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Let the Games Begin

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     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."

     "Huh."

     "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."

     "Hmm."

     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."

     "Just one?"

     "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?"

     "Absolutely!"

     "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."

     "Good."

     "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!".

     "Apparently."

     "You didn't know?!"

     "He told me he was a popcorn vendor," Doumeki reminded him.

     "Does she know?"

     "Yep."

     "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!"

     Well.

     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.

     "Left."

     "Fuck you."

     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."

     "How?"

     "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.

     "Catch!"

     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.

Chapter Text

     Faced with a festival full of ninja, time to kill, and nothing to get done, Doumeki at least stuck around to see the rest of the opening ceremonies. He hadn't known it was possible to turn a giant balloon into a rose-shaped fountain in mid-air. Apparently that could happen. Too bad Watanuki disappeared out of his part of the stage before Doumeki could say hello, but finding his particular ninja in the massive crowds of ninja couldn't be too hard. There weren't many sneaks who spazzed as much as Watanuki did, and his lover's voice tended to carry.

     The announcement board at the edge of the square was probably as good a place as any to start. It'd have a map, he hoped.

     It did -- standing a foot taller than Doumeki himself, a bright green and gold rendering of the city of Kragero, with its five main streets crossing in the shape of a star -- and more besides. For three feet of board to the left, there were sign-up instructions and brackets for each day's main events, some of them filled in and some not (laundry today, an egg drop thing tomorrow, a trivia contest, a beauty contest, a music contest, some kind of mystery event, and then flower arrangements). For three feet to the right of the map, there were brackets for big events that'd take the whole week. The drinking contest and the bonfire ghost story contest both had nothing filled in yet, with notes to see the proctors on how to qualify, but all thirty-two entries for the cooking contest had been printed onto the outermost bracket.

     With the name "Watanuki Kimihiro" (him and an "Ijyuin Akira" whom Doumeki didn't know) pre-filled all the way to the finals. He'd seen people favored to win before, but that was...

     Evidence that the Kragero ninja had good taste, Doumeki decided. Watanuki had been cooking him dinners and breakfasts and packing him off for the boat with a lunchbox for months now, and anybody who didn't think that man made the best damn food in the world needed their taste buds examined. The things he could do with rice deserved their own religion.

     Doumeki smiled at the board with a feeling something like pride, for he didn't know how long. He got cut off before he was done when one of the people with laundry carts (he guessed they were competing) stopped on the track and called out, "Um, Mister... Pirate, sir?" It was a slip of a girl with long hair and a blue skirt staring at him with abject confusion. He supposed the orange band on her arm meant she was from Ceres. "Are you lost?" she asked.

     Sweeping off his hat, he walked to the ropes. "Point me at the cooking contest, milady?"

     She blinked a few times. Doumeki wondered if there was a magic word he had to know, but at last the girl pointed to a street on the right. "It's in the coliseum, just past the planetari--"

     A whip cracked not ten feet away. A blond -- Doumeki recalled the announcer saying she was the Queen of Hearts, hard to mistake in her leather top, thigh-high boots, cape, and not much else -- had appeared in the way only ninja could. The girl in the blue skirt backed away from the ropes in a panic.

     "Miyuki-chan!" the Queen hissed. "If you have time to lean, you have time to clean!"

     "Y-yes, Mistress!!"

     Not many people could break into full chase wearing six-inch spike heels. Doing it while cracking a whip took some impressive coordination. Still, if this was a laundry washing contest, Doumeki had to wonder if the dust clouds the two of them stirred up around the cart would end up biting them in the ass when they got where they were going.

     "Faster!"

     "Yes, Mistress!!"

     Neither of them seemed fussed about it, though, and he had a cook-off to watch. Sure enough, there was a coliseum down the street the girl had pointed to, with twelve portable kitchenettes around a podium draped in cloth, and standing at a stove at the north end was a lanky figure wearing black and fishnet, plus Doumeki's favorite apron (the kappougi, with the full sleeves), calling instructions to the teenage girl behind the counter.

     "We're on desserts, so we'll want the standing mixer. Let me know if it's too heavy?"

     "It's all right, Kimihiro-kun. I've got it." She cocked her head at Doumeki walking up behind Watanuki, but didn't say a word about it.

     "Ah, Kohane-chan, it's such a relief to have you as my sous-chef this year! Last year--"

     "Hey," Doumeki said.

     In the space of a second, his ninja switched from the sweet voice he'd been using with the girl to the bellow Doumeki found more familiar, screaming, "My name is not 'Hey'!" as he whipped himself around. The fox spirit who liked to tag along in inconvenient places flew out of Watanuki's sleeve and pulled them together. Just like that, he and his ninja were against the counter. Watanuki wasn't trying to get away. Doumeki might have tried to kiss him (at three other kitchen units, co-competitors were kissing, so no one could mind), but the parade of reds on Watanuki's face was backed up by a look of real concern in his eyes. When he got calm and sharp like that, not twitching at all, Doumeki knew he wasn't in the mood to be messed with.

     So he murmured, "Do I say good luck, or congratulations on your win?"

     "Are you fucking kidding me?!" Watanuki said in a tone that managed to be one part growl, one part hiss, and three parts screech, all while staying in a six-inch voice. Not that six-inch voices mattered to ninja, who could probably all hear if they decided to listen in. "Why the-- how are you even here?! And don't try to tell me you're docked in the city by some kind of coincidence! Even if I weren't contractually obligated to disbelieve coincidences, we are miles from any kind of ocean, you... you... you--!"

     He looked like he was trying to find a way to avoid saying 'pirate' or any potentially incriminating synonyms, so Doumeki helped by cutting him off. "I walked. Is this some kind of popcorn vendor's convention?"

     "You walked?! What kind of-- And no, this is not a popcorn vendor's convention! It's the annual--" The ninja covered his own mouth with his palm, taking a wary glance at the girl arranging their kitchen. It was cute how he worked so hard not to spill any ninja business to an 'enemy'. "It's... the annual Kragero Career Fair. It's obviously for introducing college students to prospective careers, and not whatever you were thinking. Obviously."

     "So you've got a booth for talking people into vending popcorn. Can I see it?"

     "What? No! I-- Stop changing the subject!"

     "Watanuki-sempai, way to go!" a female voice yelled from the other side of the stadium. As the fox spirit scrammed to let Watanuki bolt around the counter (arms and legs flailing everywhere, as usual), Doumeki saw four girls walking in the far door, all of them with purple armbands that matched Watanuki's. The one with straight blue hair letting out a wolf-whistle looked like the one who'd yelled, while a smaller girl with a long red braid dashed ahead. Sauntering behind them both were two smiling girls, one with shorter, blond hair, wearing a green skirt, and one with longer, more brownish hair. The black-haired, broad-shouldered ninja man was the one who'd stopped by Watanuki's apartment with Eagle a couple weeks back. Doumeki hadn't caught the guy's name, but nobody forgot a face like that.

     Watanuki's spinning limbs landed with him pointing both arms (one over his head) and a knee at Doumeki. "Pay no attention to the man in the feathered hat! He's a method actor from a traveling theater troupe who has taken an oath on his life to never break character, so while he may sound like a pirate, and look like a pirate, and smell like a pirate, he is not actually a pirate! Don't let him fool you!"

     As the girls approached, the blue-haired one laughed out loud. "You should have said earlier that feathered hats were your kink! We could've hooked you up!"

     "That isn't what I meant! Gyaaaaaaaaah!"

     The red-headed one bounced to a stop in front of him with her hand held out and an enormous smile on her face. "You must be Captain Doumeki! Watanuki-sempai talks about you all the time." Almost everybody ignored the high-pitched whine Watanuki made as he clutched his hair. His sous-chef handed him a towel, in which he promptly hid his face. "I'm Hikaru, and this is Lantis, and Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan, and Fuu-chan's sister, Kuu-san! Nice to meet you!"

     "Oh, Hikaru," he answered shaking her hand. "Lord Shirou's friend?"

     Her eyes went wide and sparkling. "You know Kamui-san?!"

     "He's my boss."

     "You have to tell him I said hi!"

     "You can tell him yourself, once he's done with his business."

     "He's here?!" She turned in four directions at once to tell all her friends. "Captain Doumeki says Kamui-san came to the festival! Isn't that great?"

     The others shared a silent glance, looking not so sure that was the best turn of events, but that was as far as it went. Watanuki bowled into Doumeki a second later with a carton of steaming popcorn in his hand. How he managed to keep that stuff hot and fresh in ninjaspace, but never ever burn it, was even more of a mystery than how ninja everywhere could pull stuff out of nowhere to begin with.

     "Here! Eat this, and don't talk because talking with your mouth full is rude. You can sit over there where I can keep an eye on you until this is over. Then there must be somewhere on this campus where I can hide you so you can stay out of trouble!"

     "I figured I'd stay with you."

     "That would definitely get you in trouble!! Now sit!"

     Well, he wouldn't say no to front row seats and the best popcorn on the planet. Besides, from here he could watch Watanuki's cute butt wiggle in his panic dance without getting hit.

     Lantis sat down next to him, giving him a wary eye.

     "We're not here to cause trouble," he promised the ninja, and held out Watanuki's offerings. "Whatever he thinks. Popcorn?"

     The man, the monolith, nodded silently, taking a handful of popcorn but giving Doumeki the impression that he'd better keep his word. Well, he wouldn't have said it if he hadn't meant it. Anyone who trusted Eagle Vision could sure as hell trust him.

     "Watanuki-sempai!" Hikaru punched the air in challenge, and Doumeki's ninja snapped straight to attention. "It's you against me and Umi-chan on desserts!"

     The blue-haired girl crossed her arms over her chest with a smirk. "I hope you brought your A-game. We won't let you take this easy."

     "Hah! Well, I never do less than my utmost. Let the best pâtissier win!"

     The blond one waved to her friends, following the brown-haired one to the other side of the arena. "My sister and I are challenging Magami-san and Akechi-san on the main course," she said, pointing out a woman and a man wearing gold Kragero armbands. "Wish us luck!"

     "Good luck!"

     As the teams settled into their stations, the same announcer who'd worked the opening ceremonies stepped onto the raised platform in the center, waving to the cheering crowd.

     "All right, everyone! Are we ready for the first heat of the first round of our championship, to see whose culinary skills are a cut above the rest?!" The crowd answered with a roar. Handfuls of them even held up signs cheering on their favorites. Doumeki counted 39 for Watanuki at first glance, and 37 for Ijyuin -- who, if he had to guess from the cartoons on the signs, was the black-haired one in the chef's hat, standing next to a girl with a bobbed haircut, looking like they were running for a Most Wholesome Couple award. He'd admit he was biased, but Doumeki preferred the kerchief Watanuki had knotted over his hair to the full-on puffy chef's hat. It framed the face better.

     "And now for our secret ingre-- Wait a moment..." The announcer looked down at an empty kitchenette, marked with a salad flag under a royal blue pennant, next to the spot where Princess Aska of Fahren and a boy in a tasseled beanie had a bowl of arugula ready to go. "Wasn't there supposed to be a team from England in this round?"

     "Right here!" From the West Entrance, the same bespectacled kid from the opening ceremonies ran in dragging his (now empty) laundry cart. A skinny kid with long hair and a dress came running behind him, wearing a matching royal blue armband. At first, Doumeki figured that was the end of the one-ninja-in-England theory, but he didn't need long to rethink. Doumeki wasn't good with mystical things like his grandfather had been, but even he could tell the second member of England's cooking team was a construct -- not born of any of the six realms, definitely not human. A damn good construct, but a construct all the same.

     He had a bad feeling about all of it. In the interest of staying out of trouble, Doumeki thought maybe he'd avoid Hiiragizawa Eriol for as long as he was in these parts. Although, if his eyes were working right, the squirt from England looked like he could have been Watanuki's twin brother, if Watanuki had been a little younger and a lot calmer. Talk about weird.

     Hiiragizawa turned to Doumeki and smiled -- a creepy, slick smile with his glasses glinting -- almost like he could hear the pirate thinking. Doumeki shivered.

     Yeah. He'd never have to worry about mixing those two up.

     "Okay, all contestants in place? Then let's go ahead and reveal our secret ingredient! Today you'll be cooking with..." The cloth in the middle of the arena fell away to reveal a heap of yellow and red fruit. "Apples! A~and... begin!"

~//~

     So close! Hikaru thought their bread pudding with the apple and fig bits was actually really tasty, but how could they compete with Watanuki's perfect little fruit and cream tarts in the perfectly flaky pastry, with the perfect homemade whipped cream and the perfect sprinkle of powdered sugar on top? He'd earned that win fair and square. She wished she'd had more time to congratulate him before he'd grabbed his pirate and run off, but she knew how busy he was.

     She smiled at Umi-chan as they cleaned up the pan. "Isn't it great that Watanuki-sempai kicked his allergy to pirates? Now he can spend more time with his boyfriend!"

     Umi-chan froze for an instant, then wiped her hands on a towel and smothered Hikaru in a hug. "Oh my god, I love you. Never change."

     "Huh?"

     "Watanuki-sempai's pirate allergy... It's... um. Psychosomatic."

     "So? It's still good he's over it!" Sex wouldn't be any fun at all if your boyfriend made you break out in hives, even psychosomatic ones. And when he'd pulled Captain Doumeki out of the coliseum, Watanuki-sempai hadn't had any hives or rashes or any of the stuff he'd always said he got when pirates were around (and hadn't they been cute, with Watanuki-sempai dragging him by the collar, and Captain Doumeki munching tarts like they were the best thing ever).

     Fuu-chan walked up smiling despite her and Kuu's apple-glazed chicken losing out to the Kragero team's stuffed pork loin. That one, at least, had been a close call -- even though Akechi-san was Ijyuin-san's uncle, and his whole family were great cooks. "Should we all meet in the food court around dinner time? I have to take the preliminary quiz for the trivia contest."

     "That sounds perfect," Umi-chan answered. "I'll run off to audition for the music contest. Hikaru, you've got tryouts for the ghost stories, too, right?"

     "Yep! But Eagle's next door washing laundry right now, so I figured Lantis and I'd go cheer him on for a bit first."

     Lantis was at her side as soon as the judges signaled that non-competitors could enter the arena, and they all set off for the West Entrance, making bets on whether Watanuki-sempai or Ijyuin-san was going to win their annual showdown, and trying to figure if anyone could challenge the Duklyon boys for third. They were almost out the door when Fuu-chan and Kuu-san's opponents flicker-stepped in front of them, and they all had to forcibly restrain themselves from drawing weapons. This was a festival after all. People mostly kept their ninja techniques to themselves, to keep anybody from having a misunderstanding that might turn bloody, but not having misunderstandings meant not being provoked as much as not provoking.

     "Sorry, we didn't mean to surprise you," Akechi-san said. The doctor held up his hands, eyes friendly behind his horn-rimmed glasses. "Tokiko-san and I wanted to catch you as long as you were all here together."

     Magami Tokiko-san's black hair fluttered in a breeze that came out of nowhere as she stepped up. Hikaru made a note not to underestimate her if they ever did get in a fighty situation. Run-of-the-mill ninja nurses didn't generate aesthetically convenient wind. She reminded Hikaru of something or someone she couldn't quite place at the moment, actually. But she'd remember if it was important! And this lady had a really pretty smile, too! Hikaru smiled back, since nobody seemed to be attacking.

     "We're with the committee to select entrants for the beauty pageant. Ryuuzaki-san, Lantis-san, you're our finalists for Hundhammeren and, well..." The two Kragero ninja laughed as Umi-chan and Lantis raised eyebrows at each other. "Shall we flip a coin again?"

     Lantis held out his hand without a word. He had his, 'Let's get this over with,' face on. Akechi-san handed him an official coin-flipping coin with the Imonoyama crest on one side and a pufferfish on the other. With a shrug, Umi-chan called, "Heads," while Lantis spun the coin into the air, caught it, and slapped it onto his other arm.

     Hikaru giggled at her su~uper hot boyfriend's grimace when he saw the star, then pulled him down so she could kiss his cheek. "Congratulations, Mr. Hundhammeren." The committee's decision was absolute. Eagle was gonna be so proud.

     "Oh, relax," Umi-chan told him. "I'll get it next year. Now are we going to watch people washing piles of sheets in giant vats, or are we just gonna stand here?"

~//~

     There were days that were bad, Kamui considered as he hopped off one steam engine making its way around the giant chessboard that'd popped out of the floor in this godforsaken darkness and onto another. Then there were days that were inexplicably bad, and then there were days when projections of dancing pufferfish told you to solve logic puzzles or risk falling onto a floor that released ridiculously painful electric shocks. In a sane universe, there wouldn't ever be days like that, but this wasn't a sane universe. This was his life.

     He'd checked the gelatinous cubes and the milky liquid for toxins before he'd ingested them, so he was pretty sure this wasn't a pre-death hallucination. Evidence pointed to them being magic, since after he'd eaten and drunk, a life-size projection of his body had appeared next to the pufferfish, showing his internal organs and blood vessels along with readouts for his pulse, breaths per minute, and five other statistics (and why anybody would need that, he didn't want to know). Then had come the chessboard -- with squares as wide as he was tall, topped with two trains running lazy circuits at first, sparks jumping between their wheels and the ground -- then the white rabbit holding a watch had risen just past one of the bishop squares.

     Because of course there was a white rabbit holding a watch.

     At any rate, he could take a hint, and balanced on the engine of the first train until he could step to the engine of the second train, stepping off of that when it passed the rabbit, at which point three things happened: the rabbit printed out a card that said, "Make", the two trains broke into three running at a slightly faster speed, and a blue caterpillar statue rose up next to a knight's square on the other side of the board. The caterpillar's card had said, "a wish", and oh if Kamui had been the kind of person whose wishes came true, he wouldn't have been balanced on the nose of a hurtling locomotive, about to make the sixth of nine train changes to get from the smiling cat to the mocking faces of Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee.

     The eight rounds of this game he'd cleared so far had won him a deck of cards that read, "Make a wish, count to three. Pass the tests..." -- plus a growing facility with stepping from one speeding object to another without losing his balance, for all the good that would ever do him in the real world. As the train he was on neared the path of the train he needed to step to next, Kamui balanced on his toes, and combined the motion of stepping with a sideways push. If he did it right, he could match his body's momentum to his destination. No jolt when his foot committed to metal, no wobble throwing him to the floor. Just a tight, lightning fast step, which used different muscles than his normal leaps and bounds.

     He was going to be sore as fuck in the morning.

     Kamui's current train was a two-car deal rocketing from one edge of the third row to the other, and back again, in a four-second round trip. The last train was just an engine, no trailing cars, running in a circle from the king's square to the king's rook's square, then across the pawns' row to start again. He rode the whole cycle three times to be sure he had the timing right. It wasn't easy to propel himself in a split second from flying left to flying right, but he didn't falter, and even managed to disembark on the Tweedles' statue on his first ride around.

     It printed a card that said, "And". Kamui had a strong urge to set it on fire.

     As one of the trains that still had two cars broke into singles, bringing his train count to eleven, all the engines changed to new courses and kicked up to a yet higher speed. The statue for his next destination rose. Behind the black king's bishop's square back on the other edge of the board, there was now a gangly, gray creature he didn't remember from any version of any Alice stories, but who actually gave a shit? Not him, not right now. The trains were whizzing so fast, trying to plan his route was a nightmare. He could barely track them all, and certainly didn't have enough brain power left to think this through. But as long as he could ride one, study where the next was, and take this one step at a time--

     The wall over the gray statue started counting down from thirty. Because suddenly he had a fucking time limit, and he had no intention of learning what the hell happened if it ran out. Kamui shifted to his first train the next chance he got. His next three switches weren't pretty, not having time to plan. He nearly fell once. By the time he reached the statue, though, he'd got his sea legs under him at last, leaping from one train to the next by instinct. His feet hit the statue's base just as the timer hit zero, and all the trains screeched to a halt and tipped over.

     The floor erupted in a shower of sparks he was all too glad not to've been part of. When they righted themselves, he finished the twelve-car trip to the raven on the writing desk behind the white queen's square well within the twenty seconds allotted. The thirteen cars he needed to traverse in ten seconds to reach the mock turtle behind the black queen's square were racing so fast, all he could see were blurs, but he made it with three seconds to spare and a lunatic cackle. He was starting to get the hang of this.

     Then he read what the last few cards he'd collected said. "Pass the tests... and you'll go free." Kamui's laughter turned into a snarl. As if anyone could keep him here the minute he decided this farce wasn't worth his time. And he'd been moving so fast, time felt like mud while he waited for the next target to show itself.

     A Jabberwocky statue rose up. Behind the black queen's bishop's square.

     Just one square over from where he was right now.

     Kamui looked at the now-fourteen trains that were little more than lines of motion, that would take him on a circuit of the board and back again, and used his quick-step push to clear that one-square distance instead. Fuck the trains. The Jabberwocky handed him a card that said, "To", and Kamui readied himself for the next statue.

     This one was a white rose half-painted red, behind the black queen's rook's square. Just two squares down, like it was taunting him. Without thinking, he took the dare, rocketing off the Jabberwocky's podium toward the rose, and was still reeling from his surprise that he'd made it when a dodo bird statue appeared behind the black king's square. The ledge to land on was small, no more than three inches across, or he might have tried a long jump on that distance. But his feet had developed a habit now, and while he focused on his end point, he stepped, and his destination appeared under his feet. Four squares in one step, he thought as he took the card the dodo bird printed. Four squares, a distance four times his own height, in one instant.

