There is no time here, and so he’s not sure of it. No dying here in the snow and the cold, just the other above and him below, and Yuui has lost track of time.
Maybe it’s not all this place, he supposes, though it’s driven him mad already (and that’s part of it too, he knows it, he’s always been mad and madness has no time). But Ashura has told him – or will tell, it’s all blurred together for him, is he still here or free or running, is it Yuui today or Fai and he’s never quite sure anymore – that magic does things to people. Magic and madness and long life. Fai – he’s Fai now, he can’t recall being Yuui except in dreams now – knows all these things, and the worlds blur together and bells chime in his head.
Yuui, Yuui. Bells. Yuui, Yuui.
Ashura lets him sleep in a warm bed and the other under water, warm and soft and the castle bells chime the hour. Otherwise he’s lost, without the bells. Fai spends too long in the library and Ashura carries him to bed, and he wakes up Yuui in the cold snow. No time here.
He waits for the feathers to drift down to him because he’s been promised futures that haven’t happened yet. He dreams those futures sometimes, and when he wakes it’s all the past again and forgotten, so he says nothing of the dreams. Voices ring in his head. ‘You will go on a journey with the desert princess and the clone I have prepared.’
He dreams of a red-eyed man he’s sure he should know and doesn’t yet.
‘I wonder what they’ll be like.’ ‘They have nothing to do with me.’ The truth of it all: ‘I wonder if they’ll love me’ and Fai turns his face away and hides the feathers where he can’t see their light. Magic and light and one feather becomes an image of the girl who should have loved him and never did.
The fire is warm and there are two now, princes side by side and he is Yuui again. The other reaches out to him and he touches warm skin, but they are cold together. One above. One below. No time, no bells. No dying ‘til the last.
Warm again. Yuui and Fai, by the fire, wrapped in woolen coats and blankets. Little princes. The blond woman he only just knows running her hands down their shoulders, saying something kind and smiling, but he knows she’s lying and the smile never reaches her eyes. They all walk by, those servants and nobles. Look at the little princes. Dear things. Dear little things. Smile, smile, lie, lie. Yuui can tell, Yuui remembers. The smile is the best lie of all, but he can always tell. He remembers. Dear little princes, dear precious things. Nothing in those smiles.
Misfortune, and they smile. Then that woman dies and there is no need to bother with smiles anymore. No need to bother with two princes anymore.
Become one, they tell him, and he does. Fai again. Yuui’s gone. Yuui was never here. Yuui can’t be here or Fai dies and he won’t let Fai die again.
Fai has been dead for a very long time, but that body doesn’t rot and he can’t tell the passing of time that way.
Ashura sleeps, or has always slept, and the bells don’t chime anymore. Nothing lives here but him, and he’s leaving. Has left. Maybe he’s left a million times, a million years, and there is nothing left of the castle but that pool with no time, where Ashura and the other half sleep, side by side.
Fai leaves and Fai travels and Fai runs. He knows things that he’s always known. He meets the two who were prepared to meet him, and fakes surprises and smiles. ‘The desert princess’ sleeps and he helps her because he’s grown to hate sleeping things now. ‘The clone I have prepared’ he meets and understands but doesn’t understand, and is sad but not quite sad. So he smiles.
Kurogane Fai knows he remembers, but only after they meet for the first time.
Time travels differently in each world, and this is nothing new for him. Time has always traveled differently for him. Fai thinks of it sometimes and wonders how it changes between them all, faster and then slower and not-quite-linear. He wonders if there is another him sometimes, an afterimage floating away, who seals the king in Celes and freezes in the cold in Valeria and if all that is going on while he travels these worlds where time moves fast. Perhaps he’s still a baby somewhere, wrapped in blankets side by side with the other. Perhaps he’s an old man somewhere, perhaps he’s bones somewhere, he never knows. Time runs differently. Time runs.
Fai runs, and smiles, and cannot keep time without bells or clocks. He can never read the numbers on the clocks in the places they go. He hasn’t found a word he can read, in all these travels, and somehow that cuts painfully.
