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Let the Games Begin

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     The night was warm and the fire made it warmer, but Hikaru was practically vibrating in her seat while she waited for the last night of ghost stories to start. Once tonight's competitors told their stories and had been judged, every single winner for the week would get up in front of the audience so people could vote on who'd won overall. And this year, she actually had a shot! Her team and her boyfriends were huddled close, of course, but she was holding the seat next to her for Kamui-san, just in case he showed up. The rest of the seats were filling in fast. If she didn't save him one, who would?!

     "I will admit," Watanuki was telling his pirate while he set up a picnic on the royalty platform, "Ijyuin's decision to go with a mint-grape variation on a caprese skewer was inspired, and looked excellent when plated, but I was still robbed!"

     "Hmm," the pirate grunted. It was hard to talk with food in your mouth.

     "He must have baked some kind of mind control spell into those... those meringue truffle monstrosities! My custard was perfect!" Which Hikaru could vouch for. Both the meals at the cooking contest finals had been amazing. Even Kamui-san had thought so, before he'd had to run off to wherever it was that he didn't know if he'd make it back from tonight (so he'd said goodbye just in case).

     "Hmm."

     "And I defy anyone to find fault with my risotto!" Hands on his hips, Watanuki bent down right to Doumeki's ear to yell, "Well? Don't you have anything to say, Captain Food Critic?!"

     The man who, despite Watanuki's complaints, had been the only judge to give Watanuki's meal a significant edge (Ijyuin-san had won by just one point), held out his empty plate and said, "Seconds, please."

     Of course Watanuki screamed and stomped over that. They were so cute!

     All around the audience, people in the running for the Grand Prize (complimentary services of Imonoyama-san's accountants during next tax season, although Hikaru had never understood why taxes were supposed to be scary) were sitting next to aisles so they could get to the stage easily if called. Empress Kendappa, of course, could have a red carpet through the crowd with a snap of her fingers, and while Hikaru hadn't had a chance to hear Tomoaki-san's version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the whole crowd from Chevrolet near him looked confident. Chitose-san from Ceres hadn't made it to the finals, but she was whispering cheerily to someone next to her just the same. She'd always been a good sport!

     Hikaru took a closer look at the man sitting next to Chitose-san, though. It couldn't be... Was that Mihara-san? The same Mihara-san who'd traded a favor from Lady Yuuko for the battle dolls she, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan used as their doppelgangers in tough fights? And now he was flirting with Chitose-san? Oooh, and Chitose-san was calling him "Icchan," if Hikaru's ears didn't deceive her! So he must've been the Icchan-san training Kamui-san! What a small world!

     Over by Kia, her old teacher Mage Clef was giving a pep talk to the girl listed on the matchup signs as Yanagisawa Naoko, who'd be trying to keep the title of Best Storyteller that Alcyone had always won for their country before. It was still sad that Alcyone had disappeared, but this was finally a chance to see what other storytellers Kia had in their ranks! The rumor mills said this girl was a traditionalist, which meant she had to have been amazing to get her story in.

     Gingetsu-san and Kazuhiko-san were making the final preparations on stage now, making sure the candles and matches were there and all the props the two storytellers had requested: swords and booze bottles and a comb and a shadowplay screen and... some cakes? That definitely wasn't normal for a ghost story, but the time had come to find out what they were for. Almost as if they were a signal to quiet the audience, bushels of perfect white feathers started to drift down from the midnight-black, cloudless sky like the stars themselves were turning into snow to join them. Any other day, Hikaru would've had the same joy and wonder on her face as the other people in the audience, but today was the last day of the Festival, and this was the last event. What those feathers meant now was that Kamui-san was definitely somewhere else, and whatever he was doing, it was big.

     She pulled Umi-chan by the hand so she'd come sit in the open chair and laid her head on her friend's shoulder. "I guess he's not coming tonight."

     "Don't worry, honey," Umi-chan said, stroking her hair. "You'll see your pirate buddy again. Who could stay away from your cute face forever?"

     Hikaru twirled the next feather she caught between her fingers, smiling again. "I know. He'll be back. And hey, maybe next time we can fight! I haven't really gotten to fight him yet!"

     "Only you could make fighting Death Shirou sound like a privilege!"

     "Gather round, everyone!" called the announcer from the stage. "Tonight we'll have the chance to hear two more stories to chill and terrify before we ask you to rank all the winners this week and decide this year's top storyteller. So please join me in welcoming another competitor from Ceres, Miss Oomura Yumi, who tonight will be telling us the story of Coppelia!"

     A girl with happy eyes and amazing boobs took a candle from Gingetsu-san and struck a match, while Kazuhiko-san pushed the table with the booze and the cakes on it to the front of the stage. "Thank you, everyone! And please listen closely as I tell you the story of a boy, a girl, and the man who hoped he could bring a doll to life -- but only at a cost too steep to pay. Once upon a time..."

~//~

      If Kurogane had been the one responsible for guarding Princess Sakura, he would've tried a little harder to talk her out of staying to hear someone from Kia telling a ghost story. Between his brat apprentice not knowing how those people pulled out all the stops and Syaoran having no stomach for telling the Princess, "I really think you shouldn't," when she insisted she was up to a challenge, they'd gone to the bonfire with everyone else without heeding Kurogane's attempts to warn them. Just about the only thing that could scare that girl was ghosts, but they scared the living daylights out of her, every time.