     This fucking game had taught him how to flicker-step. Like a ninja.

     Fuck.

     As much as he wanted to turn the board into a crater, he wasn't ready to risk dying in the electrical fury it'd cause -- not when there was still someone somewhere he could make pay, and he hadn't even found that person yet. A person who was quickly rising in Kamui's estimation to 'nearly as annoying as Clow Fucking Reed'. He growled his way through reading the cards again, including his newest acquisitions.

     "Make a wish, count to three. Pass the tests, and you'll go free. To open the door..."

     He looked up to see a doorknob with an oversized keyhole rise up behind the white king's knight's square on the other side of the board. Those were all the words he had on the cards, but the rest of the rhyme was easy enough to guess.

     "To open the door, find the key."

     Well, if someone could trick him into flicker-stepping four squares, he could damn well flicker-step eight on his own terms. Ignoring the seventeen separate train engines whistling around the board, Kamui let out a roar and shot himself forward. He appeared on the ledge in front of the doorknob. Reaching for the statue, he fractured the stone with an unleashed bolt of power and yelled, "Whoever's watching this -- I know you're there! How about you open this up before I blow it up, and show you how much I hate riddles?! One... Two..."

     Behind the white queen's bishop's square, a pig statue's jaw hinged open and a key flew over. Kamui grabbed it out of the air.

     "Now that's more like it."

     The tiny room past the door that opened when he turned the key was a plain white, just as bright as the previous room had been made of darkness (and chessboards from hell). When the door closed behind him, the wall was completely featureless. It was as if the portal had never existed. There was no way out that he could see.

     "Okay, what's next?! Take your best shot!"

     Finally a segment of the wall flipped. It clicked into place with a one-piece black bodysuit hanging from a peg, and plain black shoes on the floor. A black dialogue box blinked next to them that said, "Wear me!"

     After all he'd done, after his threats (which he'd thought had worked), after everything... there still wasn't anyone here he could yell at. Or who could answer questions. It was like this was all according to someone's evil plan, and nothing he'd done had even gummed the works.

     Kamui sank into a heap against the wall, burying his face against his hands and knees. He'd earned a rest, hadn't he? And after he'd spent a few minutes (or seconds, maybe, since he had nothing to count time but the beat of his heart, and that was racing) with his eyes closed, seeing nothing, saying nothing, not giving whoever was doing this the joy of seeing him jump to their commands, he pulled the magic communicator he'd won fighting Hikaru from his bag.

     For him, Clow Reed's communicator orb had turned into a writing pad on a thick block of wood. Even though the Dragon of Earth was far from Kragero -- much farther than had ever been within the communicator's range before -- Kamui dashed off a note to Fuuma. He had to do something or he'd lose his mind.

     "Dear Fuuma: I hate everything," he wrote. "Why can't I be where you are?"

     The paper folded itself into a dragon and flew off, dissolving as it reached the wall.

     He didn't expect a response, but just writing it made him feel a little better. Even the goddamn feathers that fell out of nowhere whenever he lost control (or used this communicator thing, so now they were extra thick falling in a fluffy pile all around him) didn't seem so bad at the moment. At least they were a familiar annoyance. Kamui rummaged in his pack for a chunk of bread to eat. With some food in his stomach, he'd feel more human, and then he could handle whatever the fuck these ninja assholes and Fai the Feckless had to throw at him.

     Then, as he chewed, he saw the best thing in the entire world.

     Brown ink letters forming on his magic pad of paper. Fuuma was writing back to him from wherever the Dragon of Earth was sailing right now! The neatly written lines read, "Because where I am is full of sociopathic jerks, which doesn't usually appeal to you. Where the hell are you right now? Is it really that bad?" The last sentence scratched itself out, and Fuuma wrote, "What's going on?" instead.

     Kamui picked up his pen, so happy he could cry. But he wasn't crying, he swore. The drips falling on the paper were just sweat from running all over a chessboard at ridiculous speeds. And Fuuma didn't need to know he was dripping anyway. He scratched down, "I'm in some kind of fucking secret training ground run by sadists under Kragero. If I die in this Wonderland-themed hellhole, I'm counting on you to kill Fai for me. It's all his fault."

     "And I'm counting on you not to die, but it's a deal. Hang in there."

     "I love you," Kamui wrote, because it was one of those things he liked to tell Fuuma before he stood up to strange and deadly ninja menaces. He waited for the usual, 'Do what you've got to do, I'll watch your back,' sort of answer, but this time the page stayed blank. He didn't think the connection had broken. The paper turned to dust when that happened.

     Maybe Fuuma was starting to notice that Kamui wasn't sure that Kotori was the one he was in love with. God knew the tabloids spent three columns every issue wondering why he hadn't proposed to the Princess yet. Because he did love Kotori. But maybe Fuuma had noticed it wasn't that simple, and wasn't interested in poaching his sister's presumed boyfriend, but didn't want to say so because he couldn't think of anything that'd make things more awkward between the three of them.

     In a heavy, deliberate hand, Kamui put down, "You're the best friend ever."

     After another pause, while Kamui willed the paper to still be working, his heart beating like a loose sail in a storm wind, the words started again. "Kotori and I will always be here. I --" One more second of Kamui holding his breath, and Fuuma's pen scratched out the first person pronoun to revise it. "We love you, too."

     For that, Kamui thought he could survive anything. Even a ninja festival.

     Even the falling feathers that'd now piled up to his ankles, on their way to his knees.

~//~

     Stepping away from a laundry line, Suoh took one of the white feathers that'd begun raining out of the sky. He would have remembered if anything like this had been scheduled, or even proposed. It wasn't interfering with the festival, but it was unexpected. And inexplicable.

     Suoh didn't much care for the inexplicable.

     "Another of the Chairman's displays?" one of his fellow laundry judges asked -- the court crier from Malvek, according to his file. "The Imonoyama really pull out all the stops, don't they?"

     With a calm smile, Suoh lied. "The Chairman does enjoy things like this. Rose petals, usually, but I'm sure he had a reason to use feathers instead."

     In reality, there were very few reasons for a shower of feathers. The Chairman might have imported an enormous volume of loose plumage without anyone on his staff, including Suoh himself, noticing that he'd done it -- but that was the sort of thing he did for surprises. The Games and everything to do with them were no surprise, and this moment was hardly a focal point of the event worthy of one of the Chairman's grand gestures. Suoh supposed he couldn't rule out a natural occurrence, but that was unlikely as well. For this many feathers to fall at once, he'd expect a flock of birds to drop with them. Unless his memory of birds failed him, every single one of these feathers was a secondary plume from the wing of a pure white ptarmigan. The thousands falling just where he could see would require vast swaths of birds to have spontaneously moulted half their wings at once. 'Unlikely' was an understatement.

     If the Chairman hadn't done it, and there were no flocks of birds to be seen, the remaining possibility was that someone else had done it. If so, someone had set up a frankly enormous payload and a delivery mechanism without Suoh noticing it, on his campus. For the sake of his sanity, he hoped -- hoped, but didn't expect -- that the Chairman would take responsibility when Suoh next had a chance to speak with him. In the meantime, he'd ask one of his units of security officers to recheck every corner of the campus. Discreetly.

     A light wind blew ripples through the sheets on the nearest line, leaving gaps where he could see through to the next row. Through one of the gaps, Suoh saw an all too familiar purple-haired man staring straight at him, eyes glinting like cold steel. The Civic armband looked particularly stark against his navy blue sleeve, as if he'd bleached it to something more blindingly white than the soft floral white specifically selected by the Chairman to be warm, inviting, and complementary next to nearly all colors of clothing. That man might have done it, too.

     Yudaiji Idomu.

     If only the Chairman would let him bar that louse from the town, or search him when he came through the gates, or anything of the kind. But they were, alas, a just and forgiving city. His orders were to leave Yudaiji alone until the man did anything that required intervention. Scowling across the rows of laundry, Suoh went back to tallying clean sheets.

     "What's that face for?" the other judge asked. "Aren't you having fun?"

     "I'll have fun once I've prepared for all eventualities."

     "Prepare for what? You've already done so much. It's amazing how well organized this whole festival is. What could possibly go wrong?!"

     Suoh said nothing about ensuring that whatever plan Yudaiji had this time to shame and kill the Chairman would fail. Instead, he considered explaining how one should never ask what could possibly go wrong. Ever. The words were barely on his tongue when the light wind blowing across the field broke into a roaring gale, whipping more than half the sheets into a whirlwind. A net launched by one of the trebuchets on the city walls caught the flying sheets, of course, but credit for them was lost to the competitors. If you couldn't protect the work you'd done, you didn't get any points for it.

     The wind was gone as fast as it had come. It had the feel of magic all over it, and all of the ninja on the drying field looked equally bewildered as they tried to grapple their laundry -- even Yudaiji -- without a hint of who might've done it. Everyone knew that any stolen advantage anyone could get away with was fair game, and it was up to the entrants to interfere if their competitors tried to cheat, but that was the most blatant attempt Suoh could recall from any Games he'd heard of, let alone attended.

     "Time is up at sunset in five minutes," he told the official at the tally table. "Let the competitors hold their laundry in place if there's another gust. Other than that, stick to the plan. I'm going to find the Chairman. When you know who won, we'll be at tonight's Ghost Story contest, and I want to know immediately."

     "Yes, sir."

     Suoh flicker-stepped across the rooftops to keep from alarming any of their guests on the ground, and found the Chairman exactly where he was supposed to be -- thank goodness. He'd finished judging the auditions for the music contest, and was about to leave the concert hall to see that the bonfire was properly begun. The blond noticed him immediately, nodding toward a shadowed corner where they could meet without attracting attention.

     "That's not a festive expression, Suoh. What happened?"

     "Particularly obvious cheating in the laundry competition, sir."

     A bemused sparkle overtook the Chairman's blue eyes, bright even in the darkness. "Cheating, Suoh? We have ninja here from every corner of the globe! Well, a representative sample of all corners, given that corners on a globe only exist as an abstraction taken to infinity. But the point is, of course someone's cheating! What else would ninja do?"

     "This cheat didn't strike me as sporting. I have a bad feeling about this."

     "Far be it for me to discount your bad feelings. You're looking into the situation?"

     "Of course."

     "Then what could possibly go wrong?!"

     If anyone else had said that just then, Suoh would have scolded them. Because it was Imonoyama Nokoru, he only sighed, and tried not to smile too much when the ever so charming bane of his existence kissed him on the cheek. Because the Chairman knew how much he hated those words, and he knew how much the Chairman loved trouble.

     "Chairman, please allow me to see you're safely escorted to the bonfire?"

     "That sounds lovely, Suoh."

~//~

     Enjoying a roaring bonfire complete with toasted marshmallows wasn't as easy as Doumeki liked when the only person here he wanted to see was spending the whole time terrified that they'd get caught together by somebody who had a problem with it. Most days, he could ignore Watanuki's histrionics, but Doumeki knew he'd accidentally crashed into his lover's professional life, where there was a real chance someone official might find him persona non grata. He wasn't the kind of asshole who made a habit of interfering with his boyfriend's work. Especially when he knew his boyfriend was lying about what he did for a living, and being a pirate at a ninja party was kind of like wearing a prettier dress than the bride at a wedding.

     Generally considered bad taste. Likely to start problems if you seek out attention.

     He didn't know when Lord Shirou would be done with his errand, but it was starting to look like Doumeki would need a place to spend the night, and he didn't like his chances of getting between his lover's sheets (wherever his room was) when Watanuki was on the clock. Didn't mean he wasn't gonna try. There were no situations where sleeping with Watanuki was going to lose a cost/benefit analysis. Not for him.

     Watanuki was in slightly different circumstances, and he could live with that.

     He'd never been allowed to understand what his lover did when he wasn't hanging around bars, complaining about pirates, and keeping house. Now he could see it with his own eyes from his spot on the benches, looking up at the platform for the heads of state. Watanuki wasn't just any valet who orbited his mistress like a moon as he catered to her whims. They were a binary star, two of a kind. When she bossed him around, if you were looking just right, you could see her watch him like a mother lion watching her cub scuffle with a gazelle.

     He couldn't help remembering how that woman had said Watanuki belonged to fate, and Doumeki couldn't take him away from it. Well, he wasn't gonna ask anybody to back down from a fight, but it was his choice if he wanted to stay close enough to make sure Watanuki came out the other side in one piece. Doumeki had lived his whole life knowing what was right and where he was going. Watching his lover berate the Dimension Witch for going through booze and snacks too fast, seeing Watanuki meet his eyes and blush for just an instant before he went back to work, Doumeki had a feeling like this was the first time he'd really known what he wanted, and right and wrong didn't matter. Where he was going wasn't so clear anymore, but he'd bet his life to make sure Watanuki was part of where he ended up.

     The Dimension Witch winked at him, and mouthed silently, "It's rude not to listen!"

     Right. The ghost story contest. The Empress Kendappa was up on a stage at the head of the fire, narrating some thriller she'd called an old family legend -- an uncle or something generations back who'd kept a locked room no one could enter, very Bluebeard, except that he'd never killed his wife. You'd think, given the fame of the Daidouji emperors and empresses, everybody would've heard of this creepy old uncle if he were real, but Doumeki didn't know the story. Like he'd been told, he turned away from Watanuki to give the bright-eyed Empress dripping in red silk the proper attention. You didn't argue with mother lions.

     The audience gasped as Empress Kendappa described a thud ending the sobbing and scratching sounds coming from the locked room (which the uncle had called wind through the rafters, like anybody believed that), leaving the house in silence. The storyteller curled her lip in a hint of a smirk. "But no matter how many people asked to see inside the room, he kept the only key on that chain around his neck, and never shared it with a soul. Until... years later... their kingdom fell into civil war. The old king was slain on the field at the hands of his enemies, breaking their world in two just as his sister had prophesied before she disappeared. His family mourned him, laid him in the ground as all families do, but even they could not honor his command to never open the Locked Room. Before the first sun had set on his grave, they took the key they had pulled from his neck, and they climbed those steep, curving stairs to the highest hall in the East Tower -- the room that had now been silent for so long. They opened the door.

     "With no light but the torches they'd brought, they saw little at first. Two beds in the corner, long unused. A broken table, with the plates from a long-past meal scattered on the floor. A feather dark as midnight lying on a discarded book under the window. It wasn't until they closed the door behind them that the woman's skeleton fell out of the shadows and they saw the long scratches of her fingernails around the knob on the door, stained red with her blood -- and years though it'd been since the young prince had seen his aunt, he still recognized the tattered rags the skeleton wore as a dreamseer's robes. She was none other, he declared, than the old king's sister herself, locked away here for all those years she had been lost.

     "As they approached the body, however, the shadows revealed one... last... thing. Above her skeleton, there was a note scrawled on the wall in letters a foot high, perhaps in ink, perhaps in age-darkened blood. It said, 'Dear Father - I couldn't save Mother, and nothing will save you.' Although, search as they might, a second body was never found." The Empress blew out her candle, leaving her face in shadow as she stepped down. The onlookers burst into applause.

     "That's not what the prophecy was," someone murmured by Doumeki's ear. He hadn't even noticed the guy sit, and he couldn't see an armband to say where he was from. Just dark hair, plain clothes, and a grin.

     "She said it's an old story," Doumeki answered. "That happens. Who are you?"

     "Oh, nobody. Stay sharp, loverboy."

     Nobody, his ass. But he let the man walk away, and tried to commit his face to memory.

     On stage, the announcer stepped out front. "And to follow up that harrowing scare from Her Imperial Majesty... Representing Nihon -- Nayuki Satoru with his tale, 'The Wandering Spirit!'"

     The pale kid who came up next, holding a freshly lit candle, had a certain strain to his smile that spoke to a lack of confidence that he could beat the Empress. All the same, he took a game breath, and launched into his bit with a practiced storyteller's voice. "They say that every school has seven mysteries, and most are never more than myths..."

     Yeah. Poor kid had bad luck on the draw. He wasn't winning this one.

     The next person to slip in by Doumeki's side, he noticed immediately. Like he'd miss seeing Watanuki holding out a tray of smores fixings. Doumeki stole a marshmallow and popped it right in his mouth.

     "You won't even wait long enough to cook your food before eating everything in sight?!"

     "Can you stay, or do you have to go back to your boss?"

     "I suppose I can spare a few minutes to keep an eye on you. But I'll--"

     Watanuki's mouth tasted like ire and milk chocolate when Doumeki kissed him. The ire melted fast. The chocolate was nice and long on the finish. That little groan when their lips broke was, like always, the best part.

     "Did I say you could do that, you bastard?"

     "Not today."

     "Look, I need to get you out of here before somebody catches on to you--"

     "If this is a career fair, maybe I should open a Piracy booth."

     "You will absolutely do no such thing!" The way his lover could get vocally strident, even in a whisper, never ceased to amaze. "Now if you insist on staying--"

     "I'm staying."

     "--I've arranged a bunk for you to sleep in. Outside the North gate, there's a thicket, and you'll find a cabin in it. I'll bring you breakfast in the morning."

     "Is there a problem with your bed?" As long as mysterious strangers were picking him out for vague warnings, he damn sure wanted Watanuki sleeping close.

     "The problem is with you!" Watanuki pointed to the purple band on his right arm. "Registered invitees only are allowed in the dormitory. So unless you want all the leaders of the civilized world up in arms over the sight of your gloomy face--"

     "Then how do I get registered?" Doumeki asked.

     "You don't! No way, no how! You will take the cabin I have so graciously prepared for you, and you will be thankful for it! Now, Mistress Yuuko is almost out of snacks. I have to go bring her some more, and if I don't see you before you leave..." For once, Watanuki seemed to trip over his own tongue. His face settled into an exaggerated pout. "Just... don't get caught."

     "I won't."

     Watanuki shoved the tray of marshmallows onto his lap. "Good," he muttered, walking off toward his mistress. "That'll save me some trouble, anyway."

     Doumeki smiled. Reading between the lines to hear his boyfriend say he cared was one more thing he'd gotten used to. Not that he'd say no to hearing it straight up someday.

     The audience clapped -- not for them, for the kid who'd just finished talking about his school's ghost, ending tonight's round -- and the attentive quiet around the fire broke into more of a party atmosphere. Off on her platform with the other leaders, Ichihara Yuuko cheered, "Let's break out the booze!" The sound of Watanuki pointing out that she'd been through three bottles of sake already tonight pierced right through the rumble of the laughing crowd. As Doumeki watched, the woman shooed Watanuki off somewhere (he stomped away with his hands clenched in fists), and she joined a parade of ninja world leaders headed for liquor. None of them so much as dissolved into a shadow, so even a person like him could track 'em.

     Last time Doumeki had checked, fortune still favored the bold. He followed a block behind the whole way, and when they went into a posh-looking bar, he went right after.

     "Doumeki ahoy!!" someone greeted him straight off, whom he already recognized as the Dimension Witch from her voice despite not having known her long. She made an impression. She also made every eye in the room turn to her seat at the bar where she was waving. The blue-haired and pink-haired girls from before were dancing nearby, chanting, "Ahoy! Ahoy! Doumeki ahoy!" while table by table the whole rest of the room fell silent.

     It wasn't long before all the eyes watching Yuuko-san turned to him, with a feather in his hat, a hook on his hand, and a weapon on his back. Feeling the weight of near fifty top-rank ninja and most of the heads of state in the ninja world staring him down -- no doubt wondering why a pirate had wandered into their crowded (really crowded, starting to seem claustrophobic) bar -- Doumeki braced himself for Watanuki to jump up yelling that this was exactly the kind of situation he'd been trying to prevent. True enough, that wasn't the kind of entrance Doumeki would've preferred to make. But Watanuki seemed to be somewhere else for the moment. He saw Eagle, Hikaru (on Lantis's lap), and the blond one named Fuu waving from a table to the right of the door, while the girl named Umi was trying not to choke on the Blue Sapphire in her glass; he saw the damsel who'd given him directions earlier, gaping at him as she drank tea with three ladies in lingerie -- one with a hat, one with rabbit ears, and one with mouse ears; and he saw at least two wolves, growling from their spots on the floor (a gray one next to the Snow Princess Shirahime, and a black one next to a girl in leather armor).

     No Watanuki. Just his boss yelling from the bar, "Show a leg, Cap'n! Step smartly now!"

     Doumeki swept off his hat. "Aye aye, ma'am," he answered, and walked up to meet her. Wasn't much point in arguing, he figured, although he wasn't gonna take off his hook tonight.

     "Here. Catch." She threw a scrap of purple cloth at him. "That's what you want, isn't it?"

     Eyeing the armband, he asked, "What's the price?"

     "Paid in full! Consider it your reward for being such a good boyfriend. I put you down as Watanuki's +1 when we registered."

     Worked for him. Seemed to work for all the big wigs at the bar giving him needle-eyes, too -- being the purple-haired lady from Civic, the old woman calling herself Sumeragi, and Imonoyama's blue-haired shadow, all of them off to the left with their friends. Doumeki let out a breath he wasn't ashamed to admit he'd been holding, and tried not to think too hard about the implication that she knew he'd be coming. "I think I might need a drink."