Fai sleeps too long in the library and Ashura carries him to bed and he wakes in cold snow and then Ashura is there again, smiling kindly and extending his hand. Ashura can smile and not lie. Ashura extended his hand, Ashura can do as he wishes. Ashura reaches a hand to him, but when Fai looks again it is Kurogane’s hand that closes over his wrist and drags him forward.
They travel. Fai stops counting days and months because there are none. None for Ashura under the water, so it’s all right. No time. Time stopped long ago anyway.
It is unfamiliar land and unfamiliar time, then, when he and Kurogane get separated from the others. The only time in Yama is kept by the moon and by the old stone sundial in the center of camp. Fai runs into it every so often, when he’s not looking, trips over it, almost knocks it over, because he doesn’t think. Kurogane yells at him every time and Fai smiles and says nothing, he knows that Kurogane’s mad because Kurogane knows better, Kurogane knows he’s not that clumsy. But still, Fai runs into the sundial. He wishes it was made of wood or glass and wonders what would happen if he smashed it, if he could catch pieces of time that way, catch them and hold them and throw them all away.
He shows Ashura a picture of a sundial in a book and Ashura teaches him how to read it. Ashura’s face is blank and his eyes are closed by the water. Fai dreams tragedy and says nothing. It has already happened. It is already here.
It snows in Yama, so he knows they have been there for some time. Fai can’t remember sometimes, that his eyes are black now and Kurogane is in his tent. He wakes now and then and reaches down for the coat no longer there, reaches up for the brother who has been gone so long, and sometimes Fai cannot breathe, when he watches the snow.
Kurogane watches him, and he can feel every weight of that gaze. He sleeps with his face down at night so he won’t see Kurogane beside him, because he doesn’t want to think of Ashura asleep under the water, Kurogane asleep under the snow, bones and bones and years have passed and he can’t recall when he became this.
Syaoran and Sakura appear on the battlefield, and time starts. The snow melts and the sun moves and Fai breathes and smiles. A whisper in the back of his mind warns quietly, but he’s forgotten again when he wakes, and Fai walks forward.
He hears those whispers again in his mind when they arrive in the dying land with the poisoned rain. Something in this place is wrong. Something in this place waits. They run for shelter and find bodies, bloodied and torn amongst the rocks and he knows this.
Fai runs and runs and is still too late when he opens the door and Ashura is there, with the bodies on the ground and the blood on his hands. He barely listens when Fai speaks, but his eyes are Ashura’s eyes and Fai knows he can’t fight the king, not when he has those eyes.
The monster has always existed in Celes, the king with those eyes and the bringer of misfortune who has – who must have, who else could have, Fai knows these things still – infected him with this disease that destroys and kills, again and again.
Kurogane speaks and Fai cannot answer and the ninja grabs Fai’s arm when he tries to run away again. No more running now, and for a moment Fai cannot see out of one eye and isn’t sure why, even though he’s certain he should know.
He finally understands when he’s pinned there on the ground by Syaoran – or not-Syaoran, other-Syaoran, the one he knew existed but had tried to forget – and the boy runs a hand by his eyes. Cursed, cursed blue eyes. Too strong, that magic, that cursed magic.
Outo country is bright and welcoming and the café is filled with warmth, and Sakura tells him his eyes are beautiful. Fai smiles and could almost hate her for it, if he didn’t love her so much.
Cursed eyes and Syaoran is holding him down still and he knows he should have remembered this but didn’t. Had forgotten, because Syaoran’s eyes were so determined and his wish was so strong. “The clone I have prepared.” A man in the snow. The choice that was never a choice.
“Do you want to get out? Out of there.” Yuui shivers in the cold and makes his choice and there is blood everywhere, on his hands and feet and the snow and he only wanted to be out of this place –
--and there is blood over his eye and he can’t see at all and time goes away completely, time goes blank and dark like a snuffed candle and he can’t breathe and can’t see and he wonders if this is what Ashura feels, deep under the water –
--“If you want to die that badly, I’ll kill you. Until then, live”—
--and then Kurogane’s blood is in his mouth and time starts.
