The snow billows around the four figures as they struggle across the landscape. Up ahead, the tallest and broadest, a shock of black hair adding perhaps another half-foot to his height, stomps through drifts of snow that barely reach his knees, the heavy clothes that shields him from the cold specked with large, fat flakes, barely melting with the cold. Behind him, braced from the worst of the snow, two smaller figures wearily trudge on, one, goggles pulled down over his eyes, hood pulled down over his face, supporting the other, her small frame swaddled from the cold, the little of her face that’s visible pink from the cold. Bringing up the rear is the other tall figure. Willow thin, with less muscle than his black haired travelling companion, a long, elegant staff carried over one shoulder and with his fur-lined hood thrown back, light blonde hair specked with snow, he seems to wear a permanent soft smile, as though amused by the mere fact of being alive. Resting on his shoulder is the fifth member of this quartet, looking halfway between a rice ball and a rabbit, long ears drooping a little in the biting wind. The vibrant red gem that adorns its forehead seems to almost smoulder against the oppressive whiteness, the cold, never ending curtain of snow driven into the background. But still it falls. It never stops snowing here, after all. It’s the nature of the place. For this quintet of ragged walkers, in their slow arduous quest to regain that which is lost to them, in their journey across scribbed, back-of-envelope, thought experiment concepts and what-ifs and cosmic maybes, had come to Snow Country.
The young man staggers a little, the weight of his companion, and the shifting drifts of uneven snow conspiring. He slips, and the girl slips with him. Muscled arms pluck her from snow filled air, and she regains her balance, concern flickering across slightly flushed features, a soft sigh of relief as he clambers up, dusting himself down, just as the blonde reaches them. The black haired man wheels, glaring at the still smiling late arrival.
“We’ve gotta get out of this damned storm. Sakura’s exhausted. Close to passin’ out. And I don’t wanna be having to carry her in these sorta places. Doubt Syaoran can manage, either.”
The blonde leans on his staff, gazing off, smile diminished slightly, but still playing around the corner of his mouth. Finally he speaks, the riceball-rabbit’s ears twitching to attention
“If what that trader said is correct, Kuro-nya, that “damned storm” never ends”
A soft curse from the black haired man, and a soft mutter of “that is not my name, you damn’d mage.”
The blonde haired man continues.
“But, considering we’ve been following the old roads here, as best we can, and that the trader did say that there are castles and towns at every crossroads…”, he tails off, gazing over his companion’s shoulder.
“Like that one, Fai?” the young man asks, turning to point off into the distance. A vague shape, fuzzy, like the outward edge of a well worn map, stained and yellowed with age.
“Indeed, like that one. Well spotted”. The blonde’s smile widens again. “Shall we get going then?”
Fai turns, shouldering his staff again, as Syaoran takes Sakura’s weight again, and Kurogane straightens up, arms folded. The little group sets off again, purposefully this time, Syaoran and Sakura leading this time, strides longer, more confident. Fai and Kurogane lag a little way behind.
“You knew, didn’t ya, Fai?”
Fai simply smiles.
“And what if I did, Kuro-nya-nya? I wouldn’t have known which direction we were meant to take, would I, now?”
He leans close, smiling. There’s…an odd glint, some might say mischievousness or playfulness, in Fai’s eyes suddenly, the lithe figure walking backwards with ease, face to face with Kurogane despite the thick drifts.
“A journey wouldn’t be written about in tales if it were easy, now would it?”
He stops suddenly, in front of Kurogane, almost nose to nose with the powerfully built former ninja.
“Even…if she has lost her memory, and he’s back at square one, a total stranger to her, he still cares for her, still loves her. Must be nice to have someone work that hard for your love.”
He’s close, Kurogane realises. Too close, so close he can see the individual flakes settle in the mage’s hair. And then those soft lips, always curled into that lazy mask of a smile that infuriates him so, are pressed softly to his, and Kurogane-
Kurogane wakes with a start, half-falling out of his bed. Just…what the hell was that? The events of that day, rudely interrupted by that bloody mage with his damn’d pet-names, and that stupid bloody smile he never snaps out of...kissing him. “Stupid”. That’s right. It’s a stupid dream. Fai’s not stupid enough to do anything like that, or, to be honest, that serious. As for his own role in that, it’s unthinkable that he’d let someone, anyone kiss him. Except his Princess of course. Stretching, Kurogane sighs. Not that the mage is stupid in particular, but his ability to wind him up sometimes…Grumbling, Kurogane gets out of bed, stomping to the window. The rooms at this inn, half-way between stone tower and country house are, for the price, comfortable, if a little sparse. Surprise surprise, it’s still snowing.