     The brat had whisked her away from the bonfire before anyone else noticed how she was shaking, thank goodness, but she was still quaking in his arms while Princess Tomoyo directed the rest of the household on packing up their lodgings for the trip back North.

     "Poor Oiwa-san!" she whispered. "How could those people do those things to her? I could see it in her eyes, the way they looked so sad. It was all true..."

     Shit. The girl from Kia had been behind a screen, acting out everything using shadows. If the Princess had seen someone's eyes, the storyteller must've been compelling enough to summon the actual ghost to watch. Kurogane had known the Kia girl was good, managing to transform her shadow into all those different characters and even appearing to stab herself, but calling the ghost was another level. And Princess Sakura must've been able to see it clearly, which hadn't been so easy for her before. Something had made her stronger, and this was a damn lousy way to find out about it.

     He waved off the retainers who'd been about to pack up the tapestries behind the two kids. Kurogane would get those himself later. Syaoran and the Princess needed some privacy.

     The kid held his lady's head close to his chest and sort of rocked her until she didn't look so tense. "Shhh. I know, Pr-- Sakura. But justice was done. She's all right now. You heard at the end... Oiwa-san is living with the fox spirits now."

     "Uh-huh," she answered, her voice still strangely quiet.

     Princess Tomoyo was on the same page as him, wordlessly dismissing everyone else from the room so they could pack things up somewhere that wasn't here. One look from his Princess, and Kurogane knew that figuring out what had happened to the little Princess was going to be his first job when they got home. That was far more important than finding out why the hell he couldn't get drunk anymore. So he'd put his all into that, and probably into finding a way to work on her fear of ghosts if there was a chance she'd be seeing them on the regular.

     Having fewer people around seemed to help her calm down. Slowly, she let out a breath, and for almost a second seemed to be comfortable with Syaoran's arms around her, but this being the two of them, Kurogane knew it couldn't last. Too bad. They deserved a break after the week this had shaped up to be.

     Sure enough, Princess Sakura realized how close she was to her bodyguard and turned beet red. She pushed herself slowly away from him, keeping her hands in his hands outstretched for a moment like she was trying not to fall back to his chest.

     "S-Syaoran, I'm sorry! I told myself I'd stop doing that!"

     "Princ-- Sakura, it's all right," he sputtered, blushing even redder than she was. "I don't mind. If... it's you... I don't--"

     "But it's not fair to Meiling-chan!" The Princess even had dewy tears in her green eyes, like this was one of Princess Tomoyo's stage dramas, and the sudden sight of Princess Sakura crying made Syaoran even less able to talk.

     "Mei... Meiling? What... but...? Why?"

     "I keep asking you to comfort me, and protect me, and you're always so sweet and you do it--"

     "I'm your bodyguard, it's my--"

     "--but it's not fair for me to hug you when you have a fiancée! So... I'll take care of myself from now on, Syaoran. I'll be okay. I promise!" She meant it, too. When she made that determined face, even Kurogane knew she meant business, and Syaoran, poor kid... he was toast. He could barely disagree with her under the best of circumstances, and as smitten as he looked right now, there wasn't a chance he'd argue.

     As if the two of them didn't realize or didn't care that Princess Tomoyo and Kurogane were still in the room, Syaoran got down on one knee, still holding one of the Princess's hands between his. "In that case, Sakura... will you at least permit me to stand with you, to fight at your side? I hope you'll always call me to be your ally when danger strikes."

     "Syaoran...!"

     Wow. Kurogane didn't think he could watch much more of this without getting embarrassed on their behalf. Those kids and their sweet-as-sugar love affair, if they ever managed to get it off the ground, were gonna get no help from him. They'd have to figure out how this was gonna work on their own, because he didn't know if he'd ever been young or naive enough to know how that kind of romance worked.

     "Sakura..."

     "Of course I want you to fight with me! There's no one I'd trust more to watch my back." She pulled him to his feet, and they stared into each other's eyes like there was no world outside of the two inches between their noses. It was hard to believe Princess Tomoyo hadn't scripted this, and naturally she'd whipped out one of those camera doohickeys Imonoyama had been giving out to everyone so she could take pictures, probably to sketch later. "I just have to stop hugging you, when I know how Meiling-chan feels about it!"

     "Sakura, about... Meiling..."

     The lady shook her head. "You don't have to apologize. It isn't any of my business who you're engaged to, after all."

     "But that's... I mean!" Taking a calming breath, Syaoran shut his eyes tight and said it. "I'm not engaged to Meiling anymore! I... I asked her to call it off!"

     Well, hot damn. Was the brat actually going to manage to say it today? If he'd had enough guts to tell his family the arranged marriage was off, maybe he really could tell the Princess how he felt. What a week!

     She let him lay both of her hands over his heart while he clasped them tight, and if Kurogane had to guess, Sakura was too surprised to have noticed he'd done it. "But Syaoran, why?"

