A day's hike into ninja territory wasn't somewhere Captain Doumeki Shizuka liked to be without at least a few of his crew, or any idea of where he was going; but he had his crossbow and bolts to spare, and the one traveling companion he did have could (so Doumeki had heard) blast an ambush to smithereens by raising his hand. When the Pirate King had dropped onto his boat (literally -- Fai'd done some spinning vault from the Dragon of Heaven's main mast top to the Queen Cassandra's fo'c'sle), his bargain had been that Doumeki would guard Lord Shirou Kamui on a mission to go someplace and get something ("Kamui will take care of all the details when he gets there, don't worry!" "Take care of what details?! You haven't told me anything either, you bastard! Why the fuck do you keep doing this to me? You'd better not be sneaking off to have sex with Kurogane again, I swear on all that's-- hey! Where are you going?!") in exchange for a complete repair and refit for his ship on the Pirate King's dime. It was a good deal, even if Death Shirou didn't need a bodyguard. Doumeki was pretty damn sure the only reason he was here was so his fleet admiral had someone to talk to.
"--second time this month that fucking fripp-frappety fop has packed me off somewhere asinine and dangerous without any explanation or warning."
"Last time it was a fucking bad joke of a volcano that shot me halfway around the world to a frozen island surrounded by ghosts, where I had to camp with a ninja for two days, and the ninja was the best part of it! Don't tell anyone I said so, but the ninja -- her name's Hikaru -- she was all right. But His Grace was off in the tropics, screwing around with fucking Kurogane, and I swear if I ever see that ninja jackass again -- I mean Kurogane, not Hikaru, Hikaru's fine -- I swear I will punch him right in his unreasonably attractive face."
Lord Shirou had shown him the sex points ledger that detailed exactly how the Pirate King had overshot Doumeki's own score by almost fifty thousand, confirming everything Doumeki had assumed when he'd seen that week's leaderboard. Watanuki had been fit to bust (horrified and twitchy, in the cute way) the first time he'd asked if a ninja was sleeping with the Pirate King. Maybe there'd be explosions next time he was in Hundhammeren and got to tell his lover-in-denial which ninja it'd been. Hopefully this mission wouldn't put him off too long. The detour south to the docks at Bresken had already pulled him off his routes.
"Never would've even met him if Fai hadn't kidnapped Sakura for fuck-knows-why last month. That was the only reason Tomoyo sicced her personal ninja-out-of-legend bodyguard on our boat. I swear, this summer's been a ninja-ridden hell because of that asshole dandy -- Fai, I mean -- and he's the only one who knows why he's done it! Well, maybe Subaru knows..." Shirou's face turned pained as mentioned the Sumeragi, whom Doumeki had seen fight just once, and after that had steered as far clear as he could. The man seemed nice enough, but he clearly wanted nothing to do with anyone and Doumeki respected that. His magic, though... The memory of standing near it made Doumeki's skin prickle. Power like that wasn't human.
They walked a few paces in silence, and when Shirou picked up, it was almost in a whisper. "But it's not Subaru's fault. It's Fai's fucking fault, and he is the worst at explaining."
"Yup," Doumeki agreed, stealing a glance at the directions in Lord Shirou's hand. They were just about finished with the instruction to go three thousand and six paces East from a rock shaped like a straight razor. Supposedly, that'd land them at a path where they'd go left, and at the end of it they'd see wherever they were heading.
"I'm sorry, am I boring you?" Shirou asked in a voice that was anything but sorry.
"Nope. Just, if we're raiding ninja, I wish it was in Hundhammeren. I've got someone."
"Right. Because everybody's got a ninja boyfriend now."
"He says he's a popcorn vendor."
"Which may be the most transparent ninja cover story I've ever heard!"
"It's part of why he's cute."
"Well, I wish you could've dropped in, too. You're the only hope I've got of someone beating Fai's score this year as long as he keeps fucking Kurogane all over the place."
"I'm not sleeping with Watanuki to win anything."
"That doesn't mean you shouldn't win."
"Ah. I found the path."
Their three thousand and sixth pace had dropped them through a line of trees, on a dirt trail that looked endless in both directions. They went left, and there were no instructions after that -- which Shirou grumbled about for the next half hour (along with saying how he missed Princess Kotori back in Kaizuka, and her brother Fuuma, too -- Lord Monou of the Dragon of Earth to pirate captains who weren't on a first name basis with the prince -- so now Doumeki'd won the Kamui Bingo game Fai had slipped him). When they finally reached a road sign, it read "Welcome to Kragero". It figured, tromping through ninja woods, they'd be headed for a ninja stronghold. He hadn't realized it'd be one that major. Doumeki felt Shirou's anger a split second before fluffy, white feathers started falling out of the sky over their heads.
Doumeki snapped one up between two fingers. "You're doing it again."
Shirou grabbed the feather, quashing his twitching scowl while he counted backwards from ten. As he calmed down, the feathers stopped. The pique didn't.
"I'm supposed to find something in Kragero?! As in the home of Kragero University?! The whole damn town is a front for the Imonoyama branch of the Ninja Union! That asshole sent me into a den of ninja!"