For a moment, he simply watches; whilst it had snowed during the winter in his Japan, and at points, had left great drifts in the palace grounds…it was never on this scale. Unbidden, a memory of Princess Tomoyo gleefully running out into the snow, a tiny figure, wrapped up in fine furs, against a sea of white. He wonders, as he gazes out of the window, into the flickering whiteness, what the princess would think of all this, of him dreaming another man kissed him. She’d probably find it very funny, he concludes. Very funny indeed. He sighs, turning from the window. The mage’s face, the soft smile, the constant pet names…try as he might, he can’t stop thinking about the blond-haired man. He sighs, pulling on his shirt, and a jacket over it. If he can’t sleep, he might as well go for a walk, clear his head.
And yet, he finds his steps following the well-worn steps; he’d meant to go outside, wander round the courtyard, but…something about the falling snow, and the cold seems…unappealing. He stops at Syaoran and Sakura’s room; with the exception of the owners, they’re the only people here, and have the central tower. Sakura is dozing in the dying light of the fire, Syaoran curled up on top of the heavy goose feather blankets. The perfect couple, even if neither of them know it. Mokona is there to, snuggled between the pair and also fast asleep. He’d wondered where the little riceball had got to, and the scene brings a smile to his face. He stands in the door for a moment, and then turns.
Unbidden, a single thought comes to the fore.
I wonder what Fai looks like when he’s asleep.
No. That’s stupid. After all, they’ve shared a room, back in the Hanshin Empire, and countless other times…
But I always fell asleep first. Even when I went for walks.
Kurogane realises with a start that he’s reached the second floor landing, and is standing in front of the slightly ajar door. He’d turned down Fai’s suggestion that they shared a room, considering there’s a single bed. Stepping inside, he allows his light to adjust to the light, noting the similarities to his and Sakura and Syaoran’s room. Another fire, on the edge of going out, the bed up against the wall, the vague shape of Fai, curled up, his clothes dumped on a radiator. . Kurogane crosses the dark room and-
Thump. His left arm connects with a chair, and several somethings fall from it onto the floor. Kurogane wheels, turning to gaze at the figure curled up in bed. Phew. He walks to the fire, and, tossing a log onto it, stokes up the fire, till the room is bathed in the firelight. A soft smile, and Kurogane turns back to the sleeping mage. And for the first time, he realises how…vulnerable Fai is. Whilst Sakura and Syaoran neatly fit onto the bed, leaving space, even as they dream, for each other, and the bed is the perfect size for a man of Kurogane’s build, Fai…is surrounded by the expanse of white on either side, face buried into the pillow, barely making a sound. True, his bed is a little bigger, but...and then there’s the fact that the mage always seems…apart from the group-sure, he fights as hard for Sakura’s feathers, he does everything that a member of a close-knit group does.
But then, this was the man desperate to go anywhere but home.
That was it, wasn’t it? Fai’s wish had been to go anywhere but home, to wander across the infinitesimal universes, eager to explore any but his. Kurogane himself had a home, Japan, albeit it one of many countries bearing that name. Sakura and Syaoran, oblivious to their bonds of friendship renewing despite themselves, had each other. Fai…Fai had nothing. No homeland to return to after this adventure was over, no companion to share the road with. Nothing.
Kurogane takes a step towards the bed, sidestepping the objects spilled from their makeshift stand which, eyes now accustomed to the light, he realises are books. Reaching the bed, he stops, looking down at the slim figure, blond hair falling all around his face, and onto the pillow he’s loosely hugging. There’s something…childlike in the way he sleeps, open book on his pillow, hugging another to his chest, and once again, memories of the princess emerge from his memory-he’d watched over her when she slept too, to protect her when knifemen and assassins had been sent her way. Something makes him reach out, touch Fai’s cheek. He’s warm, and Kurogane is, for a moment, amazed how soft his skin is. Fai moves a little in his sleep, mutters a name Kurogane doesn’t recognise, and settles once again, back a little more exposed than before. For a man who’s as powerful and adept a fighter, Fai’s lean, almost feminine form, certainly doesn’t show it- surprisingly narrow shoulders, arms that Kurogane could wrap his hand around.
A tree that grew alone in the palace grounds , that Princess Tomoyo would point out every day to him, a tree she’d nicknamed “The Elegant Young Man”, a beautiful cherry blossom tree, with thin, but strong branches. A tree that bore the best cherry blossom, and whose soft, pink petals lasted the longest, whose viewing was all but the star attraction when dignitaries visited during that period. But it was also tree that some said was magical, a faltering beauty kept alive by its dotage by the princess-that, were she to forget about this tree, or find another with greater beauty, would wither away, or grow stunted and no longer produce those soft, delicate blossoms
That is what Fai reminds him of. But Fai’s strong-he doesn’t need anyone else to protect him. He’s not a damned tree, Kurogane. Face it, he’s your equal in any fight.
That’s true. Fai’s damned good in a fight. Even without using his magic. Fai doesn’t need someone protecting him. Hell, if Fai turned around and started acting like this to him, he’d deck the mage.
But Fai’s not you. Fai has no home to return to. Fai has no-one to share this with.
