This story was written for the 2012 "Canon vs. AU" Olympics held in Dreamwidth's KuroFai community. At the time of posting, the contest is still in progress! You can see all the submissions at kurofai (dot) dreamwidth (dot) org

Day One - Syllabus and Class Rules

Sadly, this wasn't the worst landing they'd ever been through.

Sakura was sprawled off to the side on her back, eyes wide and coughing to try to catch her breath, with Mokona riding her spasming chest and singing "wheee~" and all three of the men piled in a heap beside her.

Fai was on the bottom, unfortunate for him, his faced smashed into the ground by Kurogane's heavy weight, and Kurogane's face was just far too close to the crack of the wizard's ass for comfort. He would have moved, but Syaoran was apparently straddling him, and his first attempt to get up just ground his hips down and made Kurogane jerk in a very disturbed kind of shock. Syaoran was making those odd gasping noises that were his usual precursor to a heartfelt apology full of stammering and bowing.

"Get. Off. Now." Kurogane said through clenched teeth. He had just spent six months in Yama with the wizard all but dependent on him, and somehow this was the closest he'd come to either tapping that ass or having his tapped. This was wrong on so many levels that he lost count.

"No rush," Fai groaned, his breath hitching. "But I'd like to breathe sometime today."

Syaoran's gasping had moved into that teakettle whistle that meant he was about to explode into an apology that would take half the afternoon.

"Whooo~" someone called out from nearby, and Kurogane managed to lift his head enough to turn and look.

It looked like the same guy from Hanshin Republic, that guy with the goggles and the really obnoxious girlfriend. What was his name, again? And why was he still wearing goggles?

"You must not be from around here," the man said, swaggering over with a grin on his face. "That kind of stuff is totally legal, but only in the Purple Pleasure District. We try to keep it off the streets to avoid upsetting our more delicate citizens."

Apparently, complete mortification gave Syaoran the ability to leap four feet straight into the air. Kurogane immediately sprang to his feet, already reaching for his sword to teach this guy a lesson.

"What the hell do you think you're saying?" he roared.

Fai just rolled over, taking deep and satisfied breaths, and grinned up at the man. "You've got it all wrong, I'm afraid. We just sort of landed that way."

"Sure you did," the man said, and winked at them. Winked at them, the bastard. "It's funny, I would have thought the kid would be the one who was good at rimming. Huh. Anyway, welcome to Piffle."

"Please, you don't understand, we aren't—"

"Thanks," Fai said, cutting off Syaoran's blushing stammer as he leapt to his feet. There was a scrape on his cheek from being ground into the paved street, and he began dabbing blood away with the back of his hand. "Piffle, you said?"

"Wow, you guys are hardcore," Goggles Guy said with a tone of surprise, staring at the blood smeared on Fai's hand. "Yeah, Piffle. I'm assuming you're here for the Dragonfly Race?"

"Why would you assume that?" Fai asked cagily, still smiling that goddamn fake smile that Kurogane hated so much.

Goggles Guy laughed, tipping his head back and then lifting his goggles away to get an unfiltered look at them. "It's not like you'd be in Piffle this time of year for anything else, right?"

"Right," Fai agreed.

What did the bastard think he was doing? Who knew what this Dragonfly racing thing even was?

Syaoran had just finished pulling Sakura to her feet, and both of them were red as fire engines. Mokona appeared to have given up on riding her breasts like a goddamn amusement park attraction, in favour of jumping into Kurogane's hair. Kurogane gave the stupid beast a swat out of habit before giving up. Goggles Guy had his eyebrows nearly in his hairline, now.

"Man, you guys are kinky like whoa," he muttered.

"Just, please, can you offer us any more information about the Dragonfly Race?" Syaoran burst out. "We honestly don't know much about it."

"You guys just heard there was money to be had and came running?" Goggles Guy asked, and shook his head. "You're pretty brave. You know there's only one winner, right?"

"We're all friends," Sakura piped up. "We share what we earn."

"Friends, yeah, obviously," Goggles Guy snickered.

Kurogane was seriously contemplating cutting this asshole's head off. Tomoyo's curse couldn't be that bad, could it?

"I'm guessing you guys don't have any dragonflies to race," Goggles Guy said, looking them over and noticing how foreign their clothes were. "You have money, though, right?"

Kurogane and Fai had earned a considerable bounty working under Yasha. Sometimes it paid to be good at hurting people. Kurogane had started to think it wasn't worth the money when he'd seen how much the wizard seemed to withdraw after every battle, but if they needed the money to survive here then at least it was good for something.

"Yeah," he answered for the group, beginning to get interested in spite of himself.

"Well, there's a hundred dealers in spare parts and even used dragonflies, all over the city. You'll be able to fix up something to fly in the race. Just be careful you don't get suckered into buying a bunch of junk parts. There's some shady merchants around here that take advantage of all the hopefuls who don't know enough of mechanics, and they'll sell them car parts claiming they need them for their racers. The sponsor of the race took it upon themselves to find the honest merchants, so you'll know you're in a good shop by the Piffle logo they're displaying in the window or on the door."

They were all a bit stumped by that, and Kurogane was glad it wasn't just him this time. Usually Syaoran would be nodding enthusiastically by now, but he was practically cross-eyed.

"What if . . . We don't know that much about all that?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

"Man, you guys really are country bumpkins, aren't you?" Goggles Guy said, shaking his head again. "Luckily for you, you're not the only ones. Lots of people come to Piffle around this time, because the race has been a tradition for so many years. I mean, this year we're getting an influx like we haven't seen before, because of the prize, but it's pretty normal for us to see a bunch of hopefuls who don't know a carburetor from a cow's ass. That's why they started doing the school."

"What school?" Syaoran asked eagerly.

"Eh, it's kind of an accelerated course and workshop, all about the mechanics of dragonflies and other flying craft. You can learn how they function and how to build your own. The race is still over a month away, and the course is about three weeks long. I think their last course is starting next week, so you'll have to hurry to get your name on the list."

"It's not hard to get in, is it?" Sakura asked, turning her big innocent eyes up in that way she had.

"Naw, not really. There's a fee, but it's not bad. I think the only requirement is that you've graduated from secondary school, but I doubt that's a problem for any of you, right?"

"I'm not sure," Syaoran said slowly. "We don't have anything called secondary school where we're from."

"It just means you went to school until the age of sixteen. They just want to make sure you know the basics, I guess. It wouldn't work to sign you up for this mechanic's course if you can't even spell 'dragonfly' right?"

"Y-yeah," Syaoran agreed awkwardly, not looking anywhere near Sakura, who was blushing furiously red. How old were these two, again? They were too midgety to be sixteen. Not that Kurogane could really say anything. Syaoran had attempted to explain what school was to him, once, but it seemed like a big bucket of crap to him. "But if we're not from around here, then how would they know if we had the right amount of schooling?"

Goggles Guy frowned, appearing not to know. Then he snapped his fingers. "Ah! You could take an equivalency exam!"

"What's that?"

"It's the law that kids have to stay in school until they're sixteen, here in Piffle. But if you have some reason to leave early, like you found a job or you're moving away or something, they'll let you take the equivalency exam. If you pass it, they'll give you a certificate that says you've just as good as completed secondary school."

"I could take that," Syaoran said brightly, a smile beginning to form on his face.

Kurogane glanced at the wizard. Hah. Seemed he wasn't the only one breaking out in a cold sweat. Sakura had a smile firmly fixed on her face, but he doubted she could pass it either.

"Hey, where are you guys staying?" Goggles Guy asked. "We can head that way if you want, and I'll use the central link in your room to look up the information you need for you."

"That's so nice of you!" Sakura said brightly.

"Yeah . . ." Syaoran said with a frown.

"Or it would be if we had a place to stay, ne?" Fai giggled, linking his arm through Kurogane's for some reason which he had better explain. "Kuro-pu here was going to find us something!"

"My name. Is not. Kuro-pu. You bastard. Kurogane. It is Kurogane. Say it."

"I'm Shougo, by the way," Goggles Guy announced.

Shougo, right, that was the name. Did he have a stupid loudmouth girlfriend in this world?

"I'm Fai, and this is Syaoran-kun, and this lovely lady is Sakura-chan, and then we have—"

"Mokona!" Mokona announced, bouncing on Kurogane's head until he was forced to pluck it off and fling it into the nearest building. "Wah, help me!" it wailed, bouncing back and contenting itself with Sakura's shoulder.