"Us," Doumeki reminded him.
"What the fuck!!"
The pirate lord ran for a tree towering over the rest, and bounded straight onto one of the highest branches. One of these days, Doumeki might get Shirou to realize that not everybody could jump that high. He wasn't counting on it. In the meantime, he climbed the traditional way. By the time he reached Shirou's branch, the other pirate had gone pale, clutching the tree trunk to stay steady on his feet. His eyes were wide and focused oddly on the town in the valley with its main roads criss-crossing in the shape of a star inside the circle of its outer wall.
"Is that Hibiya Chitose from Ceres?" Shirou was muttering. "And Asou and Kizu from Chevrolet? What the hell are they-- ... Hikaru? And Eagle..."
Squinting at his companion, Doumeki pulled his spyglass from inside his coat. "How can you tell who anybody is from that far away?" He'd only ever seen ninja do sight tricks like that.
"... Practice." A flash of red bit Shirou's cheeks as he threw Doumeki a sidelong glance, then went back to getting the lay of the land.
Must have been some pretty interesting practice. Even through his spyglass, Doumeki couldn't get a clear enough view of the people to read individual faces. He could see banners all over town, though, and festival booths in one of the squares, not to mention airships docked on the far side of the city. "Well, the walls are flying flags for Hundhammeren, and for the Daidouji up in Malvek, and there's Ceres. A few I don't know off-hand, but... Is that England?" Doumeki dropped the spyglass and turned to Shirou. "Isn't England one of ours?"
"Mostly. Lord Aoki says they've got one ninja nobody's been able to root out."
"Are we going to talk about England, or about how Fai just sent the two of us to invade one of the capitals of ninja-dom, while they're having some kind of ninja convention?!" Lord Shirou dropped his face into his palm. "Why does the universe hate me?"
"Did you do something to the universe?"
"Not yet. But I might." With a sigh, he added, "And please don't say, 'At least it can't get any worse.'"
Doumeki shrugged. One of the first things you learned on your way to being a pirate captain was that it could always get worse.
"Kurogane, would you mind holding this ribbon tight across here?"
Sakura didn't know why Tomoyo had decided to make her a gown today. There wasn't always a reason, and standing still while Tomoyo pinned everything so it fit was something she'd gotten used to doing, but it seemed odd that her best friend would've waited to fit a gown until they'd gotten to Kragero. Tomoyo said gowns were hard, not something to do on short notice. Still, first thing after she'd met with Nokoru-san, Tomoyo had run out to the fabric store for yards of scarlet silk, lace, tulle, beads, feathers... all the normal things she had in color-coded shelving nooks at home, but couldn't exactly travel with.
Now Sakura was trying not to fidget so Tomoyo could get her bodice flat under the ribbon Kurogane was holding. "Umm, Tomoyo? Did you say the University does this every year?"
"Oh, yes! Ninja all around the world look forward to the Kragero Games!" she said, while Kurogane twisted up his lip like he wasn't one of those people. "A once-in-a-year chance to compete with your peers in distant lands for goodwill and glory!" Sakura's friend sighed. "We usually leave it to Lady Yuuko's syndicate in Hundhammeren to represent our country, since we don't run a professional union, but with Nokoru-san ascending to the chairmanship, the Imperial family simply must pay our regards! I have every confidence that you'll do Sor-Trondelag, Malvek Castle, and the Daidouji clan proud. Won't you, Kurogane?"
"You won't catch me in those ridiculous games. I had enough of that bullshit when I worked for the Witch."
"Oh, Kurogane. You're still annoyed about that time you ended up in the beauty pageant and Former Chairman Lady Imonoyama wouldn't let you say that fighting was your talent!" As the black-clad ninja scowled at the furthest corner, ignoring everything the Imperial Princess said, Tomoyo whispered in Sakura's ear, "... so I understand he said his talent was fishing because he couldn't think of anything else, and they brought him a river on stage!"
Sakura blinked at her giggling friend. "But... how?"
"Oh, that's the Imonoyama clan for you! They'll do anything."
Kurogane's scowl cut deeper into his face, the way Tomoyo always warned him would stick if he kept it too long. "Except listen to sense."
Tomoyo caught Sakura in a tight hug, curling her face next to her ear. "But you'll be perfect, I just know it! I can't wait to see you on the winner's podium, Sakura-chan!"
"Ho~eeeeeee?! I'm competing, too?"
"But... But! But I'm not a ninja!"
She was good at running and sports and things like that, and she liked sparring with Syaoran (for Tomoyo's theatrical productions, but she could fight if she had to, even if the Pirate King's crew had been too much for them last month) but the bits she'd learned about far-seeing and super-hearing and flicker-stepping and slipping into shadows and all that had never come easy. There was no way she could compete with the best ninja in the world!
Tomoyo would never think this was a bad idea, so she turned to Kurogane with her panic. He answered with a smile and a calm shake of his head.
"Don't worry, Princess. It ain't that kind of competition. The events're all weird-ass shit you couldn't use ninja techniques for, even if you wanted to. Everybody's serious enough in the field. They come here to play."