     A younger voice spoke up. "Here, Captain Doumeki. Why don't you take my seat?" Next to the Dimension Witch, Hiiragizawa Eriol was sitting with the same slick grin as before. And, for some reason, a small black cat in his lap. "I've got a long day tomorrow, after all. Turning in early wouldn't be a bad idea. It's been lovely, Yuuko-san. Come on, Akizuki." The construct kid who'd been at the cooking contest kicked off the stool on his other side and ran for the door.

     "Don't get into too much trouble, Eriol," Yuuko told him.

     As he left, Doumeki stared after with an uneasiness he couldn't put a name to. He met Old Lady Sumeragi's eyes mid-glare. She seemed just as suspicious of the Englishman as he was. Good to know it wasn't just him. And he was glad enough the little blue-haired and pink-haired tykes took the chairs Hiiragizawa and his sidekick had vacated, leaving the one on the Dimension Witch's right for him to fill. It didn't feel right taking a seat from the person he couldn't help thinking of as Watanuki's evil twin.

     Comparatively, the glare he got from Kurogane on his other side was no problem.

     "Hey," he told the red-eyed ninja.

     "So you're Watanuki's Doumeki?"

     "So you're the Pirate King's Kurogane?"

     The ninja grimaced, then waved for the barkeep. "Oi! Bourbon for me and my friend." Then he murmured. "That guy ain't showin' up, too, is he?"

     "I think he's going to keep an ocean between him and Death Shirou right now."

     "Yeah. His kind of party, though."

     The bourbon was perfect -- high class stuff -- and not so strong that it should've been a problem. It must've been the atmosphere, pulled tight as a knot in a wet rope, then, because twixt that moment and the one when the Dimension Witch's two tag-alongs pointed him through an unmarked door in a dark building, Doumeki didn't remember too much of what happened.

Chapter Text

Day One Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Appetizer 1: IJYUIN AKIRA & OOKAWA UTAKO (Kragero) def. Kudou Shuuichirou & Kohaku (Impala)
  • Appetizer 2: SHUUKAIDOU TAKESHI & HIGASHIKUNIMARU KENTAROU (Kragero) def. Ebihara Takehito & Kudou Yukiko (Kragero)
  • Soup: KURURUGI SUZAKU & LELOUCH LAMPEROUGE (Civic) def. Gingetsu & Ryuu F. Kazuhiko (Kragero)
  • Salad: HIIRAGIZAWA ERIOL & AKIZUKI NAKURU (England) def. Princess Aska & Sang Yung (Fahren)
  • Main Course: AKECHI SHIGETAKA & MAGAMI TOKIKO (Kragero) def. Hououji Kuu & Hououji Fuu (Hundhammeren)
  • Dessert: WATANUKI KIMIHIRO & TSUYURI KOHANE (Hundhammeren) def. Ryuuzaki Umi & Shidou Hikaru (Hundhammeren)

Laundry Contest

  • Gold: Li Meiling (Xinan)
  • Silver: Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)
  • Bronze: Gingetsu (Kragero)

Paperwork-Filing Contest

  • Gold: Okiura Sayaka (Impala)
  • Silver: Fujimori Hiromi (Malvek)
  • Bronze: Yamazaki Takashi (Kia)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)
  • Second: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Third: Ichihara Yuuko (Hundhammeren)

Ghost Story Contest

EMPRESS KENDAPPA (Malvek) def. Nayuki Satoru (Nihon)

~//~

     Dawn light flooded into Watanuki's bedroom through the cracks in the blinds. Water running somewhere nudged his mind into consciousness. He even felt rested despite the night on a big puffy mattress, when normally nights away from home (and his nice, sturdy futon on the nice, firm floor, thank you very much!) left him distempered. Maybe today wouldn't be terrible.

     The water shut off with a squeak of a handle, and Watanuki vaguely registered footsteps. As he stretched out his morning aches, his hand crept for the fly on his pajama pants to relieve his morning stiffness. He should have felt more chagrin that the first fantasy to leap to mind was of broad hands, tough all over from a sea life's calluses, but after more than half a year (still less than a whole one!!) of falling into bed with that damned pirate, he could hardly blame himself for picking up an association between a certain deep-sea scalliwag and sexual gratification, now could he? It was more than an excuse. It was true. It had been true for several months of entirely reasonable masturbatory fantasies, and it was still true today.

     And yet he still blushed into the pillows as he cupped his balls, the throb of guilty pleasure building on imagining a chest cradling his back. He hissed, "Doumeki..." not sure if he was questioning his own extremely questionable taste, talking to his ridiculous fantasies, cursing the name of the pirate whose piratey wiles had put him in this position (which was not a relationship!), or some combination thereof.

     "Mornin'," a voice answered. Watanuki didn't think he was imagining it.

     In fact, he knew he wasn't, and shot up in bed with a yelp. There, standing by the couch near the entryway in the annoyingly perfectly chiseled flesh, was a man with a towel over his head whom Watanuki could nonetheless identify as the very Doumeki he wanted not to want.

     While Watanuki sputtered, the pirate said, "I could get used to this indoor plumbing," in his own Doumeki voice, verifying that he was in fact Doumeki. "Hot running water, just by turning a handle? That Imonoyama guy really is a genius."

     True. But in no way relevant at this particular moment!

     "You're here?!" Watanuki screamed. "In my room?!"

     Doumeki dropped the towel, revealing Expressionless Gaze Number Six, which meant the pirate planned to use logic. Watanuki's toes curled in dread. That man's logic always seemed damning, even though because he was Doumeki he had to be wrong, wrong, wrong!

     "Is calling my name when you think I'm not around something you do a lot?"

     "If I do rarely call your name, it's because I'm irked by the very thought that you exist!"

     The pirate gave Watanuki one of his infuriating "Hmmmmm"s and one of those ridiculous soul-piercey gazes that he probably thought was meaningful. Just because the filthy (well, recently showered, so technically clean, but undoubtedly still filthy) brigand meant something didn't behoove Watanuki to take any meaning from it. And Watanuki was strongly contemplating throwing Doumeki's pillow to wipe that look off his--

     The pillow was cold. Cold, and undented, and the only disturbance in the bedcovers was the one Watanuki had made himself. Doumeki's side of the bed (and he wasn't thinking about the fact that Doumeki had a side of the bed) hadn't been slept in. Which made sense, now that he thought of it. He'd never once slept through Doumeki waking up.

     Letting the pillow go, he muttered, "But why weren't you in the bed?"

     "Are you saying I can get in your bed without asking first?"

     "What?! You--! I--" And as he met Doumeki's stare (how was it possible to never blink like that?!), it occurred to him what kind of relationship a standing bed invitation implied, and a blush hit him like a wave of hot air coming out of a broiler. "No," he choked. "I never said that."

     "Yeah. So I slept on the couch."

     "Why, you..." And there were the man's boots by the end of said couch, where it looked entirely possible that he'd used his coat for a blanket and his rucksack for a pillow. Watanuki marched over with his fists clenched so tight, they shook. "Augh! You're the one who's always saying a pirate takes whatever he wants! And what you wanted was... was..."

     "Uh-huh," the brute answered. He was impossible, with the way he managed to make a simple "Uh-huh" sound like a full-blown manifesto on trying to date someone who wouldn't acknowledge the dating. Which they weren't doing. Was he never going to be satisfied? Not until he had some kind of formal admission that this was more than a nine-month-plus string of casual liaisons that happened to follow a predictable pattern of sex, dinner, sex, sex, and breakfast, and were now just as likely to start with Doumeki showing up at Watanuki's house as with the two of them meeting coincidentally at their regular bar?

     Statistics allowed for that to happen as random, unconnected events. Really.

     Jabbing a finger under a freshly-shaved chin (and pulling back an inch before he was tempted to touch, kiss, or otherwise caress the man's stubble-free skin in a point-undermining fashion), Watanuki declared, "I'm going to take a shower, and you're not invited. You're to stay here, within a two-foot radius of this couch and out of line with the windows. Once I'm dressed, I will find somewhere to deposit you where you won't get caught, arrested, or maimed--"

     "That's not going to be a problem."

     "Is your head made of ping pong balls?! Of course it's going to be a problem!"

     He grabbed handfuls of the towel around Doumeki's neck, trying to put the dangers to a pirate in ninja-dom into words he could actually say (since explaining that he was a ninja, not a popcorn vendor, would be worse than awkward, not that he cared). Somehow it came out as a kiss. Probably just as well. Whether Doumeki listened to him was debatable -- Doumeki said he did, Watanuki disagreed -- but they were both fluent in the conversant arts of making out: distress in a trembling lip, earnesty in not asking for more. The pirate pulled him closer, implying everything would be fine.

     Curse his gut trembling when he thought of foreign ninja running Doumeki out of town, stupid feather on stupid hat bobbing, maybe a shuriken or a sword cut taking him down. He'd never liked Doumeki, never, he swore, but somehow Doumeki was like that awful, ugly sweater that you say you wouldn't be caught dead in but wear all the time because it feels so right. And you feel a terror when you see your boyfriend about to 'do you a favor' and burn it. Only it wouldn't be his boyfriend burning his ugly sweater, because the sweater was his b--

     No. No, that metaphor had gotten away from him. It would be deemed an unfit metaphor and retired.

     But at least he had Doumeki's full attention as he let the kiss fall away. And at least his nerves were settled enough that he could keep his ire to a low growl when the bastard murmured, "Do you enjoy getting worked up over nothing?"

     Then someone cleared her throat from two feet to his left. "Kimihiro-kun? Shizuka-kun?"

     "Ko-ko-kohane-chan!!" He nearly jumped back against the bed by reflex, but Doumeki grabbed his pajama collar to keep him close. And had anyone told Doumeki that he still wasn't wearing any clothes, while there was a young lady of taste in the room?! "Doumeki, get dressed! Are you a complete barbarian?!"

     But as the little miss made no move to shield her eyes, instead giving him a withering glance full of incredulous unimpressedness, and as the pirate made equally no move to find his pants, Watanuki couldn't help feeling like the world was coming down around his ears. Things that were never meant to mix were suddenly in one place, and this could only end in flames.

     Neither of them were listening. Kohane-chan held out her hand, and Doumeki shook it. "I'm Tsuyuri Kohane. May I call you Shizuka-kun? Any friend of Kimihiro-kun is a friend of mine."

     "I'd be honored, milady."

     "No, no, no, no, no!! This is not someone to be friends with! Wait..." He stopped with his arms mid-cringe and blinked at the girl. "How do you know his name is Shizuka?"

     "It's common knowledge," she answered, holding out a stack of documents. "Mistress Yuuko sent me with rankings for you to put on the leaderboards."

     Any thoughts he'd had about how today might not be terrible, he retracted in full. Watanuki took the score sheets and sighed, walking toward the bathroom. "I'll need five minutes to shower and change, then we can go." He supposed that Doumeki could be trusted to survive, if he'd made it through last night without assistance.

     How he'd even gotten into the building was a security breach to be fixed later.

     And from the standings in last night's round of the drinking contest, it looked like Mistress Yuuko had left early. There was no other excuse for her to be in third, with just thirty-seven rounds to Empress Kendappa's fifty-two and Kurogane's forty-five...

     A name smack in the middle of the page stopped him in his tracks.

     Doumeki Shizuka, ranked eighth out of the top sixteen drinkers so far -- tied with Princess Tomoyo for seventh, technically -- with a distinctly not respectable thirty-two rounds. Watanuki wheeled back around, and (thank goodness) the pirate had managed to throw on pants and a shirt, but the purple armband Kohane-chan was showing him how to fasten was unquestionably a registration badge for the Hundhammeren team! Which he should not by any evil powers have been able to obtain!

     That was where the smug bastard had gotten his confidence that everything would be fine, was it?! And how he'd gotten admittance to the dorms, no doubt. He couldn't have mentioned that before Watanuki had thrown himself at him in apparently unnecessary worry? Not that Doumeki was off the hook for getting a registration badge behind his back, in probably illegal ways (like a pirate would)! And then Doumeki'd gone out drinking with Mistress Yuuko instead of coming straight here?! Oh, he should have never left that reprobate alone!

     "Would you care to explain yourself, you miserable excuse of a Doumeki?! Just where the hell did you get that badge, hmm? If I find out you stole it from some--"

     "I didn't steal it," the foul creature known as Doumeki said with an utterly insufficiently contrite shrug. "I think your boss just likes me."

~//~

     A yell of, "Aaaaaaaaaah! God damn you, Doumeki!" rang through the hallways, and Hikaru stretched herself awake. Who needed an alarm when you were on vacation with Watanuki-sempai around? And how great was it that he got to have his pirate boyfriend in the dorms after all? Mistress Yuuko thought of everything. Which, yeah, was her job, but she did it better than just a job. That made so~o much more sense now that Hikaru'd learned that apparently Mistress Yuuko had been at it for over two thousand years. Who knew?!

     But she really was glad for Watanuki-sempai. Now that she'd gotten to see him and his pirate together, they reminded her of how Lantis and Eagle used to be four years ago. Not as far as being themselves -- because maybe Captain Doumeki and Lantis were both stoic, but Doumeki was a more ascerbic kind of stoic, and Watanuki-sempai was nothing like Eagle -- but they looked at each other like they'd never have permission to just be in love already. Lantis and Eagle used to stare across meeting halls exactly the way Watanuki-sempai and Captain Doumeki had watched each other at the cook-off. And like Kamui-san stared at the distance when he talked about his Fuuma person. Maybe it was a boy thing.

     Hopefully they'd work it out, like Lantis and Eagle worked out their issues about two seconds after Hikaru'd confessed she loved them both. Life was too short to have to pick between your job and your lover. Eagle had done exactly that, she guessed, but he hadn't had to. He'd wanted to. They would have worked this out somehow if he'd wanted to stay with the other pirates instead. It was nice living together, though, not to mention vacationing together.

     They'd have a whole week with nobody getting sent out, so that was seven days in a row that she got to wake up in her favorite way in the whole world: snuggled between the two sets of strong arms, two broad chests, and completely out of synch breathing patterns that came in a package deal with her two boyfriends.

     Lantis trailed a hand down her hip and kissed her hair. He'd probably woken up at the same time she had. Eagle was still asleep on the pillow next to her, his breaths escaping in cooing sighs and his hand cupping her breast. The ways he sleep-groped Lantis were hilarious, but on her it was always the breasts.

     "Good morning," she whispered against Lantis's ever so slightly scratchy cheek.

     He grunted and stole a lingering kiss before he answered, "Good morning, Hikaru."

     She loved the way he talked. He didn't use many words, like how he'd only replied when she'd first said 'I love you' by saying 'Yeah', but it was always with a rumbly vastness that meant oodles more than the words did. She could hear what he was thinking from the pitch and tremor of a grunt, even better than she could understand some people giving whole speeches.

     Right now, of course, the press of his mouth into her throat was doing the talking, and the slide of his hand along her inner thigh. It was going to be that kind of morning. Then again, with no battles or missions for the next week, probably everyone at the Games'd be looking for more action in bed to balance it out -- herself included.

     "Eagle's still sleeping," she murmured.

     He "hmmmm"ed with every indication that he wasn't going anywhere, and she skooched her head and shoulders around until she could get at Eagle. Hikaru squeezed his grip on her breast as she kissed his cheek. Right away, his eyes inched toward open, his face turning so she could kiss his lips while Lantis cradled her back. Slow and deep, she kissed him until she could taste his smile.

     Pulling back with a laugh, she told him, "Morning sex time. Are you in?"

     "How could I refuse?" Eagle darted in to bite her neck, his fingers working into her hair even as his other hand twined with one of Lantis's like a bridge over her body. By then, Lantis's mouth had found her breast. His tongue sent shivers right down to her bones -- and a few softer places, too -- so her body was buzzing like a bell that'd just been rung. The feeling broke her open until all she could think about was which stretch of which gorgeous hunk to caress next.

     On days like this, with no rush to get anywhere, they could spend as long as they liked touching and kissing, whispering and moaning, just loving the simplicity of being there together until they collapsed into puddle of orgasmic flux with no idea whose hands were on whose naughty and nice bits. The sunlight turned from a rosy glow to a golden gleam through the curtains, and she'd had nowhere near enough of the taste of sweaty skin or the press of tangled limbs. As she straddled one of Lantis's legs, nipping her way from his neck toward his shoulder, enjoying the sight of him lost in one of Eagle's kisses, the ache buried between her legs grew maddening. One of her lover's hands squeezed her rear, the slightest pull in towards Lantis's hip before his fingers teased up her spine.

     She drove full force. Knees splayed wide, she ground her wet sex against his side, reveling in the almost but not quite over the edge sensation. If the other sets of lovers on campus were planning to wake up the same way, maybe every day this week, the Games were gonna need that stockpile of clean sheets all the competitors had washed yesterday.

     "Hey, you..." Eagle chuckled. He and Lantis conspired to roll her astride the larger, dark-haired man -- facing his legs, and Eagle kneeling between them with evil plans on his face. She brushed the hair out of her eyes so she could see it a little better. His lips were swollen now, and almost the same color as Lantis's solid cock resting against her thigh.

     Then Lantis reached under her arms to squeeze her breasts and shoved her legs further apart with his knees, crossing his feet to the outside as he drew them up to lock her at full spread. She was trapped. Pinned with her privates exposed to the cool air just a nudge away from her lover's straining erection, his heartbeat throbbing against her back, his fingers pinching her nipples in that way that hurt perfectly right. There weren't many better ways to be trapped. She didn't need any persuasion to surrender to whatever Eagle had in mind.

     Her white-haired lover scratched lines up Lantis's thighs. Just watching, she felt ghosts of his touch in her own skin. Underneath her, Lantis groaned, letting the sound trail on as Eagle fondled his balls. "Hmm..." Eagle hummed. "I thought so. Hikaru, you're absolutely dripping." Like he needed to prove it, like she couldn't tell, he pushed his hand between Lantis's body and hers, spreading a slick patch across their skins. When he pulled back to stroke Lantis's cock, it left a shine from her wetness all up the shaft. "I bet you're ready for anything. Isn't she, Lantis?"

     Between moans creaking out of his throat, Lantis growled, "She got into bed with you."

     She definitely, definitely had.

     "And with you," Eagle shot back. "Hikaru, whatever were you thinking?"

     "Eagle...!" she gasped. She couldn't manage anything more with frustrated need burning into her brain. He leaned over them, thrusting his cock against Lantis's. Sometimes, one or the other brushed against her, but it wasn't enough, and she strained down against their rhythm.

     "So... what should I do with you, I wonder, now I've got you like this?"

     "If you're asking..." She groaned as he stroked her crotch. One finger slipped into her waiting entrance, then two. "I-if you're asking... if you can come inside me..." Three fingers stretched her open. She pressed down against both her hims. Everything felt beautiful right now. "God... make yourself at home. That's totally, one hundred and ten percent okay."

     "Is it, now?"

     The messy finger he traced around the nub of her clit left her panting, whimpering, ready to explode when Lantis bit that spot between her neck and her shoulder. If she twisted to her limit, she could just get her mouth to his, tempting him into a kiss. "Lantis..." she murmured. She was too far gone for technique, but she loved the feel of his tongue on hers and the rumbles in his throat. And now Eagle's fingers were inside her again, pushing harder, pushing faster.

     Pushing while his thumb stoked her hot spot into a blaze. Her gasps blended one into the next. She shuddered too hard to do anything but feel it. Tightening muscles tried to pull her legs in, but Lantis's legs held her open to Eagle's touch.

     "W-wait... I'm... God, I'm coming. Eagle, I'm gonna--"

     "I love seeing you come first thing in the morning. Let me see your face when you do."

     She stopped trying to hold it back, letting the ecstasy push everything else out of her mind. In a groan, she arched up from Lantis's sweating skin, shuddering like a flag in the wind. She didn't resist when Lantis sat up, sliding her with him. Her muscles might as well have been melted butter. Opening her eyes, she saw Eagle waiting below, now lying on his back, cat-like smile creeping over his face as Lantis helped her settle on the white-haired man's cock.

     Umi-chan said she didn't like taking more when she'd just gotten off, but Hikaru really liked the sharpness, like a static shock with every touch, as long as it came with Eagle's shudders down in the sheets, or Lantis's hands around her waist -- or both, like today, which was being a really awesome day. She stretched forward to brace herself with her arms, her legs too weak as she shook and gasped with every push down against Eagle. And Lantis's fingers, easing her open so he could fit his stiffness into her rear--

     "Did I call at a bad time?" Lady Yuuko's voice echoed through the room.

     All three of them looked up from the bed. Well, Eagle, being upside-down, tilted his head back over the foot of the bed, but it was the same thing. They saw a floating circle of light backed by a cloud of black butterflies with their boss's lipsticked smirk right in the middle of it.

     "Yup," Eagle answered, knowing Lady Yuuko knew exactly how much she was interrupting. Lantis grunted darkly at the exact same moment, while Hikaru offered a, "Nothing you haven't seen before!"

     Nobody moved. Lady Yuuko went on with her message, though. "Would you find some time before your first events to help clean up the feathers outside? They've started falling again."

     Eagle grinned. "And Watanuki-san has his hands full?"

     "As do you, I see. Well, clean-up will keep until you're done here. But after you've screwed to your heart's content, I'll be counting on you!"