Fai screams without words and breathes and twists in the blankets and time moves too fast, too fast, it all blurs together in his head and he never really could breathe at all and for a long moment he cannot remember his name.
He holds Sakura close in the rain and his head aches and he knows dreams that aren’t dreams but they slip away too fast for him, and he knows he cannot see what she sees, but something has happened there. He forgets almost immediately but still knows, even half-blind he still knows the smell of tragedy approaching.
Breathe. Run. He’s hungry and won’t eat and ignores the feeling. Fai knows what it is like to be hungry, really truly hungry, and this is not that pain yet. He has time yet, before that pain, and Fai will not eat.
They throw rocks in the next world, but not at him, and the next after that is near destroyed, and he almost drowns in the one after that because he’s been careless.
That world is full of wind and rocks and ocean, and he walks barefoot along the edge where the sand meets the water. He has never seen an ocean before, and it looks strange and threatening in the half-light of a red sun nearly obscured by clouds. All these things he should know. Fai closes his eyes – no, eye, just the one now but he can feel the other and so he forgets now and then, that it’s just the one – and he listens to the waves.
He realizes his mistake when the waves roar too high and he drifts too far and suddenly he’s in the water up to his waist and he blinks heavily and shakes his head, trying to see with only one eye through soaked bangs and wet eyelashes and the rain pours down and drenches him and the water pulls him in and he can’t recall anything but the sound of Ashura’s heartbeat pounding in his ears.
“At least, while you’re asleep, have good dreams.”
Then Kurogane’s hand grabs his wrist and Kurogane is holding him close and dragging him to shore, swearing like thunderclouds and dripping wet. Fai crouches in the sand and coughs and shivers and Kurogane half-drags him inside, cursing the whole way. Sakura and the boy with Syaoran’s face cover them with blankets and towels and Fai shakes. Sakura leans close and Fai can see that her face is almost as white as his.
He sleeps for a bit and when he wakes he argues with Kurogane; the ninja does not quite believe that Fai did not almost drown on purpose. Fai only argues because arguing is easier than forgiving, and even he isn’t sure if he really didn’t mean to drown out there in the water.
After that there are worlds and worlds, and then they are separated and he is alone. This world is wide and empty, with a red sky and dry, cracked ground dotted here and there with black rocks. There are no trees and no animals, and Fai wonders if anything lives here. He is alone this time, without Kurogane or Sakura or the boy who isn’t Syaoran or even Mokona. Fai walks because there is nothing else to do, but he has nowhere to go.
He walks too long and can’t remember and finally he sees it, a high black tower in the distance, standing out like a scar against the sky. Fai moves forward as if in a dream and then he sees the rest, the deep black pit surrounding the tower and in one move he turns and runs.
Black figures follow him and Fai runs. They are coming for him. They are coming to take him back. Valeria is gone and Celes is gone and there is no world but this world and no people but himself and the black figures and they are taking him away, back to that pit and that place where the sinners go to die.
Strong hands are around him and he fights, bites and kicks and scratches, his one eye wild and slitted like a cat’s. He digs his feet into the ground and tries to run and can’t, and his hands and feet are bloody from the effort and still that person holds him close and voices he thinks he should know are drowned out by the blood pounding in his ears.
They take him back. He’s in that place again. There is no Fai, no Yuui. Just one, just him. No one in that tower to look down on him. There is nothing but the snow and the pit and the empty sky and the dead bodies, and he stacks them, one by one, reaching for an escape that will always be out of reach. One by one, he stacks them.
One. The child who looks like him, with blood all around the head and sunken eyes and long hair, small and neglected and alone.
Two. Sakura, serene and kind even in death, clothed in white. Her eyes are closed and there is no mark on her save for a red stain around her stomach.
Three. Syaoran, and he cannot tell which one because the eyes have been gouged out.
