This is a very extremely unconscionably late birthday gift for two lovely ladies who know who they are. Hope you like it. :D
Stars Go Out Tonight
"You think I'm unaware of the problem?"
Grossum repressed the urge to shiver. The town mayor was known to be level-headed, responsible, and personable, friendly even . . . But when cool eyes raked over him with such disdain, it was hard not to believe the man could harm him.
"No, of course you are," he said, back-tracking a little. He had a lot of money, had grown up with a lot of money—his wife said it made him condescending when he didn't even mean to be, and apparently he'd been condescending to the mayor. "I only meant, well, you've seen how bad it's gotten. That dam is going to break before the year is out."
"And that is why I have been trying to raise funds since this time last year," the mayor said, voice still cold. "I have written to the provincial capital asking for emergency funds, and I was declined. To fix that dam, we need money, Mr. Grossum."
"Why haven't you . . .?"
His dark eyes flashed with warning. "The people in this town do not have money to spare, as you well know. I've been funneling as much tax revenue into this project as I can. I have taken a temporary pay cut to attempt to get a little more funding. I had hoped to have enough money to build a new dam in the next few months. And before you ask, the reason I haven't told you before now is that it is, quite frankly, none of your business."
"None of my business?" Grossum growled, feeling himself becoming just as chilly as the mayor. "My lands and holdings may be west of the dam, but this is still my town and I do business with the people here. You think I don't care what happens to all of them?"
For a moment, they stood staring each other down, but the mayor broke it, and a nod of approval was tipped Grossum's direction.
"I believe you do," he said, his voice warming.
"I'm willing to find the money to make a donation to the project, as well," he said. "You ought to have asked me to, rather than cutting your own salary. You shouldn't be making that kind of sacrifice right now—didn't you recently take in a child?"
And the man's eyes lit up as bright as if someone had lit a candle behind them. Grossum had a contact at the capital who'd told him the mayor had been trying to get custody of the boy even when his sister and her husband had yet lived. Apparently it had taken their deaths for him to succeed. Grossum's contact had mentioned the rumours that the boy's father had been a mean drunk and the mayor was attempting to protect his nephew as his sister seemed unwilling to.
He loved the child, that much was clear. And he seemed to love this town, Grossum thought. He felt foolish, suddenly, for questioning the mayor's motivations.
"Out of curiosity, Mr. Grossum, why are you approaching me about the dam now?"
And the worry came rushing back in.
"I have a contact in the west who tells me they're getting a heavy cold front, out of season. If it blows this way . . . There could be a storm. A bad one. And I think we could be in trouble."
A beat of silence as that sank in. "There is an evacuation plan in case of such emergencies. Mr. Grossum, I am going to trust that you will tell me if you think it's necessary to implement it. You'd likely know before I would."
Grossum nodded and wondered why it had taken the two of them so long to begin working together. "You can count on me, sir."
There was a hurried knock on the office door.
A youthful face appeared around the edge of the door, peering in with eyes squinted up in worry over the interruption.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sirs. It's just that three strange men have appeared out of the sky and asked if they can trade some foreign clothing for a place to stay."
"I beg your pardon?" Grossum asked politely, certain he'd heard the boy incorrectly. The boy repeated himself. No, it didn't make more sense the second time.
"Fanny's put them up at her inn and says they can stay in exchange for chores for a few days," the boy added. "But I thought you oughtta know, any case."
"Yes, thank you." The boy retreated, and the men looked at each other for a long moment. "Perhaps you'd like to join me for a drink at Fanny's inn, Mr. Grossum."
"I believe I would, Mayor Ashura."
Kurogane could see the relief on the faces of his two companions as they fell to eating, sturdy pottery bowls full of thick vegetable and barley soup with chunks of buttered bread, a whole loaf that they'd torn up to share between them. They'd been doing nothing but fighting on the previous world and they'd been transported right in the middle of a battle. The proprietress of this inn had taken one look at their exhaustion and muddy, bloody clothes and said they'd eat and bathe before she put them to work.
Syaoran looked like he was nodding off over his bowl, and Kurogane wasn't much better, dragging his spoon to his mouth with more effort than the tiny bit of metal warranted. He wanted to pick it up and just drink from it, but he'd learned his lesson about table manners in other worlds. Fai seemed more alert, feeding Mokona bits of his meal and laughing with her over something. This was possible because Fai was a dirty cheater and he'd drunk from Kurogane before the battle on the previous world and used his vampire strength, leaving plenty of mere human strength to draw from.
