Hey everyone! This is officially the last chapter (aside from the epilogue I'm planning). We have reached the finish line, and the epilogue shall be our victory lap (and after a hundred-sixty-one chapters, I think we all deserve one). Do not fear, for after this, my next project will be Reversal of Fate and Clockwork Tsubasa (I know it's been a long time since I've even touched that one, but it's definitely going to be a priority after this).
Other notes: Mild explicit content in this chapter. Very mild. It could probably be rated T, officially, but it's just explicit enough that I feel I should give my usual warning.
Also, I forgot when I was posting the previous chapter to thank the person who wrote up a TV Tropes page for this fic. I know that this person, whoever they are, has probably already read the thank-you note I left in Reversal of Fate, but just in case they haven't, I would like to extend my gratitude here (although I won't be as long-winded as I was the first time). Whoever you are, you are brilliant and wonderful, and you've made a long-time dream of mine come true. Thank you.
Chapter One-Hundred Sixty-One
They walked so close that the backs of their hands brushed together with each step. As they escaped the shadow of the hospital, Syaoran laced his fingers through Kurogane's. "How much did I miss while I slept?"
"Honestly?" Kurogane shrugged. "Not much. The healers stitched us up, kept us fed and hydrated. The mage and the princess went to the palace and explained everything to the king. I mostly waited around for you to wake up." Something flickered in his eyes, gone before Syaoran could recognize it. He squeezed the ninja's hand a little tighter.
"What about you?" he asked, lowering his voice. "That battle took its toll on all of us. You . . . You must still be healing." He felt a stab of guilt for dragging the ninja out into the city when he should have been recovering, but the hospital had felt too sterile and depressing for conversation to flourish, and there were things they needed to talk about.
"The healers put about a hundred stitches in me," Kurogane said, as if it were only a minor annoyance. "I busted up my mechanical arm pretty good, too. I can move it, but I've lost most of the feeling in it. I'd rip it out, except that I'd probably tear some major artery if I tried."
Nausea curled in Syaoran's stomach at the image. "Oh. Well, I suppose we should just leave it, then. I'm sure we can have it repaired in the next technologically advanced world we visit."
"Yeah," Kurogane murmured, hardly seeming to hear him.
Syaoran frowned. "You seem distracted."
"We almost lost you."
His heart gave a little thump. "We almost lost everyone."
"I was . . . afraid," Kurogane said, as if testing out the word. "I was afraid you wouldn't wake up. I've never been scared like that before."
Syaoran felt a twinge of guilt. "I'm sorry."
"It's not . . ." He shook his head. "Just try not to put yourself in life-threatening danger all the time. Got it?"
As if I have any control over it, he thought, but he smiled, squeezing the ninja's hand. "I'll do my best."
The road disappeared under them, becoming a shallow trench in the ground where frequent passage had compacted the sand underfoot. Other people—mostly hospital staff—walked up and down the trench, going to or from work. After a few minutes, the path opened up into a sprawling bazaar, complete with hundreds of stalls selling imported foods, novelty items, and other things that thrived wherever tourists congregated. Syaoran skirted around the edge of the bazaar—he hadn't kept any of Clow's currency on him, and he hadn't thought to bring Mokona along, so he couldn't access the piles of random things they'd acquired and might be able to trade for this world's goods. Perhaps we should have brought Mokona, he thought. If we stray too far from the hospital, we might not be able to communicate with each other.
It didn't seem to matter much. Kurogane evidently had little desire to fill the silence, and the cacophony of the marketplace was a soothing hum to his ears. Distantly, he wondered how long it had been, in this world's time, since he'd walked these streets. He hadn't yet seen anyone he knew, apart from his traveling companions, so the only frame of reference he had was the city itself. It looked much the same as it had when he'd left. Many of the shops looked familiar as well, though it had been so long in his own timeline that it was hard to be sure what had changed and what hadn't. Still, the city hadn't changed much, which suggested he'd been gone no more than a handful of months—and possibly only a few days. Such a short time for everyone else, he thought, briefly closing his eyes, but for me, it might as well be a lifetime.
"Hey," Kurogane said, nudging his side. "What's wrong?"
"It's nothing. Really," he insisted.
Kurogane released his hand, running his palm up and down his arm. He didn't say anything, and after a moment, Syaoran leaned into him, not caring about the strange looks he got from the shopkeepers. Clow Country was not particularly restrictive when it came to relationships—same-sex couples were given the same rights as heterosexual couples. But he supposed that the people were accustomed to seeing him with Sakura, so it didn't surprise him that they would be puzzled. Then again, perhaps it was the age difference. He still looked like a teenager, after all. Self-conscious, he withdrew his arm, looking up at Kurogane. "I used to live right down this street," he said, pointing down a winding path that branched off the bazaar. "Would you . . . would you like to see my old house?"
Surprise sparked in Kurogane's eyes. "Sure."
They turned down the twisting path, entering one of the residential areas. Sequestered near the edge of the city, these houses were some of the least luxurious in the area, though Syaoran hadn't thought about that much when he'd lived here. Still, he found himself feeling a little embarrassed. He was a commoner, and even if Kurogane didn't quite have the social standing of Princess Sakura, he was still nobility. Or that was how Syaoran had interpreted what he'd seen when his clone had stumbled upon Kurogane's past. Syaoran hadn't thought much about the disparity in their status, but he worried now that Kurogane would be unimpressed by his humble heritage, and that it would subtly influence their relationship in some negative way.