"Nice to meet all of you. Well, I know a place that should have enough rooms—unless you guys all share—"

"We'd like at least two rooms, if we can get it," Syaoran said hastily.

"—not too far from here. I think it's three rooms, actually. If that's okay . . .?"

"Yeah, that sounds great!" Fai said enthusiastically. "You know a good place to eat? Poor Kuro-sama here is—"

"Speak for yourself, idiot!"

"Hey, you had the hardest job, being in the middle," Shougo said blandly. "Can't blame you for working up an appetite."

Fai caught Kurogane's arm and tugged on it as he tried to draw his sword. "Lead the way, Shougo-san! We can't thank you enough!"

"I am going to kill everyone in this entire country. You first," Kurogane told the wizard.

"Me? What did I do?" Fai asked with a pouting expression.

"That," he growled, waving in irritation at Fai's face. "Just . . . all of that."

"Ne, Kuro-tan," Fai said more quietly as they walked along—and after Kurogane had extricated himself from the wizard's grasp for a second time— "what do you think is going to be on this exam?"

"Who cares? We'll figure out how to cheat. All I care about is finding out what the prize is for this race he keeps talking about."

"Don't forget, we have a feather to find, too."

"Tch. I didn't forget. I just want to win."

Fai chuckled. "You don't even know what kind of race it is, yet."

"What's it matter? You think I want to lose?"

Fai laughed even more. "Perish the thought."

Shougo explained the buildings they walked past, despite how obvious most of them were. A Laundromat and a café were pretty obvious in any world. He made sure to point out the place they passed by that sold new and used parts for racers and had the Piffle symbol in the window. Kurogane was not thrilled by this world. A race with decades of tradition was being sponsored by somebody who thought that stupid cutesy face with the crown on it was a good way to represent their company. And now he had to take a damn test. Whatever that meant. Just great.

"Here we go, this place is available to rent right now. The people who own it have this big garage, so they leave town this time of year and rent it out to travellers. What do you think?"

"How much?" Fai asked.

Shougo winked. "I'll get you a good deal. I know these guys."

"You've got no reason to do that," Kurogane pointed out suspiciously before the stupid mage or the gullible kid could accept.

Shougo grinned fiercely. "I'm guaranteeing myself a better place in the race by helping clueless guys like you get in. Besides, I figured if you're doing that kind of thing on the street you must be exhibitionists. If I can get this kid Masayoshi to run a camera wire into a couple of rooms, we can get some footage of you guys that will sell like—"

"We'll take it!" Fai cried, his arms both wrapped firmly around Kurogane's sword hand.

"Great! Let me show you this great place to eat around the corner, we can hang out there while I call the owner and set things up," Shougo said.

Kurogane's eyes burned into the mage, who didn't budge as they started walking. He was not going to stand for this, even if the princess had to see violence. He finally worked his arm free, and turned to Shougo with a growl as Fai let out a dismayed squawk.

"I am going to fucking cut him into— oh, hey, sushi," he said happily as Shougo rounded the corner. "Awesome."

The crestfallen look on Fai's face was almost worth the aggravation. Almost. He made sure to eat a piece of squid slowly and with great relish. The face Fai made indicated that he had probably just thrown up in his mouth a little, and Kurogane ate his meal seasoned with bursts of vindictive laughter.

"Man, you guys are weird," Shougo said, staring at them open-mouthed with his commlink still open in his hand. "You like it when he throws up?"

Okay, the sushi wasn't that good. It was just not right that a man could be allowed to think they were all doing something disgusting and weird when he and the stupid mage still weren't even doing anything normal. Just so very not right.

They went back to the house to meet up with a guy who handed over the keys to Shougo and growled that he'd better know what he was doing. Shougo winked at him and told him not to worry, and Kurogane bristled at the implication that he was a bad houseguest. He was the one who made sure everybody kept things clean, usually.

Sakura and Fai only made it as far as the kitchen and immediately started poking around in there together while Shougo took Kurogane and Syaoran into a room full of sleek furniture, with three blinding-white walls and one black. Shougo revealed that the black wall was actually a gigantic screen that he called "central" or something like that. He touched his fingers to it and explained it was reading his thumbprint and registering him as the user. He started touching glowing buttons on the screen, bringing up different "windows" of information and cycling through them rapidly simply by dragging them with his fingers. He explained what he was doing as he went, and Syaoran's good eye tracked his movements with sharp concentration. Kurogane didn't even try, figuring the kid could explain it in normal-people speak later. He liked these advanced worlds because he liked the cars and stuff with big growling engines, but he fucking hated these computer thingies.

The course information for the mechanical class was quickly located and their names put on the list, and then he let Syaoran start playing with it to find the information for the equivalency test. Happily enough, they were able to sign up for the test that would be happening just six days from now, barely making it in time for the mechanic's course to start. The information even contained a list of books that they recommended for study. Shougo showed Syaoran how to link to . . . something-something that sold books and videos that they could read right here on their central link screen. Syaoran enthusiastically got all the books recommended, plus several more.

It wasn't that Kurogane begrudged the money he'd made being used for the group. Not at all. But the kid seriously needed to lay off, or they wouldn't be eating in Piffle. Bounty money wasn't as good as all that.

"Note," Fai murmured, sidling up to him, his eyes crinkled up with amusement, "we should not ever let Syaoran make the book purchases again. I will take care of any book purchases in the future."

Kurogane grunted, but he wasn't so stupid or blind as not to see that the mage was looking at Syaoran all fondly and happily. The moron thought the kids were cute, whether he would ever admit to it or not.

"Where's the princess?" he asked.

"Passed out again," Fai said with a grimace. "I put her to bed and told Mokona to look after her."

Kurogane had long since stopped being surprised by that. The princess would be fine one minute, and the only warning that she was about to pass out was a heavy blink or a slurred word. They'd gotten good at making sure she didn't fall flat on her face, after that one time. It was kinda hard to explain three battle-hardened guys escorting around a tiny girl with two black eyes. It led to . . . interesting arguments with locals. It rankled. He was a warrior. He just killed people a lot (or he had until that damned curse had been laid on him), and what was wrong with that? It didn't mean he went around fucking up little girls' faces.

"Okay!" Syaoran said enthusiastically, turning around while Shougo continued messing around on the screen-thingie. "Tomorrow, we'll start studying!"

"Yaaay~!" Fai cheered, almost convincingly. Kurogane would eat his own boots if Fai was honestly excited about that. "What are we studying?"

"History and politics, math, science, computer programming, language and arts," Syaoran recited proudly.

Fai's face fell almost as fast as it had when Shougo had set a plate of raw tuna in front of him. "Oh."

"Aw, guys, it won't be that bad. I've studied a lot of this in different places while I was traveling with my dad," Syaoran said, so happy that he was practically wagging his tail. Not that Kurogane gave any credit to Fai's completely idiotic idea from Outo. But dammit, the kid acted a lot like a puppy sometimes. "And then there was that world that had a law about me and Sakura being in school. That was great!"

"Then we'll be counting on you, Syaoran!" Fai said, seeming rather relieved.

Kurogane didn't really give a shit about passing this test, he realized after some careful reflection. If learning all this stuff and getting into this course didn't help them find the princess's damn feather, he was going to beat the stuffing out of all of them. Starting with that jackass with the goggles.

"Okay, guys, I'm out of here, You can call me if you need anything else, I've left the number to my commlink. Oh, and I looked up directions to a place you might like, so have fun. See you at the race, if not sooner!"

"Thanks so much, Shougo-san!" Syaoran said earnestly.

Kurogane wandered over to the screen and looked at the map of the city. There was a big red star hovering over a building that looked like it was a couple of miles from here.

"Sin Bin? What the fuck is—I'm going to kill him!"

Shougo was lucky that he owned a flying car and that Kurogane could not jump that high. His sword did leave a scratch in the chrome, though.

He came back inside, disgruntled and wanting nothing so much as a good stiff drink before retiring for sleep. He found Fai standing at the computer screen alone—the kid must have gone to check on the princess—and wearing a contemplative frown. "What?" he asked gruffly.

"How hard do you think it would be to teach me to read this world's language by tomorrow?"

There was a moment of frozen silence during which Kurogane's heart sank to the bottom of some black and frozen lake.

"We're gonna have to call the damned witch, aren't we."