     The way he was looking at her now, he was definitely trying to channel one of the characters from one of the plays Princess Tomoyo had put them in for her amusement. If he hadn't, probably he wouldn't have been able to string two words together. That, and the line he said, "I can't marry one person... when I love another," was straight out of the last pages of The Sword in the Shrine, although Syaoran seemed to have forgotten that that play hadn't had a happy ending, if you could say it had an ending at all.

     "Syaoran!" the little Princess gasped, eyes all aglow. The young man holding her close looked like a weight had lifted off of him while they gazed at each other -- at least until she asked him, "Who is it?! Is it Kamui-san?!"

     The kid froze, dead, unable to make a single sound but, "... Eh?!"

     Leaping into a hug that Kurogane was surprised didn't knock the kid on his ass, the Princess squealed. "I knew it! It was just the way you were looking at him! I promise, I won't let anyone tell you that you can't love whoever you want! And Kamui-san won't mind at all if I hug you! Ooh! And if he likes you, too, you and Kurogane-san can double date!" Dashing off towards the door, the stone walls echoed with her yelling, "I have to write to Fai and ask him what Kamui-san thinks about you!"

     Syaoran pulled in a breath with a creaking sound like his lungs hadn't been sure they wanted to open, but he didn't have time to listen to them. He was running after his Princess at top speed, and he needed those lungs to scream, "Princess! Wait! Stop!!"

     Oh boy.

     "That kid has a long, difficult road ahead," said someone standing at Kurogane's shoulder.

     Not that the man was standing at his shoulder for long. In a flash, he'd whipped around so he could stare the intruder in the eye, Ginryuu glinting with bared fangs at his throat. The man may have looked like a fop who was half-dressed in a bedsheet and dripping with gold, but if he could get into this room unnoticed, he was a threat. "Who are you?" Kurogane growled. "Anyone who seeks the presence of Her Imperial Highness will declare himself or answer to me with his life, and your clock is ticking on borrowed time, honored guest."

     The dark-haired man's eyes twinkled, but he didn't seem happy when he laughed. "You're a good dog. Not quite what I would've bet on, but I can see why he likes you."

     There were a handful of people in the world who didn't flinch at his sword, but this was the first one Kurogane had seen ignore it as if it were nothing but a toy in the hands of a child. He held it steady anyway, ready to strike. Nobody's mind games would take down his guard in Princess Tomoyo's throne room.

     "I asked for your name."

     "And if you search your heart, Kurogane, You-ou, son of Lady Suwa, I'm sure you'll find it there."

     "What the hell is that supposed to mean?!" No one but his Princess had ever spoken his true name. The fact that this asshole even knew it was one hell of a trick, and not one that Kurogane planned to let go unpunished.

     "Kurogane," Princess Tomoyo commanded. "Stand down. This man... Well. This person has business here."

     He sheathed his sword, but she hadn't said to stop glaring, so he made it clear with his eyes that he only stopped on her say-so. Whoever this was, he seemed to get the message, and find it funny, which was making Kurogane hate him more by the second.

     The asshole winked. Winked. "Don't worry, I'm used to it," he said, as if he could read exactly what had been in Kurogane's head. Then he turned to Princess Tomoyo to kneel -- not politely enough, in Kurogane's opinion. He was still looking her in the eye. "Tsukuyomi. It's a pleasure to speak to you in person."

     "I wish I could say likewise, Kujaku-san, but you know how I hate surprises. You should have called before dropping in!" Her smile was sculpture-perfect, but it was easy to tell she wasn't as at ease as she pretended to be. No one should have been able to surprise her with anything, not his Princess who dreamed the future with perfect clarity. "Am I to assume the time has come at long last?"

     "Now, that couldn't have been a surprise. Not to you."

     "No, it's true. While the holes in my visions have become more pronounced, mundane inferences can fill in some of the picture." She took a deep breath and gazed sadly out the window. "I shall miss this peace. But my sister and I will be ready when the council is called."

     "I have no doubt," the intruder -- Kujaku -- said, getting to his feet.

     Princess Tomoyo held out her hand for him to kiss it fondly. "Next time, do call ahead. A simple hello in a dream will suffice. I won't stop Kurogane from trying to take your head a second time if you appear behind him without warning."

     Another laugh rang out of the strange man's throat, without a hint of fear. "That is so charmingly temporal. Very well. I'll make an appointment next time, for your guard dog's sake. After all, he's caused enough trouble already." Kujaku turned to give Kurogane another wink. Then, broad black wings reaching halfway to the ceiling erupted from his back to drown the room in shadow and close around the man like a feathered curtain. Just as suddenly as he'd appeared, faster than Kurogane could blink, he was gone. Gone as the sparrow in the winter, leaving nothing but air.

     There was no doubt. He hated this guy.