     Peeking out the window, Hikaru made sure the feathers were the ones she thought they were: white, fluffy, and coming from nowhere. That was them! Those feathers belonged to her second favorite pirate ever! "But are we going to get to see Kamui-san at all? I'd love to say hi."

     "That depends on Kamui's training. He might not be in the mood for company."

     "Since when has Kamui-san not liked people?!" she laughed. Eagle let out a snerk beneath her, while Lady Yuuko giggled behind her hand.

     "I'll let you kids go then. Play nicely!"

     "Yes, ma'am!" Hikaru and Eagle chorused, waving at Lady Yuuko's image fading.

     Lantis's kiss on the back of her neck set Hikaru's skin throbbing around the heat of him taking her from behind, and around Eagle's heat below her. "Is it okay if I move?"

     "You bet it is."

~//~

     An axe blade swung half an inch from Kamui's nose -- at least, he thought that was his nose. There was a metaphysical question to whether "his nose" was still part of the three-dimensional reality that contained the swinging axe, given that he clearly had to be taking up less space than a sheet of paper while scrunched into this goddamned shadow, but all his limbs felt perfectly normal, although the clingy black bodysuit still seemed unnecessary. Maybe it was bespelled to make him melt more easily into the shadows. Maybe it was just because his looser pirate shirt would've caught the breeze and been cut by swishing blades, although if he really was in a different dimension from the solid space of the world, there shouldn't have been anything to cut. Maybe he'd ask a ninja philosopher about that someday when he escaped this hellhole, since pirates sure as hell hadn't thought about that shit. Pirates -- like him, for example -- didn't rely on cheap ninja tricks for disappearing into shadows.

     But if whatever Fai needed him to get was here, and the ninja holding it thought he couldn't make it through their little obstacle course... well, fuck that. He'd show them.

     There was nothing he couldn't do.

     And lucky for him, Lord Aoki had taught him how to play croquet once, so he didn't have to make stupid guesses about what to do with the wooden ball (carved like a hedgehog, and he supposed he should be happy it wasn't a real hedgehog) or the giant mechanized mallet (likewise flamingo-shaped) hanging from the ceiling. Target the wire wickets, shoot, score. Of course, everything being giant-sized so he looked like a sparrow next to the croquet set wasn't exactly Oxford Association Rules, but then neither were the double-bladed axes swinging through the path between him and the ball.

     The number of axes was, as near as he could tell, doubling for every run he had to make. Kamui had to estimate the current number at slightly over two thousand gleaming steel blades, since he sure as hell wasn't going to count them. Maneuvering his flamingo-mallet rig around pendula of death had been plenty stupid when there'd been space to breathe between them. Two thousand axes made for more whistling metal than walking room.

     Literally. Each individual axe was thicker than the space between axes. That wasn't hard to see from his current perspective, squished into immaterialness inside the shadows running along the wall -- which seemed infinitely more reasonable than trying to dodge individual blades. It was disconcerting as fuck to have sharp metal come that close to his face without feeling any brush of wind. The perils of being insubstantial, he supposed, since if an axe went through him, he'd probably still get cut. Putting a sword through a ninja in a shadow made the ninja bleed. Or die. Right now, he'd probably die. There were a lot of axes.

     Kamui inched past the end of the gauntlet, pulling his giant flying croquet mallet after him, and popped back into reality. Technically he'd been breathing before, but now the air felt palpable -- almost solid -- in his lungs. He'd never thought he'd appreciate air so much.

     Lining up his shot was the easy part. Kamui cranked his flamingo-mallet rig down into position behind the ball, pulled the lever, and with an echoing thwock sent the hedgehog ball through the twelfth wicket. He missed the final post, though, which meant one more shot.

     He took a deep breath, eyes on the maze-like walls of this nightmare dungeon, and sure enough a gleaming line of oversized axes dropped out of the ceiling to rest in grooves in the floor. If his math held, probably over four thousand of them, with sharp blades on each edge. They might as well have been a solid metal wall sharpened into over eight thousand points.

     The sound when they started swinging was like the ring of clashing swords. Metal brushed metal all down the line. Even worse, he could see the edges of the blades striking into the walls entirely -- and with axe heads that big, they'd chop him head to toe. No inching just out of reach this time. If he were Fai, he might be able to jump on top of the moving axes and dance across the edges to the other side, but the pattern of handles swinging so fast was already confusing his eyes, like a propeller spinning forward so fast the sees it for spinning backward.

     But maybe... If he could focus on the edge...

     He leapt onto the frame of his mallet machine. From above, just as he'd thought, he could see the axes following each other in their swings -- making a serpentine pattern, sliding into the wall and out of it one after another. If he ran at just the right pace (shrunk to a shadow, because he'd be damned if he couldn't beat the ninja at their own game), he could stay safe in the rolling gap.

     Listening only to the strike of the first axe, he counted off his beat in a steady 1, 2, 3, 4. "Why your heart was heavy, I'd no right to ask..." he sang under his breath, testing an old fo'c'sle song against his deadly metronome. "But holding you tightly was my welcome task..." If he was trusting his life to the pace of his steps, he had to know he had a way to stay on the beat. Kamui fastened the croquet mallet up in its hanging frame, pulling it by the handle he'd rigged out of his knapsack so he could test how well he held that rhythm with metal ringing in his ears. "Awash in the gleam of a moonbeam so white, you grew more dear to me -- more than I could fight..."

     With a good look at how far he could move in a step, Kamui jumped in the next gap, singing, "I knew from my sorrow, there'd be no sleep that night..." No sense taking more time. More time waiting was just more time for his fear to build, or for his tormentors to make this more complicated than it already was.

     Step, step, step, step to the side. His voice kept out the maddening clashes, and forced him to breathe. Kept him from freezing when a slash struck close. He felt one blade clip the side of a slipper that went with the ninja bodysuit he'd been forced to wear, and had to suppress a sigh of relief that it hadn't been his boots -- they would've gotten chopped for sure.

     The balance of sound shifted as he moved. What had started as a roar on his right built up on his left while he approached the center, and finally lightened to a hushed swish past his leading shoulder. The gauntlet was ending.

     "Sure as we love, our love measures the pain," he sang, keeping his pace twice as carefully now that the end was so close. Now wasn't the time to screw up. "So toward a tender, strong heart do I strain. Sorrow itself as fond memory sealed..."

     He could hear it. He could see it, over the tops of the slashing metal. The last blade striking the wall, and empty air past it, one set of axes past where he stood now.

     "Let me test for myself this conviction afield..."

     Kamui readied for a dive. Once he saw the gap, he'd need to clear it in two beats.

     "For my love of you--"

     There it was. His opening. He leapt sideways for the open air and rolled to safety.

     "-- that I never will yield," he murmured at the ceiling. The rope he'd used to pull his mallet above him was still in his hand, all his equipment following him out to the croquet ball. He'd made it. Kamui screamed, "I beat your fucking puzzle!" at whoever had to be listening, wherever they were.

     Their answer was a giant pufferfish popping into existence, hovering over the croquet course's final post. Blinking bright yellow while it made some infernal dinging noise.

     "Well, fuck you, too!" Kamui shot back. Then he pulled himself up with the rope on his croquet mallet, lined up his shot, and made all his sharpshooting masters proud. The double-damned ball hit the triple-damned post so hard, the wooden pole fell to the ground. "How about that, huh?!"

     For a second, nothing happened.

     Too much of nothing. It felt like someone hiding, like the faint buzz of ninja skulking in corners and being just a little too quiet to be natural. So balanced over his toes, ready to move at the slightest attack, waiting tight as a wire.

     A figure in white dropped from the ceiling not six inches from where he was standing and yelled, "Icchan go BOOM!"

     Reflex took over. Kamui jumped -- he didn't remember doing it, but he must have done, since he found himself standing on the winch that connected his giant mallet to the ceiling. And he could feel a blast rushing out from his hand. All this time being careful, not splintering those ridiculous axes because he was underground and didn't want to cause a cave-in, and now he might have blasted his only hope for answers in a fit of panic. Sorata was never going to let him live this down, assuming he lived long enough to see his shipmates again.

     The figure in white climbed out of the crater Kamui had made in the ground, wiping dust out of his dark hair. There wasn't a scratch or a scuff on him. His glasses weren't even askew. "Lucky you missed!" the man cackled. "That could've hurt!"

     "What the fuck?" Like hell he'd missed. That man had been standing at the center of his blast, and Kamui could count on one hand the people he'd seen dodge or guard against that attack. And, he'd recently learned, all of them were apparently thousands of years old, and functionally demigods.

     Maybe he'd make an effort not to fight this guy.

     He jumped to the ground, approaching the smirking bastard as unthreateningly as he could. Kamui knew he'd never be as disarming as Sorata, but he could usually manage to say, "I'm not planning to kill you," with his body language. That was good enough for someone who'd spent most of a day putting him through hell. "So are you going to tell me who you are and what I'm doing here?" Kamui growled.

     "Me? Oh, I'm nothing important, but you can call me Icchan. And you're here so I can get you ready to use your sword!"

     Kamui weighed that answer with a whole shaker of salt and decided not to bite on the obvious lie about being nothing important. "I'm good with swords. I don't need to be a fucking ninja to use a sword I've been using for as long as I've been an officer."

     "Oh, not that sword. You're getting a new sword. A you sword. I make them. By the way, I need some of your blood..." Icchan said.

     Before Kamui could yell, "Hey!" the bastard was behind him, jamming a needle into his arm. "What?!"

     "Sorry I don't have the next challenge ready for you yet. You got through that last one a lot faster than we expected, but I can get the lab set up in no time, don't worry!"

     He knew better than to snap that he was more worried about people needing his blood, but that didn't mean he had to take this -- even from a possibly superpowered asshole. "I don't need more tests! I need some answers, and some food, and I don't know how long you've had me down here, but you owe me a bed to sleep in, too!"

     "A bed? Oh right. You do sleep. I'll make Ogata find one for you. Meanwhile, I can release you onto the food once you finish this over here..." The walls around them rose away from the ground, revealing dozens of terminals filled with blinking lights -- most of them operated by what looked like clockwork animals in playing card regalia, and one of them overseen by the lady who'd brought him down here, Hiromi, who'd changed clothes so it had to be the next day. He took his sack of essentials down from the croquet mallet rigging before that disappeared, too.

     His tormentor had pulled together a stage filled with toy animals, five barrels, and a very large hookah pipe. Kamui didn't even want to know what it was for. He stayed a good yard back with his pack slung over his shoulder while the man who called himself Icchan looked him over -- naturally, balancing a toy bread-and-butterfly on one finger. "Hmm. No. That absolutely won't do. Step on over, step on over... do I need to use the magic word?"

     "What won't do?"

     "We need to teach you how to hide things," he said, depositing the bread-and-butterfly in the infinitesimal non-space between his hand and his cuff. The toy was utterly gone. "... Or you'll stick out like a sore thumb at the food court. Come on! I promise this one won't hurt!"

     "Excuse me if I don't believe you!" Kamui glanced at the red cartridge belt around his hips that'd come with the black ninja bodysuit. "It's the same as shadow walking, right?" He weighed his bag, filled with clothes, boots, his hat, his sword, and a magic writing pad no one would get their hands on, and measured that bulk (plus his pride) against the day-empty growling in his stomach. What the hell -- as long as he was beating ninja at their own games, he channeled the feel of going immaterial in a shadow as he shoved his pack at a cartridge opening.

     He was as surprised as anyone would be when it went in, but kept his face steeled in a look of defiance as he stared down Icchan. No weakness, even before a possible demigod.

     The man stared back for a frozen moment. Then, with a shrug, he said, "Okay then," and opened a door in the stage backdrop. It looked down an alley at a line of festival food stands.

     Bustling with ninja.

     "What?" Kamui backed away a step. "You can't send me back to that goddamned ninja festival!" Even though he had money to pay for food, that'd be suicide, and probably multiple counts of murder.

     Without warning, Icchan was behind him again, adjusting his glasses to peer at Kamui's arm. "No, no, no, you're perfectly right. Perfectly right, I can't do that. Yet. Ogata!! Ogata, where are you? I need the thing!"

     "Here, sir!"

     A man who looked near tears ran in across the room. From the way he was panting, it looked like he'd been running a very long way. He had a scrap of pink cloth in his hand, which Icchan snapped up to fasten around Kamui's arm.

     "You were late, Ogata. Your punishment this time is the frog costume -- with pudding in the feet and hands -- for the rest of the day. Also, would you find this young man a bed?"

     "... Yes, sir."

     Kamui gaped as the assistant actually pulled a frog costume and a pitcher of vanilla pudding out of his pockets. And poured the pudding into the costume. Was it possible he'd found someone whose life was worse than his own?

     "Now, Kamui-san, you're all set for the festival," Icchan said. While he'd been distracted, the asshole had led him to the door. "That badge marks you as a competitor, so no one can kick you out (unless you kill somebody) and the food stalls'll give you whatever you want. Your meal awaits! Grab your destiny with both hands!"

     "What?"

     He felt a boot to his behind and landed in the alley outside, suddenly aware that he was clad in nothing but skin-tight fabric that he would have previously considered long underwear. He turned to stop the door from closing, but all he saw was a stone wall with one end of a balloon arch tied to a bracket. Icchan's loathsome face peeked around the balloon strings.

     "And be back before dark, would you? We have more tests to run."

     Then he disappeared.

     And all Kamui could do was face down a street full of fucking ninja who were staring at him as if they'd never seen a man appear out of nowhere before, which was a load of fucking bullshit because they were ninja, goddamn it.

     "What?!" he growled at them, and stalked toward the nearest place with sandwiches.

~//~

     The Great Hall simmered with teams setting up their egg drop machines -- more shapes and sizes of gizmo than Sakura had ever dreamed of. The wall of spinning wheels and ramps and pistons and trampolines and such that she and Syaoran had built was out of this world for sure (she still thought the work Syaoran had done on timing the fuses was genius), but there was such chaotic variety spread out all around them! Machines that nearly reached the towering ceiling, machines made on landscaped garden platforms with bubbling brooks like they'd grown the parts from seeds... As she fished one of their precisely cut ropes from their prep box, Sakura marvelled at the room around her.

     The closest machine to them was England's, already set up and whizzing, and when she looked over, that Hiiragizawa person who'd built it was looking back with a broad smile and a wave. Over to the left, a girl with a gray Chevrolet armband wound up clockwork teddy bears to crank her mechanisms. By the windows, three cute girls from Kia -- one with braids, one with glasses, and one with her hair curled just so -- placed panels that spun when the light hit them. Sakura kind of felt bad for Ogata-san in the corner with his pneumatic tubes, though. The machine was working fine, but he was wearing a frog costume, which meant something must have happened with the mysterious Icchan-san who Empress Kendappa said lived in her basement. But if he was at the festival, maybe Sakura could see him for once! Although, right now Kendappa-san was right next to Ogata-san, setting her blown glass funnel on a gold-trimmed sandalwood base with Tomoyo's help, so Sakura wasn't about to go ask.

     On their own machine, Syaoran laid his fuses down their channels so his match strikes would set off the fireworks and bombs and stuff. Sakura was just as careful hooking her length of rope from the top pinwheel to the egg elevator below. Even though Hiiragisawa-san was watching her again (which was a little nervous-making, the way he could stare), she kept her hands steady. The slightest miscalibration could cause a disaster (or at least a failed egg drop). Since they might never come back in her lifetime, they only had one shot to do their best.

     Her fingers brushed Syaoran's as he finished with one of the fuses. Her stomach jumped in that way she was sure real princesses' stomachs never did. Tomoyo's definitely wouldn't. They both paused. Somehow, Sakura knew Syaoran was deciding if he should pull back, just like she was. Probably because he'd barely said three words to her since yesterday, and he'd turned all red and blushy again. So she decided and acted in the same instant, clasping his hand and pulling it so they faced each other properly.

     "This machine is amazing, Syaoran. I'm so glad I could work on it with you."

     "Princess Sakura..." He turned so red that, for a second, even the air around him looked like it was blushing. "I... um... The... pleasure is all mine."

     "And Meiling-chan seems nice. If you want to have her over--"

     "I don't want--" He never raised his voice, but still his tone popped like a cork on a shook-up bottle, and then he clammed it all up again. Syaoran bit his lip, then let her hand go to work on another fuse. "My apologies, Princess. I didn't mean... That is, of course I will extend your invitation to my cousin. I'm sure Meiling will be delighted you want to see her."

     "What I want is for you to call me Sakura. Just Sakura." She probably shouldn't have asked, but the zingy, tight feeling when Syaoran didn't say 'fiancée' made her feel like maybe she could. And at least now he met her eyes like he always did. Syaoran even looked like he was about to say something when a voice broke in behind them.

     "Pardon me, sir... My Lady..."

     It was the boy from England, with the glasses and the friendly smile, bowing like they were at court.

     "Hiiragizawa-san?"

     "Please, my dear Princess-- May I call you Sakura?" She nodded, not quite sure what else to do. "Then, Sakura-chan. I'd prefer if you called me Eriol. I hope we'll be very close."

     "E-Eriol-kun. How may I help you?"

     He knelt in front of her and took her hand. In that instant, Syaoran snapped into a stance like he was bodily restraining himself from attacking, but Eriol-kun gave no notice. Nor did he look upset when Sakura let out an, "Eep!" and pulled back her hand on reflex.

     "Sakura-chan, may I request the pleasure of your company for a stroll around the gardens this evening? I want to show you the lovely view of the moon from the lily path. Just the two of us."

     "Her Highness goes nowhere without my protection," Syaoran spat, stepping forward.

     Eriol-kun only smiled. "I believe my question was for Sakura-chan."

     Sakura interrupted before Syaoran could stick his neck any further out. "The thing is, umm... I kind of got kidnapped last month, so my friends are all worried about me, and even though I'm sure you wouldn't... I mean... well..." She squeezed Syaoran's hand, and a little tension dropped from both their shoulders. "I don't want to worry them by going off alone with someone I just met. And I guess I wouldn't want to trouble you if someone--"

     "You could never be any trouble--!"

     "Oh, goodness!" Tomoyo broke in. She managed to flutter up to Eriol-kun's side without even looking like she'd been running, although Sakura figured she must've been. "We have a visitor from England! Wherever are my manners?"

     "Your Highness Princess Tomoyo. I didn't mean to disturb you. I merely stopped to ask if I might invite your dear Sakura-chan for a more friendly visit." Looking at Syaoran, he grinned. "I've always found the direct approach is best for communicating my feelings."

     Ignoring Syaoran's growl, Tomoyo answered, "Well, certainly you must join us all for dinner tonight. I'll see that our chefs prepare their very best."

     "You're too kind, Your Highness."

     Tomoyo smiled her bright, impossible-to-argue-with court smile. "Now, didn't you have something else on your own machine to set up?" she asked, glancing at the hexagonal tower full of spinning helicopter hooziwhatsits that sat under England's pennant. "Or should I assume you're here to tamper with my ward's machine?"

     Just like you couldn't argue with Tomoyo when she was pleasant in that particular way, you couldn't be mad at her either, and Eriol-kun didn't seem like he wanted to try. He took another bow. "I wouldn't dream of it. This evening then," he said, and walked away.

     While Tomoyo waved him off, Syaoran turned in the soldier-still way he always did when he was embarrassed, and squeezed her hand tight enough to hurt -- until he noticed he was doing it and let go in a flurry.

     "I... umm... ah..."

     "Huh?"

     "I can walk in gardens!" he blurted.

     Sakura blinked. "What?"

     "If... if you like moons... I mean..."

     Silence weighed on Sakura wondering what he meant, and Syaoran's blush turned to sweatdrops on his brow. But just as she was about to ask if he was offering to take her to look at the moon, the proctor called out, "Li Syaoran of Malvek team 2, please report to the judge's table to certify your egg. Li Syaoran, Malvek team 2."

     "My apologies, Princess. I'll only be a moment."

     "I-it's fine. And moons are... pretty."

     Which they were. But it wasn't really what she'd meant. But what she meant, she didn't quite know the words for, and boy was she glad Tomoyo was there to hug her once Syaoran left. Yesterday and today had been so weird! But Tomoyo patting her on the head and saying, "There, there," could make everything better.

     Sakura breathed a finally relieved sigh into Tomoyo's shoulder. She still sensed something not quite right, though, as her friend gasped, "Oh my! What in the world could the beauty pageant committee be doing?" Tomoyo was using her fake-surprised voice, and Sakura didn't know why, but sure enough, Magami-san and Akechi-san from Kragero had come in.

     "They must be here for the Impala team," Sakura guessed. She ignored Tomoyo dabbing something cool under her eyes and finger-combing her hair back into order. Tomoyo always did that when she got puffy and messy after almost crying. "The lighter haired boy is so pretty he could be an actor, I'd say." He had to be the best looking of the pink armband people.

     "Doumoto-san, you mean?"

     "Yeah. And they've picked for all the other teams, right?"

     "Actually," Tomoyo giggled, "I understand that Doumoto-san, Sayaka-san, and Kohaku-san are in a three-way run off! The committee hasn't decided."

     "But then..." Sakura's words fell away as she saw the two judges head straight toward them. And she thought about the gown Tomoyo had made her, and how even if Tomoyo couldn't always predict all the little things, she could usually get her way. "Ho~eeeeeeeeeeee?!"