"She wants us to stay in the kitchen washing the dishes and then clean up the serving area after the guests leave," Syaoran said suddenly, probably more to keep himself awake than anything. He'd been the one who negotiated with the woman who ran the inn, and neither of them had bothered asking details yet. Work could wait until they'd had their first real meal in a week.
"Fine," Kurogane muttered. It wasn't really his forte, but it was better than sleeping outside. The joint of his shoulder told him to expect rain soon. It was an unexpected side effect of the false arm. Useless, mostly, but he'd take his perks where he could get them.
"Fai knows how to work in a kitchen, so he can be the leader today!" Mokona chirruped, hopping over to Kurogane's place—like he was eating something different? He shoved a morsel of bread at the little thing, and she purred appreciatively.
Kurogane was still waiting for them to get back to a world where Fai could dress in that vest and tie and those slim black pants again. He hadn't had the proper appreciation for it, in Outo. The opportunity to rectify that hadn't presented itself yet.
"If you say so," Fai laughed, and then he bowed his head over his food, and Kurogane could see that he was weary, too. They were all tired of fighting other people's battles, even if it did pay their way in so many worlds.
Kurogane watched him sharply, but said nothing. Fai wasn't smiling and laughing to hide his exhaustion, he just did that because he preferred it to frowning. It didn't make any sense to Kurogane, but then little about Fai did. You just sort of hung on and held your breath and hoped for the best, mostly.
The door opened, letting in a burst of cold wind and wet leaves that skittered across the wooden floor to herald the arrival of two men, who walked like they owned the place. Their clothes looked expensive; they just might. And then Kurogane looked up into their faces and froze. A thought tried to spark in his mind to drag Fai from the room, to try to give him some warning, but it died as soon as Kurogane whipped his head in Fai's direction.
Fai was sheet white and his eyes had already locked with Ashura's.
His hair was shorter in this world, Kurogane thought stupidly, and then he grabbed Fai's knee hard enough to leave bruises.
"It's not him."
Yes, Fai knew. They all knew, because Kurogane had killed Fai's Ashura-Ou. This man was someone else, and he was walking right to their table. Syaoran had a hand flitting aimlessly under the table, trying to fight the urge to bring out his sword, and Mokona had gone completely silent. For once. Kurogane tried to force himself into the context of this world and remember that this was a stranger who probably meant them no harm. He tried to stay relaxed. And yet his palm itched for its sword.
"Can we help you?" Fai asked politely.
Ashura didn't look completely unfriendly, just purposeful. So did the man behind him, whom Kurogane recognized in a vague way but couldn't place the world he'd seen him on before.
"You look very nervous." His voice held the hint of a question, and Kurogane repressed himself from responding. If they'd had a reason to be nervous, how would that be enough to get them to spill it out to a stranger? "You needn't be. I'm Ashura, the mayor of this town. It's not every day men descend from the sky, so I thought I'd better come to ensure you mean no harm to my people. This is Mr. Grossum, an important man in our community."
Grossum, right. That was . . . Jade? No, Spirit. That's where they'd met Kyle Rondart, the little bastard.
"We're just visitors!" Mokona piped up, slowly scooting forward. "We're very friendly. We're traveling!"
Ashura's eyes were wide on the little thing, momentarily taken aback. "I'm afraid I've never seen a creature like you, but you seem very trustworthy," he said after a moment, a wry smile taking his mouth. "You vouch for your companions as well, do you?"
Grossum cleared his throat and tried to look stern, but Mokona turned huge innocent eyes on him and he backed down.
"And what are you, little one?" Ashura asked politely.
"Mokona is Mokona!"
Ashura let out a little laugh, and then his eyes swept over the table. "You say you're traveling through? On your way to where?"
"Nowhere, exactly," Syaoran spoke up. He sat up straight and his eyes were clear as he explained the basics of their purpose. It was an act he'd perfected over countless worlds in the past few months, and now he could tell it without letting shame make him hesitant. Kurogane and Fai had decided to sit back and allow Syaoran to be their unofficial spokesperson in new worlds. This was his journey.