Day Two - Math

After some discussion, they decided that Sakura had no need to participate in the studies. They very carefully did not explain that they'd reached this decision by agreeing that while sweet, she was kind of not the brightest and would probably slow them down rather than contributing anything meaningful. What they told her was that she needed to rest up and prepare for the no doubt grueling race, and that they would appreciate being fed while they were busy.

They set up the room that had the central link with a table and chairs, as well as a soft, comfortable sofa. Syaoran spread out writing paper and pencils on the table, and went over to the computer to get started. Fai immediately dropped onto the sofa and sprawled out. Kurogane stood at attention against the wall opposite the screen, his head straight and his best "concentrating" face on.

"I guess we should start with the basics and keep going until we reach something we don't know," Syaoran said cheerfully. His fingers flew over the screen, bringing up a set of math problems. "We'll start at the bottom and work our way up."

"3 + 2?" Kurogane snorted. "Do we need to start that low?"

Syaoran kept his mouth shut and tapped to move forward a bit.


"12 x 7 is 84," both men said in unison, making Syaoran blink in surprise.

"I didn't know you guys both knew the multiplication table so well."

"Counting troop formations," they said, again together, then gave each other that look they had, ever since Outo but especially now, here, after their time in Yama—that look that made Syaoran feel like he should leave the room.

"O-o-okay," he sighed, and skipped forward again.


"So when you put the first two numbers inside the parentheses, it means you must perform that computation first. So if 3 x 4 is in parentheses with 7 outside it . . ."

Kurogane was still frowning in concentration when Fai rolled his eyes. "Do these people have some obsession with the number 84?"

Fai was usually not this snarky, but math didn't always bring out the best in people. Syaoran figured it was safe to skip ahead again.


"—and if you take it to the 5th power . . ."

Kurogane scowled and leaned back against the wall.

"It's 32!" Fai said happily. His sunny smile did not seem to improve Kurogane's mood. Syaoran nervously moved on to the next problem.


"A Dynamite Bullet Train leaves Piffle Central Station, and it's destination is Outer Puckleberg, a distance of 1052 kilometers. Assuming that the train will travel at its maximum speed of 92 kilometers per hour, how long will it take the train to reach Outer Puckleberg? Please express your answer in minutes."

"What. The. Fuck."

Fai started laughing, because he was a crazy person. "Read it again!" he said, closing his eyes.

Syaoran did, intrigued by the way Fai's hand sketched in the air in front of his closed eyes. He didn't feel a hell of a lot more cheerful than Kurogane did, when Fai gave him the correct answer before he finished reading. Not fair.


"So to solve for 'y' . . . I think we need to divide both sides by 'x' and then solve the equation in parentheses . . ." Syaoran said slowly, with Fai leaning over his rapidly penciled work and nodding.

"Yeah, that's right. It's 5, by the way."

Kurogane was now sitting in Fai's vacated spot on the sofa, his arms crossed over his chest. "I still think it's bullshit they put letters in it," he muttered.


"So if that's the diameter, the circumference will be—"

"Eighty-four," Kurogane said smugly, brandishing his pencil like a small dagger. He was doing fairly well with geometry, now that he'd accepted letters were allowed. Fai was the one refusing to believe 'p' was a real number and was back on the sofa pouting about it and insisting that they should stop for food. "Heh. This isn't that bad."

"Says the man who couldn't figure out the length of one side of an equilateral triangle," Fai smirked.

"Shut up!" Kurogane snarled. "Why don't you get over here and figure out this fucking trapezoid thing then?"

"Is anyone else getting paranoid about the number 84?" he asked, getting up in a liquid movement and coming over with an expression of distaste. "And what is a trapezoid?"


When an argument about the quadratic formula led to Kurogane drawing his sword and attempting to slice off Fai's lips, Syaoran decided they'd gone as far as they could really go with math. There was no way this exam was going to test them on imaginary numbers, right?


Kurogane seemed to be watching him when they undressed for bed. That's wasn't unusual, itself. Fai had felt those eyes—burning, lustful, too hot and too red and seeing far far too much—rake over him every night they'd spent in Yama. The silence he was forced into had stretched longer and longer until they were close to snapping from the tension and yet Fai had held fast to himself. Kurogane wanted, his glimmering heated gaze had made that clear, but Fai knew what lay ahead and he knew he could not let this silence win, knew it even as he felt it chipping patiently away at his resolve and making him desperate to connect

Tonight, here, it wasn't the burning gaze of want, though Fai shimmied his hips playfully to torment the poor bastard all the same. It was calculating. Measuring him. Trying to put things together.

"Kuro-sama seems awfully interested in what I'm wearing to bed~" Fai sang out, to break the silence. Oh, how beautiful it was that he could do that again, that Kurogane could understand him and get angry and get distracted. The minute they'd realized they could speak to each other again, Fai had desperately babbled every stupid thing that he could think of. There had been a thousand long heated and weighted silences in Yama and he desperately had to fill in every single one of them now and erase the way they'd eased together in the silence and the way their bodies had moved almost as one on the battlefield (and how he'd wanted to find out if they could achieve it alone in their tent)—

"Tch. You always wear the same thing, why would I care?"

"Then what is Kuro-rin looking at?"

Kurogane's gaze dropped away and he didn't answer. Fai had won this round, and he didn't remember what the score was anymore.

"I don't understand how someone that can put numbers together like that can be so stupid about so many things," Kurogane muttered, then stalked out of the room they were sharing, tossing back some comment about making sure the kid didn't study all night.

"I don't either," Fai whispered at his broad back (unblemished skin that begged to be broken by fingernails raked down in a shattering moment of white heat and silent screams—) and stared at the slammed-shut door. "But being stupid is all I can do, don't you understand?"

Day Three - History and Politics

"Maybe they'll let us skip this portion," Fai suggested hopefully when Syaoran let the workbook for "A Brief History of Piffle: From Founding to Nuclear Fusion" thump down on the table hard enough to send the pencils rolling off the edge. His eyes were wide and slightly panicked. Yuuko had given Fai the ability to understand Piffle's written language in exchange for the knowledge they gained from building the flying cars—but as they'd discovered yesterday, some things did not translate perfectly. Not so bad when it was math, but 200 pages of chapter quizzes were a bit daunting.

"Tch. It's not gonna be that bad," Kurogane asserted, assuming Fai's position from yesterday on the sofa, closing his eyes as if in relaxation. "If you put on the audio thing, I can drink this sake and take a nap and study at the same time."

"Yeah," Syaoran said enthusiastically, touching the workbook's spine to the input sensor on the central link screen. "This is going to be great! We'll find out so much about the people of Piffle! Their architecture, their food, their language—"

"Which is being filtered through Mokona and which we will not be able to analyze," Fai pointed out primly, sitting down at the table and dragging over a bunch of writing paper.

"—probably even the history of the race we'll be competing in!" Syaoran said, undaunted.

"How about both of you shut up?" Kurogane grumped as the book's audio feed started playing. "We're getting tested on this, remember?"


"The war over aerial regulation and ownership was in 2020," Syaoran corrected Fai. "2022 was when they signed the treaty."

Fai tipped his head back and gulped down the sake he'd snatched from Kurogane about halfway through the first unit. The bottle was rapidly emptying itself.

"I just do not care," he mumbled. "I had to learn about every war between dead important people in two countries already. I am not going to rule Piffle."

"Huh?" Syaoran said, his head snapping up in surprise.

Kurogane was still halfway-napping, head resting on the low arm of the sofa and his hand dangling near his empty sake cup. Syaoran knew he was awake, and found it suspicious that he wasn't responding.

"Nothing," Fai said brightly. "What? I didn't say anything."

"Why would you rule Piffle?"

"What? Who said anything about ruling Piffle? I think you need a break, Syaoran-kun, I think this is getting to you."

Syaoran glared at him. "Never mind. Let's move on."


"No, it was the year 2000 that they signed the law making central connection mandatory. We've been over this. They decided to put the central link in every home to celebrate the turning of the century. Where are you getting 1984 from?"

Fai scowled. "I don't know. I've just got 84 stuck in my head now."

"The number 84? Why?"

Fai scowled even more deeply and wrote the number "2000" so deeply into his paper that it tore through.


"No," Kurogane drawled from the sofa. "Tamagawa invented the new wind technology thing for high-rises. Tokugawa was the official who drafted the compromise between the Loyalists and the New Republic dissenters."

Fai moaned and massaged his temples. "How am I supposed to keep all these names straight?" he demanded. "They all sound exactly the same!"