~//~

 

Day Eight and Final Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Gold: Ijyuin Akira & Ookawa Utako (Kragero)
  • Silver: Watanuki Kimihiro & Tsuyuri Kohane (Hundhammeren)
  • Bronze: Shuukaidou Takeshi & Higashikunimaru Kentarou (Kragero)
  • Honorable Mention: Takamoto Chikahito & Toyotomi Hidetsugu (Fahren)

Mud Pit Token Free-For-All

  • Grand Prize: Princess Sakura (Malvek)
  • Most Tokens Collected: Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)
  • Best Mahjongg Hand: Eagle Vision (Hundhammeren)

Geography Bowl

(Three-Way Tie)

  • Gold: Ijyuin Akira (Kragero)
  • Gold: Eagle Vision (Hundhammeren)
  • Gold: Yamazaki Takashi (Kia)

Drinking Contest

  • Gold: Empress Kendappa (Malvek), 377
  • Silver: Kurogane (Malvek), 375
  • Bronze: Ichihara Yuuko (Hundhammeren), 354
  • Honorable Mention: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon), 348

Ghost Story Contest

Day Eight

YANAGISAWA NAOKO (Kia) def. Oomura Yumi (Ceres)

Final Results:

  • Gold: Yanagisawa Naoko (Kia), "Yotsuya Kaidan"
  • Silver: Shidou Hikaru (Hundhammeren), "The Clover Belle"
  • Bronze: Namiya Tomoaki (Chevrolet), "Goldilocks and the Three Bears"
  • Honorable Mentions: Li Meiling (Xinan), "Cinderella"; Fujimoto Kiyokazu (Impala), "Snow White and the Cherry Tree"; Toyotomi Hidetsugu (Fahren), "The Brother and Jikokuten"; Empress Kendappa (Malvek), "The Locked Room"; Yudaiji Idomu (Civic), "The Tragedy of Oedipus"

 

~//~

     With everyone collecting their countrymen, pulling out of Kragero in a parade of caravans and airships, Doumeki had worried for a moment about how he'd rendezvous with his Admiral. They hadn't had time to set up a meeting, even if they'd known what the circumstances would be. The best plan in situations like that was to go somewhere central and wait for a signal. So here he was, in the main square, surrounded by vendors closing up their stalls and then tucking them into knapsacks using their ninja skills.

     And there was the signal. Over the din, he heard an officer's whistle calling, "All hands on deck." That had to be Lord Shirou, and it was coming from the bell tower. The tallest building in town, Doumeki noted.

     He pulled out Fai's Kamui Bingo card one last time and crossed out, "Standing on tall things," which was the last one he'd needed to get a blackout. It still wasn't clear if there was a prize for winning, or if the Pirate King just wanted to make fun of Lord Shirou later. Either way, he'd won.

     Getting up to the top of the bell tower was a little harder, since ninja didn't seem to believe in stairs as anything but decoration, but what were arrows for if not getting ropes up high to help you climb? He pulled himself through the top window, watching Shirou (done up in his regular frills and coat, with the feathers on his hat looking extra defiant) tap his foot. He wasn't carrying a bag, though. Looked like new habits died hard, too, when they were useful.

     "Are you ready to get out of here?"

     "I'm ready if you are, sir," Doumeki said. "I guess you got whatever you needed?"

     With a scowl like a storm in the horizon, Shirou muttered, "Oh, I got what I was sent for, and Fai is going to pay for it when I get back." Then the admiral did a double take at the corner of the room behind Doumeki's shoulder. "Okay, what's he doing here?!"

     Probably Watanuki, Doumeki thought to himself as he turned to see his own personal ninja looking just as impatient as Lord Shirou.

     Doumeki gave him a nod "Hey. Are you bringing lunch for the road?"

     "My name is not, Hey! And of course I'm bringing you a lunch. Goodness only knows what they serve in that dingy little port town where you're docked, but I am also here to escort you to your ship so as to avoid any unfortunate incidents if you happen to run into any unfriendly ni--"

     He bit off the end of his word in a way Doumeki knew well after ten months sharing a bed. One of these days, his boyfriend would realize that Doumeki knew what he did for a living, but the tight-lipped, red-faced frustration he had right now said that today was not that day.

     Watanuki coughed, and tried something less classified. "Any unfriendly... traveling circuses!"

     "With rival popcorn vendors?" Doumeki asked.

     "Exactly!!"

     He could feel Lord Shirou rolling his eyes from behind him, but that was okay. The Admiral wasn't the one dating Watanuki.

     Doumeki pointed over his shoulder at the Pirate Lord. "If my boss says it's okay, you can come. I assume you wouldn't be here if your boss said it wasn't okay."

     While Watanuki was yelling, "I do not need permission to take a detour on my way home!" Lord Shirou was snarling, just as loud (but from farther away), "Like hell is that going to be okay! Absolutely not fucking authorized!" Doumeki plugged both his ears. That was one hell of a racket, and the belltower echoed something fierce. Luckily, the noise wasn't aimed at him. Part of him was worried that Shirou would be upset enough to start a fight, but as long as he was yelling instead of going silent, he was probably in good enough spirits. Sometimes, he just liked to be upset. The Admiral and Watanuki had that much in common. Two seconds in, they looked more than happy to be yelling at each other instead of doing any real damage.