With a spin out to the center of the room, Tomoyo clapped her hands under her chin and stars filled her eyes. That was never a good sign. That face meant extra petticoats and bows.
"And I'll be there to record every moment of Sakura-chan's triumph!" she cried, pulling her sketchbook out of nowhere. "Your outfits will look beautiful with gold -- we wouldn't want you to clash with your trophies... Just make sure you wear your armband so the judges know you're competing for Malvek, and you won't have a single thing to worry about. It's all arranged!"
Tomoyo was pointing at a scrap of red cloth on table, which looked just like ones Tomoyo and Kurogane were already wearing on their right arms. The armband was a perfect match for the scarlet silk Tomoyo had been in such a rush to acquire, too. Now the sudden fabric purchase made so much more sense! Tomoyo must have wanted to make her a dress in the color they'd been assigned for the games, but she hadn't known what it was until they got here. Although Sakura still didn't know when they'd have a ball that needed a gown.
"Needing" fancy clothes, when Tomoyo was dressing her, was a relative thing.
The door shot open and slammed just as quickly, now with Syaoran clutching the edges of the frame, a panicked grimace on his face. "Why didn't anyone warn me?!" he muttered.
"Syaoran? What's wrong?"
He looked up, and turned so red Sakura was afraid his ears might explode -- a fair match for the red armband he was already wearing, actually. She didn't know why Syaoran got so embarrassed when she had one of Tomoyo's fittings. She was the one wearing nothing but underwear and a pinned-together bodice, not him. But after a second, he got himself back together, turning his eyes off to the side as he fought his blush down to a mild glow.
"Umm... It's... well, I knew my mother was going to be here, but... my cousin--"
His face flashed back into a panic, and Syaoran side-stepped the door just in time to miss a girl throwing it open, long black pigtails streaming out of buns on the sides of her head.
"Syaoran!! I can hear you, you know! Why would you need to be warned about me?!"
"Meiling!" he hissed, jerking his head at Tomoyo, who was giggling into her hand.
"Oh!" The newcomer made a polite bow, down on one knee with one hand to her chest, showing the indigo armband around her right arm. "My name is Meiling, of the Li Clan of Shenzen. I am honored to greet the Imperial Princess of Sor-Trondelag on behalf of the nation of Xinan, and to thank you for taking such good care of my fiancé during his apprenticeship."
"It's our pleasure. Please, rise."
Sakura felt as flustered as Tomoyo looked composed, looking back and forth between Syaoran and Meiling. "F-fiancé?" she gasped, not sure what to think of her topsy-turvy feeling when Syaoran met her eyes with a quiver of a frown.
Meiling wasted no time in taking a good, long glare at Sakura from the tips of her toes to the unruly bits of hair springing up from when Tomoyo had asked her to take off her dress. The girl laid a hand on her hip. "Syaoran and I have been engaged since we were children. And who, may I ask, are you?"
"Sakura..." She paused, and bit her lip. Meiling had put a lot more in her introduction, but Sakura couldn't exactly add her family name or her home country, since she didn't remember anything before Tomoyo had found her on a beach nine years ago.
"Ward of the Imperial Throne in Malvek," Tomoyo added for her, waving Kurogane away to take Sakura's hand while extending another to Li Meiling. "And my personal friend." As Tomoyo transferred Meiling's hand into Sakura's, they curtsied at each other. "Now, why don't I call for some tea and cake for everyone?"
"Thank you kindly, Your Highness. Please forgive me if I ask to borrow Syaoran for a while instead." Meiling took one last, less arch, glare at Sakura before she smiled at Tomoyo. "I've entered us in the Laundry Washing competition, and it's about to start."
"Oh, well! Best of luck to both of you! Hurry back as soon as you're done, Syaoran."
"Of course, Your Highness."
In the flurry of Meiling pulling him through the door, Sakura caught Syaoran's eyes for just one heart-thumpy moment. She didn't know what he was thinking any more than she knew what she was thinking (she felt pretty confused), but it helped that Tomoyo squeezed her arm.
"It'll be all right," her friend whispered in her ear.
Sakura blinked. "Huh?"
"Nothing! You'll understand someday."
One of the weird parts of having a best friend who could see the future in dreams was how sometimes she said things that wouldn't make sense until weeks or years later. That was Tomoyo for you. Sakura managed a smile, trying to shrug off all the strange jitters from seeing Syaoran leaving with Meiling.
"Did... she say they were washing laundry?"
From the corner, Kurogane groaned. "Like I said, all they do here is weird-ass shit."
Which didn't explain anything about how you could compete at laundry.
Through the glass floor of the Chairman's airship, the Cygnus Null, Suoh watched a few laundry competitors pile their sheets from the tubs into their carts and sprint for the drying field, while others who'd chosen to fill their carts of dirty laundry to the brim instead of using the grab and dash method took over now empty spots at the tubs. Hitting the right balance between speed and weight was essential for an endurance challenge like this. Right now, it was anybody's game. He and the other judges wouldn't even take the field to count clean sheets until after they'd been hanging long enough to be certified dry.