     Akechi-san and Magami-san stopped beside her with huge smiles, though not quite as sparkly as the glee lighting up Tomoyo's face. The man said, "Sakura-san, I heard we could find you here. Congratulations! You've been chosen to represent Malvek in the beauty contest."

     "B-but I can't be in a beauty contest!"

     Tomoyo spun her around in a dizzy circle. "Don't worry! I have a baton routine choreographed for your talent recital, and all your clothes ready for final fittings! You'll be perfect. Oh, and Kurogane..." she called out, "It's safe now. You can stop hiding."

     As the judges walked away, her friend's ninja stepped out of the shadows, leaning against the wall. "That's a relief."

     "But Tomoyo! You and Kendappa-san are both way prettier than me!"

     "Nonsense!"

     Just then, Syaoran had to walk up with his egg and the egg drop judges, just when she wasn't ready for this at all. "Princess Sakura will be Miss Malvek in the beauty contest?"

     She flew up to him, grabbing his shirt with both fists. "Syaoran! Tell them it needs to be someone else!"

     "But... I can't..."

     "Please! I'll be so nervous on stage like that, and I'm always scraping my knees! I'm just not pretty and lady-like and--"

     "Princess..." He held one of her hands with the hand that wasn't holding his egg. "Princess. I can't tell anyone not to pick you. I'm sure the judges see the same things I admire in you. And once you get on stage, you and everyone else will be too pretty to judge on looks. This will be about who can rise to the occasion. There's no one I trust to do that more than you."

     "Syaoran..."

     "I'll look forward to it."

     "Then I'll do my best." She wiped away the tears that had started forming again and flashed him her best grin. The one that always made him turn red no matter how cool he was being. "Now let's see how our egg machine does, okay?"

     "Okay."

     Still smiling, and only blushing a little, he climbed the stairs behind their machine and placed the egg next to the spring launcher on the top-most level. Once Sakura pulled the release to un-spring the springy bits, off it went, gaining more speed as it rolled down the incline toward the pinwheel. The way it whizzed through to the next level was the same as always, but watching it go in front of the real judges made her heart pitch. She counted off nine flippers, one by one, that the egg hit on the way down, each striking sparks that lit a different fuse, and crossed her fingers that the egg wouldn't break when it bounced off the cushion into the cart. Sometimes if the point end hit, it landed on the cart edge wrong and cracked.

     But this time, they were safe. The bounce was perfect, and both the elevator rising towards the spinning wheel and the first fuse's timing were perfect, too. The fuse burned through the rope just fast enough to drop the egg in front of the piston when the second fuse set it off. From here, they were home free! The bounce into the falling net had never failed, and the flash fire to burn it off worked like a charm. Sakura danced in place watching the egg spin around the loop-de-loop. Next, it'd tip the see-saw and roll down...

     It didn't roll down. Instead of running out of momentum against the curve of the tipping plate, the egg kept going up. It shot straight out the side of the machine, the complete wrong direction for hitting the trampolines they'd spaced out so carefully or the bounce board or the tubes or anything! Dashing for the egg, Sakura caught it just as Syaoran appeared to catch it, too, and they both turned to see the final gate rise on its pulley ropes and the fireworks go off without any egg for them to celebrate dropping.

     "What the--?"

     "Let me test one thing, Princess?" Syaoran asked, taking the egg. As she nodded, he set the egg on the nearest table and set it spinning. It spun around and around and around in a blur, steady as a top. Syaoran frowned with his brows in deep furrows. "Well, now I know what happened, but not how it happened." He looked at the judges. "I'd like to see the Chairman."

     "All competitors results are final."

     "I won't be challenging the results. I only want to bring this to his attention."

~//~

     The egg Li-san provided spun on the judge's table and Suoh tracked it with ever more dissatisfaction. Like the one that'd fallen from the water screw he'd built with his mother, the wobble that liquid inside the shell would create was nowhere to be seen. "You're right. This is hard boiled. It was raw when you signed it out, and you had it in your possession throughout?"

     "I did."

     Again, the same as his own egg.

     "No chance whatsoever that someone could have switched eggs with you?"

     "None. You can see my signature on the end of the shell. It's my handwriting. To do that to an egg without any of us seeing..." the boy said, nodding at the royal party, including an annoyed Kurogane and the Dreaming Princess Tomoyo looking like she hadn't foreseen this, "... That's a level of magic higher than any I've known. It never even got hot."

     Suoh kept all of his sympathies off his face, but he felt for the group's concerns. He had them himself. There was something unnerving and wrong about the situation. It was his policy never to ignore instincts like that. But something as otherwise harmless as a hardboiled egg...

     Ijyuin gasped, "Does that mean someone's invented a cold-boiled egg?!" and examined the evidence more closely, practically glowing. "I've never seen one before!"

     Luckily for all their dignities, the Chairman plucked the egg off the table. "I'll need to have our researchers test this at once to see if chemicals or salts were applied to the shell, or anything else we can trace. With luck, we'll be able to identify a source. My office will consider further measures after we identify the tamperer and his or her motives. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Please, enjoy the rest of the festival. We'll see to this. You have my word."

     The Malvek party bowed and took their leave, far more graceful about the failure of their machine than some others had been today. Still, there were prying ears in the area. Suoh whispered in the Chairman's ear in the lowest of voices.

     "Sir, perhaps it would be prudent to place Yudaiji under surveillance given his history as a saboteur, particularly in situations under your authority."

     "Yudaiji Idomu-kun? I hardly think so. He and I resolved our differences."

     It was true, Suoh had to admit. He remembered in painful clarity the tearful scene of Nokoru forgiving Yudaiji for attempting to kill him, and Yudaiji forgiving Nokoru in turn for his entirely imaginary slights. As if that mattered. "With all due respect, Chairman, you and Yudaiji have 'resolved your differences' every time you've met. By the next time you meet, he's always reverted to killing you and destroying everything you love in retribution for his mother smiling at you one time when you were six. He's not stable."

     The wordless wince on the Chairman's face was all the approval Suoh needed. Nokoru knew he was right. He didn't want to admit it, but he knew it.

     "Just remember, Suoh: I don't want him killed, or detained without hard proof of wrongdoing. He's a guest as well as a friend."

     "Of course, sir."

     They broke off the conference as Ijyuin greeted another contestant approaching the judging table -- one of Yudaiji's team members from Civic, to judge by his white armband. His face wasn't one Suoh had seen often, but the gentleman's name was Nagumo Shinji, if he wasn't mistaken. At present, Nagumo-san had his eyes narrowed at Suoh and the Chairman as if he'd heard the whispers about his teammate, but if he had, he made no mention of it. Instead, he held up yet another egg.

     "May I bring a tampering incident to your attention?" Nagumo-san asked.

     Would Yudaiji have gone so far as to sabotage his own team's members?

     It was Yudaiji, Suoh thought with a sigh. Of course he would.

Chapter Text

     Nagumo's purple-haired partner, Yudaiji Idomu, waited with his usual indecipherable glare at the cooking coliseum. "You're ten minutes behind schedule," his co-conspirator huffed. "What went wrong?"

     "You could have warned me you planned to tamper with the eggs." Now his own perfectly constructed tower was disqualified for failing to get the egg safely down, and the prize for the egg drop would undoubtedly go to someone who hadn't understood physics well enough to account for a raw egg's fluid momentum in their construction. Or Eagle Vision might get it, that asshole. Who did he think he was fooling, claiming he was a ninja? But Nagumo hardly considered it his duty to tell Yuuko's people they had a pirate in their midst.

     "Oh?" Yudaiji asked, inspecting their ingredients. "There's a problem with the eggs? I had no idea."

     Nagumo bit his tongue on the rest of the tirade, all commentary on the importance of communication in a well-run conspiracy pushed aside when when he saw Yudaiji's face. He'd expected some coy remark about how Nagumo hadn't needed to know every detail of the plan to ruin Imonoyama's festival. Instead, his co-conspirator put on a carefully innocent expression -- trying too hard to pretend everything was proceeding as he had foreseen and that he simultaneously knew nothing about anything, which was almost indistinguishable from his normal priggish demeanor except for an edge that Nagumo could swear was panic. Moreover, Yudaiji had reached for the basket of eggs in their cooking supplies.

     His act of ignorance should have been bullshit. Who but Yudaiji would take the trouble to interfere with Imonoyama in such a ridiculous way? Nagumo had worked with Yudaiji long enough to know his bullshit, though, and this wasn't quite right. Yudaiji might claim he knew nothing about the eggs, but he wouldn't pretend he'd misinterpreted what event Nagumo was talking about. He was too attached to looking smart. If Yudaiji thought he'd been talking about the eggs for the cooking contest, not the egg drop, maybe the tampering had been someone else after all.

     Either way, Nagumo had no intention of calling Yudaiji's attention to his mistake. That could embarrass his ally, and an embarrassed Yudaiji was likely to turn on him like a sprung trap.

     He coughed to cover the awkward silence and scanned their surroundings for a way to reassure his partner without telling him he'd been talking about entirely different eggs. Thankfully, the banner flying over their station with the white Civic pennant was marked with a boiling pot. "Well. Since we're making soup, we'll have plenty of options that don't involve eggs. Just in case these have been tampered with."

     "My surveillance showed the proctors loading spinach onto the dais for today's secret ingredient. I'll be using a recipe for wedding soup that's been in my family for five hundred years, and the eggs are not negotiable unless you happen to have an irritated hagfish handy."

     "I didn't think to pack one," Nagumo spat. Honestly. Did Yudaiji make it his life's goal to be a perfect asshole? He pulled an egg from the basket and spun it on the counter in lieu of continuing the argument. It slowed and wobbled, betraying the liquid center. "Well, I have every confidence that these eggs are untroubled."

     "Or at least that we'll have time to demand new ones if trouble presents itself."

     "If you're that worried, I can set up an egg-testing--"

     "All you have to do is keep up your end of the plan. Don't let some distraction occupy your attention."

     "My end of the plan is the last thing you have to--"

     "Welcome, all!" the host cried from his podium. "I see all our competitors have arrived today. Is our lovely audience ready to see today's maestri and maestre chefs face off in the second heat of round one?!"

     The crowds roared, "Yes!" as Nagumo saw Yudaiji grip an egg tight with his usual smirk.

     "Then let's reveal our secret ingredient! Today, you'll be cooking with..." Tearing away the covering over the dais, the announcer yelled, "Spi--" then caught his tongue. Whatever the golden brown sauce and nuggets were on the stage, they definitely weren't spinach.

     Their host jumped down to taste one of the nuggets. In Yudaiji's hand, the eggshell cracked, coating his fingers with runny, golden yolk.

     "It's butterscotch! A~nd... begin!"

     "Damn you, Nokoru-san," Yudaiji growled. "If it's a war you want, I'll give you a war."

     Somehow, Nagumo didn't think Imonoyama was the type to indulge in retaliation quite this petty, not that he'd convince Yudaiji of that. But if it wasn't Imonoyama, and it wasn't them, then they were dealing with a third party who was both strong and sneaky enough to hide completely in front of the greatest ninja in the world.

     That sounded like someone he wanted to challenge face to face.

~//~

     As if today (and yesterday) hadn't been hard enough, Kamui had now learned the worst part about walking around a ninja festival without his proper boots and pirate hat: people kept talking to him. In the last hour, he'd gotten more pickup lines than Sorata threw his way in a month, and one of Sorata's hobbies was testing new lines on him before trying them on Arashi.

     God, he hated mingling with crowds of ninja on the ground, and jumping clear of the occasional asshole dismounting from a roof (which the ninja seemed to use as the fast lane around the bustle). If only he could be back on his ship, living the life he'd always known. Since that wasn't happening, maybe he'd get a slushie before he had to go back to that hellhole "Icchan" called a laboratory. There wasn't much chance they'd have the peach-raspberry flavor that he got back in Kaizuka, but someone had to have lemon or lime.

     "Excuse me," he asked the nearest benign-looking person, "Do you know if there's a slushie stand around here?"

     The smile the man put on immediately made Kamui regret his choices. How could one little quirk of the lips transform "benign-looking" into "sketchy as fuck"?

     "I can't say I know any slushie stands, but there's ice cream just around the corner. Why don't I walk you? My name's Hidetsugu, by the way. Toyotomi Hidetsugu. And you are?"

     "Involved with someone," Kamui answered. "I have a sweetheart back home."

     He'd realized the second time he'd gotten hit on today that he had no problem telling ninja he was taken, even if it was stretching the truth a little when he hadn't settled things with Kotori. Or Fuuma. Either way, he was pretty sure he'd eventually end up with one of them. So saying he was taken didn't actually reduce him to the level of sneaky, lying scum like the assassins and spies he was not technically lying to.

     And giving his name'd be a ticket to the Imonoyama dungeons. He wasn't stupid.

     Hidetsugu (that had to be a pseudonym... wasn't Toyotomi Hidetsugu long dead?) wrote something on a scrap of paper he'd pulled out of nowhere. "If you change your mind, this is where I'm staying tonight."

     "...Right."

     Kamui added the paper to the growing stack in his belt pouch and walked away before the man could say anything else. The ice cream place around the corner definitely wasn't going to get him the slushie he wanted, but ice cream was cold, and that was good enough. And hey, he'd found Doumeki again. Two booths down, his traveling companion was shooting target after target at a marksmanship game, amassing the world's largest pile of stuffed animals as the proprietor handed over his prizes. At least one of them was having a good time, even if Doumeki was just showing off by playing a bow and arrow game.

     The other pirate met his eye, a question obvious in his stare.

     Are we done here?

     Shaking his head no, Kamui signaled Doumeki to ignore him, and the string of bullseyes started again. He dropped a coin on the ice cream counter. "Two scoops of pistachio with caramel sauce."

     "Sure thing."

     Now to find somewhere to eat it where nobody would bother him. Seats were strictly "bring your own camp chair by stuffing it into your personal nowhere space, or find a rock," but as long as there were no people, he didn't care if--

     A red braid flew out of the crowd half a second before a familiar voice called, "Quick! Let's get to the fighting tournament before reg closes! I promised Takamura-san I'd--"

     Hikaru screeched to a halt, looking straight at Kamui with excitement inflating her eyes to inhumanly shining balls of joy. The only time he'd ever seen a ninja that happy to find him before, he'd been waist-deep in quicksand, with no back-up, and the ninja (may his pieces rest in peace) had been armed with enough explosives to level a small continent. Before Kamui could blink, let alone think about what he was doing, he'd leapt up on the nearest roof to run for the highest ground he could find. He was halfway to the clocktower at the center of town before he noticed he was ditching Hikaru. Hikaru, who was kind of like a friend.

     But maybe he wasn't the kind of friend she needed in a place like this. Surely even one of Hundhammeren's most trusted operatives couldn't declare in front of a crowd of the international elite that she was friends with a Pirate Lord, and not pay any consequences. Although it was Hikaru. If anyone could be too cute to shun, it'd be her. He could vouch for that.

     At least she was a pro, so she'd understand if he apologized next time he saw her. He consoled himself with that thought as he jumped from roof to roof to coliseum ledge and finally to the spire of the clocktower where he could look down over Kragero in lonely silence at last. Perfect for eating two scoops of pistachio ice cream that'd managed not to melt, and for studying the pile of room numbers he'd been handed to see if he could get something useful out of them, like some idea which ninja countries were friendly enough to be quartered near each other. Just because Fai had him here on a bullshit training mission, didn't mean he had to avoid learning useful information.

     It was kind of depressing that the most useful thing he saw was that Civic preferred to quarter its people in its own airship. With a sigh, he gathered enough energy in his hand to render his stack of invitations to dust, then did the same to the remains of his ice cream cup. The winds whistling toward the northwest took the specks off in a wild dance towards the setting sun that was just beginning to paint the sky in flashes of pink and gold. The last time he'd seen a sky like that, with a wind like this, he'd been sitting on a beach at the edges of Kaizuka with his mother, and it'd been sand that the wind had stolen falling through his fingers.

     That was the day he'd told her he'd been picked for a midshipman on the Togakushi, the flagship of Lord Monou's navy. Instead of saying, "Congratulations," or "I'm proud of you," or "Keep your head out there, the seas don't take prisoners," she'd just smiled her distant smile and said, "You've taken the first step toward your destiny, Kamui. You'll have a long road, but I know you'll make the right choice when the time comes."

     "What destiny?" he'd asked, just like the kid he'd been.

     Then, and every time he'd asked since, she'd done nothing but smile again, like she was going to cry, saying, "Destiny is something that has to happen, so you'll see soon enough."

     "But how can I make a choice if I don't know what I'm choosing?"

     "Is there anyone you love, who you'd want to protect?"

     "Fuuma and Kotori... and you. I'll always protect you." Even now, he didn't know why he'd said it, when his mother had never needed protecting from anything.

     "Then I have faith that you can do what you'll be called to do."

     Her quiet gravity as she sat silhouetted in the sunset, her hair blowing wild like a black storm, had stilled the thousand questions on his tongue. He'd hugged her goodbye, and that'd been all. Since then, whenever he went home, he'd never pressed after his mother had told him he'd see when the time came. Maybe next time he put into Kaizuka, he'd try again to ask. Maybe if he told her what he'd learned in the past few weeks, about Clow Reed and how the world almost ended thousands of years ago, she'd finally tell him more.

     Maybe he wouldn't wait until he got home. Tonight, once he finished with his training with Icchan, he could write her a letter with Clow Reed's magic orb. If he'd gotten through to Fuuma--

     His training with Icchan.

     The sun was sinking toward the horizon, and he was supposed to be back before dark. God only knew what that asshole defined as "dark". No way was he going to risk doing the rest of his training stuffed in a frog suit like Ogata, with or without the vanilla pudding. Kamui launched off the clock tower towards the row of pavilions where he'd first appeared, landing on the rooftops running. Enough people had turned to watch him rush that he admitted with a silent curse, he should've turned invisible. The less attention he attracted, the less likely he was to die here, but if he acted like he was hiding now, people would wonder why. So he landed like he didn't give a shit, hitting the ground with enough force to leave a crater, and bolted for the alley.

     The crowds parted like butter. This was what he liked best about being a pirate. No need to sneak. People got the fuck out of your way.

     He sensed someone coming just before the figure faded into real-space in front of him, and froze before they entered his threat zone. Someone else had pulled up behind him, but he didn't sense them making a move, so he kept his eyes on the one in front. It had only been a matter of time before somebody realized who he was. Better to go down fighting.

     "Let's make this quick," Kamui growled. "I'm running late."

     "I can see that!" The man who'd stopped him had glasses and a friendly smile, holding his hands up as if to say he wasn't trying to attack, but anyone who'd met Lord Aoki knew a guy like that could still be dangerous. Kamui wasn't dropping his guard for anything. "I just need you to meet the committee before the final decision. We'll explain to your team--"

     "For what?!"

     "Oh, I guess you don't know." He held out his hand as if he expected Kamui to shake it. Which, Kamui decided, it was safest to do. If he hadn't been made, best not to escalate. "Akechi Shigetaka, on behalf of the Pageant Selection Committee. Nice to meet you. Your name is...? We can't seem to find you in the records for some reason."

     "I... err..."

     This guy didn't seem to be hitting on him, but Kamui still couldn't give his name.

     Just then, the person standing behind him stepped around to Akechi's shoulder. She whispered something in the man's ear, something like, "Special mission for the Chairman," that widened Akechi's eyes, but the exact words drifted right out of Kamui's head.

     That woman...

     The shape of her face, of her eyes... The way her hair caught the breeze.

     The knowing smile that curled her mouth when she looked at him.

     It wasn't that she looked like his mother's twin, or could pass for her double, although there was a likeness to them beyond a doubt. It was more that all the little mannerisms of posture and expression he'd thought were unique to his mother were suddenly right in front of him, on another person. This woman must have been close to his mother, closer than his mother had ever been with anyone in Kaizuka or on any of the ships where she served. That certainty hit Kamui like a storm wave washing over decks. He couldn't even breathe.

     The pair of them stepped out of his way. Akechi opened his arm toward the wall where Kamui was headed. "My apologies. Magami-kun says you're in quite a rush indeed. We won't keep you any longer, if you don't mind me just taking a picture..." Akechi pulled out a contraption with a glass lens like a telescope, and tugged on a cord that set off a flash like flare bomb. As it clicked and whirred, a piece of paper came out with his face painted on it. "The Chairman invented this specifically for situations like these. Handy, isn't it?"

     "You need my portrait?"

     "Well, yes..." The man looked as confused as Kamui felt.

     Then the woman moved, and Kamui had to clench every muscle to keep from jumping a mile in the air. "Oh dear, oh dear, you'll be too late!" she gasped, nudging him towards the wall. Once they were past the woman's partner, she whispered, "You won't want to keep Icchan waiting, now, Kamui."

     He looked her over, from her unbudged smirk to the turn-out of her toes. "Who are you?"

     "My name is Magami Tokiko. I'm sure we'll see each other again soon."

     Another second and he might have chased the two figures walking away. He had too many questions to ask, and no idea where to start. Unfortunately, before he could make up his mind, a giant cane hooked him around the stomach and pulled him back through the passage in the wall. Instead of looking at a woman with an uncanny resemblance to his mother, he was two inches from Icchan's menacing grin inside a giant oyster shell costume.