     He didn't catch all of the yelling. Nothing quite like two people spoiling for a fight ticking each other off, Doumeki thought as he took a seat on what seemed like a bag of feathers. Packed tight, but still comfy. He wondered if the crew of the Dragon of Heaven used the feathers Shirou tended to shed to stuff their mattresses. They had to be doing something with 'em. If they tossed that many feathers overboard all the time, people might use the trail to track the ship.

     A few feet away, the argument was settling into something comprehensible as Watanuki and Lord Shirou had to stop for breaths, coincidentally giving each other a chance to talk.

     "I beg your pardon, are you trying to say that I should answer to you in any way?!" Watanuki yelled, making gestures like he was wringing somebody's neck, though he had enough sense not to try it for real. "Or do you just think you're better than me? Which you aren't! Not even a little!"

     Lord Shirou pointed a finger in Watanuki's face. "This trip is my trip, so I say who's on it and who's not. And yeah, I do think I'm better than you! I'm better than all this shit," he growled, throwing out his arms at the whole city. "Got it?!"

     "I'm going to do you a favor and pretend you didn't just say that," said Watanuki with his nose in the air. "I know my own value, thank you very much. I also know that you, Lord Pirate Pants--"

     "Touch my pants again and you're dust."

     Thank goodness Watanuki knew that was literal so he didn't need Doumeki to explain. Instead, he jumped back with his hands in the air, standing on his tiptoes. On Watanuki, even a strategic retreat could look like he was sassing you, Doumeki thought with a smile.

     "As I was saying before you so rudely interrupted, you cannot tell me that I'm not allowed to be anywhere I choose to be, because you are not my boss!"

     "Good! I don't want to be in charge of your lying, scheming, popcorn-dealing ass, like popcorn vending is even a real job!"

     "Are you implying that I'm not exactly what I say I am?!" Watanuki screamed, pulling two cartons of popcorn out of nowhere and shaking them out over Lord Shirou's hat. They smelled amazing. The ones Doumeki caught on the rebound tasted amazing, too.

     "Implying, my ass! It's a fact! Your kind and my kind shouldn't be in the same place! I'm drawing a line..." and he did, in fact, score a line in the floor by pointing his finger and making part of the wood explode. That was going a little far, but Imonoyama could probably fix the structural damage. "... I'm on one side of the line, you fuckers get the other side of the line, and that's the way it should be! Because we are enemies!"

     "Well, that's just fine with me!"

     "Fine!"

     "I already said fine! You're the first person I've discussed this with who's shown an ounce of sense on the subject, and I never want anything to do with you again!"

     "I damn well fucking agree!"

     They stared daggers at each other, both red faced and panting, until Watanuki took a deep breath in and attempted to look composed. "But I am still escorting you out of the country."

     "No fucking way."

     "Not a request. I consider it my solemn duty to follow you, sneakily and stealthily if I must, to make sure that you are well departed and on your ship before I rejoin my delegation."

     "I'd like to see you try."

     "It's true," Watanuki huffed, miming an exaggerated swagger around Lord Shirou. "It might be difficult to travel as slowly as pirates do, walking at pirate speeds over pirate roads..."

     Shirou scowled at the wall, refusing to watch the one man parade. A man in his position had to retain some dignity. "Roads in your country are not pirate roads."

     "Details! But I am up to the challenge of matching your snail-like pace if it means ensuring that you, sir, are outside our borders again."

     "I think you'd be surprised how fast I can go."

     That got Watanuki's attention back. The ninja skidded to a stop and peered into Shirou's unflinching glare from a nose-length away. "You can't possibly be faster than I am."

     "You want to wager on that?"

     "Hmph! You'd simply be handing me your stakes, so I don't know why I'd bother!"

     Lord Shirou snarled, "Last one to the boat's a rotten egg," and disappeared in a rush of speed lines, just like a ninja flicker-stepping. Although, of course, you'd never catch him telling Lord Shirou he did anything like a ninja. He liked living the non-exploded life.

     Once Watanuki got over sputtering about the audacity of running out on a conversation and starting a race without a proper, "Ready, Set, Go," he stomped over the Doumeki and said, "Get on my back."

     "Why?"

     "Because I am not going to lose a flicker-stepping race to a pirate! Especially not one who cheats! Now get on my back." And after a heartbeat added, "Also, tell me where we're going."

     He'd done stranger things, Doumeki thought, climbing onto his boyfriend's back for a high-speed piggyback ride. "Breksen, South Port. Pier 17."

     Doumeki didn't remember much about the ten seconds that followed. He'd been too busy keeping his hat on. But sure as shooting, they were standing on Pier 17 at the Breksen South Port, with a whole mess of seagulls flying off in every direction. He'd know his own ship anywhere, and the Queen Cassandra was floating close enough to touch.

     Despite his head start, Lord Shirou was nowhere to be seen, much to Watanuki's satisfaction. The only other pirate in view was the one on the fo'c'sle: Kaede, the surgeon, keeping the watch. She wasn't one to let slip two men appearing next to the ship, with or without crying birds startled into flight.

     "Ahoy, Captain! We didn't know you'd be back today."

     "Wasn't time to send word," he answered. "Go find everyone on leave, quick. When Lord Shirou gets here, I expect he'll want make sail without delay."