They'd compiled data on the last ten years of laundry competitions to determine exactly how many total sheets they could expect their entrants to clean, how much soap they should expect to need, how much water to keep heated in the washroom reserve, how much line and how many clothespins to provide, and then Suoh had personally multiplied all those values by exactly 1.15 to ensure that no one would run out, while simultaneously ensuring that post-competition clean-up wouldn't be too onerous. The Chairman himself had designated the most efficient way to lay out clotheslines so that clean sheets were easy to match to the correct ninja. Imonoyama Nokoru could design that kind of organizational pattern in his sleep, perfectly optimized so that every competitor would find their next drying line without needing to think -- there would be no confusion over where to go, no competitors in each others' way or mixed up, and no one would find their best laundry washing pace slowed by deciding where to run.
Everything was perfect.
More than that, the carnival games, fortune tellers, and souvenir booths had gone up without a hint of trouble; the challenge arenas were fully equipped and staffed for any ninja who decided to have a friendly sparring match; and materials for every main event to come had been determined and stored with just as much efficiency as materials for the Laundry Washing competition. Their entire festival was blissfully on schedule and utterly without crisis.
Suoh assumed that, given the absence of any visible problem, something unanticipated would undoubtedly go wrong. He made a mental note of five locations that were accessible but not in the way of foot traffic that would serve as places to station emergency agents to keep on call. He'd see to those orders himself. A trifle like that wasn't worth the Chairman's attention.
The Chairman himself had left the floor for the airship controls. The blond gazed out the window, a perfectly coiffed model of a gentleman as he posed with his white paper fan. His eyes were particularly blue in this light, and full of determination. His lips, as always, were a little too naturally pink for polite society -- Suoh liked to keep them that way. No one they knew was polite.
"Sir," he said as he approached. "Does the final inspection meet with your approval?"
"Indeed it does, Suoh." Imonoyama Nokoru snapped his fan closed, pulling the lever for the hull doors with a smile. Metal plates whispered around the glass and sealed with a thud. "And do we have updated reports from our supply chains for our guests' food?"
"Up to date and accounted for, with no delays."
"Our heads of state are all settled for their introductions?"
"Ijyuin is with them as we speak, to show them where they should stand and to confirm their preferred modes of address."
"Excellent! This may be the most smoothly executed festival in the entire history of Kragero University."
"I think you may be right."
With a few turns of the steering wheel and judicious application of reverse thrust, Suoh steered the Cygnus Null to rest between Fahren's airship, the Dome, and Civic's sky fortress Damocles. Once landing tethers deployed, their last moment of peace before their duties called would be over. How appropriate that the Chairman sighed as he walked toward the door, seeming to regret the lack of any last minute catastrophes to resolve. Emergencies that absolutely couldn't wait were more to his taste than any kind of order.
Clearing his throat, Suoh said, "There is one last thing."
The Chairman whipped around , eyes brightening. "We finished the agenda, correct?"
"This... wasn't on the agenda."
"But no problems appeared during our inspection! Did they?"
"No, sir. No apparent problems, but..." He looked aside, but felt an embarrassed blush rising in his cheeks anyway. "I prefer to prepare for unforeseen eventualities. If some problem did arise requiring your or my attention such that I didn't have a chance to kiss you this afternoon... that wouldn't be acceptable."
He drew his gaze back to his blond, who wore the mischievous smile he'd fully expected. The Chairman's air of decorum disappeared as the man zipped toward him. Suoh barely had time to pull the lever to shutter the windows before that smile was pressed against his cheek while arms circled his neck. With a chortle, the Chairman whispered, "I know exactly how to fix that," and drew Suoh into a kiss that still made his collar feel hot after a whole two years.
It was still a discovery, feeling how well his hands fit around the Chairman's back and how easily his tongue slipped between two bitten lips. The sound of an appreciative purr coming from the man's throat was more like a dream than reality.
"Suoh... I've got lube in the drawer, if--"
"Chairman!" he murmured. His ears were getting redder by the second. He could feel it.
"You're allowed to call me 'Nokoru' even outside of the boudoir."
"... Someone will be here any minute to escort you to the stage."
"That's a whole minute!"
He tried to hide his hint of a grin in a cloud of blond hair. If Suoh met those eyes now, he'd melt, so he focused on that point where neck met collar instead. "After we finish today's festivities, we'll have all night in your bedroom. We'll have proper sex."
As the blond hummed against his lips, Suoh managed to steer their bodies away from the airship's controls (before they triggered the lever to reopen the window screens). "I've told you, sex doesn't always have to be proper," the Chairman whispered. Suoh remembered well how true that was. The desk they'd backed up against was witness to that.
"And I've told you, you can convince me on a case-by-case basis. Which won't happen when you have to meet the heads of our allied nations in--"
"I'm very convincing." Suoh lost focus for a fraction of a second in the sound of the Chairman's breath quickening. He leaned in for another kiss, but the blond skirted him to whisper in his ear, "I'm the champion of the college Debate Club, you know."