"Excuse me?" Kurogane said, swinging his legs down to the floor. "What are you, a racist?"

"What?" Fai gasped.

"That's why you won't say my name, isn't it, you bastard?"

Fai's mouth opened and closed soundlessly. "But— huh?" he stuttered.

"Oooookay, let's move on," Syaoran said hurriedly. And here he'd thought history would be the easy day.


"So Piffle owns half the city and gets to make all these government contracts just because a Daidouji married the president fifty years ago?" Syaoran asked skeptically. "That sounds a little . . . corrupt."

"That's how politics work," Fai shrugged.

Kurogane snorted, sounding amused. "That's not corrupt. That's just being intelligent."

They both stared at him.

"What? Excuse me for understanding politics better than you. If you want to rule a country well, it helps to know who your friends are."


Sakura-chan had worked hard all day to make dinner for them while they had been ensconced in their study room. She really did work very hard, Fai thought with amusement as he looked down at the slightly charred and abhorrently salty pan of stir-fried vegetables and meat she'd spent her afternoon chopping up. He'd never met anyone so sweet and pure-hearted in his life, he was certain of it.

"I-I-It looks wonderful, Sakura-hime," Syaoran stammered out. "Thank you so much for doing this for us!"

Sakura's eyes were red-rimmed with past tears, though she wore a brave face now. She welled up again when Syaoran patted a tentative hand on her shoulder.

"We're all certainly hungry," Fai said cheerfully, rummaging in the cupboards for dishes to eat from. Chopsticks again, dammit all. Why did they never seem to travel to a world that had a single fork? "I'm sure it will be fine."

"It won't!" Sakura burst out as Fai began to lay out the table for dinner. "It's awful, I'm so sorry!" she wailed. "Let me go to a shop and see if I can find something ready-made, I can't make you eat this!"

Fai would have let her, and was about to suggest Syaoran accompany her. It wasn't that he didn't love Sakura-chan (of course he didn't, Fai didn't love, not anymore and certainly not this copy of a girl whom he must later betray—) but he really didn't want to eat the food in that pan.

Kurogane thunked a bottle of sake down on the table next to his plate. He used the sticks Sakura had been using to stir the unholy mess to serve a pile of it out, and then he picked up his chopsticks and shoveled some into his mouth. His expression did not change in the slightest as he methodically chewed the large mouthful. He swallowed and washed it down with a gulp from his bottle.

"It's good," he said, not sounding particularly convincing. Then he tried to smile. "Tried" being the operative word, but the mere effort was astonishing in itself. "Everybody sit your ass down and eat. Princess, you too. You worked hard enough already, you don't need to do anymore."

"R-really?" Sakura asked.

"I like stuff like this," Kurogane said gruffly, and then the bright smile was back where it should be on her sweet little face.

Stunned that Kurogane of all people had made her smile again, Fai sat and forced his way through the first few bites. Once he got past the saltiness, he conceded the scorched flavour wasn't that bad, as long as there was plenty of water to drink with it.

Sakura was still embarrassed, even after Fai got to joking with her and Syaoran and got things relaxed again. She ate the quickest and hurried to the sink to start washing up. Syaoran hurried after her so he could help, declaring that studying energized him instead of wearing him out and he needed to work off this energy before he could rest tonight. God, that kid was a terrible liar.

"Ne, Kuro-tan," Fai said softly, when it was just the two of them at the table, Fai picking at his food lazily while he watched Kurogane stoically eat twice as much as the rest of them had without any sign that it was awful. He could have cleared his plate and helped clean, or he could have gone to the other room to relax, he could have done anything at all, really . . . but instead he sat here and watched Kurogane's strong hands and his throat when he swallowed and the way he would flick away a stray bit of hair in irritation when it got in his eyes . . .

"What, you moron?"

"Kuro-tan is such a meanie!" he wailed automatically, unable to help his smirk. Yes, this teasing was still fun, even after the fragile state of things in Yama.

"So? I'm not the one who's too racist to keep track of people's names."

Fai pouted over his food. "You know names in my country are nothing like that. Anyway, I hate history lessons. They're so boring."

"Quit complaining. You can't be good at everything. What were you going to say?"

Fai stayed silent for a moment, because he shouldn't be asking this. The more he knew about Kurogane, the further he delved into this mystery, the more the idea of killing him seemed like a distant nightmare and not the future that must come to pass. But he spoke, because Kurogane was so real and so present and so warm and solid and inevitable

"Was Kuro-sama an important man in his world?"

"Tch, no, of course not. I'm just a guard for the princess."

The flash of something . . . something not red in Kurogane's eyes . . . what was it? Fai knew what grief looked like, knew it better than anyone what it looked like and what it felt like to lose something so vital that it could take away the light in your eyes—but he couldn't see that in Kurogane. He wasn't allowed to see something like that in Kurogane, because then there would be feelings and they would be the kind that simply could not happen.

"You're the one who was obviously so important, and don't think I didn't hear it. Don't say stuff like that in front of the kid if you don't want it talked about."

Fai ignored that utterly and deflected the conversation straight back to Kurogane and to upsetting him to get him distracted. "You must have learned so much about politics from watching the princess, then, I'll bet," he laughed. "You must be very close to her, Kuro-pinta."

The grief was replaced by a rage too obvious to be anything but a mask for embarrassment or something. Fai had never honestly considered that Kurogane might have feelings for his princess, but how well did he know this man, really?

"What are you implying, you idiot? Don't speak of the princess that way!"

Fai just smiled. He was still thinking about the way Kurogane had eaten Sakura's food and made her happy again. He was rude and blunt and tactless, so how was it that he always seemed to know what they were feeling? How did he always seem to see so much?

"I think Kuro-sama would have made a very good nobleman," Fai said, and then left the table without explaining himself.

Day Four - Science

"I didn't get any of the children's science books," Syaoran said, fingers flying over the screen again. "There's so much to cover in this unit, and I thought everyone here probably already knows the basics about how flowers are pollinated and what tectonic plates are . . ."

"Techa-whats?" Kurogane muttered.

Syaoran's eyes widened, but he shook his head and brought up a couple of panels side-by-side. "We're going straight to the experimental portion, where we do things like combine chemicals to test their reactions and do calculations about the effects and wind and rain on erosion, that kind of thing."

Kurogane and Fai were looking at each other again, but it wasn't that burning-hot look that made Syaoran want to run to the nearest bottle of cleaning product to scour his eyeballs—more like a look of mutual panic.

"Do you not . . . study science at all in your world?" Syaoran asked timidly. This had honestly not occurred to him. He'd thought that science was one of those subjects that was nearly self-explanatory up to a certain point.

"Well . . ." Fai hedged. "If I'm understanding this discipline correctly, it's all about how the natural world works on its own, right?"

"Y-yeah, sort of."

"So, um, all of my studies are about using magical forces to, uh, to screw up natural forces. So . . ."

Syaoran turned worried eyes to Kurogane.

"You know that I can jump like six feet higher into the air than a normal person is supposed to, and see the auras of living things with my eyes closed, right?" Kurogane drawled.

Syaoran dropped his face into his hands.


"So," Syaoran said, unable to help the grumpy snarkiness in his voice. He pointed at the colour-coded silhouette of a person's body on the screen. "These are the five senses that a normal person has. You can take out your worksheet and colour in your extra senses if you really want to."


"So this is how plants grow on their own when you don't cast spells on them."

Fai's eyes were lit up with interest, and he was happily scribbling down notes.

"Pho-to-syn-the-sis," he sounded out. "Brilliant! I always wondered why that spell only worked during daylight! What's next?"

At least someone was enjoying himself. Kurogane appeared to be napping.


"Okay, this is very important!" Syaoran said loudly, making Kurogane snort and rub at his face as he sat up straight. "This is the scientific method. We're about to start doing some experiments, and you have to go through these steps every time."

Kurogane read the information on the screen. "Seriously? They actually thought 'asking a question' needed to be a separate step?"

Syaoran cut him a glare. "I'd try to remember this if I were you, Mr. Laws-of-Physics-Don't-Apply-To-Me. You're getting tested on this. In three days."

"Actually, I think they'll be testing above this level," Fai cut in cheerfully, although he appeared to be committing the steps to memory.

"Well, you need a foundation to build on!"

Fai patted him on the head. "You're getting very stressed out, Syaoran. Maybe we should take a break."