     She nodded with an, "Aye, sir," and climbed down a rope tethering the ship to port, reaching the ground just in time for the Admiral to pop out of thin air in front of her nose, drenched to the bone and growling under his breath. Kaede was lucky she hadn't run into him, and he seemed dead set on ignoring her as she ran towards the town.

     Before either Watanuki or Doumeki could say anything, the Pirate Lord pointed a finger in both their faces, saying, "This was not an accident. I meant to jump in that river. That's how little I care about immature bets, and also I wanted a bath." Then he gave his sopping clothes an annoyed shake and clenched his fists. As he did, a fine mist of water leapt off of him as if it'd been wrung out of all his clothes in an instant, and he looked both dry and like his clothes had been freshly ironed. That had to be one hell of a handy trick if you got caught in a storm at sea.

     Checking the wind, the sun, and the height of the water, the Admiral added, "Now let's board the ship and get out of here before we lose the tide."

     "After the crew returns from shore leave," Doumeki reminded him. "The ship won't sail itself. They've been sent for."

     Not missing a step towards the gangplank, Lord Shirou restated, "Let's board the ship and start readying the sails so when your crew gets back, we can get out of here before we lose the tide. I'd say we have two hours."

     "Aye, aye, Admiral." He'd planned to just take one parting kiss from his boyfriend, who was standing there with his nose in the air and a packed lunch, but actually, there was one thing he needed to do first. "Lord Shirou, wait."

     His boss turned around, none too pleased to be doing it, and didn't say a word.

     "This guy's down in the book as a seven. I need you to overrule the committee and certify him an eight." Watanuki's jaw dropped at that, but it couldn't be that surprising he'd remembered.

     "You're asking about sex points now?! We need to leave! The tide doesn't care about your rating for fucking your boyfriend, why would I..." Shirou paused and murmured some mathematics under his breath. "Hold it. If your boyfriend's an eight, that bumps you up..." He seemed to be double-checking his math on his fingers now. "Over 20,000 more points for the year? Is that right?"

     "I haven't been counting."

     "No, it would." Shirou zipped back over to where they were standing and gave Watanuki a hard look. "Why aren't you asking me for more? Don't you realize, you're the only hope I have of Fai not winning that fruitcake for fucking Kurogane?"

     "Like I said, I'm not--"

     "I will certify your boyfriend a ten if it gives you a better shot to take down Fai."

     Doumeki frowned, not quite sure how to tell his ranking officer that he didn't much appreciate his sex life being someone else's horse in a race he didn't care to compete in, not that it'd be easy to convince the Admiral that he didn't care when he'd just asked for an override. Lucky for him, Watanuki was never at a loss for words.

     His lover dropped the lunchbox into Doumeki's hand and crossed his arms, as imperious as could be. "You will do no such thing, pirate! I'm not here for flattery, nor to win any of your scalliwag fruitcakes! I can make my own cakes, much better than your cakes! Cakes the likes of which you could only dream of eating! I will accept nothing but you correcting your records to reflect my actual appearance, as at present your records contain nothing but deceit, lies, and slander!! I am not a seven. I am not a ten. I am an eight. Write that down in your books!"

     "Fine!" Shirou groaned. "You're an eight. I'll tell Aoki, I'll send out messenger birds to the fleet. I will print a goddamn correction in the Daily Picaroon. Everyone be advised, Captain Doumeki's boyfriend is one point hotter than initially thought! Now can we please leave this godforsaken country?!"

     As he stomped back toward the gangplank, Doumeki took that kiss he'd been looking for, and whispered, "We put in at Hundhammeren next fortnight. See you then."

     Watanuki pouted in one of his usual sour ways -- the one that meant he was upset about being happy. "You had better."

~//~

     Kamui let his head rest on the cool wood of the table in the cabin Doumeki had given up so he could have some privacy. They were away from land at last, away from people he didn't know with intentions he couldn't fathom. In a quiet full of nothing but the familiar creaks of a ship at work, he could let the waves rock him to something resembling calmness.

     Why couldn't everything be this simple? Couldn't he forget all the crap people had said and done during his last week in Hell, and go back to living the life he'd been living for as long as he could remember? He didn't mind that life. Some of the people in it were frustrating and he kind of wanted to kill them, but that was fine. There were other people he didn't want to kill.

     But it was no use.

     He was going to have to talk to his mother when he got back to Takifugu, and he wasn't even sure how to start that conversation. Mom, are you secretly the heir to an elite ninja clan? If she hadn't told him before now, after the number of times he'd insulted ninjas to her face while she smiled and laughed, why would she admit it now? Would he know if she was telling the truth? What if Imonoyama or somebody else who was neck deep in this nonsense was sending her a warning to get her story straight even now, while they were sailing?

     Then again, there was one way he could get a message to her before anyone else would have a chance. Kamui pulled his magic pad of paper out of the inside pocket of his jacket (or at least the weird folds of reality around it that, honestly, ninjas should not have been allowed to keep a monopoly on, so he -- as a pirate -- was stealing their useful skills) and dipped the pen a few times in the inkwell. He probably had the strength to get a letter to Takifugu. It wasn't that far away, only 650 leagues northwest of the port they'd just left. He'd gotten letters to Fuuma from further.