After kissing the grin thoroughly off the man's lips, Suoh answered, "Since you were in middle school. I was there." The Chairman seemed content, then, to settle against him, to draw him in. They filled their stolen moment with enough kisses to last an entire afternoon.
Until a third, bright voice called out, "Chairman! Takamura-sempai! They're asking for you on stage!" Suoh jumped three feet away, fighting both the urge to fall into a defensive stance after being surprised and the reflex to blush redder than a tomato with sunburn.
It'd been a blow to his ninja pride when he'd met Ijyuin Akira and learned that a human being existed who could sneak up on him, but at least Ijyuin was still the only one he'd met in the decade since, and at least if there had to be one such person, that person was an ally. He kept training to cover even that small hole in his defenses -- though, alas, Ijyuin's stealth had improved to keep pace. His ability to sneak now surpassed reason.
"Akira!" the Chairman replied, jumping from his seat on the desk with no shame, and somehow no tell-tale rumples in his clothes to broadcast the fact that he'd been caught making out in his office. He looked perfect, Suoh thought as he straightened his own shirt. As always.
"Shall we get the festival officially underway, sir?" he asked.
"Let's not waste another moment! Suoh, Akira, follow me!"
Kamui had never been more worried in his life over having no one try to kill him. He had to assume that every member of the throng around them watching a children's puppet show (where a blond puppet shouted his intention to save damsels in distress while one black-haired and one blue-haired puppet threw rose petals over his head) was a ninja, and more than one had turned a dubious eye at their feathered pirate hats and weathered frock coats, but no one had tried to attack them even once. And who'd ever heard of an actual damsel in distress?!
"I'm confused on so many levels."
Shifting his crossbow on his shoulder, Doumeki nodded. "I think what's happening is they're trying to save the widow's house from her husband's scumbag brother, who--"
"Not about the puppet show!"
The faster he could figure out what Fucking Fai wanted him to do, the better. At least last time he'd had half a map and a story. Today, he had nothing. Nothing but a city full of ninja, some of whom knew him personally. Not all of whom liked him as much as Hikaru seemed to.
As the puppets took their fake puppet bows, trumpets in the distance rolled out a fanfare.
"The opening ceremonies are starting!" some man in a funny hat that hid his eyes whispered to a falcon perched on his shoulder. "Let's go check it out!"
As half the crowd wove through the festival towards the city center, Kamui nodded at Doumeki. The other pirate followed without a word, weaving easily through the crowd. At least if Fai had to send him with backup who wasn't on the Council, the asshat had picked a dependable companion. Before long, they'd found a spot in the main square, behind a roped-off track where -- for reasons known only to the demon lords of this fucked up universe -- Eagle Vision was running by with a cart of laundry. Racing a girl with a long ponytail and a huge skirt who also had a cart of laundry. Being enough of a shit to notice Kamui and wave as he passed by. There wasn't much Kamui could do but wave back, since he didn't want to attract any attention while really fucking surrounded. Doumeki was waving, too, and he didn't even look surprised.
Of course. Because Doumeki was sleeping with somebody from the same union as Hikaru, who'd been half the reason Eagle had given up being one of the best pirates in Autozam for (he assumed) becoming one of the best "ninja" in Hundhammeren. Kamui scowled at his escort. "I'm telling you right now -- you can date your ninja all you want, but don't even think about giving up your ship to join them."
"Oh. Is that what happened to him?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I wasn't gonna give up my ship."
"Besides, Watanuki's really cute when he complains about the pirate thing."
"And I really don't want to hear about your love life with--" He paused, narrowing his eyes at Doumeki. "Watanuki? Why do I feel like I know that name?"
Doumeki shrugged. There wasn't time to say anything more. Up on the circular stage at the other end of the square, the trumpeters had finished their fanfare. Now they were sinking down on some kind of elevator-trapdoor doohickey, and an announcer was rising in front of them from another trapdoor. Someone had to tell the people who ran this place that there was a limit on trapdoors.
"Welcome!" the man yelled out, amplified by some means (Kamui assumed magic) over the entire crowd. "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, people of indeterminate age and gender! Welcome to the 117th annual Kragero Games! We've got a few more players on the field than usual this year. Do you want to meet your competition?!"
The crowd yelled something that approximated, "Yes".
A person who couldn't have been more than ten and who suddenly made Kamui understand why the announcer had included "people of indeterminate gender" in his speech skipped (skipped!!) by with a cart of laundry three times larger than he or she was. How could a person skip while rolling a cart of laundry?!
And why was there laundry? Why?
"All right!" the announcer cried. "Let's see who you get to meet first!" At which point, not only did a lottery machine rise on yet another trapdoor with a drummer beating a drumroll, but a new fucking stage rose out of the ground around the circle. Twelve screen curtains covered twelve sections of stage like this was some demented game show. Kamui pulled his face out of his palm just in time to see the announcer draw a white ball from from the lottery. "And it's Civic! Everyone, please give a warm welcome to His Royal Majesty, Emperor Charles the Thirteenth!"