Syaoran felt himself falling into despair. After the progress they'd made the past two days, he'd honestly started to believe they could do this. Science was ruining everything.


Sakura's cheerful smile as she traipsed into the room with a tray of snacks dropped off her face, which turned rather gray. "Wh-what—?"

Fai turned away from the screen with a grin. "Sakura-chan~! Do you want to know about why your face got pale like that? I could bring back the page about arterial flow! We're studying anatomy!"

Sakura's eyes flitted back and forth between the display on the screen and Syaoran, who was huddled up on the sofa with his arms wrapped around his knees, his eyes wide.

A larger-than-life human body took up most of the screen, splayed out with arms over its head and legs spread. It had no skin on it, and Fai was currently dragging his finger over the leg to rip away a digital layer of muscle and reveal the bone beneath. "Oh, look, this one is the femur!" he squealed happily. "What's this muscle it's underneath?"

Kurogane glanced over at a long numerical list beside the body. "That one's sartorius," he said. "I got an arrow through that one once," he added conversationally. "Hey, what's this one back here? This is the one I like to cut to incapacitate people I'm fighting."

Fai helped him locate it. "Hamstring. Ne, let's figure out what it's called when we hit that pressure point on people's necks that makes them collapse!"

"Oooh, yeah," Kurogane said appreciatively, his fingers gliding over different screens to call up the magnified picture of a bisected head and neck.

Sakura set down her tray on the table and carefully crept out of the room without a word, leaving Syaoran alone and helpless with two very scary men who were way too happy about knowing the technical jargon for hurting people. At least they were getting along now.


"You are not going to believe this!" Fai crowed happily. "There's an experiment for making colored fire."

Kurogane rolled his eyes. "Always fucking rainbows with you, isn't it?"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Fai demanded. "Which one of us is it that—"

"Let's do the one for thermite reaction!" Syaoran butted in, determined to take back control of his classroom. "That one will be really interesting! A scientific explanation for the magic that can set a sword on fire!"

Kurogane and Fai gave each other shifty looks.

"Oh, look, here's one about how to make a smoke bomb," Fai crooned.


They'd had a lot more fun than they'd been expecting out of the scientific portion of their studies, but that was probably because they'd all given up on learning anything useful and had just messed around for most of it. Fai had been stupid enough to let down his guard and just have fun with Kurogane. It was a horrible mistake, because now he knew what Kurogane's laugh sounded like when he was genuinely amused and having a good time. He'd never heard that uninhibited sound before.

And now he wanted to hear it again. No, worse, he wanted to make it happen. He wanted to be the reason for Kurogane to smile, not sharp or bitter but real and—

Too far. Today had gone too far.

He was so stupid.

He stayed behind in their study room when the other two left. For all the fun they'd had today, none of them had truly forgotten that they were doing this for a reason. Fai kept the table of elements open on the screen in one corner, and the steps of the scientific method in another, although currently he was attempting to make himself understand genetics by reading about experiments with peas.

He wasn't trying to figure out how twins came to happen. He wasn't even thinking about that. But the thought that the information might appear here had left a prickle of cold sweat on the back of his neck.

The door opened, and Fai looked up to see Kurogane looming over him.

"You're not going to eat?"

"Not hungry," Fai murmured, which was supposed to be his excuse to stay here and study without revealing how much he actually did want to honor Syaoran's hard work on their behalf . . . Except now it was true; his stomach was twisted in tight knots because of his thoughts and because Kurogane might see them somehow.

Kurogane's eyes weren't on him, though, they were on the screen. "Ask a Question," he muttered, reading the steps of the method.

Fai almost smiled. Kurogane came in here to study more, too? Maybe he really was trying.

Kurogane's eyes fell on him, and Fai's mouth went dry. It was that look, that cutting and piercing and horrible look that stripped him as bare as the figure they'd studied today, that Kurogane turned on him to try to figure out the innermost parts of Fai that he could not be allowed to see.

"Why do you always lie to me?" Kurogane asked.

His heart pounded in his chest so hard that he was worried his ribs would crack.

"Do Background Research . . . Heh, I've done as much of that as I can."

Fai was trying not to let Kurogane see that he was shaking, that he was sickened, that this couldn't happen and what did Kurogane think he was doing

"Hypothesis . . . You're afraid of me. You're fucking terrified of me."

"Experiment . . ." Kurogane was quiet for so long that Fai almost started to relax and believe that he'd leave it here and walk away. Then suddenly the man moved closer. He stood so close that Fai could feel the brush of Kurogane's clothes against his and it made a shudder roll down his spine, an invisible shudder that he kept contained as best he could— Kurogane's warm, calloused hand fell over Fai's where it was clawed on a pencil atop the table. And then he just left it there. His hand. On Fai's. Just holding his hand. So warm, so unbearably warm and close and—

A hot trickling on his cheek. Fai's eyes snapped open, and he hadn't even known they were closed. His free hand rose up to touch his face. He was crying?

Kurogane's eyes were on the screen again, reading the last two steps he was supposed to take. He shook his head, drawing his hand away at last and taking a step back.

"I don't understand you, mage," he said. Red, hot, arresting eyes on him were full of conviction. "But I will." His hand fell on Fai's shoulder for a moment. "Next time my question is going to be why."

He left. Maybe to eat dinner with the others. Maybe to bed, maybe to drink. Hell, maybe to go down to the Sin Bin, for all Fai knew. Fai himself never left the study room that night, trying to work, trying to ignore what had happened, but his hand kept drifting back to his shoulder.

Day Five - Language Arts***

Syaoran had learned his lesson after yesterday. He wasn't assuming a thing. They obviously knew how to read because he'd watched them do it, but he was counting on nothing else.

"We're starting with the parts of speech," he announced. "Who knows what a 'noun' is?"

They both blinked at him lazily.

Syaoran took a deep breath and dove in.


"This is really, really stupid," Fai grumbled as he wrote adjectives on the slanting lines beneath the space where he'd written in the subject. "This isn't even hard to understand, so why do we have to diagram it. Over and over and over and over and—"

"Shut up, mage," Kurogane mumbled. "And somebody tell me what the fuck a helping verb is. I thought verbs were about action. They don't have time to help the other words!"

Syaoran had studied languages of all sorts until his eyes were bleeding. He was sitting out this portion and having a stiff drink. He felt that he had earned it.


"So it looks like there are a couple of different essay formats that are generally acceptable for academic papers in Piffle," Syaoran said, feeling a little easier now that he was on firm footing. He'd helped his father with enough grant proposals and progress reports to be pretty good at basic composition. "But I really doubt there will be room for those on the exam, except the five paragraph essay format, so we'll stick with that. Most other forms are basically variations on it anyway."

"Mapping an essay. Fun," Fai said morosely.

Kurogane groaned. "It's like that goddamn scientific method thing all over again."

For some reason, that made Fai sit up ramrod straight and start reading aloud. Like, really aloud. "State your thesis in a sentence or two! Then write another sentence saying why it's important to make that claim!"

Syaoran couldn't help staring for a moment, especially when Kurogane scowled and threw himself down on the sofa. These two got weirder by the day, seriously.


"A big portion of this is classic literature, but obviously we don't have time to read everything, so I just did a search for famous portions or quotations from the books on the list. Let's try to work our way through them. We're supposed to analyze them and be able to talk about what the author's intentions were or how they represent society at the time they were written."

Fai gaped at him. "Um, not to be a downer, but. Well. How are we going to do that?"

Kurogane was still sulking on the sofa. "Some of us are better than others at remembering the history around this stuff. But how the fuck am I suppose to figure out authorial intent if I didn't know the guy?"

Syaoran ignored the jaw-dropping sense of disconnection he experienced when Kurogane spouted the phrase "authorial intent." Besides, he wasn't thinking about how hard this was going to be. He just wasn't. "Let's just read them and see what we can do, okay."


Syaoran was forced to read aloud, because the glitch in Fai's ability to read had become rather pronounced now that they were supposed to analyze word choice and stylistic structure.

"'We are unwilling to spin out our awaking thoughts into the phantasms of sleep, which often continueth precogitations; making Cables of Cobwebs and Wildernesses of handsome Groves . . .'"

He tried to ignore Kurogane's look of utter horror. The man literally looked like someone was stabbing his princess to death in front of him or something. Fai just looked like he really needed to take a shit. Syaoran was just going to pretend this was brilliant stuff and move on with his life, although he briefly wondered if his expression belied how much this felt like getting his teeth ripped out of his head.