     What he didn't have were words. Not one thing came to mind that he could write, not when what he really wanted was to look his mother in the eye and ask her what else he didn't know. Looking at her words, cast over the ocean, wouldn't be what he wanted at all. What he needed was someone who could tell him what he should do, and that was one thing he didn't know if he could ask of Shirou Tohru right now.

     While his pen hung in the air, a drop of ink fell from the nib, making a single spot on the paper. And even though Kamui didn't know who he wanted to talk to anymore, let alone what to say, the paper started moving on its own. Like so many times before, the top sheet folded itself into a dragon and flew off, but this time he had no idea where it was going.

     Fuck. That could happen?

     He watched the next sheet of paper on the pad, waiting for some hint that the other end of his message had ended up with someone at all, and wasn't just floating in the sea, waiting for a fish to eat it. First the image of his blob of ink showed up, so probably that was a good sign? And the lines appearing above that looked like he was going to get another ink drawing of a face, which looked human so far.

     Unkempt but somehow still perfect bangs hung down over the person's forehead, and Kamui could just about recognize him from that alone. As he let out a relieved sigh, the shape of the eyes and the angle of the chin just confirmed it. That was Subaru, and since he wasn't wearing his coat, he was probably alone in his cabin. Thank fuck. Subaru was possibly the only person in the world who wouldn't give him any crap for writing an accidental blob letter, and was even a good person to talk to. Although the way the ship's navigator had narrowed his eyes and turned his mouth into a thin line said he wasn't happy about it, as much as Subaru was happy about anything. It was a look he usually saved for those times when Kamui nearly got himself killed doing something stupid. He'd seen that look more times than he cared to think about.

     Then the ink drawing of Subaru's face drifted up off the top of the paper, replaced by a picture of his friend's shirt and vest as he walked away. Kamui nearly yelled out, "Wait, don't go!" before the rational part of his brain reminded him that Subaru couldn't hear him through the paper, and the part that kind of understood Subaru's moods said he just wouldn't do that. And he wouldn't. He would never. Subaru was Subaru.

     Whereas he, Kamui, had been going for a week on little to no sleep, and had spent the last hour failing to nap with his face planted on a wooden table. He pulled out his compass so he could check his reflection in the metal shine before Subaru got back, since maybe he didn't have to look as crappy as he felt. And wouldn't you know, his bangs were sticking up at a weird angle, he had a red splotch on his forehead full of woodgrain lines from the table, if this moving ink picture feature even showed details like that. But in the seconds before Subaru's image came back, sitting down with an inkwell and a quill, Kamui raked his bangs back into shape over the table print on his forehead so he looked slightly less like an idiot, then tried to act like he'd been waiting here quietly the whole time.

     Once Subaru was looking at him again, this time hiding any worries he might've had, Kamui realized he still had no idea what to say. It'd been three weeks now since a Clow Reed picture show had told him that Subaru might've been... well. Not lying, but hiding things at least, and the last eight days hadn't made it any easier to ask for an explanation from a man whose very posture made it clear, he didn't owe anybody anything. But all this time, Kamui had thought they were kind of friends. Friends who shared things.

     He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry, then he tried not to cry, and he was pretty sure he managed, but it was Subaru who broke the silent staring.

     The words, "Did someone die?" showed up on the paper under his ink splotch in Subaru's unhurried cursive.

     That, he could answer. Kamui wrote, "No," underneath. He winced at how inelegant his hand looked next to the navigator's, but it wasn't like he'd ever had the patience for calligraphy.

     "Is that a problem?" Subaru wrote back.

     With a sigh, Kamui wrote another, "No." As much hot air as he blew about ninja, probably the only person he'd wanted to kill all weekend was that damn Icchan, but in retrospect he was glad he hadn't tried. He didn't even mind making nice with Hibiya Chitose. Hibiya Chitose! He fought her all the time! What was the world coming to, that he had ninja he didn't actively want to kill other than Hikaru (who didn't count)?

     Subaru's response came almost immediately. "Then you want to talk to me about something."

     "Yeah." And yet, Kamui couldn't make himself write, Are you over two thousand years old and a hero from half the fairy tales I heard growing up? It seemed like such a stupid thing to ask, and how was he going to explain asking if he was wrong? Better to start somewhere... slightly less stupid sounding. "You know I spent the last week at a giant ninja party, right?"

     "Yes. I was there when Fai got the invitation from Imonoyama-kun." Subaru's mouth turned up for a split second into something that was almost a smile. "You're frowning. I take it he didn't tell you where you were going."

     "Like I'd expect more from Fai," he wrote. And he couldn't very well say that Subaru should have told him when he'd been avoiding talking to Subaru the whole time because he didn't know what to say. "It's fine. I've lived through worse. But there was this lady there, from Fahren, and she had your name."

     Subaru studied the words (Kamui presumed) with a confused look on his face, then the line, "Subaru isn't an uncommon name. You've met others," appeared.

     "Not that name." He had to force himself not to write, Nevermind, so he wouldn't hear something he didn't want to hear, or worse, ask something Subaru didn't want to share, but he managed to write the facts. "One of the leaders of Fahren, some 'Protectress of the State.' They called her Lady Sumeragi. I've never heard of another Sumeragi before."