The crowd applauded (and hooted) as the second screen from the right rose to reveal a large man with white hair standing in front of a white banner marked with six dots in a circle, and flanked by a murderous-looking lady with purple hair. Both of them seemed to be thinking this was far beneath their dignity. Kamui felt for them. He really did.
A royal blue ball came out of the lottery. "Next up -- England!" But when the leftmost screen rose, all that was there was a royal blue banner marked with an eclipsed sun. No ninja. Which Kamui found appropriate for a pirate country. "Ah... England...?"
"Right here!" someone yelled from the crowd.
No. Not from the crowd. From the path where people inexplicably had laundry carts. It was a diminutive teenager with big glasses and a smile that reminded Kamui unpleasantly of Fai when he was being an asshole. The kid jogged -- with a rolling cart of laundry, of course -- toward the stage. He jumped up and waved.
"I'm Hiiragizawa Eriol! It's nice to meet you all! Please, come by the laundry field if you want to say hello!"
With that, he jumped off the stage and rolled away with his laundry.
Kamui would never understand ninja. Ever.
At least the announcer looked just as confused as he was. "A-all right, then. Let's move on to..." A pink ball came out of the lottery, and the second screen on the left came up to show a plain-looking old man in front of a pink banner marked with a pair of wings. "Impala, led here today by the illustrious Lord Kudou Shinichirou!"
The yellow ball that came out next went to the screen all the way on the right, with a yellow banner (no shock there) marked with a tree. The person here was a young-looking but gray-haired man, about three feet tall with a five-foot staff, who was buried in robes.
"From the great country of Kia -- the one, the only... Mage Clef!"
So, the man who'd trained all the most dangerous magical ninja Kamui had ever run foul of. This was going to be a nightmare.
When a purple ball rolled out, Kamui felt a Level Five premonition of impending doom, although he couldn't say why. Then he saw the second screen left of center come up, and recognized both the butterfly on the purple banner and the smirking figure standing in front of it with a long-stemmed pipe in her fingers, utterly unconcerned about the two blue- and pink-haired children chasing a mechanical toy at her feet, or the exasperated young man trying to stop them.
The crowd roared into riotous applause as she waved, and showed no sign of stopping.
"Coming from the city of Hundhammeren in our own Sor-Trondelag, here's someone you all know: The Dimension Witch herself, Lady Ichihara Yuuko!"
The Dimension Witch herself.
Three weeks ago, Kamui would have called that bullshit, or at best a hereditary title, because the Dimension Witch and all the rest of the Six Divine Warriors should have been nothing but a bedtime story. Then Kamui had found Clow Reed's picture history that strongly implied this woman was, sense be damned, a 2000-plus-year-old hero who'd travelled to the Heavens, and come back with a terminal case of immortality. She was the Witch, that bastard Sakurazuka wasn't kidding about being the Barrows-guard, maybe Kakyou wasn't a dreamseer but the Dreamseer, the trickster Snow Fox was that fool playing at uselessness, Fai D. Fluorite... and if he'd understood right, Sumeragi Subaru -- whom Kamui had considered his best friend on the Dragon of Heaven (Fuuma was his best friend in the whole world) -- was one of the Heavenly Twins, along with the sister Sakurazuka had killed. Kamui knew he shouldn't care, since Subaru had shared so much with him even though he never talked to anybody, and if it had happened 2000 years ago, that was just a detail, right? But to think you knew someone --
He cut off his own thoughts before he got stuck in them. Then noticed, and studied, the weird change in expression on Doumeki's face.
"Are you... smiling?"
The captain of the Queen Cassandra shrugged again. "Looks like I didn't need to go to Hundhammeren after all. It figures Watanuki'd be here, too."
Kamui turned back to the stage, where Doumeki's eyes were fixed on the young man at the Witch's side, now holding the two children's toy aloft while they jumped to reach it. Because that was where he'd heard the name Watanuki before.
"You're dating the Dimension Witch's personal assistant?!" Kamui hissed under the neverending roar of the crowd as it turned into a chant of "Yuuko! Yuuko! Yuuko!".
"You didn't know?!"
"He told me he was a popcorn vendor," Doumeki reminded him.
"Does she know?"
"You could really stand to sound even a little bit concerned about that."
Doumeki's habit of shrugging was rapidly becoming inappropriate. "She said it was fine."
"She said. Could you maybe put a note in your ship's log when you have a conversation with the Dimension Witch?!"
"It was a personal conversation."
"I cannot fucking believe you. This is without a doubt the worst day in my life, which has been way too full of really bad days."
Finally, the cheering died down as the announcer held out his arms for silence and showed the crowd the scarlet ball he'd pulled from the lottery. "And now, it is my honor to present... in their first appearance at the Kragero Games in a generation... Sor-Trondelag's beloved Imperial clan, the Daidouji of Malvek!!" The left-center screen, right next to the Witch's, rose on two ladies in full regalia, standing in front of a scarlet flag marked with a chrysanthemum. "On your left, Her Imperial Majesty Whose Divine Eminence Blazes From Heaven, the Empress Kendappa! And on your right, Her Imperial Highness Who Gazes Upon The Moon, the Princess Tomoyo!"