"'It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals' . . ." Syaoran trailed off.

"Oh my god," Fai groaned, rubbing his face in his hands. "This is what these people like to read? Do they have any concept of entertainment?"

"Let's just skip to the next one, anyway," Syaoran sighed, giving up on finishing that particular entry.

Kurogane was drinking again. Silently. That did not bode well.


"'Sh-she holds him tight' . . . Oh god."

"Come on, Syaoran, you can't give up now! I think I'm getting the hang of this!" Fai said cheerfully, somehow spurred on by the dark clouds on Kurogane's face.

"'She holds him tight,'" Syaoran muttered tonelessly, face fixed on the screen and burning with embarrassment, "'and squeezes her body to his, sending delightful sailing boats' . . . Seriously?"

Fai tried to hide his snicker and failed. "Go on, what's the rest?"

". . . 'delightful sailing boats tacking to and fro across the ocean of his back. With her fingertips she sends foam-flecked waves scurrying over his'— this is not literature!"

"It's not as bad as the stupid poems I've heard gentleman composing in my world," Fai said, rolling his eyes.


Both their heads swiveled to look at Kurogane, who was standing up with his fists clenched.

"No. No, this is criminal. This is the worst bunch of bullshit I've ever heard in my life. Don't these people know anything? Beauty isn't about dumping every goddamn thing you've ever heard onto a page, it's about carefully choosing the right words and—I can't listen to this anymore."

". . . Kuro-tan, please don't tell me you write literature."

"Of course I don't write literature, you moron. That doesn't mean I don't know anything about it. The people at court compose all the time! I've heard so many poems in my life I could puke them out and every single of one of them was better than this drivel."

The last time they'd seen him this passionate about anything, he'd been drunk and swinging his sword around preaching a sermon on proper blade care. They just shut up and stared at him now.


"'Dew on the tips of branches slowly dripping towards the roots/Just like we delay in this world until our death . . .'"

Syaoran found himself vaguely breathless. "This is awesome. Keep going."

Kurogane's face was red, and he was looking off into an empty corner, but he obediently continued. "If I have to."

Fai was hunched over his notepaper to hide how pale his face was becoming.

"'As the chill of midnight enfolds everything/I know in my heart the deep snow of the mountains.'"

Syaoran pretended not to notice that Fai was deeply disturbed by all this, kind of the way he was pretending not to notice that his own eyes were kind of welling up. Never mind the fact that Kurogane was reciting this, in an awkward tone like he'd been caught doing something terrible . . . He was right. These were way better than the word hemorrhage of Piffle.

"Do another one," he urged.

"Ah, fine. But that's it," Kurogane warned. "This one . . ." He blushed even harder. "This one was composed by Tomoyo-hime. Uh . . . 'The purity of the moonlight/Falling out of the immense sky/Is so great that it freezes/The water touched by its rays.'"

Fai abruptly stood up and stalked over to the half-empty bottle of spirits, taking a determined swig.

"Ah, you know, that's probably enough for the day," Syaoran said. "We should— we should all do some more practice with essay structures. Thanks for your help, Kurogane-san."

"Sakura said she needed to do some grocery shopping," Fai said hoarsely, thunking the bottle down on the table. "I think I'll escort her to the shops."

Silence washed through the room, and then Kurogane left as well. Syaoran tried to diagram a few more sentences, but after five minutes he gave up on this unit and started trying to plan tomorrow's session.


So easy, so easy to laugh and skip around and act like a fool out shopping with Sakura, Mokona riding atop his head like a living hair adornment and wriggling around in Sakura's clothes to make her squeal. So easy to lie and pretend with those two. Why was it only here that it came easy?

Fai was trying to tell himself that he didn't hate Syaoran for seeing too much just because he happened to be in the room when lying got difficult. It wasn't Syaoran's fault. But the need to escape from that poor boy had been just as great as his need to run from the real source of his problems.

He had to get Kurogane to back away. He had to. But how he was supposed to do that, when his fingertips ached to touch and bring close that warm skin, and eyelids ached to feel the featherlight kisses that he knew must fall from lips that could spill out such starkly beautiful words—

He'd thought Yama was the dangerous world. He'd thought Piffle would be so much better.

He helped Sakura cook dinner. The two of them yowled out the catchy pop songs that came onto the music player resting on a ledge above the sink. He promised to make a chocolatey dessert because he hadn't done that since Outo. (Outo had been just as bad. In Outo, Fai hadn't kept his head, and it had taken his "death" to make him remember who he was and what he must do. He couldn't let things go that way again. Force down the tingle in his back from imagining a heated breath along his spine. Pretend he didn't want it. Pretend and lie and laugh, and laugh, and laugh and never break—)

"Fai-san?" Sakura asked worriedly. "Do you not like this song?"

"Oh, sorry!" he said. Laughed. "It's just~"

"A little crush~"

"Not like I faint~"

"Every time we touch~"

They were both wrong, weren't they? He and Sakura. Her eyes were sparkling with laughter because she didn't even remember and his were empty because he was carefully carving out everything but the lies—but somewhere, buried so deep they couldn't touch it now . . .

Kurogane didn't say anything to him when they prepared for bed that night. His eyes were heavy with weight on Fai's back, and the silence was thick with things they didn't have the language to speak. It was like they'd gone back to Yama. If Fai didn't speak then they couldn't connect. Fai had chosen words as his weapon first, but now Kurogane was trying to master that technique. So Fai would put down the words and find a new weapon. Perhaps the mere lack of words would be cutting enough.

Day Six - Computer Programming

"Okay, so we're just going to. Um."

Fai looked over Syaoran's shoulder and widened his eyes. "Well, we have to try," he said.

Until now, the weight of responsibility for preparing the three of them for this exam had not seemed so heavy, even though science had been such a fiasco. Syaoran didn't know all the material, but he had a logical mind and was able to reason his way to the correct answer pretty often. His experiences with his father had given him a larger sphere of knowledge to begin with, and he didn't think it was bragging too much to say he was a pretty smart guy. The older two's trust in him had made him feel proud and happy, if he was being honest.

He stared at the text that allegedly explained how to write the code to make . . . something happen on the computer. There was a lot of words he didn't understand, and it wasn't a translational error. You seriously were supposed to be able to do this before they let you out of school?

"Yes, well, um, let's sit down and see if we can work it out together," Syaoran said with a weak laugh.


Fai stopped Kurogane's fist from going through the computer screen only by inches.

"This is complete bullshit!" Kurogane fumed. "This isn't even words, it's fucking— I don't even know what this crap is!"

Syaoran groaned. "Let's just try it again, okay?"

"Why don't we sit down at the table and make a list of the words we don't know and look up the definitions first?" Fai suggested. "We're not really getting anywhere, so that might help."

"Good idea," Syaoran said enthusiastically. Looking things up in books. That, he could do.


Kurogane flipped the table over and watched papers flutter to the floor with something like satisfaction. "Serves you right," he told the talking dictionary.

"Serves you right," the computer repeated back. "An idiom usually spoken in an instance—"

Fai literally threw himself on top of Kurogane to save the computer, and Syaoran looked bleakly at the scattered detritus of their studies on the floor.

"We're completely screwed," he announced. "I might pass, if I study tonight and fudge my way through this computer stuff, and the two of you can only hope for about half of the possible score. We are completely screwed."

"Didn't I say we should be coming up with a way to cheat?" Kurogane demanded, throwing Fai off him and flinging the table back upright without bothering about the rest of the mess.

"Yes, you're very smart," Syaoran said crossly.

"Not smart enough~" Fai sang out, then danced away when Kurogane took a swipe at him with his sword. "Whoops!"

Syaoran watched dully as Kurogane chased Fai around the room actively trying to murder him. After five days of this, his only thought was that maybe Kurogane would be willing to stab him to death, too.


"Sit down," Fai said to Kurogane harshly when he tried to follow Syaoran out of the room.

"Eh?" Kurogane grunted, turning in the doorway.

"You and I are going to keep studying."


"Syaoran might have a chance of passing this thing right now, but we don't. So sit down and start reading this. We need to try to cram as much in tonight as we can. The test is tomorrow."

"We don't have a prayer, mage. You know that, don't you?"

"Don't be such a Negative Nancy, Kuro-bu!"

Good. That was better. It was still fun to make him squirm, and all this torture Kurogane was putting him through couldn't make him stop laughing at the sight of his affronted scowl.