     "Are you ready for Round Two?"

     "I will personally tear your whole lab to shreds if you don't get the fuck out of my face."

     "I'll take that as a yes."

~//~

     "Watanuki!" Mistress Yuuko peeked around the kitchen door, dangling a sake bottle between her fingers. "We need a few more bottles, ple~ase! Oh, and we're out of gyoza."

     "Already?! Even the spare plates I put on the brazier?"

     His employer threw her hands over her head like she was celebrating. "All gone!" she cheered. Over by the sink, Maru and Moro sang, "All gone! All gone!" as they tossed suds-covered tartare molds and crème brûlée ramekins back and forth, juggling the dinner dishes more than washing them.

     "Hey! Those are not toys! Honestly..." Watanuki dropped the fried tofu he'd been steeping in broth onto a prep plate so he could save his tools from the twins' disastrous clutches. As he swirled them in the rinse water and set them out to dry next to the colander, he called over his shoulder at Mistress Yuuko. "I'll have you know, I only made you enough gyoza for a small army, half of which I have already served! If I fry up the rest of them now, I'll need to shop for a new side dish for Thursday, and I will not answer for the shops here. Nevermind that I only have five minutes left before I have to leave, of which you're well aware."

     "Oh yes, we wouldn't want you to be late for your date with your sweetie," Yuuko snickered, failing to hide her grin behind her hand.

     Maru bounced by his left ear. "With your sweetie!"

     "With your sweetie!" Moro echoed by his right ear.

     "Gyaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Stop calling him that!" He took a freshly cleaned skillet from the drying rack and filled it with the last of his pre-prepped gyoza to warm on the stove. "His name is Doumeki -- preferably 'that damned Doumeki' or 'that smelly, no-good pirate of a Doumeki' -- and he is not my sweetie! Neither is he my boyfriend, beau, kochanek, flame, honey, valentine, suitor, gentleman caller, paramour, swain, gallant, intimate friend, nor any other kind of romantic anything! Stop calling him things! This is not -- I repeat, not -- a date! Now if you'll excuse me, I have some inarizushi to fill!"

     "Well, I'll just leave you to making your pirate's favorite foods, then."

     He slammed down the board that used to have Thursday's gyoza on them.

     "That's it! Everybody out! Maru, Moro..." Watanuki flickered to the sink to push the two children out the door along with their mistress. "You can do the dishes after I'm gone. No one comes into the kitchen until I leave, and no one talks to me until tomorrow!"

     Ignoring accusations of, "Watanuki, you meanie!" he returned to his cooking, which had been enough of a juggle when it was just folding an omelet while stuffing rice into fried tofu pockets, before Yuuko had demanded more gyoza. At least the gyoza only had to be flipped in the pan occasionally. An elite ninja such as himself was more than capable of cooking three simple dishes in five minutes! Soon enough, he'd placed the perfectly turned, appropriately triangular inarizushi onto their pad of garnish, in the corner between the meatballs he'd made earlier and the pickled daikon salad he'd thrown together, then he only had to lay out slices of omelet next to the mousse-filled macaroons and arrange fresh tomato and lettuce for color, and he had an entire minute left to plate the gyoza in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.

     Complete and total victory.

     Watanuki swept into the sitting room with a tray of bottles in one hand, a plate in the other, and Doumeki's boxed-up dinner stored safely on the warmer he kept in nowhere space specifically for transporting hot dishes. "Here is your gyoza, here is your sake, and there is my exit. I will see you tomorrow."

     "Let Doumeki know he's invited to drink with us again tonight!" Mistress Yuuko called after him with a wave. "Everybody will be so disappointed if he's not there!"

     "Get over it!" He slammed the door for proper emphasis. "What has the world come to?! Inviting pirates to drink at ninja functions..." It was a good thing no one tried to get in his way between Mistress Yuuko's quarters and the festival games. He was in half a mind to stuff the hands of anyone who gave him guff into their shoes and tell them to walk in headstands.

     And wouldn't you know, when he showed up by the target practice booth, the proprietor had hung up a sign that said, "Test your skill against the infamous pirate, Deadeye Doumeki!" A sign! Advertising the chance to win a plush animal if you beat Doumeki in a marksmanship contest! How shameless could you get?! Watanuki marched right up to the pirate, who was shouldering his crossbow, and shoved the boxed dinner into his unreasonably trimly muscled chest (thankfully covered by a shirt, or the crowd of rubbernecking idiots might be counted by the score instead of by the dozen).

     "You don't deserve this," Watanuki declared.

     "Did you make croquettes?"

     "I don't take your orders! These are... these are leftovers!" A lie, but what else was he supposed to do? Admit that he'd cooked a second meal? "Content yourself with the scraps from Mistress Yuuko's table, and be glad I'm feeding you at all!"

     Of course Doumeki opened the box right there and started gobbling it down -- while they walked, like a cretin. "Mmm," he grunted between bites. "This's good. Still warm, too."

     "Hmph. At least you appreciate--"

     Watanuki's breath left him. Graceless eating had turned to sacrilege.

     "What do you think you're doing?!" He plucked a tiny cup from Doumeki's hand before more damage could be done. "You can't pour that! It's for dipping! I didn't hand-grind mustard seeds so that you could pour a dipping sauce!"

     "This works, too. Besides, didn't you say they were leftovers?"

     "That's not the point! For the love of all that's reasonable in this world, you haven't even told me why you're here! Let alone why you're pouring a dipping sauce, although I don't know what I ever expected from you, or can expect for that matter."

     After Doumeki popped another macaroon in his mouth, the miscreant finally slowed his spree of consumption (Oh, correction! He'd run out of food! It simply could not be possible while eating at that rate that Doumeki had properly appreciated the delicate interplay of flavors over which certain persons had slaved.) to focus all his attention on Watanuki.

     "Is there a reason why you're staring at me?" Watanuki asked.

     Then the asshole dropped the empty dinner box on Watanuki's head, and used his now free un-hook-encumbered hand to grab Watanuki's collar. And Watanuki had no choice but to allow Doumeki to kiss him, or if he scuffled he risked the embarrassment of letting fall an object balanced on his head while in front of legions of his colleagues. He'd never live that down. Not that he was likely to live down the flush in his cheeks or the race of his breath when Doumeki and his clove-scented closeness slid an overly bold tongue inside his mouth.

     It was a talented tongue.

     Deep down, Doumeki tasted savory, the flavor of meatballs and hand-ground mustard overpowering the initial sweetness on contact of mango mousse and macaroons.

     And the cat calls from Eagle Fucking Vision weren't helping even a little.

     But worst of all, it was over too soon, and Doumeki pulled back just as Watanuki had started to feel lightheaded. Naturally, he grunted his disapproval.

     "You know what to expect from me," Doumeki answered.

     "Which is why it's so confusing that you've been doing so little of that!"

     "Well, I know it's what I want. What I have to know is what you want."

     "What I want...!" Watanuki dropped abruptly into simmering silence as no retort formed on his tongue. He'd thought he'd known exactly what he wanted out of Doumeki, right up to the moment he'd been asked, but now all he was sure of was that he didn't know well enough to say. Rustling his dignity as best he could, he whipped away from the pirate and crossed his arms. "What I want will have to wait, because right now I need to get to the ghost story contest. Kohane-chan is competing tonight. I need to support her."

     Doumeki shrugged. "Can I sit with you, or do I still have to hide?"

     "I suppose, since Mistress Yuuko took it upon herself to invite you, she ought to have to deal with the consequences. I'll find you a footstool to sit on."

~//~

     Doumeki knew sitting next to the Dimension Witch would get him a reputation among the ninja here -- and not the kind of reputation most pirates would relish -- but people could say what they liked about him. The view at the ghost story bonfire was much better from the platform reserved for world leaders, and the personal marshmallow-roasting fires weren't as blistering hot as below. Not to mention, he was pretty sure there was some kind of audio-clarity spell up here.

     "The halcyon on the wind and the nighttime you must fear," sang the bespectacled kid playing the organ he'd summoned to the stage. "...For the ancient queen could not save what she held dear." The announcer had called him Fujimoto Kiyokazu, and the pink armband meant he was from Impala. The niceness Doumeki usually associated with Impala's ninja hadn't stopped him from pulling out a ballad about one of the least nice demons in all of legend. "If you meet the girl with lips like blood, and skin as white as snow, ask not who feeds her cherry tree for the grave will be your own..."

     He told it well, though -- nice and clear, varying the speed and volume of his delivery like a pro. Of course, if Doumeki had to guess from the crowd of Impalan children at Fujimoto's feet, hanging rapt on every word and singing along to a verse about Carthage's Judges ordering Snow White's death, the ninja probably was a pro, and this was one of his top hits.

     "To hold the ghost as he was bid, he cast cold iron bars... tempered in the ocean salt beneath the midnight stars. A silver scythe with razor edge he forged beneath the moon. Hamilcar knew his people's doom would come on all too soon. And for a rope of sunlight wove with which to bind her hands, stripped he the sunburned skin o' the very dead she'd left across the land..."

     Watanuki clucked his tongue over another run through the chorus. "I never liked 'Snow White and the Cherry Tree'. The gore is a little gratuitous, don't you think?"

     "Hmm," Doumeki answered.

     "At least nod or shrug clearly when you grunt. I can't tell if you agree with me."

     "I know someone like that, is all, so I can't be sure it's an exaggeration."

     Pulling his mouth to one side in a frown, Watanuki murmured, "I guess you have a point."

     Up on stage, the storyteller had gotten to the big confrontation, and to the children's delight, he was used a coy falsetto when he sang for Snow White. "Hamilcar, oh Hamilcar, know you what foolishness you do? You'd need no dark spell to kill me if I'd ever loved you true!" Switching to his normal voice, Fujimoto answered for General Hamilcar, "I hold my scythe to your cherry tree, the source of all your power. Snow White, I'll build your barrow here where once you made your bower." Two kids mimed the scene, but the crowd was fixed on the man at the organ, all holding their breath -- one of the benefits of telling a story everyone knew. They all knew when to listen.

     "'Kill me thus, your own flesh dies, too. Damnation you'll have won. Woken by your kiss, shared I your body and your bed, and now I bear your son.' ...His hand fell still, his heart grew chill, for Carthage had no higher sin than for woman or man, by deed or plan, to murder their own kin. ...'Then rot inside these iron walls. I've built them true and strong. You nor your child shall walk this land though you live forever long.' So he said as he left her grove, but could not tell a soul that he'd let the monster live that day, or why he'd left her chained but whole."

     "So melodramatic!" Watanuki grumbled.

     "Shh," Doumeki, Yuuko, and Princess Tomoyo all told him together.

     "--meet the girl with lips like blood, and skin as white as snow, ask not who feeds her cherry tree, for the grave will be your own! ...Fifteen years and fifteen days wore on Hamilcar without respite... waging war for glory all his days, never knowing sleep at night. Until at last, riding to his men, he found them slain up on the ground. There stood a lad late of tender years with scythe of silver bloodied round... The youth's face was like his own, he saw, and though his eyes were burnished gold, Snow White's coldness filled their depths. Hamilcar laughed, 'My son, you come to scold.' ...A hawk dove screaming to the youth's hand as he smiled a familiar smile. 'Think not I bear you any grudge, nor would I count myself your child. Your blood inside my veins was key to that cage where you'd've let us rot, but there is nothing else I share with you -- I who did what you could not. The cherry thrives, Snow White's barrow now, and I will guard it well. Waste not your last precious breath on regrets with me. You'll tell my mother in Hell.' ...The hawk upon the wind and the nighttime you must fear, for the noble general could not kill what he held dear. If you meet the man with eyes like gold, and heart as cold as snow, ask not who feeds his cherry tree... for the grave will be your own!"

     The gathered audience broke into a standing ovation. The ninja at Doumeki's side was less enthusiastic, muttering a mile a minute through his perfunctory golf claps. "... still don't see how anyone can call that a proper ending. Does everyone just forget that Snow White's curse on Dido never gets resolved? The entire driving motivation for the Queen to put her to sleep! Never mentioned once in the conclusion!"

     "Well, Carthage did get destroyed," Doumeki countered. "And the Barrows-guard might count as a curse. It's amazing, how somewhere that turned into as nice a place as Impala once gave birth to him. Like the world is trying to balance out how much of a jackass he turned out to be." For once, a topic where he and Lord Shirou were in perfect agreement.

     Watanuki's back arched into a screech. "Do not make excuses for lazy storytelling!"

     As his ninja lover stomped off to pour Yuuko another cup of sake, the Witch Queen leaned over to whisper -- loud enough for everyone to hear -- in Doumeki's direction, "Don't mind Watanuki. He gets a little testy when people act like the Barrows-guard is a real person."

     "And why shouldn't I?! It's superstitious mania, talking about some... some demon avatar of Death who's made of incarnate evil! So many otherwise rational people talk as if this being has been wandering the world for thousands of years, and I simply cannot fathom how they reconcile his existence with--"

     "Hey," Kurogane broke in from behind Princess Tomoyo.

     Swiping his feathered hat, Watanuki yelled in Doumeki's face, "My name is not--!"

     Doumeki pointed to the person who'd actually been talking, and suddenly his hat was back on his head while Watanuki turned sheet-pale.

     "Oh. Kurogane-sempai. ...You were saying?"

     "Just thought I'd mention -- more things in Heaven and Earth and all that. I ran into the asshole last month. Got close enough to see how he rolled his cigarettes, and how the people who know him look at him. That was enough to believe any story I'd heard. Damned if his eyes weren't gold, too. The one he had left anyway."

     "... Oh. Well then." Watanuki's always emotive face quivered through the dawning realization that Kurogane wasn't joking, and nobody in their right mind would accuse him of lying. The shock that hit next was probably Watanuki remembering where Kurogane had been last month since he turned his wide eyes straight on Doumeki.

     Doumeki shrugged. "I told you I know someone like that."

     He expected his ninja to explode over some sudden injustice in Doumeki never mentioning that the Barrows-guard sailed with the Pirate King (like anybody would want to claim him as an ally). Instead, that lanky frame seemed to be shivering while he poured Yuuko's next cup of sake -- not that Watanuki spilled a drop. When his lover sat back down, Doumeki flicked Watanuki's nose with his finger. Sure enough, righteous ire displaced all his quaking. With a, "Hmph!" the ninja shoved a smore into Doumeki's mouth. His turned-up nose was the very picture of a man thinking, "That'll show you!" Then he settled close enough for Doumeki to drape an arm around his shoulder. Better on all counts.

     "Not that you deserve it, but if you insist on sleeping on my couch again--"

     "I haven't got a better offer."

     "-- you will at least use the pillow and blanket I procured for you. I won't have you catching a cold and then claiming you need to share body heat to recover as an excuse to get into my bed later."

     "I don't plan to need an excuse to get into your bed."

     "You're insufferable."

     "Yup."

     "Just watch the show. It's Kohane-chan's turn to tell a real ghost story."

     Watanuki's sous-chef had walked onto the stage, staring down the audience one at a time, apparently scaring them into silence. "What's she telling?" Doumeki asked. "I didn't hear the announcer say."

     "That's because he couldn't have known!" Watanuki had his nose about a mile in the air now. "No one can, not even Kohane-chan. She always tells the story of a ghost who's-- shush, now, she's starting. You'll see."

     The girl's slow glances around the audience had left all eyes trained on her, like a magnet pulling them in. The stage presence it took to do that when she hadn't moved a muscle or said a word was nothing to scoff at. She acted as much like a pro as the organist before her had. At last, she walked up to a Kragero University student with glasses and a dazed look in her eyes.

     Reaching toward an empty seat next to the Kragero girl, Kohane spoke in a voice that seemed small and personal, but at the same time carried clearly to every corner of the gathering. "There's a spirit of a cat who came here with you tonight. A pretty gray tabby with white socks on his feet..."

     "Jenkins?!" the girl gasped.

     "He says that's his name."

     Watanuki whispered over the surprised murmurs of the crowd, "The cat's actually there, you know. I can see him stretching his back now. Kohane-chan is the real thing."

     "He says," the little psychic went on, "that once you became a ghost to save his life. Would you mind if I told your story?"

     "My... no, of course not! Please go ahead!"

     "Very well. It all began one dark night years ago, in the art gallery here on this very campus just a few weeks before student exhibition. A lone girl walking back to her dormitory saw a flash of white in the shape of a woman and heard the echo of cats crying in the night..."

Chapter Text

Day Two Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Appetizer: RYANBAN BYUN HAK-DO & BYUN BAEK (Xinan) def. Sasaki Rika & Terada Yoshiyuki (Kia)
  • Soup: YUDAIJI IDOMU & NAGUMO SHINJI (Civic) def. Cho Lee & To Lee (Xinan)
  • Salad: EMPRESS KENDAPPA & SOUMA (Malvek) def. Sanada Nobushige & Sarutobi Sasuke (Fahren)
  • Main Course: PRESEA & SIERRA (Kia) def. Hiyokuno Takeru & Hiyokuno Yukino (Nihon)
  • Dessert: TAKAMOTO CHIKAHITO & TOYOTOMI HIDETSUGU (Fahren) def. Okiura Sayaka & Fujimoto Kiyokazu (Impala)

Egg Drop Contest

  • Gold: Kirigakure Saizou (Fahren)
  • Silver: Yamadachi Nanashirou (Nihon)
  • Bronze: Princess Aska (Fahren)

Dishwashing Contest

  • Gold: Maru-dashi & Moro-dashi (Hundhammeren)
  • Silver: Eagle Vision (Hundhammeren)
  • Bronze: Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)
  • Second: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Third: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)

Ghost Story Contest

FUJIMOTO KIYOKAZU (Impala) def. Tsuyuri Kohane (Hundhammeren)

~//~

     Across the low breakfast table in the Chairman's bed chambers, Nokoru pouted at his last bite of buttered baguette. "I had been sure the young lady's story would win. Such an interesting retelling! I never would have thought of exploring the kittens' point of view, even though of course they were right at the center of events."

     "Unfortunately, a popular contest isn't an objective evaluation of literary merit," Suoh answered. "You know the crowds here are very particular about the 'proper' way to tell stories about your past escapades. The art gallery kitten rescue is no exception."

     "I should hope our citizens would be more open minded! Suoh, where's the sign paper?" Still clad in his dressing gown, Nokoru pulled a brush and ink from the nowhere space where he always kept them. "I must declare a story remixing contest, where everyone in Kragero looks for a new perspective on an old legend!"

     As the blond braced one foot on the bedframe to pose with his inked brush in the air, Suoh pulled out an inkstone to hold between the dripping ink and the sheets -- at least until he could disarm the Chairman. Once he'd safely swiped the brush, he pushed Nokoru by the shoulders toward his desk (Nokoru himself being too caught up in his proclamation to notice).

     "Everyone will gain a new appreciation for the blossoming variety of perspectives a single tale can offer. We'll call it the First Annual One Million Sides to Every Story Festival!"

     "That sounds like an excellent plan, Chairman -- for after you finish the festival we are already hosting." Suoh pulled a stack of incident reports from the inbox, where Nokoru would have ignored them forever if he could. One by one, he placed them on the desk. "Attendance logs. Stock and merchandise manifests. Petty crime reports where foreign nationals were caught red-handed. Leads on the freak wind incident during the Laundry Washing Contest. Reports from the laboratory and security details on the issue with the hard-boiled eggs. Findings on the butterscotch syrup and candies that replaced the spinach, which has not yet been recovered. Pattern analyses on the timing and locations where feathers have spontaneously fallen from the sky, as well as additional clean-up shift assignments on the assumption that the feathers will continue to fall today."

     With a sigh, Nokoru lifted the corner of one page between two fingers as if it were a smelly piece of garbage. "What have we decided to do with our prodigious influx of feathers?"

     "I've added a Fishing Fly Creation contest and a Pillow Stuffing contest to the schedule. That should take care of most of them. If the rate of feathers falling increases, I'll consider further event additions."

     "Excellent! Now I'm sure I had some coffee somewh--"

     Suoh blocked the Chairman's attempt to run for the door by pulling out a spare French press and some boiling water (since he certainly wouldn't ask Nokoru to drink coffee that wasn't fresh brewed unless a damsel in distress was offering it to him). "If you start now, you should have just enough time to finish your paperwork and get dressed before it's time for you to report to the Trivia Contest."

     "Suoh..."

     "Please."

     They both knew this was an argument Nokoru never won (and Suoh highly doubted he wanted to win right now, because when he did want to shirk he found more effective forms of avoidance than arguing), but never in his tenure as Nokoru's right-hand man had he seen his best friend and lover do paperwork without a fight. Sometimes Suoh thought the only way to make Imonoyama Nokoru bring the focus of his tremendous intellect to bear on something as boring as official forms was brute force, and that Nokoru argued the matter with him because it was the most efficient way to get someone to force him to do his humdrum duty.

     With a sigh that edged into a whimper of disgust, the blond picked up his pen. Each document got a moment's glance before he signed it, no more, which would have seemed cursory if another man had done it, but Suoh had worked with Nokoru long enough to know that a single glance from the Chairman was enough for him to not only memorize the content but to analyze it fully. His noted instructions, formulae, and questions in the margins of the lab reports was proof of that. He couldn't have read it more slowly if he'd tried, not that reading more slowly would be an effective use of his time.

