoped so. In that case, that man would never receive any respect from his men for the rest of his life.

That was the punishment for a soldier who sold his honor.

He'd stopped training a year later because he'd almost sliced off his other arm one night when he'd decided to train while drunk. At the time, drinking had seemed more important than training. He'd never thought he'd pick up a sword again after that.

But then, one evening, he'd decided on a whim to bring in a street brat who'd tried to rob him in an alley. And that was when things had to change, or his father and mother would've turned in their graves from shame. He couldn't drink himself into a stupor every night with a kid in the house. He couldn't spend his days in listless apathy when there was a growing boy who needed food depending on him. And when he'd realized just how eager Syaoran was to learn how to fight better, teaching him had meant he'd gotten into the habit of training regularly once more.

And while he might never be the fighter he'd once been, he and the kid together were a force to be reckoned with. Combined with the whirlwind of blades that was Little Cat, and the black blur of speed which was almost all you could see of Big Cat, the soldiers that were still standing were soon breaking the line and stumbling backwards. The sergeant was shouting for them to regroup, the lieutenant was just shouting but no one was listening, and the soldiers didn't seem too eager to even try, now that the enemy had received reinforcement.

A hand grabbed Kurogane's shoulder. His bad shoulder. He tried to tug himself free, but the hand was like steel.

"And now, my tall dark savior," a voice mumbled far too close to his ear, "we run."

"Kurogane!"

He jerked around, and saw that Syaoran already halfway up a side alley together with the girl, and he was gesturing for him to follow. Glaring sideways at the evidently crazy person at his side, he nodded curtly to show he'd understood, and the idiot finally let go of him. With an angry snort, he headed off after the kids, not checking to see if the blond bastard was following. It was probably too much to hope that he'd lose him.

xxx

They were in a tavern, although this fact had not been advertised in any way on the outside. The outside had looked like any shabby, run-down building, and Kurogane had been wary when Big Cat slipped through the door and motioned for them to follow. Even more so when he'd realized what this place was. If it didn't advertize itself, that meant it was only open to those who'd been told where to find it. Illegal, in other words.

But at least they appeared to be safe. The room they'd been shown to already had a fire going in the hearth, and the furniture was comfortable. Food had been brought there on the request of Little Cat, and if the money that paid for it technically was ill-gotten gains… well, Kurogane didn't really give a fuck. He was hungry.

"Well now," Big Cat said, acting as if there had already been a conversation going for quite some time. He was playing with his long braid – which had a velvet bow attached at the end, the fucking dandy – and watching Kurogane and Syaoran with rapt interest, his eyes twinkling with unexplained amusement. "Not that I mind being gallantly saved by so dashing and daring a duo, but I'm afraid to say that I'm quite at a loss as to why. After all, you must've figured out we were outlaws. So why bother with a couple of total strangers, especially if you know that they're criminals?"

Kurogane scowled at him. In truth, he didn't know why. Maybe it was simply that it had felt so good to be in a battle again, a real battle; maybe he'd just jumped in because this was what he'd longed for, when the nights grew too long and a ghost lay next to him in bed and he had to go have a look at Syaoran sleeping to remind himself why he even bothered staying alive. If that was the case, he'd dragged a young man with his whole life in front of him into this mess just for the sake of his own boredom. That didn't make him feel too good about himself.

But there had been something else, too. He knew just too well the way noblemen had of assuming that everyone around them was a tool at their disposal. It seemed programmed into them; the way Kurogane saw it, there wasn't even any malice behind it. Just a firm conviction that they were, to put it simply, more important than other human beings. They had a right to use the people around them to fulfill their own needs, because that was what common people were for.

So maybe that was why?

"You said you weren't killers," he said curtly, because he didn't know what else to say. "Bastard should've listened. That's all."

The girl called Little Cat looked up from where she sat cross-legged on the floor. "That was very sweet of you," she declared. "Thank you!" She smiled brightly at him, looking surprisingly girlish now that she wasn't whirling around and dealing out oblivion of the possibly terminal kind. He was about to say something noncommittal about it being nothing – except openly helping outlaws really wasn't nothing, and he didn't want to sound like an idiot. So he frowned and said nothing at all, as the girl went back to polishing one of her daggers.

She'd removed what Kurogane had thought was a ridiculously short skirt, but which on a closer look revealed itself to be two toughened leather semi-circles molded in the shape of her hips and thighs, with several slots on for her multitude of knives. These were attached like a sort of very broad belt by a complicated array of leather straps, hoops and buckles, which presumably gave her the mobility she needed for those anatomy-defying stunts.

Except for the strange leather monstrosity, she wore simple black linen pants, a high-necked shirt in the same material, and a bodice made from leather that looked very soft and pliant. She'd also fashioned herself a pair of cat ears out of some mink fur, and under her black leather shoes and on the inside of her gloves, there were pink pads sewn, making them look like paws. Hells, the silly girl even had a tail sewn onto the back of her trousers.