"I am fascinated, truly," Ashura said, and his face was completely open and honest. "I have never heard the like. Might I join you for a while, and learn more about your travels? I don't mean to be intrusive, but I am very curious. I've never had an opportunity to learn about other worlds, and may never see it again."
"We wouldn't mind," Fai spoke up. "Only we promised Missus Fanny that we'd work for her tonight in exchange for our room and board."
"Ah, yes," Ashura said reluctantly. "In that case, perhaps we may speak tomorrow? I would like to invite you to my home, if you would be willing."
Mr. Grossum suddenly laughed. "Well, mayor, I'd heard you were quite a scholar when you were young."
Ashura's smile . . . Humble, wry, soft, almost shy. Human and kind. Kurogane suddenly understood. Saw why it was Fai had loved him so.
"I think what they called me as a child was a bookworm. It would seem I still am. I suppose as a leader of the community I ought to be more grounded, shouldn't I? Still . . . If you would be so kind as to call on me tomorrow?"
"We will," Fai spoke up, and his face was brimming with something that danced just past what Kurogane could categorize. "We'd love to."
Kurogane tried not to do anything so sappy as ache on his behalf. He knew a conversation about this wouldn't go well, but he didn't know how to protect Fai from this. How to make him keep his head, and not love this man who was a stranger and who they would leave behind only too soon. Maybe there wasn't anything he could do, really. But he'd be in the next world, when Ashura wasn't, and maybe Fai would tell him how to help then.
"It was good to meet you," Ashura said, holding out his hand.
Slowly, Kurogane reached out and shook Ashura's hand. It didn't even cause a catastrophe or anything. He had a good handshake.
They walked away from the table, and Syaoran began to gather the dishes up. "We should get to work," he said, sounding nervous. "Missus Fanny said to wash dishes and clean up in the kitchen until the other diners have gone home. She's already caring for the guest's rooms."
Grossum had clapped Ashura on the shoulder, and the two of them were strolling over the bar where the food was being served from. "Have a drink with me before we leave? I have a few questions, yet."
The two men remained at the bar sharing a drink and chatting quietly, faces serious and dark. Fai hid himself in the kitchen. Maybe he just couldn't look at Ashura and still be able to work, but whatever the reason, Kurogane thought he approved. Fai's face had regained some colour and he was chatting with Syaoran casually.
There was a thunder of hoof beats from a horse right past the kitchen, and it didn't even sound as though the horse had fully stopped when the door out front banged open. They all three hurried back out to the bar to see what was happening.
A rain-soaked, mud-spattered man—odd, that, he hadn't thought it was raining—came skidding straight to the bar, his wide eyes fixing on Grossum.
Grossum stood up from his seat, his face going grim and ugly. "Already?"
"Yes, sir. It's coming fast."
"What is?" Syaoran asked curiously.
It was Kurogane who answered. "A storm." His mind felt strangely heavy. "A really bad storm."
Fai's hand fell over his, and he was startled to find it on his shoulder. He hadn't known he was massaging the joint, but now he felt the deep ache. The wind outside was rising. He twined his fingers into Fai's, a foreboding he didn't understand filling up his stomach.
They all looked at him for a moment in surprise, eyes lingered briefly on their joined hands, then Grossum turned back to Ashura.
"Sir," the mud-stained man said cautiously. "I'm . . . not sure there's time. The fishing village is already gone."
"Gone?" Grossum repeated, face going pale.
"Sir. The flood is already almost touching your lands. You said the dam—"
"Are you suggesting we do nothing, then?" Grossum snapped, and the man fell silent. He looked at Ashura again, grim silence meeting the same. Ashura nodded, and grooves appeared at the corners of his mouth as he frowned with thought.
"Mistress Fanny," he called out to the inn's proprietress. "Get this man a hot meal, if you'd be so kind. And then pack up your valuables. We are beginning the evacuation of this town immediately. Hector!" he called across the room. A man wearing a heavy leather coat stood up from a table where he'd been drinking with his companions. "I need your help. Get to Kusanagi's office and tell him to meet me here. Start announcing to everyone to start packing. I'll make a speech in front of the sheriff's office in an hour."
"Yes, sir," the man named Hector said, fastening up the front of his coat and striding out the door.
Ashura eyed everyone in the room, slowly. His face was a mask of calm. "Nobody will panic. There is no reason to panic. We have a safe route already picked out, and Sheriff Kusanagi and I will make sure everything goes according to plan. Please begin making your way—quietly—to your homes to prepare your families. Be at the sheriff's office in one hour for further instructions, please. Thank you for remaining calm and thank you in advance for your assistance."