Something makes tug off his shirt and dump it over the chair, the few books that remain on the chair tumbling off. He turns, kicking off his boots, and walks around the bed, shivering softly. How the mage can sleep with no shirt on, he has no idea. He pulls back the covers, clambers into the bed, and stares at the mage.
Now what? Goddamn it, Kurogane, you’re sharing a bed with another man. Damn that stupid bloody dream.
He reaches out and pokes Fai’s cheekNothing. No stirring, certainly no acknowledgement that he’s no longer alone. Fai’s a fairly deep sleeper then.
What are you going to do now, Kurogane?
It wouldn’t hurt to watch over the mage, make sure that, for once in his life, he’s not alone when he sleeps, that he has someone to…to look after him once in a while. Not that he intends to make this a regular thing. Just once or twice. A plan formulates in his head. He’ll get up, cook breakfast for everyone. So Fai doesn’t have to do it. Hell, even the mage needs a lie-in sometimes. Besides, if he gets up early, when Fai’s still sleeping, Fai’ll never know this happened...
Just a few hours, then he thinks, as sleep slowly but surely takes him. The last thing Kurogane sees, before he closes his eyes, turns over and falls fast asleep, is one of Fai’s soft, lazy smirks as the mage dreams.
Fai wakes to warmth. It’s only as he wakes that he realises quite how warm the bed is, and for a moment, he simply lies there, faced towards the large window, curtains still drawn and the cold, empty fireplace below it, listening, tousled blonde hair falling into eyes still growing accustomed to the weakening dark that peeped through the gap in the curtain, the herald of morning at the high latitudes. Nothing. No crackle of a new fire, nor the bright red glow, no distant creaking of a boiler buried deep beneath living quarters. Neither, he senses, is it magic. Another minute, spent in silence as he composes himself, thinks. A soft smile. Whatever it is, it’s not a threat; not a fire, nor malevolent magic. Back to sleep for an hour or so, before he has to get up, make breakfast for the others and their hosts. He closes his eyes, rolls over in the spacious bed and curls his legs up a little. As he stretches out in the darkness, arms snaking around a goose-feather pillow that he’d fallen asleep loosely hugging, his fingers brush something warm, and soft. He retracts the hand, curious, then reaches out, placing his hand flat against the mysterious object. Skin, with what is clearly a little muscle rippling beneath it. Someone is sharing his bed. He strokes his hand up, finding broad shoulders, more developed muscle here. Mentally, he strikes the slight, delicate Sakura from the list, a soft smirk across his face. For a moment, he considers whether Syaoran, tired and in need of someone to talk to, has curled into his bed, rather than his usual watch, curled into a sleeping bag or on top of the covers by Sakura’s side. Fai strokes up, feeling a powerful neck, and…spiky, sticky-up hair. Fai sighs softly, and rolls over a little more, head resting into the crook of Kurogane’s back.
For a moment, he lies there, eyes closed, listening to the ninja breathe, and the deep, distant beating of his heart. Then, lifting himself onto one elbow, he opens his eyes, gazing over the bulk of the other man, noting the padded shirt that serves as Kurogane’s armour in this world has been tossed over the chair that Fai always reads in, dislodging a few of the heavy, leather-bound books, that lie spilt over the floor. Sighing, the soft smile playing over his lips, Fai returns his attention to his unexpected companion. How has Kurogane, always standoffish, the warrior, the muscle of their little quartet, ended up in his bed? Alcohol? Hardly. The big man takes his drink even better than Fai himself does, and on the few occasions he’s actually been drunk, he’s spent most of the night walking it off. So not alcohol. He pulls himself up in bed, leaning against the cool wall, watching Kurogane sleep. Not the cold either, and the ninja isn’t one for loneliness at night. So that would mean…
“Kuro-chi”, Fai mutters to himself. “You shouldn’t be…doing this.”
Silence. Fai sighs softly, stretching. The silence carries on. Daunting. Sighing, the blonde runs long fingers through his hair, takes a breath and continues.
“Kuro…Kurogane, I can’t…let people get close to me, emotionally…physically…I can’t…do things like this…with other people.”
He lets the wan smile play across across his features. This mask, this smile he hides behind, all of it feels false. He leans back against the cool wall, wondering silently if the silent flakes, like the blossom of a thousand thousand trees, ever stops falling. Fai lets his eyes, still heavy with sleep, close slowly. Moving by touch a little closer to the edge of the bed, widening the gap between himself and the bulk of the ninja, he silently ponders what possessed Kurogane, all pride and hot anger, to share his bed, to take the time to wander up, long, lazy strides on the freezing castle steps, probably in the dead of night. Fai smiles wider. That’s…oddly touching. What did he look like to Kurogane? The blonde hair haloing his face, a pillow hugged up to his chest like a kid, a book dropped on the floor, left open. He wonders whether Kuro had watched over him till sleep took him; he knows very little about the ninja’s sleeping habits-whether he read before bed, or simply lay there, or sharpened and maintained his swords. In fact, he realises, as sleep begins to regain its hold, even in this uncomfortable position, he knows very little about Kurogane.