Kamui didn't recognize the lady standing in the shadows behind the Empress, but he sure as hell recognized Kurogane hovering over Princess Tomoyo's shoulder. And as the ninja scanned the (once again wildly cheering) crowd, Kamui saw those damned red eyes lock in on his own. Kurogane screwed his face into a mix of mistrust and confusion, asking with his expression what the hell Kamui thought he was doing here.
With any luck, the scowl and wave Kamui gave in answer would communicate that this was Fai's fault, and Kamui didn't like it any better than Kurogane did. All he could hope was that Kurogane was too invested in "infiltrating" Fai to tell any of the people running this show that one of the Council of Pirate Lords was in the audience.
Leaning closer to Kamui, Doumeki murmured, "Is that the guy you wanted to punch?"
"Not while standing in a crowd of about ten thousand ninja. People would die, some of them might be us, and I'd never get what I came here for." At least if Kurogane was here, he couldn't be getting into Fai's pants again. And people told Kamui he never saw any positives.
The announcer's next lottery ball was orange. "Ceres!" he yelled, and the screen third from the right opened. Kamui didn't care about the woman in a leather bustier and boots getting introduced as the Queen of Hearts, either. His eyes were on the dragon blazoned on the orange flag behind her. Like most of the pennants, it wasn't the flag of Ceres -- those were on stands next to the dignitaries. But it was a design he'd seen stamped on a pile of old books when he'd raided Hibiya Chitose's fortress, and back then he'd wondered why it'd seemed so familiar.
Now he remembered. There'd been a book of fairy tales he was reading, Tales of Fallen Valeria. That dragon had been drawn at the beginning of one of the stories. He could still hear Fai's voice, and could recall how he'd jumped when the jackass had appeared over his shoulder and said, "Ooh, the Wizard of Ceres, huh? I love that one." Then he'd whispered in Kamui's ear, "He was actually the Snow Fox the whole time!"
He'd screamed at Fai for half a day for being the kind of asshole who gives away the ending before Yuzuriha managed to stop laughing long enough to tell him the story never said that. Then he'd screamed at Fai for being an asshole who told lies.
He should've been calling Fai an asshole who didn't tell enough of the truth. If anybody would've known the Snow Fox and the Wizard of Ceres were the same person, it'd be the man himself. Kamui didn't know how to feel about the man who was now the Pirate King having that much of a history with one of the more major ninja holdings.
Doumeki gave him a worried look. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Kamui answered. "Just fine."
But his mind was spinning in circles too fast to think as yet another screen revealed a man in front of a lightning-marked gray banner and the announcer named him Lord Asahi of Chevrolet. What did he care about ninja from the other side of the planet? He vaguely noticed that, "Our host today here at Kragero University, Chairman Imonoyama Nokoru!" was the blond who'd been the subject of the puppet show, even flanked by blue- and black-haired assistants as he stood in front of his golden banner -- marked with a five-pointed star that reminded Kamui too much of Subaru's magic circle for him to look at it right now.
The next thing he really, truly felt was his sense of impending doom shooting up to Level Eight while the announcer held up a green ball and yelled, "Coming to us from the distant reaches of Fahren!" A screen on the right revealed a teenage girl in robes of state and an old woman in austere ceremonial garb, their green banner marked with a sakura blossom.
The sight of it made Kamui's shoulders twitch as he silently begged the universe not to let these people be related to the Barrows-guard. Anything but finding out that Sakurazuka had ties here. He could deal with ninja whose ancestors Fai had palled around with back in days of yore, but how could he be expected to stand around letting ninja exist who might be related to Sakurazuka Seishirou? The least the universe could do was spare him that.
"On your left," the announcer said, pointing to the teenager, "Her Royal Highness and Heir to the Lion Throne, Princess Aska!" Then he indicated the old woman, who bowed her head. "On your right, Her Grace and Protectress of the State, Lady Sumeragi!"
Fuck the universe, if that was how it wanted to play.
Doumeki had barely begun to ask, "Did he say--" before Kamui flashed him a look to cut him off. No matter what else reality did to him, this day would not contain any conversations about Subaru sharing his name with a ninja clan. Kamui couldn't trust his tongue anyway. Not when his every muscle wanted to punch something. It was taking all his focus to keep his power locked down so that an earthquake didn't erupt beneath the square where they were standing.
He had to get himself under control. He had to find whatever Fai wanted him to find. Then he had to get out of this fucking place before it destroyed everything he believed.
Kamui stared at nothing, trying to breathe calmly, barely hearing the announcer say, "From Nihon! The Snow Princess Shirahime!" about a black-haired lady in front of a silver banner emblazoned with a wolf's head. Then one final screen rolled up to show two women in front of an indigo banner bearing a yin-yang. "And last but not least... Our representatives from Xinan! On your left, Lady Li of Shenzen! On your right, Lady Wol Mae of Koryo!"
As a choir of preschoolers filed out in front of the stage, Kamui thought he'd finally gotten command of himself -- at least enough to issue orders. He turned to Doumeki, who was waiting silently to hear what he had to say.