The people began to file out in an orderly fashion. A few remained behind, buzzing like angry bees around the staid mayor and the grim landowner. Ashura and Grossum both spoke quietly and calmly to each of them. For the most part, though, the mayor was obeyed without question. Fanny was quietly beginning to pack away all her bottles and glasses into the cupboards beneath the bar.
The three of them walked to Ashura, all at the same moment, without any need to consult each other.
"How can we help?" Syaoran asked.
Ashura looked them over for a moment and accepted it. "Assist Fanny in whatever way she asks you. A few more strong backs won't hurt."
Fai took another step. "You said something about a dam?"
Ashura, in quick, harsh tones, explained the situation with the dam. "We need two days to get everyone far enough away from here to be safe. If I'm understanding correctly . . . We may not have that long."
Fai took a deep breath, and nodded. "There may not be anything I can do, but I'd like to see it."
"Why?" Grossum asked sharply.
"What could you do?" asked one of the men who'd remained in the bar, raking eyes over Fai. Kurogane shifted his weight and the man took a step back, dropping his eyes nervously.
Fai and Ashura looked at each other for a minute. "I'll take you there after I've made my speech," Ashura said quietly. "Until then, would you be willing to assist here?"
The door burst open again, and Ashura turned to face whatever angry, confused townsperson demanded him, straightening up and taking a deep breath.
A small boy flew toward him, tow-headed and skinny and arms already spread wide. Ashura knelt down and caught him with a gasp as the breath was knocked from him.
"Uncle!" the boy gasped. "I was playing outside with some other boys, and Sheriff Kusanagi said we all needed to go home to our moms and dads right away." There was a long pause, and in that pause Ashura's hand began to card through tangled blond wisps. The way he curled around the boy spoke for itself. "That meant I should come find you, didn't it?" he asked haltingly. "Since I live with you now?"
"Yes," Ashura said, running a soothing hand over his back. "You did the right thing." He straightened up, lifting the boy into his arms and letting thin limbs twine around him. "Everything will be alright, little whisper."
"Uncle Ashura, don't call me that." It would have been more convincing if he wasn't actually whispering.
"But you are, you hardly weigh an ounce," he said, bouncing him a little.
"Stoooop," he whined, giggling into Ashura's neck. "I'm doing like you said and eating all my dinner now. I'll get big!"
"Good," Ashura laughed, dropping a kiss on his head, and turned back to them. "This is my nephew, Fai," he said, voice full of pride. The boy turned his head curiously.
Syaoran gasped. Fai would have gone to his knees, but Kurogane had put an arm around his waist, accepting the way Fai's fingers dug into his arm painfully.
Blue eyes. Curious, lively, cautious but bright. Kurogane had seen this face before. He didn't quite realize what was happening, until Fai spoke up.
"Your name is—it's Fai?" he choked out, trying to sound friendly.
"Yes," he said cautiously, pressing himself closer against Ashura. "What's yours?"
"Yuui," Fai said in a hollow voice. "My name is Yuui."
Mokona suddenly leapt up into Fai's arms, burrowing against his chest, which was nearly stilled as though he'd stopped breathing. He cradled her with arms which had been so empty and aching for so many years and which Kurogane was only beginning to understand how to fill, still trying to accept that maybe he couldn't, not completely. Arms that were trembling, just a little.
"We'd better get to work," Kurogane spoke up.
"Excuse us," Syaoran added with a slight bow.
"Yes, I need to go," Ashura said, hefting his nephew higher in his arms and leading the group of men out of the bar.
Fai stayed there, staring at an empty table, for several minutes before he joined them in packing everything away into the cupboards and tying the doors shut.
The wind was howling so fiercely that they had to shout at one another to be heard. Raindrops and fallen leaves had become stinging projectiles.
Syaoran and Kurogane stood behind Fai and Ashura as they cautiously approached the dam from one side. Twenty feet high and old, unstable. The river on this side was small and steady, but the storm was rising its banks already. If the dam broke, the river would shatter the banks and consume the town.
The whole structure was groaning. A sharp popping noise echoed over the sound of the wind and rain and thunder, and all four of them flinched and crouched as though to run.