Four. Ashura. The king’s eyes are open and sightless, and the hands that once reached out to him are gone.
Five, and this is the hardest to move. Kurogane. Bleeding still from both sides and the smell of blood makes Fai’s nostrils burn and it is all he can do not to lick at the blood and drink. His hands are shaking and he cannot turn away from the corpse. He leans forward and buries his head in Kurogane’s neck, and the sky above is dark.
Fai wakes. He’s in a bed in a dark room with black walls, and he can tell from the view out the window that he is the tower. He isn’t frightened. He was never the one trapped above. Below is far more frightening than above.
Sakura is sitting beside him and she takes his hand as he wakes. Her face is pale again, and he thinks he remembers hearing her voice when the black figures took him.
She tells him he’s been sick for a long time and that she was worried, and he smiles at her. Sakura’s face doesn’t change and Fai can see that the smile doesn’t fool her anymore. He wonders when all these wounds became so obvious.
She looks at him and Fai smiles, and doesn’t ask about Kurogane.
He wakes up again, and he’s not certain what the time is, if he’s spoken with Sakura yet or not. His head feels warm and it’s clouding his vision. The room is stained red from the sunset and the red sky, and Kurogane is standing by the wall, watching him.
Even with the dim light and single eye Fai can see Kurogane’s arms are scratched and torn and then he remembers. Black things taking him away. Fighting.
Bodies in the snow, stacking one by one.
Ashura’s hands are bloody again. This monster has always existed, and Fai’s mouth is dry. Dead things again, always dead things, and there are corpses in the throne room. His mouth is dry.
Fai smells Kurogane’s blood even though it’s mostly dried, and Fai remembers hunger.
“The thing that always wounds you most of all is this kindness of yours, Yuui.”
Not kindness. Fai leans forward without words and Kurogane offers his arm, and it is not kindness. Weakness, always. Fai is hungry and Kurogane is too close, Kurogane’s breath is on his face and Kurogane’s heartbeat is in his ear and Kurogane’s smell is pulsing in his veins and Fai tells himself that this is not kindness.
He cannot afford kindness. Kindness means forgiving, and Fai is hungry.
He pulls Kurogane’s arms closer and Fai can smell everything, the blood and the scent and Kurogane is warm, not like those dead things in the snow, not like Ashura under the water, and it has been so long since he had warm things and he pulls Kurogane close.
Fai’s teeth break the skin easily just above one of the wounds and he drinks and drinks and for just a moment he’s warm and warmth is dangerous and he knows this, he knows so many useless things, but Kurogane is warm and Kurogane is watching him and he can feel it, but he’s only hunger and cold all the time now, just one eye and hunger and need and weakness, and Fai drinks.
Ashura lays a hand on his shoulder and pulls him close. This kindness of yours.
He hears Kurogane grunt softly, just a small noise of pain, and Fai pulls his mouth away, breathing heavily, bloodstained mouth and slitted eye. Fai looks up at then they are close, so close, and Fai knows what it is he wants more than anything and that he must never want something this much. He cannot forgive, or he’ll want too much. Cannot want this thing. Never want this, this most important thing, this most important person. Never want this, or it’ll be too late.
They are dangerous thoughts and dangerous breath and Kurogane’s face is far too close to his. Fai looks away and closes his eye and sleeps.
Fai wakes again, and Kurogane is still there. His arms are bandaged and his eyes are closed, and Fai can taste the blood on his tongue. The room seems wide and empty, and his head hurts, and far in the distance he can hear the sound of bells.
Yuui, Yuui. His vision blurs with each chime, and there is only Kurogane to hold on to. Yuui, Yuui.
Kurogane sleeps, and Fai has learned to hate sleeping things.
Ashura sleeps, and Fai knows what choice he must make, even if it swallows him whole in the making of it.
In the next world he is clothed in black and they play strange chess. In this world the clocks are all upside down and hard to read, and there are no bells that chime the hour. Fai does not know the time and will not feel the wounds.
Under the water, Ashura wakes, and time moves.