"Do you really think spending the night studying is going to help?"

"Not really," Fai said casually, but he shoved a set of notes in front of Kurogane as the man sat down anyway.

"You're just doing this for the kid, aren't you."

"I don't know what you mean." Just a little eyelash flutter, and then Kurogane was frustrated and angry and unable to analyze him. This was much, much easier than those choking silences and those beautiful poems and that warm hand over his—

"You're trying your best not to disappoint the kid."

"Oh, don't be silly, I'm sure Syaoran knows how hopeless this is, too," Fai waved it off.

Kurogane's scowl deepened. Maybe he was trying to convince himself that Fai was still lying. "Then why the hell would you put yourself through this?"

"I have spent five days locked in this room being bored half to death," Fai said with ponderous dignity, "after selling a portion of my brain to Yuuko-san in exchange for the ability to study subjects that make me feel like an uneducated child. This whole thing has insulted me, and I won't let it win. This is personal."

It was rather clear that Kurogane didn't believe him, but he didn't challenge him, either. Maybe this was easier for him, too.

"If I have to stay in here and make a fucking travesty out of calculus, I'm not doing it sober," Kurogane declared. "We need liquor."

"That is the best thing I've heard all day," Fai sighed.

When Syaoran woke them up in the morning, their arms stirring and clanking against the bottles littering the table, a piece of note paper stuck to Kurogane's cheek and pencil shavings in Fai's hair, and the light of the morning sun stabbing their eyes like white-hot judgement day—it was then they conceded that maybe they should have thought about what a hangover was going to do to their critical thinking and composition skills.

Day Seven - Exams

"Um, we—that is, Sakura and I—we cooked breakfast," Syaoran said, and then quailed under the double threat of their matching glares.

"Mokona helped!" the pork bun declared, bouncing up to land on Syaoran's head. Oh. Dear. Fuck. That thing's voice was obnoxious on the best of days, and today—

"Don't want breakfast," Fai groaned, scrubbing his hands through his hair and littering the table with pencil shavings like a tiny snowfall. Kurogane grunted in something like agreement, peeling a piece of paper off his face and rubbing at his gummy eyes. Last night was like a bad dream . . . a nightmare of nonsensical equations, terrible shouchu, and worse poetry. He seemed to remember Syaoran talking about universities in this world—people voluntarily did this to themselves for longer than they had to?

"Mokona thinks you should eat!" the pork bun squealed. Fai scrunched his eyes shut and Kurogane contemplated whether or not a magical creature would survive a sword thrust. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and you have a biiiiig day~!"

Syaoran seemed to have figured out that they could use a minute, because he grabbed Mokona off his head and scurried out of the room cradling it in his arms and shushing it. Kurogane eyed Fai carefully as he flicked little torn-up bits of an eraser off his arm. Last night had seemed to get them back to something like normal—they were always at their most comfortable when they were working together toward some kind of goal. Never mind that Kurogane was the one rocking the boat, because it totally wasn't his fault. Fai kept feeling things and looking at him and shit like that. He was asking for it, far as Kurogane was concerned. But still: they had a class to get through and a race to win. That was going to have to take priority for a few weeks.

After taking turns with the bathroom and washing their faces, they did join the kids for breakfast. Kurogane wasn't going to turn down a meal someone cooked for him, after all, and Fai bounced in there remarking all perky-like that Mokona was right about breakfast being important. There were days Kurogane suspected he was using magic on the side in secret, because where else was he getting the fucking energy?

"Can I ask something?" Sakura asked in a loud voice as they all dished themselves up.

All three men turned to her inquisitively.

"Can I— I know I can't take the class, but can I be there when you're working on the racers? I want to learn. I want— I want to be in the race."

Fai looked surprised but had that sappy little pleased smile on his face that said he loved these idiotic kids. Syaoran was stammering out something about how dangerous it was going to be. Kurogane was quiet, looking at her eyebrows drawing together in discontent.

"It's just that you're all working so hard for me!" she burst out. "And I hate sitting around and doing nothing! If you're all going to do this to help me, then I should do something too!"

Fai gave her one of his most stupid smiles, the kind that was supposed to make you agree with him and that never worked on Kurogane and probably not on most people. "Princess, of course we appreciate that, but we'd be devastated if anything happened to you! You're being a huge help by supporting us and taking care of us, you know?"

Sakura still looked discontent, her shoulders slumping in a prelude to acquiescence. Kurogane didn't like that. She was finally showing some spirit, and that had to be a good sign.

"Oi. She wants to be in the race, then she can be in the race. She can make her own damn decisions, can't she?"

Syaoran's stunned face that was comically close to a fish out of water was probably an even greater reward than the way the princess's face lit up like the sun. Kurogane took a proud bite of his meal and showed no reaction to the soft look on Fai's face. It was just plain old insulting that Fai didn't think he noticed that shit, and would believe his claims that he didn't care . . . but he'd pushed things far enough in this world. He'd leave it for a while.

"Okay! Then I'm going to start packing a lunch for you to take to the testing site!" Sakura declared enthusiastically. Kurogane tried not to wince. At least her cooking had gotten less salty? Still, if she wasn't there to watch, they could always dump it out and claim it was delicious. No, that would just encourage her to do it again . . .

Kurogane tried not to think of it as being saved, when the girl passed out on her way to the refrigerator. Her cooking wasn't that bad—okay, it was, but it was still kind of sad that she was passing out like that all the time. At least Syaoran caught her; it would probably put a damper on their plans to attempt to pass this shitty exam if one of them had to stay here nursing a girl with a head injury.

Fucking Goggles showed up when Syaoran was carrying her off to the bedroom she was using, rapping on the front door and then letting himself in like he owned the place instead of brokering deals for it.

"Hey, how's it going?" he asked brightly, snagging a pair of chopsticks off the table and helping himself to a leftover bit of omelet.

This man. This was the one responsible for getting them into this unholy mess, and now he was stealing Kurogane's breakfast. He was going to stab this guy, right here at the dining table.

"Good morning, Shougo-san!" Fai said happily, pushing a bowl of rice toward him. Hey, what was that idiot doing, giving away their food?

"I know you've got your exam today, so I came by to see if you needed anything. I didn't know if you knew where the testing facility was. And, you know, if you have any other questions about Piffle you can ask me. I've lived here forever!"

"That's very nice of you," Fai said, his heel driving into the top of Kurogane's foot.

Aw dammit, it was nice of him. There went morning sword practice.

"I wanted to talk to Syaoran for a second, if I could," Shougo said, shoveling some rice into his mouth alongside another bite of omelet. "Whr's he?"

"This way," Kurogane said, standing up to personally escort this trouble-making bastard to Sakura's room and make sure he didn't cause any grief to Syaoran.

Syaoran seemed to be doing his usual idiot-in-love routine, tenderly taking off Sakura's shoes and tucking some blankets over the unconscious girl. When Kurogane strolled in, he jumped like a cat with its tail being pulled—and managed, somehow, to trip and fall right on top of Sakura.

Goggle-head was just a step behind, and his eyebrows just about went through the roof.

"Does she know you like to do that while she's sleeping?" he asked, tone slightly awed. "Man, I thought it was just you three guys, I thought you left her alone with the robot toy . . ."

Kurogane pulled back his arm to punch this guy right in the side of his perverted fucking head, but Syaoran had latched onto his arm.

"Don't," he said firmly.

Eh, kid was probably right. This moron wasn't worth it, and they kinda needed him right now anyway. Kurogane decided it was probably better to just leave. Syaoran could handle himself.

"Just what I'd expect from the guy in charge," Shougo said gaily, and latched onto Syaoran's arm and dragged him down the hall. "So about these cameras. How many do you think we'll need? Do you guys use every room, or . . ."

Kurogane started trying to remember the name of the guy who'd built the first combustible engine. He had an exam to worry about right now. But he was going to beat the everloving shit out of Goggles if it was the last thing he did before they left Piffle.

All three of them relentlessly quizzed each other all the way to the building where the exams were being conducted, trying not to let Shougo realize how completely screwed they were. Kurogane was going to do his best, because he always did even when it was a fucking sick joke like this. He just didn't have real high expectations.

Shougo showed them all the way to the room where the exams were being conducted. It was filled with rows of desks, half of them already taken by other people who were here for the exam. A few of them had little mobile comm link things in their hands, feverishly engaged in some last-minute studying.