"Sandbags," Syaoran called suddenly. "We can set up a blockade of sandbags on the path you mean the townspeople to take."
Ashura nodded. "I've already got a handful of men making them," he shouted back.
"We'll help," Kurogane rumbled. Ashura cast a doubtful look at him, and Kurogane snatched his hand away from his shoulder. The joint ached worse than it had since it had first healed up, and he kept finding himself rubbing at it to relieve the pain. "You're going to need as many people as you can get," he called. Not that they could afford to be picky anyway, but Kurogane was going to move twice as many sandbags as anyone else, aching shoulder or no.
A broken fence slat came whistling through the air, light enough that the wind had turned it to a deadly weapon. Kurogane saw it and shouted with alarm. The thing was going to hit Syaoran, moving fast enough to impale him or break a bone. Syaoran saw it too, but seemed frozen with surprise at the strange thing.
Fai shouted, too, and purple runes squeezed out from the tight fist he made, lifting his arm up and then moving sharply to the side like he was flinging something away from him. The slat of wood jerked in midair and veered to the side, burying itself into the mud.
Syaoran gasped for breath. "Thank you, Fai," he said in a small voice.
"Magic," Ashura breathed in shock.
Fai made a grimacing sort of smile and sketched a small bow.
"You . . . You travel to other worlds and you do magic, and you have this talking pet . . ." Ashura covered his mouth his hand. "I had always thought the world was so small. But it isn't, is it?"
Fai's smile this time was gentle. "No. You'll never know how much there is. But I'll tell you what I can once all this is over. I don't know how long we'll have, but—"
The dam let out a series of horrible popping noises and a deep groan, a sound like the earth itself was crying out in distress. They all flinched again and looked at one another with wide eyes.
A jet of water shot out of the dam, ten feet up, and the whole thing moaned and crackled.
"Run!" Ashura screamed at them. "Run!"
Syaoran turned with Ashura and began to run. Kurogane started to, but the sight of Fai, standing unmoving, caught his eyes and he spun back around. Time seemed to slow down for a moment.
Water was gushing forth from the crack. Each pop sounded distinct against the wind, a bell tolling the death of this town. Their deaths. The whole thing would come apart any moment. And Fai was taking a deep, long breath and releasing it slow and steady. His eyes were blazing, glowing in the dark.
A swath of the dam blew outward and water sprayed through. Fai bent his knees and braced himself and threw his hands wide. And he pushed. He pushed the thin air, and light that was purple and blue and shot through with white rushed from his hands and boiled over the dam. The wind whipped his wet hair over his burning eyes, and he held his palms out and pushed with all his might.
The water stopped. The dam creaked and popped, but it held together.
Kurogane stepped forward, hardly believing it, cautious steps until he was level with his lover. "Fai?"
His eyes were fixed on some distant point beyond the cracked wall of the dam. His arms were trembling, just a little. To speak, he sucked in a breath that sounded sharp and painful.
"I've got it."
"Fai . . ."
"Get the men organized and get those sandbags in place," Fai ordered him, glowing eyes never leaving that far place. "I can't hold this for long," he added raggedly. Kurogane tried to wipe the stringy hair from his face and found him hot to the touch, the collar of his thick coat soaked with sweat. "Go," he said coldly.
Ashura and Syaoran had come back, their eyes wide. Syaoran's mouth was hinting at a smile, pride and awe at what his friend had done.
"If we can get a sandbag wall erected, how long will it take to get everyone far enough away to be safe?" Kurogane called to Ashura.
Ashura was gaping at Fai.
"Mayor!" Kurogane snapped.
He dragged his eyes away, flickering back and forth between Fai and Kurogane several times before the question registered. "A day," he estimated. "The children can't travel any quicker than that."
"Syaoran, get with the men and get started. I'll be there soon."
Syaoran nodded and pelted away, his feet flinging up great arcs of muddy water.
"Sir," Kurogane said, uncomfortable at trying to figure out what to call this man. He had a regal bearing, even here in this world where mayor was the highest you could climb. "Go get the people organized and get them moving."
Ashura shook his head. "I'll stay here with you men and help erect the barricade."
Kurogane glanced at Fai. His face was tight and on the verge of breaking. "No. You escape with your people. They'll need your leadership."
Ashura nodded slowly, but then he walked over to Fai. "How . . . How long can you hold the dam?"