And Syaoran didn't seem to be able to take his eyes off her. Huh. He could swear he'd never been that young.

"But where are my manners?" the blond nutcase suddenly exclaimed and clapped his hands together, breaking the awkward silence. "Gentlemen, I am Fai, often referred to as Big Cat. The charming girl here is my daughter."

"Your daughter? Really?" Kurogane scoffed and gave him a steely look. "Begging you pardon, sir, but unless you fathered her when you were ten…"

"How sweet," the idiot thrilled. "He actually thinks I'm twenty-five! What a darling." Before Kurogane could manage a suitable retort, the outlaw barreled right on. "Little Cat here is my adopted daughter. And before you ask, that is indeed her actual name." He winked at the girl, who giggled softly. "And may we ask the names of our rescuers?"

"Stop it with the rescue crap," Kurogane said bluntly. "We only helped you out. You did just as much as we." After glaring at Fai, something that only made him smile even wider, he reluctantly added: "I'm Kurogane." When Syaoran didn't immediately venture his own name, he rolled his eyes and nudged the boy fairly brusquely with his foot. "Your name, kid, if you think you can spare the attention for it."

Syaoran blinked, and then went a truly spectacular shade of red. "S-Syaoran," he offered in an explosive burst, looking anywhere but at Little Cat. Kurogane saw her give the young man a look of shy curiosity, and almost snorted out loud. Kids.

Fai was watching them too, and he winked at Kurogane with a mischievous grin. He didn't know what he thought of such a familiar gesture from a total stranger, so he just shrugged and grimaced dismissively in reply.

"Still, perhaps it would be a good idea to discuss the situation at hand," Fai said, crossing his arms behind his head and stretching out his long, leather-clad legs. "After all, I'm afraid to say that things don't look too good for you. You're a rather distinctive-looking pair, and there were a lot of people there who saw you help us out, not to mention the soldiers." He smiled cheerfully. "Honestly, returning home might be a bit of a problem for you."

Syaoran and Kurogane glanced at each other. 'Home' was at the moment two small rooms squeezed into a draughty attic; it wasn't exactly that big of a loss. But it was beginning to dawn on them that they'd have to leave the city too, their friends and acquaintances. Kurogane mostly kept to himself, and he didn't know many people all that well, but he knew Syaoran had gotten pretty close to some of the people he usually worked with. The young man shrugged awkwardly in response to Kurogane's questioning look, shaking his head as if to say there wasn't much to do about it now.

It was really strange, now that he was actually thinking about it. He hadn't even thought twice before charging in and helping the two outlaws. Of course, no one should be forced to become some stuck-up lord's assassin, especially not a fifteen-year-old girl. But had he really thought about that at the time? Or had he simply rushed forward without a second thought because he'd somehow known that this was… right?

What a load of horseshit. He shook his head in disgust. It was probably nothing stranger than him and the boy itching for a fight.

"Well the way I see it," Fai said, studying their silent interactions with invasive interest, "you helped us out in a fairly tricky situation. You didn't need to. You did it out of the kindness of your noble hearts." He really seemed to enjoy this, the bastard. "So I'd say we owe you." He sent Little Cat a pointed sideways glance, and her whole face lit up.

"Oh, yes!" she exclaimed enthusiastically. "You could come with us! We're used to travelling around, we could help you. And if that Lord Rondart tries to come after us, you could help us out again." She smiled brilliantly at Syaoran, who once more went magenta, and the glance he sent Kurogane was downright pleading.

The gods damn the kid.

"Sure," he said curtly. "Ain't like we've got nowhere better to be."

Little Cat gave a delighted squeak, jumped to her feet and positively assaulted him with a hug. Kurogane cleared his throat, embarrassed by this unabashed show of affection, and patted her a bit awkwardly on the back. Then she spun around and gave Syaoran a hug too, something that had the both of them blushing, and finally she pounced on her travel companion, who laughed hugely and ruffled her hair, dislodging her cat ears and making her squeak indignantly.

So, they were a team. A crippled soldier, a teenage boy who still stuttered when he talked to girls, a teenage girl who dressed like a cat, and a blond madman in leather. Wow. Lord Rondart had better watch out, whoever he was.

xxx

Later that night, Kurogane woke up to the sound of hushed voices.

"…still don't see why you didn't just tell me about it," Little Cat was hissing, a definitely note of petulance in her voice. "I'm not a baby, and I think I have the right to know what kind of offers we receive."

"I'm sorry, kitty," Fai replied soothingly. "I didn't think it mattered since we were going to turn it down in any case."

"Don't do that, Fai," Little Cat replied pleadingly. "Don't lie. If you hadn't thought it mattered, you would've told me." To this there was no answer. Little Cat sighed quietly. "I know you want to protect me. But we were attacked, damn it, and I didn't even know what it was about. You had to tell me in battle that you'd been keeping things from me. I felt like such a child."

Kurogane snorted and pulled his pillow over his head. This was going to be the death of him.