     "Fahren?" Subaru wrote, the confusion on his face getting deeper and wiping away any trace of hope Kamui had that the answer would be something normal, like, Oh, she's my grandmother. I'm not immortal, just a man who ran away from home when I was young.

     Then again, if Subaru had done that, he would've mentioned it before. He wasn't the type to worry that people would hate him for not being born to the sea. Everyone acted like he came from nowhere, just like Fai. For fuck's sake, had all this immortality nonsense been in front of his eyes the whole time, and he just hadn't noticed?! Well, hopefully no one else had noticed either, so he wasn't the last to figure it out, and if everyone else did know, then they hadn't realized Kamui was out of the loop, so he could pretend he'd known the whole time. That was fine.

     Another line had appeared while he'd been worrying. Subaru was sitting there patiently waiting for an answer to the question, "Is Fahren Karasuk?"

     "Is it what?" Kamui said out loud, to himself. What would 'Karasuk' even mean? Did the transmission from the far away paper to his paper fail for some reason? Was it broken, and spitting out nonsense?

     Subaru must've read his lips moving on the other side of the letter, Kamui thought, feeling the heat of a blush on his cheeks, because he started writing again. "Is Fahren on the far East coast of the northeast continent? We haven't been there recently."

     "It is," Kamui wrote. And of course they hadn't been there. It was a ninja stronghold, one of the more formidable ones, but it was still on maps.

     Except Subaru almost never looked at world maps, Kamui remembered. Only local ones. He could sail to any continent from memory, just based on the stars, because Subaru was amazing.

     "The people must have changed the name. That used to be Karasuk," said Subaru's words on the paper. And the more Kamui looked at that name, the more he kind of remembered hearing it somewhere before. Subaru wrote on, "My sister and I had a history there. If I could call any place on Earth my home, it would have been Karasuk."

     "So is that woman your family?" Kamui wrote.

     "I doubt it. Sumeragi was a title in respect for our service. It's not surprising someone else took it when we left. Vacancies of power don't last long."

     Oh fuck. Subaru wasn't hiding anything, was he? Maybe he would've said all of this if Kamui had just thought to ask, Hey, are you the guy all those legends are about? a little earlier, although it wouldn't have made much sense to do. He thought he remembered why the word 'Karasuk' sounded familiar, too. That fucking shady storyteller -- from Fahren, no less -- had used it when he was telling his story. The story that Kamui had thought just might have been about Subaru. Fuck.

     "So, if I asked you about this thing someone said happened, with an arrow that got lost in a forest, and the guy who shot it getting into a music fight with a Guardian of Heaven and a bunch of singing ghosts...?"

     "Music fight?" Subaru's eyebrows arched high, and Kamui could have sworn it looked like he nearly laughed. "I suppose people might remember it that way, but they were rakshasa, not ghosts. No one died."

     "How old are you?" Kamui asked at last. It didn't seem like such a stupid question anymore.

     "That's hard to say. Time is only measurable on Earth."

     Right. And all the different versions of the Dioscuri stories agreed at least that the six of them had spent a good bit of time in the Heavens. He tried again, writing, "What's the earliest thing you remember?" as if it were perfectly normal to ask somebody that.

     The picture of Subaru let out a breath. He was thinking, Kamui could tell from his eyes looking up. He was trying to remember. Finally, he wrote, "It's hard to recall my earliest days on Earth. I remember visiting a shrine, where a fox was showing a young man how to contact the Heavens so he could call on Ashura. The fox showed great restraint in not tricking the man into making contact with Ashura-Ou himself, but I'm sure he did it for his own sake. I was fascinated by several rolls of papyrus, where the man was drawing a map of the stars and giving them names."

     "I have no idea when that would be," Kamui admitted, getting a knot in his stomach from the chance that his friend had just told him that he was around when scholars had named the stars. No wonder he knew the sky so well.

     "Neither do I," Subaru answered. "I don't remember how humanity measured years then. Shrines are most of what I remember."

     "Nothing else?"

     "Nothing except Seishirou-san. I didn't know his name when..." Subaru's pen paused for a moment. "... I spoke to him under a cherry tree, the first time I went outside the shrines. He was young, but it was him. He told me so later, when he explained how he marked my hands. And why."

     Shit. Those scars that Kamui had seen that time Subaru had taken his gloves off when they were in his cabin. He'd had them that long? Just once in however many thousand years that'd been, it would've been nice if Subaru could have caught a fucking break.

     "We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Kamui wrote.

     Subaru's face seemed placid, as if he hadn't been thinking about that asshole Sakurazuka. "There's nothing more to say."

     "Do you want to hear about my week?"

     "Yes. There must be details the Daily Picaroon didn't print."

     "I really, really hope so. I don't want the whole world knowing I straightened Hibiya Chitose's underwear for a beauty pageant."

     One more time, something like the ghost of a smile sat on Subaru's face, and for the first time in what felt like centuries, Kamui knew up was up and down was down while he read Subaru's script spelling out, "Your secret is safe with me."