     The strictly bureaucratic papers finished, Nokoru retrieved the odd incident reports from the stack and laid them out in two lines. All the data tables on the feathers went in the top row, and the wind, eggs, and butterscotch went in the bottom row. The Chairman pursed his lips as he tapped his foot.

     "Hmm."

     "Sir?"

     "Hmm," he reiterated. "Based on the epicenters of these feather incidents, when I correlate them with their subterranean counterparts..."

     "You think something underground is causing this?"

     "I think you should take all your personnel off of the feather problem!" Nokoru declared. While Suoh felt like melting into the floor, his blond laughed aloud with a smile bright enough to blind a lesser man. "Now, Suoh, you said yourself that it would have been impossible to store that quantity of feathers in a physical trap, so we're simply wasting our resources by trying to locate such a trap. It can't be there, therefore it isn't."

     "Sir, something is causing this--"

     "Whose nature will become clear in due course!" The Chairman flashed out a fan emblazoned with the motto, "Worry is pointless!"

     "Chairman...!"

     But before Suoh could finish his objection, Nokoru's eyes flew to the window with a look Suoh knew all too well. Half a breath later, the spot where he'd been standing held nothing but a gust of air and the Chairman's closet was open. A scarlet dressing robe fluttered to the ground (replaced, Suoh assumed, with clothes from the closet) as a blond blur dashed out the window.

     Suoh sighed. They had a damsel in distress. It was a miracle Nokoru had gone this long without one. But something about the Chairman's behavior was bothering him (even more than usual). If he was right...

     "...The Chairman knows why those feathers are falling, and he's hiding it."

     "Really, Takamura-sempai?!" asked someone who Suoh was certain hadn't been in the room a moment before, but was nevertheless standing right at his shoulder now.

     He restrained himself from jumping into a defensive stance and forced out a sigh. "Good morning, Ijyuin." It was a crime against nature that even putting a bell on their colleague didn't make him easier to detect.

     "How can you be sure the Chairman knows about the feathers?"

     "I said some thing had to be causing their appearance. When he replied, he said, 'whose nature will become clear'. The Chairman would never use 'whose' to apply to a thing, and would never use 'which' to apply to a person."

     "But most grammar books allow some situations where--"

     "But the Chairman wouldn't do it. That means he knows the cause of the feathers isn't a thing, but an individual. And if he knows that, he knows who it is."

     Ijyuin clapped with a gleeful smile. "You always know him so well, Takamura-sempai!"

     "Too well." Well enough to know they didn't have time to dawdle here talking while the Chairman was out of sight, finding wrongs to right. Suoh couldn't risk those wrongs taking him out of the city. "Let's catch up and find out what quest he's committed us to this week."

~//~

     Watanuki wrinkled his nose as he peeked through the blinds. "Ugh! Imonoyama-san is at it again. That white knight complex of his defies reason!"

     "White knight complex?" Doumeki stole a peek through the blinds himself, wiping the last spots of shaving foam from his neck. The blond Chairman of Kragero University was kneeling on the road below their window, never minding the dust he had to be getting on his fancy pants. He was holding the hand of a flustered and blushing lady from Malvek -- the cute one whose nose and smile looked like Kunogi's, but who had short, fair hair instead of the barmaid's dark curls -- just like in all those local Imonoyama legends Doumeki had always thought were exaggerations. The bodyguard at the lady's side looked near to dying of conniption over the sight.

     "My fairest flower of an unknown land..." Imonoyama started.

     "Umm... you can just call me 'Sakura'?"

     "Princess--!" The guard bit his lip before he said anything the Empress Kendappa would have to formally apologize for. "That is... My Lord Imonoyama, it is my honor to present Princess Sakura, Ward of the throne in Malvek. To what do we owe the privilege of your company?"

     The Chairman stood, only to bow at the waist. "The privilege and the honor are mine. If I could only ask, dear Lady Sakura, what I can do to ease the trouble in your heart?"

     "Ho~eeeeeee?!"

     "From my window, I heard your tender sigh of sorrow, and my heart could not help but break in sympathy. Let me lift the heavy veil from your lovely eyes." Right on cue, Imonoyama's blue-haired and black-haired accomplices appeared on either side of him, while the blond gestured as if the two other men had been there the whole time. "My comrades and I will work night and day, serving with all our power to free you from whatever troubles you may know."

     Doumeki nodded as the Princess and her guard looked on with matching gap-jawed surprise. "White knight complex. So Imonoyama does this a lot?"

     "He does this constantly," Watanuki whimpered, "and Lady Yuuko will want to watch."

     "Then we don't have to watch now." Doumeki shut the blinds, pulling his lover toward the couch -- or trying to. Each time he tugged at Watanuki's waist, the ninja planted them harder. His spine got stiffer, his arms crossed tighter, his nose tilted higher. Every once in a while Watanuki took a glance backwards, like he was checking whether the polite pussy-footing was over. If that was how it was going to be, Doumeki could be just as stubborn. He flopped down on the couch. "Suit yourself, then."

     The ninja appeared in a poof with his legs straddling Doumeki's waist. "What's that supposed to mean?" he yelled, slamming Doumeki's head into the couch. "You triple dog-damned pirate of a Doumeki!! If you've got something to say, just say it!" His heart wasn't in the violence, though. Doumeki could hardly feel the bump, not even hard enough to bother blocking, and sooner than usual Watanuki gave it all up. His lover had that stare where he looked like one shake would shatter him to a pile of glass and tears, but--

     The kiss Watanuki pelted him with washed the thought out of his mind. The taste of his tongue was in Doumeki's mouth, fresh and rich. No tears there at all, just a moan waiting for Doumeki to unlock it. On either side of Watanuki's face, he worked his hands into unruly hair searching for a key. The touch ran like sparks up his nerves, and he couldn't have let go if he'd tried -- not that he would. After a lifetime as a pirate, sometimes it still surprised him that he wanted Watanuki enough to make him feel like he'd never heard of wanting before.

     He thought about coaxing his lover into taking the lead. No matter how much he felt like throwing Watanuki down on the cushions to make him come at the top of his lungs after two nights of sleeping so close but not together, he'd decided to wait until Watanuki wanted it enough to stop pretending he didn't. It didn't matter how many other people his lover lied to, as long as he stopped lying to himself. His ninja didn't need prompting to tear off Doumeki's half-fastened shirt, though. Those slim fingers were done with Doumeki's knife belt, too, in the blink of an eye.

     "Just like the degenerate brute you will never convince me that you're not! Trying to seduce me before work, are you? Well, we'll see about that! Hah!"

     His lips still stinging, Doumeki tried to decide if Watanuki's actual plan was to pay him back by 'seducing' him first. He wasn't going to argue. He had a policy of not arguing with cute, uptight, A-rank ninjas who wanted to pull off their trousers (which they were barely wearing to begin with) and settle skin to skin against his hips. Mostly because this was the only one who did that. He might've argued if it was anyone else. When it was Watanuki, the only thing he wanted to do was trace the line where his ass curved down to his inner thigh and hear the choked gasp that was about as far from a complaint as you could get.

     Even if the words coming out of his mouth were, "You... depraved ... fink of a... D-Doumeki...ngh-- God damn you! That's not fair!" Doumeki never thought he'd like the way that sounded so much. Or the smell of rice paper and sword oil under the air of a spice rack that followed Watanuki everywhere he went. The taste of Watanuki's shoulder was even better than the eggs florentine the ninja'd made for breakfast, and that was saying something. His assassin boyfriend wasn't in the mood for messing around today, though. The grind of his hips against Doumeki's screamed frustration louder than a North Wind gale. His kiss may not have been sweeter than wine, but Doumeki liked his wine dry anyway, and this had a hell of a lot more kick.

     He tried to flip Watanuki to get a better angle. The ninja growled and rolled them both right off the sofa, laying Doumeki out flat. His back stung something awful, but he'd had worse for less enjoyable reasons. "Oh no. You don't get to set the rules this time, pirate! You've followed me into a land-locked city to intrude and impinge upon a very important business trip, and for that you'll have to pay the price!"

     "If you say so," Doumeki murmured. He was tempted to tell Watanuki that if 'the price' was kisses down Doumeki's naked chest toward his cock, stroked all the way hard, he wasn't at all disincentivized to try this again -- but if he said it, Watanuki might stop. Watanuki blowing him at the top of the morning (well, second after breakfast) was the last thing he wanted to stop.

     The way his lover stuck to licking instead of sucking made him smile around the shiver in his breath, because somehow Watanuki managed to keep up his motor-fast commentary, even when he was busy making Doumeki feel like the taut-pulled string of a bow, waiting for the right moment to fire. "Don't even know..." Doumeki heard as he let his eyes roll closed. "... How you knew you could find me here!" His pulse hit his skin faster, matching the cadence of his surly (but cute) ninja's mutterings and the strokes on his cock. "Didn't... tell anyone... obviously!"

     "... Didn't know you'd be here," Doumeki tossed in. "Nice surprise, though."

     "But you said...!" Watanuki stopped everything, and when Doumeki looked up he found the ninja waiting for eye contact. From the look he was getting, he figured the blow job was over. Some conversations you didn't have with your boyfriend's cock in your mouth. If Watanuki wanted to talk at last, losing one blow job was a fair price. "You told me how you got here. You didn't say why you came. Are you telling me you're here doing sneaky, underhanded pirate things and just pretended you'd come all this way to see me?!!"

     "I wouldn't say sneaky. I was bodyguarding Lord Shirou." Who was about as far from caring to sneak as a man could get.

     Watanuki crossed his arms with a sniff. "Right, that Lord Shirou you and Hikaru were--" His eyes went wide under the rumpled bed hair he hadn't combed yet (and didn't need to, if Doumeki got a vote). "Wait. Not Death Shirou?!"

     "Is there another Lord Shirou?"

     "You brought Death Shirou to Kragero?!"

     "Well, he brought me, but--"

     In a vibration of limbs so violent, Watanuki looked like he might fly apart, the ninja was on his feet screaming. "Don't you split semantic hairs with me, you... you concatenation of codswallop!" His lips were pursed the way he only did when he was truly upset. No pouts for his lover's righteous fury. "I suppose I deserve that for being foolish enough to believe you'd ever take a vacation from your base, brigandish buffoonery! Hmph!" Doumeki almost smiled. Almost. Watanuki thinking of that instead of complaining that a Pirate Lord had crashed his boss's party was so close to what Doumeki wanted to hear, it cut like a razor on his spleen.

     "I'm never going to not be a pirate," he answered. And while two blue eyes narrowed at the reminder, a knock on the door told Doumeki he was getting a raincheck on the end of this conversation.

     He'd wait.

     "Watanuki!"

     "Watanuki!" two voices chimed, similar enough to be echoes. Watanuki opened the door for the two pink and blue-haired kids (blue standing on pink's shoulders with long pigtails trailing down) to jump in and pull on his arms. "Watanuki! The Mistress has a hangover!"

     "A hangover! Come quick!"

     "How in heaven's name did I so offend the universe during my previous lives that I am now constantly plagued by insufferable lushes?!" He handed the girls a bottle, saying, "Maru, Moro, have her drink this. I'll be there as soon as I can stop for some fresh supplies. And you!" Watanuki yelled, turning his fury back on Doumeki, "Don't think I'm done with you yet!"

     His lover left with one of his more explosive door slams. Doumeki knew without another word that he was looking forward to another day at the shooting gallery, another night on the couch, and one hell of a cold shower.

~//~

     "Syaoran! Are these zucchini supposed to be super extra crispy, or just sort of medium crispy?" Golden brown was pretty subjective, she thought. Technically, the breadcrumb batter she'd dipped the slices in was already kind of golden brown, but it was always hard to be sure what shade was right. Between things that could be mostly golden but kind of brownish, like snickerdoodles, and things that were definitely brownish but still kind of gold-tinted -- like Syaoran's hair -- there were just so many things that could mean! It was a good thing she'd gotten better at frying things, though, since she wanted to do her best to help him in the cooking tournament. Syaoran was so great at--

     Sakura paused with her spatula under a slice of zucchini. Syaoran hadn't answered her question yet! She looked up, thinking maybe he hadn't heard her before, but instead he was blinking at her with his eyebrows up in the air. "Umm, Syaoran?"

     "Oh... ah, right. Um. Could you fry them until they've just stopped bending?"

     "Got it!" she said with a smile. As Syaoran blushed all over (the way he always did, so it was good Tomoyo never dressed him in red or he'd look naked, and Syaoran didn't like feeling naked), he went back to whisking his eggs and cream in a blur.

     Little flecks of pre-quiche mix landed on the counter and his bright green apron. She heard him murmuring over and over, "Not too tough, Hibiya-san likes eggs fluffy. Season on the spicy side... Lady Cornelia doesn't like sweet things, Eagle-san doesn't like sour..." Watching him frown at the yellow-white mess and be just as serious as could be pushed her right into her swimmy feeling. She could watch that for the rest of her life, curled up in feeling wonderful like that moment was a cozy blanket.

     But she couldn't! Because the zucchini were sizzling, and she had to be vigilant!

     She held her spatula at the ready, fixing a frown in place as she watched the frying edges for when the bottom matched the top. The wonderful smells coming from every table wouldn't distract her, nor would the competing calls from chefs to sous-chefs around the arena. In fact, maybe the only thing that could distract her was--

     "Syaoran!" a sharp female voice called out. Meiling-chan.

     Sakura hadn't been thinking of that at all. Actually, she'd been thinking about Tomoyo with her ever-present sketchbook (she could see her friend in the audience now, penciling away) asking her to pose while she did whatever she was doing, but Syaoran's cousin running over had all her attention now. That confused, where'd-the-floor-go feeling she got when she saw them together was right where she'd left it.

     "Meiling? What are you doing here? You have to be cooking! You don't have time to--"

     "This isn't fair, Syaoran!" the black-haired girl sobbed, burying her face in Syaoran's shoulder. "The secret ingredient! The competition! Any of it!"

     Meiling-chan took a break in sobbing to glare at Sakura, as if daring her to interrupt. Sakura was pretty sure no one had any right to interrupt a private conversation between family members (fiancés! she reminded herself)), especially when one of them was distraught like that. The only polite thing to do was to turn her attention somewhere -- anywhere -- else.

     She poked the zucchini with her spatula. Definitely crackery, not bendy. Off they went onto the paper to dry up the oil, in went the next batch to the batter, then the hissing pan. And now, she had to stop herself from listening all over again, because snooping was a professional skill it wasn't nice to use on your friends especially about things that didn't concern you.

     As hard as it was not watching Syaoran, it definitely wasn't the right time.

     At the station next to hers, Ogata-san (who was always nice to her, even if the mysterious Icchan-san made him dress up in costumes sillier than Tomoyo's) pouted into his mixing bowl. "How could the secret ingredient be breadcrumbs? My intel said almonds!"

     She'd always thought it was a better idea to keep track of what the judges liked, the way she and Syaoran did, instead of figuring out the secret ingredient ahead of time. What if the people in charge were spreading misinformation to make the game harder? These were special ninja games, after all. If you didn't find out the ingredient until it was revealed, you couldn't be misinformed! Although after the way Imonoyama-san had dropped in on them that morning, it sounded like he was looking for things to do, not keeping busy with a full-scale misinformation campaign that could fool Ogata-san (who had to be good at being right, or he'd probably never get to spend a day without something weird up his nose).

     Imonoyama-san's assistants, on the other hand, looked too busy already to worry about things like switching out almonds for breadcrumbs without getting noticed. Why, right now they were sneaking across the Coliseum wall, tailing a purple-haired young man from Civic to whom she hadn't been properly introduced! Since they already had their hands full, it was a good thing she didn't actually need any help from them. No matter what Imonoyama-san said, she didn't have a reason for her heart to be sad.

     While she flipped her batch of zucchini, she stole a glance at Syaoran telling Meiling-chan that there wasn't any shame in going up against professional bakers in the dessert category. She just had to make something she could be proud of. Sakura hoped Syaoran's... fiancée... took that to heart. Between the two of them, Meiling-chan seemed like the one Imonoyama-san should've been trying to cheer up. Meiling-chan was probably a lot of fun when she was happy!

     Maybe it was because she was trying not to stare, but past her friends' shoulders -- past the Judges' Stand, too, where Princess Cornelia with the pretty purple hair was staring daggers at Eagle-san -- outside the Coliseum door, Sakura saw a man stop suddenly. She couldn't help but notice him, really. It was the English man with the glasses -- Eriol-san. The one Tomoyo had invited to dinner with them, so she and Syaoran had put off walking in gardens to another night. It looked like he was looking at her, too, so she waved. Then he waved, and smiled his quiet, smooth smile, then walked off to wherever he was going. She wasn't quite sure what to think of him. He was nice enough, she supposed?

     "Okay, Meiling?"

     "Okay! I can do it! Just see if I don't!" Spinning out of a fistpump, the girl zipped in front of Sakura. Meiling-chan leaned so far over the counter, Sakura wasn't sure how her feet were still on the ground. "And I won't lose to you, either!"

     "I look forward to facing you in the competition! Let's both cook our best!"

     Meiling-chan rolled her eyes with a growl. "You're hopeless."

     Sakura blinked. The girl seemed to want something, but she wasn't sure what.

     "Nevermind. See you later, Syaoran!"

     "Don't run out of time, Meiling!"

     "Will she be okay?" Sakura whispered to her ninja once the other ninja had found her station again.

     "She'll be fine. Wei's helping her, too, so he'll keep her on schedule."

     "Wei?"

     "Wei... He was our..." She stared into his eyes, and he stared into hers, and the words seemed to fall off Syaoran's tongue -- not that she could blame him, since she wasn't sure how to move her mouth either right now. But like always, Syaoran shook his head and started again. "Back home... I mean, at our family's home..." When their hands touched on the counter, his voice choked up, and Sakura suddenly realized how close they were standing. Somehow, her face felt hotter than when she'd been facing the stove.

     The stove that was sizzling like an angry snake. And she was pretty sure the beeping going off was the oven saying it was done preheating.

     "My zucchini!" she yelled, dipping her spatula into the skillet to rescue her veggies.

     "My batter!" Syaoran yelled at the same time. He flailed towards his bowl to finish mixing it before they ran out of time to bake the quiches. Sticking crinkle-cut molds around the finished zucchini crisps, he poured just a bit of eggy mix in each and set them on the baking sheet.

     When their eyes weren't locked, it was easier to breathe, and manage the pan, and maybe think of something to say. She was still kind of swimmy, though.

     "So I was thinking--" they both started at once, and then both stopped.

     "You first," Sakura offered.

     Turning all red again, Syaoran said, "So I was thinking, maybe we..."

     She kind of hoped he'd ask her to go out walking tonight. It was what she'd wanted to know, but then again asking after they were done might be a better idea. Thinking about gardens and moons and that sort of thing wasn't good for being vigilant over her zucchini.

     Instead of asking that, Syaoran opened and closed his mouth a few times, then finished, "...Maybe we should put apple twists on top of the quiches?"

     "I love apples! And I bet it'll taste good to have something light on top."

     "I agree." Then he didn't say another word until after he'd put the miniature quiches in the oven and set the timer. "And... I'm glad I can be here with you, S-... Princess."

     "Me too." Sakura couldn't help smiling at him.

     But she did guess maybe there was one thing she was kind of sad about. Not anything that Imonoyama-san could help with, though.

~//~

     Umi-chan scoffed on Hikaru's right. "Something is seriously wrong. The judge for the finals is a Malvek guy! Malvek people don't do late."

     On her left, Lantis made his 'mildly concerned' scowl (which was three degrees more straight-lipped than his 'unconcerned' scowl, but not as hard as his 'big problem' scowl). The air in the opera house was all a-buzz with ninja silently using coded signals to ask their compatriots on stage whether there was any news about the missing contest judge. At least, that's what Hikaru assumed was happening. It was possible they weren't worried about the missing judge at all and were using the lull to arrange plans for dinner -- she couldn't read what most of what the other people were saying because it was bad form to use friendly events like the Kragero Games to break other countries' codes.

     Hikaru waved her, "Go for it, Fuu-chan!" pennant wildly overhead until she got Fuu-chan's attention, then did the chin pop for "Any news yet?"

     Fuu-chan already knew everyone else's codes, so she didn't have to take the impolite step of breaking them! But her friend blinked, "No," so everyone else must've been just as much in the dark as they were.

     Umi-chan was right. Something had to be super wrong if not even the Malvek people knew where their guy was. Hopefully he was all right, wherever he'd gotten off to, and he wouldn't stay disappeared for months like Alcyone had. Hikaru scanned the row of competitors to see who might be aware of a plot, starting with Clef-san from Kia. Not that he'd be plotting. Her old magic teacher was plenty sneaky, but not in the plotting way. Clef-san did a thing with his eyebrows when he was thinking about where Alcyone might be, though, and since he wasn't doing it, no one must've seen the towering black clouds that--

     Well, Hikaru was pretty sure she'd feel it if those 'clouds' had shown up, and if Kamui-san was here, he'd probably be raising mile high rock spikes out of the earth while he shouted at that specter to leave before he stabbed it or something -- so that was a relief. Probably no one had disappeared for mysterious, otherworldly reasons.