Shougo swaggered up to the table at the front of the room, where sat a dark-eyed young woman with a severe haircut and a bored expression. "Hey, Hokuto."

She perked up at seeing him. "Shougo-kun~! You never called me," she pouted.

"Aw come on, I've been busy. Anyway, not important: these are the guys."

Hokuto's eyes swept over them, and there was a leer on her face, and actual leer. "Oh ho, you're the ones," she said with far too much familiarity. Kurogane didn't want to think about what she might have been told. He was too busy trying to remember the six types of chemical reactions. "Well, here are your answer sheets and pencils. I'll hand out the exam questions when it's time to start."

Kurogane stared at the paper he was given. It was just the letters A through E, each inside a bubble. Row upon row of bubbles filled with these letters. ". . . the hell is this?"

"Oh, don't you know?" Hokuto asked without concern, getting up from behind the table and draping herself against Kurogane's arm in a ghastly imitation of Fai. Kurogane shook her off immediately, only to have Fai become her next victim. He, of course, allowed it, with a charming smile because he just oozed charm, right out of his damn pores, when necessary.

"We don't know, sorry. Can you explain?"

"The exam sheet will have all the questions, each of them numbered. There will be five options listed for each question, and you choose which one is the correct answer. Then you find the number here on your paper, and you colour in the circle for the letter that is the correct answer. For instance, if you were looking at question number three, and option D was the correct answer, you would just find the third line on your sheet here and colour in the D bubble. Understand?"

"I think so. Things always make more sense when a pretty lady explains them to me," Fai laughed.

Kurogane just wanted to punch everyone in this room, at this point. Syaoran was looking at Fai like he was surprised or something. Really, wasn't he used to the antics by now?

"Oh, don't worry," Hokuto said, winking at Syaoran. "I know he's yours."

"N-no, he's not!" Syaoran squawked.

Because he's mine, you dumb bitch. Will be. Eventually. If I don't fucking murder him sometime for being annoying. Whatever. He isn't yours, so hands off.

"Hey, this is stupid," Kurogane interrupted, waving the sheet impatiently in front of him. "Why the hell couldn't we just mark our answer on the sheet with the questions?"

Hokuto smirked at him, still clinging to Fai like a limpet. "Because we can feed those into a computer that is programmed with the right pattern of filled circles. You don't think we have time to actually look at your exam, do you?" She suddenly straightened up, like she was all business. "Almost time for the test to start. Everyone find a seat, please."

But she grabbed Syaoran as he started to obey. "Shougo has told me sooo much about you," she purred. "I'm looking forward to your videos."

Syaoran let out a noise that largely imitated a dying camel, and scurried to a desk.

Precisely on the hour, Hokuto handed out the exam, and the room became silent but for the occasional flick of a page and the sound of scribbling pencils. Syaoran looked firm and determined, while Fai seemed way too relaxed. Fai was also the first one done, handing in his test paper and quietly being told he could wait outside for his friends. "Friends" was accompanied with one of those creepy-ass winks, but Fai just laughed and skipped outside like a damn fairy princess.

Kurogane sweated, Kurogane glared, and Kurogane threatened to set the exam on fire if it did not give up its secrets, but in the end Kurogane decided to quit while he was still sane and took his half-completed sheet to the front of the room. Syaoran was only a few steps behind him, and Kurogane lingered a moment to make sure Syaoran actually left the room with him. Hokuto had been eyeing him like he was a cut of meat the whole time they'd been working. He glanced down at Fai's test, and realized why it hadn't taken him very long.

The idiot had made the answer sheet look like a giant 84. There were two columns for the answers. He'd answered the first question with C, the second with both B and D, and so on. Great. What the hell was the point of all that studying if you weren't even going to try?

"Hokuto-sensei," Syaoran said, making Kurogane turn to listen. "It's very important to us to pass this exam." Holy fuck, was the kid trying to give her bedroom eyes? It looked more like he had really bad gas, actually. "Is there anything I can do to make sure we do?"

What was the kid—oh. Oh.

Hokuto was looking up at Syaoran with the most guileless eyes imaginable. "Well, I'm not sure what you mean, but why don't we talk about it in private for a moment?"

"All right," Syaoran answered immediately, albeit slightly breathlessly.

"Oi," Kurogane objected.

"It's fine, Kurogane. Find Fai, and I'll catch up with you in a minute."

"Yes, dear, we just need to talk for a minute," Hokuto said happily.

Syaoran grabbed him by the arm and hissed in his ear, "I have a plan."

Kurogane didn't like it, not for a hot second, but if Syaoran said he had a plan, then Kurogane should trust him. He wouldn't need to do this if not for how spectacularly Kurogane and Fai had failed the exam anyway. But still . . .

Kurogane drew his sword part of the way out of his hand, making Hokuto's eyes widen. "If you," he growled, "lay one single finger on the kid, I will cut off your zygomaticus—all four of them—and shove them down your throat. Understand?"

Hokuto squeaked. Mollified, he let the sword retreat and made for the exit out of this hellhole.

"I think it's cute that he likes to protect you," Hokuto was saying in a snappish tone behind him, "but you really ought to put him on a leash sometimes."

"Oh, I do, it's his favourite," Syaoran assured her in a distressed tone. "He's so hard to manage, though . . ."

Kurogane breathed very carefully and reminded himself that they were just here for the damn feather and none of this would matter after they left Piffle. He could deal with this. He could.

He found Fai waiting on the steps in front of the building. Fai appeared to be having a conversation with some pigeons who were pecking around his feet, but that was just Fai talking because he never shut up, obviously. The pigeons weren't actually listening. Except that one that kept looking at him and nodding . . .

"Where's Syaoran?" Fai asked, lifting a hand to shade his eyes from the sun.

"Talking to that damn exam administrator," Kurogane grumbled, sinking down beside Fai on the steps. "I think he's trying to convince her that he's going to sleep with her if she passes us."

Fai's eyes widened. "Is he actually going to sleep with her?" he asked in alarm, getting to his feet.

That thought had not actually occurred to Kurogane, but perhaps he'd underestimated how badly the kid wanted to get back the princess' feathers.

"He'd better not," Kurogane growled. "I don't even think she's human."

Syaoran came out after only another minute, so Kurogane calmed down. It hadn't been enough time for that creepy girl to do anything debauched—well, shit, he was only fourteen, maybe it didn't take that long.

"What did you tell her?" Fai demanded anxiously.

Syaoran grinned. "I promised her all of Shougo's uncut footage, for free, after he gets the cameras installed."

"What the hell, kid?" Kurogane roared. "You can't give her that!"

Syaoran shrugged. "I don't see why not. Unless the two of you suddenly decide to give in to the inevitable and just do each other already, it's not like she's going to see anything. We all just kinda cook, wash dishes, read, sleep . . . She doesn't need to know that. I told her she was getting all of it, so I don't have to give it to her until we leave."

Fai broke out into peals of laughter and hugged Syaoran. "Good work," he grinned. "Now let's go, I'm starving!"

Kurogane was less than pleased with all of this, but he couldn't deny that it would be nice to go out and eat something other than Sakura's cooking. Unfortunately, Shougo was coming down the steps toward them. Dammit, what if he was going to get them in trouble for cheating?

"Just out of curiosity, we ran your tests," he said as he got close enough. "You want to know your results? The real ones that Hokuto hasn't faked yet?" he added with a wink.

"Sure . . ."

No, not really.

"Only one of you passed."

Syaoran broke out into a proud little smile.

"Congratulations, Fai."

There was a long moment of silence. A pigeon warbled.


"I told you the answer was always eighty four~!"

***Giving credit where credit is due… I quoted from several sources in the "literature and arts" section, so they are all listed below. Feel free to skip if you don't care, just so long as everybody knows I'm not a plagiarist!

Fai reading aloud about mapping an essay is taken from a tutorial posted on Harvard's website, written by a woman named Elizabeth Abrams. Obviously cannot share the link because FFnet is a bitch about these things. First literary quote is taken from The Garden of Cyrus by Thomas Browne. Second literary quote from Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Third "literary" *snerk* quote from Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz. The first two Japanese poems are by Henjo and Fujiwara no Suemichi, and I got the translations from Zoltan Barczikay at a website which, again, I cannot actually share with you. The poem that Kurogane attributed to Tomoyo was listed as "anonymous" at yet another website. If you are curious about the sources, feel free to PM me and I will attempt to get the links to you.