"None of this is real," Kamui declared.
"If you say so."
"We've fallen into the Kragero Below and entered a bizarro reality where up is down, right is left, inside is out, and nothing is true."
"Hmm. If nothing is true, and you just said nothing is true--"
"Stop using logic!"
"Right. Or... left?"
"Let's just get out of this crowd. I have a mystery to find, so we can get back to the real world where things make sense."
The other pirate took a long look at his ninja boyfriend up on stage, who looked like he was trying to have dignity filling his mistress's sake cup while the two inexplicable children climbed on his back. It was clear enough that Doumeki didn't want to leave right away, which normally would have been an acceptable request. Still, all these ninja hedging them in were making it hard for Kamui to breathe, and his confusion over all the things he shouldn't have been seeing and hearing only made it worse. But he wasn't going to fucking beg!
Doumeki dropped a hand to his shoulder. Somehow, it calmed Kamui a little, even before the man said, "Getting away from the crowd sounds like a good idea." Seriously, what had possessed Fai to send him with someone this reasonable? It was like he was being nice.
"Right," Kamui sighed.
Which was when one of the people rolling laundry carts -- a lady with brown hair to her shoulders and a yellow shirt -- stopped right between them on her side of the rope and said, "There you are! Hi, I'm Hiromi, nice to meet you. I've been looking all over for you!"
Kamui pointed to himself. "For me?"
"His Grace the Can't-Say-That-Word-Here King sent you, right? Hop in!" she said, pulling a few wet sheets out of her cart. Kamui started to object, but she shook her head and pointed to the scarlet band on her right arm. "If you run without a competitor's badge, a judge will pull you off the track. But you can ride! The rules say anything you can get away with is fair game. So, hop in. But just you, not him," she added, pointing to Doumeki. "I can't carry two."
Pulling off his hat, Kamui turned to Doumeki to say, "Don't get caught. Don't do anything stupid. When I'm done with this, I'll contact you."
"I just will, okay? Go... go see your boyfriend or something." As the companion he'd known was too reasonable to be true nodded and backed off, Kamui climbed on top of the remaining wet sheets with a wince. He looked up at the woman who'd called herself Hiromi. "Just so we're clear, I'm only doing this because none of this is real."
"Our department gets that a lot."
He wasn't sure which was more ominous, the way she said that or the wet sheets she threw over his head before they started racing off to god knew where. Kamui tried his best to think happy thoughts during the trip, like Yuzuriha had taught him. Fuuma and Kotori back home in the castle. Fuuma trying to bake. Kotori climbing trees. Ever seeing Fuuma and/or Kotori again. He was in the middle of a daydream about playing pinata with Fuuma and Kotori, and maybe Segawa, or a few of the other Pirate Lords (not the evil ones) when the cart came to a sudden halt and he tumbled out onto a field.
Covered with sheets drying on lines, of course. It was pretty good cover, actually. With all this laundry hanging around, it was almost impossible to see anybody else.
As he stood, Kamui brushed himself off, put on his hat, and pulled himself up to his full dignity as First Mate of the Dragon of Heaven. "So," he asked Hiromi. "What's next?"
She pulled something that looked like a volleyball-sized plush pufferfish out of the pack on her hip. It was far too big to have fit in a pack that small, but that was ninja tech. She probably had a tent, an entire arsenal, and a hot fudge sundae in there, too. With an unsettling smile, she twisted the doll's plush tail and tossed it at him.
Grabbing the plush out of the air was a reflex. Toppling backwards into a row of sheets was momentum, because the pufferfish turned out to be far heavier than fabric and stuffing could ever be. Seeing a black hole open under his feet as he fell was just the kind of day he seemed to be having, especially since the last thing he saw was Li Syaoran -- the ninja who broke his rib last month -- blinking at him while pinning a sheet to his line. Then the earth closed over Kamui's head.
Right now, he wouldn't even be surprised if he'd fallen into Hell. Of course, it was pitch dark right now, so he couldn't...
No, he could see. Whatever ninja-seeing shit he'd picked up during that day with Hikaru was working now, too. If he only knew how to turn it off, he would, but whatever reason his eyes had for acting like ninja eyes, he could definitely see in the dark. Unfortunately, this room was nothing but smooth, black walls, so dark was the only thing to see.
First things first, Kamui took stock of what he had with him. Hat. Boots. Sword. Clothes. Rucksack with another half-day of food and the magic communicator he'd plundered from Clow Reed's house of horrors. No plush pufferfish. That had disappeared at some point.
A ding interrupted his thoughts. Facing the wall it'd come from, he found his pufferfish. Well, probably not the same one, since this wasn't a plush doll but a projection of light dancing around on the wall with a speech bubble that said, "Welcome, Shirou Kamui!" As he walked toward it, a slot opened in the wall and a shelf extended from it. There was a plate on the shelf, holding three gelatinous cubes while the wall above blinked, "Eat me!", and a goblet filled with something translucent that very predictably had the instruction "Drink me!"
"Oh, fuck no," Kamui groaned.
This was very possibly worse than Hell.