You've already come this far, he reminded himself as he caught sight of the little dome-shaped house that had belonged to him since he'd first befriended Sakura, all those years ago. You know more about his history than you have any right to. It's time he saw a bit of yours. "This is it," he said, grabbing the curtain hanging over the door and pulling it aside.
The interior of the house was just as he'd left it, though a thin coat of sand had accumulated on the floor. He remembered having to sweep every day to keep it from gathering in the corners, and more than once, he'd come home after a long research trip to find several inches of sand on the floor. The fact that there was only a thin dusting of it reinforced his suspicions that he'd been gone from this world a mere handful of days.
Away from curious eyes, Kurogane wrapped his arms around Syaoran's shoulders, bringing him close so the back of his head rested against Kurogane's collarbone. "Something's bothering you."
Throat tight, it took him a moment to speak. "It doesn't even feel like home anymore."
"It's been a long time."
"For me, yes," he said, trying to extinguish the sense of loss in his heart. "But you can tell by the lack of sand on the floor that I haven't been gone long from this world. So much has changed for me, but almost no time has passed here. I . . ."
"You feel lost." Kurogane drew him in closer. "I know."
Not trusting his voice, he nodded. Who was he to complain, when Kurogane had lost his childhood home forever? He stood a little taller, twisting in the ninja's arms and standing on his tiptoes to press their lips together. Kurogane kissed him back, his mouth gentle, his hands tracing Syaoran's ribs, and the closeness eased the pain. I may never have another home, he thought, wrapping his arms around the ninja's neck, but at least I have a family again.
Their kisses deepened, and after a time, Syaoran guided Kurogane to the cramped bedroom at the back of the house. They undressed each other slowly, hands roving over each other's bodies. Syaoran took care not to tug on any of the ninja's stitches, but the sheer number made it impossible to avoid them completely. "Are you sure you've recovered enough for this?" he asked as they sank into the mattress.
Kurogane snorted. "After everything that's happened, I think I can handle a little pain."
And so they made love, every touch tender and warm. Kurogane nipped gently at his ears, his jaw, his neck, but it was when he whispered Syaoran's name that pleasure shivered through his body and soul. After, as they lay with their limbs tangled together, Syaoran spoke. "There's one more thing about me that you should know."
"I . . . I mentioned, back in the ruins, that my father allowed me to take his name before I first traveled to this world, but I never told you what my name was before that." He took a breath, watching Kurogane's face for some sign of anger or disapproval, but the man merely looked back at him, his expression even. "My true name . . . My true name is Tsubasa."
Kurogane stroked his hair back, then kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Tsubasa," he said. "It fits."
"I don't . . . I'm not telling you because I want you to start calling me by that name. I'm used to being called 'Syaoran,' and I've heard that in some cultures, a person's true name is closely guarded so as not to reveal a piece of their soul to those who might do them harm. Not that I think you ever would, but . . . but I just thought you should know."
"In that case, I suppose I ought to tell you that I haven't been using my true name either," Kurogane said, surprising Syaoran into silence. "Want me to tell you?"
His eyes prickled. Swallowing, he nodded. "I'd like that."
"My real name is You-ou. It means 'hawk king.'" He paused, his expression growing distant. "I haven't used that name since Suwa burned. I've been using my family name. I was the only survivor, and the last piece of home I had left was my father's sword. It seemed right to take the name."
Syaoran nodded. He understood how empty a person could feel, cut off from their past, from their family. That was part of the reason he'd never abandoned his father's name, not even when he'd met Kurogane and the others in Tokyo.
"There's something else I want to say to you," Kurogane said, pulling away just enough for their eyes to meet. "Am I right in guessing your next project is to restore your father to his body?"
"That's right. As long as I have his memories, I can hold onto his soul. But right now, he's . . . dormant. Maybe even trapped." He thought of how Fei-Wang had captured and imprisoned him, then shuddered. "I'm going to do everything in my power to place his soul into a suitable body. It's not right to keep him locked away forever. I'll do the same for my mother, if I find a way to make the transfer by the time I return here."
Kurogane nodded. "All right. I can see it's important to you."
"But . . ." he pressed, hearing the qualification in the ninja's words.
"Just . . . try not to take too much responsibility onto your shoulders. You've gone through hell and back for the people you love. Yeah, this is important, too, but you shouldn't live your whole life taking on burdens you can't carry alone."
"I won't be alone," he whispered, running his fingertips along Kurogane's chest.
"Maybe not, but I will stop you if you start to get all self-sacrificing again. You've spent most of your life trying to improve the lives of the people you love. That's great. But you have to remember that there are people who love you, and they shouldn't have to watch you push yourself to your breaking point. Got it?"
He pressed his lips together, thinking it over, then nodded. "I understand. Thank you."
"One more thing," Kurogane said, his voice softening. He brushed Syaoran's hair back.
"What is it?"
"You have a home. Not here," he said as Syaoran stiffened. "You have a home with us. Me and the mage and the pork bun. Even if the place where we live changes every few days, as long as we stick together, I can promise you'll always have a safe place to come back to. Understand?"
"Kurogane-san . . ." Tears stung his eyes.
"Do you understand?" Kurogane asked more insistently.
"Yes." He pressed his face to the ninja's collarbone. Home, he thought, feeling foolish for being so alienated by this place where he'd once lived. Home is where the people you love are. "Yes, I understand."
"Good," Kurogane grunted. "Actually, there's one more thing."
He raised his eyebrows. Another one?
"I love you," Kurogane said, kissing him gently. "Always."
The moisture in his eyes overflowed, but for once, his tears were not those of sadness or loss, but of joy. "I love you, too," he said. "Always."