"How long do you need?" Fai gasped.
"Until sunset tomorrow."
Fai blew out a breath and sucked in another. Even breathing had to be controlled now. He couldn't look away from his work. "Then I can hold the dam until sunset. Go."
Ashura looked torn and frightened. He lifted a hesitant hand and Kurogane resisted the urge to lash out with his sword and cut it from his wrist when he placed it on Fai's shoulder. "Thank you."
Fai's face was brittle and fixed and all he said was, "Hurry, mayor. Get Fai out of here."
Kurogane waited until Ashura had gone before he stepped behind Fai and used his fingers to rake all his hair back out of his face. He quickly re-tied the tail at the base of his neck, something he'd once been clumsy at but had gotten used to after Fai's taunts. It was a small thing he could do for him, hardly anything at all. But something. He pressed a brief kiss to his rain-soaked hair, and then he hurried away to find the others.
The rain had stopped falling for now, but the wind was still rushing by them and the thunder was still rumbling. Luckily the work didn't require a lot of speaking. There were fifteen of them, including Kurogane and Syaoran, and they were working in two shifts. Three hours on, three hours off. Eat, take a brief nap, regain their strength. Fanny had told them to use the inn and help themselves to anything. It was Syaoran's idea that if they got the barricade up by morning, perhaps the townspeople would be far enough away that Fai could let go of the dam.
Kurogane couldn't stop thinking about him. He was on the far side of town. He was alone. Alone in the storm and probably thinking of Ashura and the little boy. The sight of him, slight and beautiful and resolute on the banks of the river, filled his eyes instead of the water-logged bags he was dragging through the mud.
He got a resting shift close to dawn. The sky was sickly green and the sun was nowhere in sight. He took some dried fruit and a loaf of bread tied up in a napkin and went to Fai.
Right where he'd left him. Still holding up the dam. There was a small wall of water building up at the lip of the dam, the water risen high enough to spill over the top, but held back by Fai's magic. Fai's arms were steady, but his head was hanging down with exhaustion. His wet hair was plastered to his cheeks and water dripped sluggishly from his chin to be blown away by the wind.
Kurogane called out to him as he got closer. Startling him now would not be a good idea.
"I've got some food," he said, holding out the napkin to show him.
Fai shook his head a little. "Can't. It'll just make me sick right now."
Kurogane frowned. "Can you feed from me?"
"You have to eat something," Kurogane growled at him.
"Your blood is too distracting for me. And it's too different, anyway, it would interrupt the flow of my magic."
Fai's voice was dull with weariness.
"Can you hold out just a few more hours?" Kurogane asked, unable to help the softness that crept into his voice. He hoped Fai could still hear him. "We should have a good enough barrier to protect them in just another few hours."
"Can you say that for sure?" Fai asked in a bitter voice. "Ashura said sunset."
Kurogane rubbed his hand over his face. He was exhausted and his shoulder hurt so much he was afraid he might not be able to keep working. He would, though. Somehow.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked.
Fai couldn't look at him, but his face was full of scorn.
"You could get killed out here. And me and Syaoran." It wasn't even the same Ashura, he wanted to say. Didn't. He knew better. "Why?"
The blue eyes were still glowing, but the light in them was fading in and out. Now they flared up again and Fai was able to raise his head.
"Fai . . . Ask Ashura, when we see him. Ask him if there were two boys, ask him if they were twins and one died. Ask if his name was Yuui."
Kurogane gaped at him.
"That's not me, Kuro-sama. That's Fai. That's my brother and Ashura, and this time—" His voice caught. He swallowed and his eyes were bright and his hands were steady as they held the dam together. "This time I'm going to save them."
Kurogane touched his cheek. "You're cold."
Fai wasn't even shivering. "Very."
Kurogane stepped behind him and wrapped his arms and the edges of his long coat around him. He didn't speak again. He just tried to keep him warm until he had to go back for another shift at the barricade.
The sun had come out for just a brief time. It was low in the west and its rays were orange and pink, cutting through the sick green and gray sky.
Syaoran and Kurogane were both at the dam with Fai, now. Mokona had been keeping out of the way inside Fanny's inn, but now she was in Syaoran's coat pocket. The rest of the men had started the journey to catch up with the evacuated townspeople. They'd run out of material for sandbags. The rain was falling in slick, steady sheets again, making the burnished colours of the sun weak and wavering.
"Mage," Kurogane said quietly. The wind had stopped for now. "We've got to go."
Fai had gone to his knees. His face was white and drawn and even his hair seemed to have faded. His eyes were the only spot of colour on him.
"I can't," he whispered raggedly. Kurogane had to creep close to hear him above the storm.
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"When I let go, the water's going to be moving fast. I . . . can't."
"We'll be fine," Kurogane said brusquely. "Just keep holding onto it until we get past the sandbags, and then we can run."
Fai hung his head even lower. "I can't run, Kuro-sama. I'm too tired. I can't even get up. I'm sorry."
Kurogane rolled his eyes. "Why didn't you just say that from the beginning, idiot?" he muttered. Then he scooped Fai into his arms and stood up. "Come on," he said to Syaoran and Mokona.
He didn't run, but he set a quick pace as they slogged through the mud. Syaoran was struggling to keep up. Fai was still working, still keeping the dam together. Purple trailed thinly from his fingers and the dam had started to crackle and moan. His head lolled against Kurogane's shoulder, and his whole body was wracked with shivering.
A series of sharp reports echoed over the valley of the town, and suddenly Fai went limp in Kurogane's arms. A roar. The rush of water breaking free filled their ears, their chests, filled up everything until they were aware of nothing but the breaking of the dam. Kurogane began to run. He ran as fast as he could with Fai's limp body in his arms.
They were beyond the barricade, there was water and mud and dead leaves and children's clothing swirling over their feet and around their ankles. Kurogane and Syaoran ran. They kept running as long as they could, past their own exhaustion and past what they could reasonably bear. They just kept running, even when it became a jog, even when it became a stumbling walk. They kept going until the water was nothing more than puddles from the rain. They kept going for hours through the darkness, with Fai pale and limp and Mokona silent in Syaoran's pocket. They kept going until they knew they were safe, then they stumbled and sank to the ground and leaned against the trunk of a tree.
Kurogane cradled Fai in his lap and tried not to think about the possibility that he could die from so much loss of energy. He peeled back his jacket and unbuttoned the top of his shirt so he could bare his shoulder. It had been bleeding sluggishly all day. He lifted Fai's body higher and pressed the mage's face to the smear of blood. Fai's nose flared and his eyes blinked open blearily. Yellow. Slitted. His tongue crept out and lapped at the thick red smear. He became more alert, his eyes more open. He made a strange mewing noise of protest and turned his face away, but Kurogane carded his fingers through Fai's sodden hair and then he pulled at his skin to tear it wider and let the blood flow more freely. Fai sighed gustily and his mouth latched onto the torn skin and Kurogane felt his tongue lapping it up.
Syaoran had turned away, huddling around Mokona to make sure she wasn't looking either. Kurogane had never fed Fai his blood where anyone else could see before. He wouldn't now if he wasn't so afraid of what could happen if he waited any longer. Fai was too weak to probably even notice that Syaoran and Mokona were with them.
A strange light came from where the two of them sat. Kurogane turned to see. Syaoran's face was full of grief as he looked down at the glowing jewel on Mokona.
"Time to go," he said softly.
Kurogane gripped Fai tight. "Not yet," he said. "How long can we wait? He needs to see them before we go?"
Mokona shook her head sadly, her ears drooping. "Not very long."
"It's okay," Fai said, his voice nothing but a thin thread.
"It's—you wanted to talk to Ashura, and you should get to say goodbye to that little boy, you—"
"I saved them," Fai said, a small but real smile on his face. "We did. We saved them. That's enough."
Kurogane didn't care about his own blood smeared on the corner of Fai's lips when he bent his head to kiss him fiercely.
"Next world," he growled at Mokona. "Next world better be someplace quiet and safe, you hear me?"
They all knew Mokona couldn't control it, but none of them said anything. Mokona rose up and spread her wings of light and took them all just as they were, mud-spattered and exhausted and with Kurogane's raw, bleeding shoulder still bared with Fai in his grip.
And a hot wind blew over them, grains of sand caressing their faces, and the smell was of stone and they could hear voices calling out. Mokona couldn't control it, but she could wish and sometimes wishing was stronger than any other force in any dimension. Perhaps she knew that the sight of their princess would always cheer Fai and strengthen him when nothing else could.
Clow. It wasn't home, but it was close. It would do.