     That left normal human reasons. On the top row of contestants, two chairs were empty. Lady Yuuko's friend Eriol-san wasn't here yet, which was nothing new since he was in all the events. He never showed up before the last minute. Imonoyama-san wasn't in his chair either, of course, because he was by the side of the stage talking to his right- and left-hand men, whispering about who they could get on short notice to judge who wasn't biased. The rest of the row was pretending to look bored while listening in on Imonoyama-san's conversation.

     In fact, the only person not doing that was Yudaiji-san from Civic on the bottom row, and he was still looking at Imonoyama-san; he was just doing it with a look on his face like someone had put a tack in his shoe instead of looking bored. And Chitose-san was checking her pocketwatch, of course, so she was more impatient than anything. Not surprising, since she was supposed to judge the cooking contest soon with Eagle and Princess Cornelia (who hopefully weren't trying to kill each other yet, Civic being Autozam's enemy and all, and Princess Cornelia liking to hold grudges).

     After a quick nod to Umi-chan and Fuu-chan to get them on the same page, Hikaru looked for something she could use to get everyone's attention at once. Anyone who was searching for answers -- which was everyone except the culprit -- would need a split second to be sure her distraction wasn't relevant. Anybody who already knew what was going on would be more interested in the event staff's decision. Finally, Hikaru settled on the dark-haired, suede-clad girl from Nihon on the top row of competitors, next to where Imonoyama-san would've been sitting. Fubuki-chan never went anywhere without her black wolf, and with Kragero's chairman not there Hikaru could make eye contact with the red-eyed fella lying at his mistress's feet. She smiled, and his ears perked up. When she waved, he barked and put his paws on the table. What a cute boy! He was even smiling, like Hikari did back at her parents' house!

     "Shh, Inuki! Stay down, now" Fubuki-chan quieted her wolf, apologizing to the other competitors around her. "He's usually so good in public..." And as soon as Inuki was back on the floor, she arched an eyebrow at Hikaru as if to ask, "Did you have to do that?"

     Hikaru shrugged with a smile and mouthed, "Sorry!". It'd worked, though. Umi-chan was tapping out their code on the arm of her chair. Apparently, everyone had looked at the barking wolf, and everyone had started signalling their people to ask if there was new information. None of the competitors had any idea what was going on, which meant that if someone was doing this to cheat, it had to be Eriol-san.

     And speak of the devil. Everyone must've come to the same conclusion, because when Eriol-san appeared at the back of the stage with his glasses gleaming the same way Fuu-chan's did when she pretended she didn't know something, the audience went both silent and still. Chitose-san used the disturbance to signal her people with two fingers to her chin, probably thinking everyone was distracted. A platinum blonde lady with an orange Ceres armband scrunching her white fur coat walked out of the wings to take Chitose-san's seat.

     Well, that was nothing then. That was Humpty-Dumpty-san, from the trivia contest semi-finals. She'd be a simple replacement to keep Ceres in the final since Chitose had to leave.

     "That jerk Eriol says he's got a substitute," Umi whispered, relaying the conversation between Eriol-san and Imonoyama-san that Hikaru hadn't been paying attention to. "Apparently, he ran into the Royal Crier from Malvek having a stomach ache behind the meatball stand and got him to the medical tent, then picked up a random guy to nominate as judge since pretty much all of Kragero is disqualified because Nokoru-sama's in it, obviously."

     "Announcer-san has a stomach ache?! Oh no!"

     "Or Eriol poisoned him. I won't take that bet. Anyway if he's not dead yet he'll be fine."

     And there was Eriol-san winking at Lady Yuuko while she rolled her eyes. Even if he had poisoned Announcer-san, though, if he'd gotten away clean nobody could disqualify him for it. At least if it was Eriol-san, it'd just be a friendly little poisoning that'd last for an hour or so, nothing more. Any ninja here could take that.

     She was less sure why the second finalist from Kia, a thirty-something guy named Terada-san, was looking at the substitute judge with totally undisguised terror. Hikaru couldn't sense any abnormal levels of murderous intensity from the smiling boy on stage (which was odd, because most of the time people who smiled with their eyes closed like that were just chock full of deadliness, like Eagle, but this kid felt benign). Then, as Takamura-san brought the kid forward on the stage, Terada-san's terror turned to a pained sigh.

     "Ladies, gentlemen, and honored peers, we have a nominee to replace the judge for our final round: Yamazaki Takashi of Kia. If anyone can present a reason why this person might be biased, please do so now." Takamura-san's eyes said it had better be a good reason, too, because he wanted to get this event started without any more delays.

     Half of Kia's spectators looked like they weren't sure if they should laugh or cry, but no one raised their hands. No one from any other country raised their hands, either. After all, even if Eriol-san had to be plotting something (because that's what Eriol-san did) , this kid probably wasn't biased.

     "Very well." Takamura-san handed over the sealed packet of trivia contest questions. "Yamazaki-san, we'll be counting on you."

      "Roger!" As the competitors took their seats, he gave the audience a big smile. "So this is the trivia contest, right? Did you know the first trivia contests took place in the ancient country of Tanis? Whenever the shadows of three pyramids touched, the first person to see it had to yell out, 'Tri-vium!', which meant, 'I see the three!', and everyone who was present had to stop to answer three questions, one for each pyramid. If anybody got one wrong, the sphinx who lived in the pyramid would--"

     "He's lying, right?" Hikaru whispered to Umi-chan.

     "Well, I don't know much about trivia contests, but I think I'd know if sphinxes lived in pyramids. Which I don't think they ever did, because the hallways are way too small."

     "Maybe baby sphinxes?"

     She grinned at Umi-chan's Eye Roll of Doom, right through Umi-chan's patented Super Death Squeeze Hug, and Umi-chan groaning, "Oh, what am I going to do with you!!", and by then a girl from Kia with braided pigtails (she really had to meet more people from Kia! She didn't know names for anybody who wasn't from the capital city of Cephiro) had poofed onto the stage to throttle Yamazaki-san until he stopped talking about sphinxes.

     "Okay, okay," the girl told him. "Now time for the questions."

     Laughing like a murder of crows, Yamazaki-san unsealed the secret envelope, cracking the wax imprint made by the head of the Ookawa clan last night before it'd gone in the safe. As soon as he took the cards out of the packet, he frowned at them, then smiled. Behind him, the girl's eyes went wide. She ran to Takamura-san as Yamazaki-san spoke again. "Because of this animal's bravery and deadly cunning in the face of danger, it has become the symbol for more noble clans - pirate and ninja alike - than any other animal!"

     A whisper ran through the audience. Takamura-san zipped onto the stage. Every competitor looked on edge, because there was no way that could've been the question. No one on the staff would ever write a question Imonoyama-san would refuse to answer, and Imonoyama-san wouldn't buzz in for that in a million years! He wouldn't think it was "couth" to answer when the mascot animal in question was one his own family used. Not that anybody could ring their answer bell anyway, since Yamazaki-san was still talking.

     "--particularly the way this animal would fly into the air using gasses trapped inside its cheek pouches, which caused an unprecedented number of reports that the countryside had been invaded by will-o-the-wisps when in fact people were only seeing the fish's skin. In the darkness, it took on an eerie blue glow easily mistaken for foxfire. Massive hunting parties formed, with every hunter armed with soy sauce--"

     Umi-chan just about choked on her disbelief. Takamura-san looked like he wanted to do worse when he pulled the cards out of Yamazaki's hand, and all the boy from Kia did was add gestures to his explanation of how hunters had to do the "Fugu Hop" to catch up to the flying "mystery fish" without being seen. But the rules wouldn't let him interfere with how the judge chose to do his job, since he'd been voted in fairly. That counted as something Eriol had gotten away with. The other finalists had to counter on their own.

     "Mihara-san, if you don't mind?" Takamura-san asked the girl from Kia. With a nod, she covered Yamazaki-san's mouth so all his words were reduced to a mumble, even though he kept right on Fugu Hopping.

     Takamura-san announced, "For the final round, we are introducing a special rule. As soon as you know the answer, you are allowed to signal by ringing your bell and give your response. Your fellow finalists will decide whether or not your answer stands. The judge will then award points. Thank you."

     Brilliant! Now the finalists could counter, if they could interrupt! Takamura-san was the best at loopholes, except for maybe Fuu-chan. When the two of them planned missions together, ne'er-do-wells didn't stand a chance (which was why Imonoyama-san, Takamura-san, and Akira-kun were the people she, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan teamed up with most for big diplomatic missions, and that was always fun). The blue-haired Kragero ninja still didn't look happy as he left the stage, but he never did look happy except when he was spending off the clock time with his boyfriend. That was Takamura Suoh for you.

     As Mihara-chan let Yamazaki-san go, fourteen of the sixteen finalists slammed down their hands, fourteen bells ringing out in chorus, and all of them yelled out "Pufferfish!" with one voice. Only Imonoyama-san sighing into his hand, and Eriol-san who had a Cheshire cat grin as usual, didn't bother answering.

     Yamazaki-san declared with a sunny smile, "Ten points for everyone!"

     Over by the exit door, Takamura-san looked like he was trying to hammer nails into the wall with his forehead. No one else seemed worried, Takamura-san being Takamura-san and the trivia contest being basically functional now (and one hell of a fun show), but Hikaru had a sense in the pit of her stomach that something was actually wrong. She pointed Umi-chan's attention toward the blue-haired superninja, and they shadow-stepped over to his side while the next question rang out.

     "This sauce, a staple of Karasuk cuisine and still popular in Fahren today, is said to have been invented by the Heavenly Twins upon the discovery that onions are edible! Their pet dog, Pochi-Chinchilla, dug up--"

     "Chirizu!" thundered the dark-haired Tachibana-san from Fahren (the kind Umi-chan called an NYM, for Nice Young Man, usually while saying why she wouldn't go out with him), which seemed good enough for everyone on stage. Takamura-san, of course, looked like the boisterousness of it all was going to make him sick. He pulled together when he knew someone was watching, though, because nothing ever bothered Takamura-san so much he couldn't get ahold of himself.

     "Are you okay?" Hikaru asked anyway.

     "I'm fine. It's order and logic I'm worried about."

     On-stage, Fuu-chan rang in to say, "Ceres was named in honor of Valeria's dragon god, said to live in the caverns beneath the lost island's roots."

     Umi-chan gave Takamura-san a quick once over. "You can't just be mad about a compulsive liar judging the contest. I mean, geez, you can tell everybody's having fun, right?"

     "You're correct, Ryuuzaki-san. I doubt that just having a compulsive liar judging the final round of the trivia contest would matter to anyone. Nor do Hiiragizawa-san's pranks concern me in the slightest. It becomes a problem when the questions carefully curated by our expert staff, sealed with wax to show any tampering and locked in a secure vault overnight, show up at the event entirely blank." The card he showed them was, just as he'd said, pure mint green with no text whatsoever. "I take breaches of security, however simple or perfunctory the particular defense, very seriously. Between this, the egg issue of which you are no doubt aware, and the..." Fluffy white feathers falling in front of their noses stopped Takamura-san mid-sentence. "And then there's that."

     Hikaru leapt to catch one of the feathers falling out of some nowhere between the ceiling and the audience's head, holding back a giggle as she saw Kragero agents crawling the ceiling, looking for a portal or a storage cache, she presumed. As if anybody could find where these feathers were coming from!

     "You don't need to worry about that! The feathers are just Kamui-san!"

     Takamura-san batted his big, amber eyes in a way he'd clearly picked up from Imonoyama-san. "...'Kamui-san'? Who...?"

     "She means Death Shirou," Umi-chan filled in with a shake of her head.

     "Death--!" He pressed fingers to both his temples in his usual headache gesture and hissed, "Are you telling me Death Shirou is on this campus, and has been since the beginning of the Festival? Death Shirou, the rear admiral of the Takifugu pirate fleet?! The same Death Shirou who jumped from the mast of the Dragon of Heaven to the deck of one of our airships this past April and destroyed the engine block with the power of his mind?!"

     Hikaru caught another feather out of the air to add to the bouquet growing in her hand. "Didn't you know?"

     For a moment the only sound was Yamazaki-san asking the competitors, "This modern artist rose to fame in Xinan for her renditions of smiling koalas stamped in bronze, thanks to the trail of Spanish conpeito candies discovered by two detectives--"

     Imonoyama-san answered, "Sei Leeza!", then waved at Takamura-san with the brightest of smiles while his ten points went up on the board. The blue-haired man's sigh could have moved mountains (as usual).

     "I believe the Chairman and I need to have a discussion about which 'special guests' are and are not suitable to register without informing his Security Department."

     Gosh. Apparently he hadn't known.

~\\~

     Kamui swam to the surface of the thrashing water long enough to take another breath, then launched himself and his mallet back at the fucking mechanical fish heads popping out of ninja nowhere space to smack them before they could add any more water to this hellhole vat of icy brine. The fact that his captor and tormentor Icchan had installed air pumps in the ceiling to suck up all of the feathers as they puffed into existence was just the insult on top of the shit cake. If this jerk was going to make him play evil whack-a-mole, flicker-stepping underwater to hit targets he had to see with ninja vision and then bat into ninja space, any fair universe would force that same jerk to clean up those piles of feathers with a broom like everyone else! But no. This universe remained utterly unfair.

     In three flickers so fast it felt like being in three places at once, he bopped enough water-spouting lacquered carp faces that the water level fell beneath his chin. No more pausing for breaths now. And even though the water was harder to zip through than air, he had enough rage to power every step - even if he had to be in ten places at once.

     He flicker-stepped mid-swing to hit seven fish heads with one blow, each one letting out a bubble of air as he thwacked it back into the nothingness it'd come from, and he didn't blink when a second mallet appeared above his off-hand with a "Ding!" He just grabbed it so he could start striking with the rat-a-tat speed of a drummer beating out a fast march. His body felt lighter, as if all he had to do was imagine it, and he'd be where he was going.

     Then the fish stopped, right in the middle of his cadence like fucking Icchan had no sense of musical resolution at all. The water had drained past the floor, Kamui realized once he brought his mind back to the real world. He hadn't noticed, what with how soaked he personally was (and starting to feel the chill). But that couldn't be the end, could it?

     Sure enough, one of the walls lit up with a Dodo dancing under the words, "Level Clear! Let's have a caucus-race!"

     "I'll caucus your race!" Kamui growled. Oh, how he hated Icchan. Hate, hate, hate.

     The wall lowered onto a tube-shaped track. Kamui could already see more whack-a-mole faces, this time a mix of mechanical rodents and birds and reptiles, and whatever the hell turtles were, all of them ready to peek out of nowhere space at any time.

     He hadn't been planning to play along with Icchan's next "level", but the first rat face to pop out had the gall to spit water at his already soaking chest. With a scream, Kamui pushed off the slippery ground, mallets flying as he flashed around the circular track like up, down, and sideways had lost all meaning. He was going to hit those damn machines. He was going to hit them so hard, the tools that built them were going to break!

     It helped to imagine every damn whack-a-whatever head as Icchan's smarmy face, spectacles shining with evil glee. Before long, Kamui could hear the twinkling ring of shattering glass behind him and see the fracturing cracks spreading in front of him through the circular track. In one last bound, he crashed feet-first onto a cabal of cork canaries and thwacked both mallets down. The whole structure shattered, raining around him with an ear-piercing shriek like the crystalline tears of a coral quay banshee. It didn't even bother him that some of the glass scratched his face and hands. He'd had worse.

     "Is that all you got?!" he yelled at Icchan's control room, not for the first time and probably not for the last.

     A porcelain mole face popped up with a, "Tee hee!" in reach for Kamui to smack to kingdom come, then a picture of a girl in an apron appeared with the words, "Congratulations! Top score!" as his name blinked to the top of an empty list. Talk about adding insult to injury. Although when he reached for the gauze he'd tucked away to wrap the scratches from the glass, he was pleasantly surprised (for once) to see he'd run enough to get dry.

     Up in his box seats, Icchan opened a window and yelled, "That's it for now! You've got a three hour window while we set up the next one."

     "I still need to sleep, you asshole!" Kamui shouted back, but as he expected, nobody was listening.

     As he walked out the portal to the outside, the sky loomed dark above. Kamui wondered if there was even a way to know how long he'd been in that lab. One day? Two days? More, somehow not dying of starvation and thirst because of some ninja time warp magic? Life made so much more sense regulated by the rise of the sun, the flow of the tides, and the ringing of eight bells. He took a long deep breath of the night air, cool and crisp despite the scent of roasted meat and fried dough tickling his nose. And God, he could smell water. Not the awful, freezing salt water Icchan had thrown at him: fresh water, wet and sweet, like it'd been raining. Salt water was great for sailing, and he loved smelling it in the air over its proper oceans, but you couldn't drink it, and barrelled water could taste so stale, even mixed into grog. Nothing tasted better than rainwater. If he was lucky, maybe there were buckets out to catch it.

     But before he could think of finding one, he caught a flicker of someone moving out of the corner of his eye. Backing into a hidden crevice, he tried to spy what it was. A purple-haired man was scaling a roof on the other side of the street in a far more suspicious manner than most people taking to the roofs in this town -- like he was trying to hide, although he was doing a terrible job if Kamui had to judge from the Kragero ninja on his tail three streets down...

     Kamui froze, making a conscious effort to pull his eyes back to normal vision. Both the man hiding and the patrols after him vanished from his sight, and he definitely couldn't see clearly three whole streets away. With a scowl, he checked the crevice he'd picked as his hiding spot, too: less than an inch wide, if he had to guess. Whatever Icchan was doing to him, it'd made him strong enough to do ninja tricks without even realizing he'd done them.

     "Fuck him," he growled, "And fuck this whole messed up gig."

     Let the feathers fall, the way they were doing now, again, too annoying to stop! Why should he stop them? It might be better if someone noticed he was here and tried to drive him out of town. Whoever'd planned this couldn't keep him secret if that happened. He'd like to see them keep him here when every ninja in Kragero knew Death Shirou was...

     Probably better not to get noticed first by Hibiya Chitose, or Asou and Kizu, or any of the other ninja who had a particular reason to want him dead and the personality to try and pull it off. He jumped onto the closest roof to look around the whole damned city, pushing his eyes as far as they would go. He could see official patrols at every edge of the city, with Hikaru and her friends at the front of them.

     Damn it.

     The thought of Hikaru pouting with her big doe eyes if he left without talking to her made him want to say hello, but he couldn't exactly do that, now could he? She'd find some way to make him stay. It wasn't the stupidest thing she'd talked him into, which was saying something since he'd only known her about two weeks and a Pirate Lord holing up at a ninja festival was pretty damn stupid. No, he'd need to get caught by someone who wanted him gone, which ruled out Hikaru and everyone with her. Probably Doumeki's ninja, too.

     His eyes fell on another figure racing over the rooftops. Syaoran, with Princess Sakura keeping pace beside him. Finally! Syaoran would want to run him out of town, no question. Might even want to kill him for that kidnapping thing, if Kamui was being honest, but if it came to that he could hold out long enough for Kurogane to show up. If Kurogane had overlooked him on the first day, he had to be gone enough on Fai to talk a town full of the ninja elite out of trying to put Death Shirou's head on a pike.

     Without another thought, Kamui sprinted toward the bonfire where Syaoran and the Princess had joined the crowds. But he let out a hiss when he saw where they were: sitting next to Kurogane and Princess Tomoyo. If Kurogane had the clout to keep him from getting massacred, the ninjas' Dreaming Princess had the power to tell everyone he was her guest, which he might well be. Her people had the same red armbands as Icchan's staff. She looked like the sly type who wouldn't hesitate to bring him here, too, or to hold a knife to his back while she smiled and told everyone they were friends.

     But when the feathers drifting down caught everyone's attention, it wasn't the princess who spotted him. It was Empress Kendappa who turned to look him in the eye, implying, "You'd best not make a scene, or I'll make you regret being born," without batting a lash. There was a familiar lack of any threatening air in the way she did it, too. He couldn't place where he knew it from, but she looked like she couldn't be bothered to bend the regal angles of her face into a mask of caring -- only that she knew how it would end if he forced her hand -- and he felt his hatred turn to dust. The Kamui who'd left Icchan's lab pissed over a little dunk in the drink seemed small. He wanted to be better than that in front of that gaze.

     At least he knew who'd brought him here. For that, he stilled his heart enough to halt the fall of white feathers from the sky and blended into the clumps of people around the fire. At the edge of the throng, a man was peddling kebabs with roasted chicken and vegetables that looked like the best thing he'd seen all day. Kamui tossed him a mediumish silver coin, saying, "Whatever that'll get me."

     "You bet."

     The vendor produced a plate with at least twenty kebabs. That suited Kamui just fine. He meant to eat every damn one of them.

     "You know where I can find fresh water?"

     A full bucket that smelled perfect came out of the vendor's stash. "Water's free."

     "My lucky day," Kamui muttered, and downed the bucket in one prolonged gulp. When he looked up, the man was holding out a second one. "Thanks."

     "No sweat."

     Probably not what your typical ninja'd say if he knew who he was talking to. For a good meal, Kamui would deal with not defending his reputation. Now to find somewhere as far from people as possible to eat that meal, which would clearly not be around a bonfire where judges were hustling a girl with long pigtails hanging from two buns onto a stage.

     "Opening our Ghost Story competition tonight: Li Meiling of Xinan, with 'Cinderella'!"

     On the other hand, he had always like ghost stories, and "Cinderella" was one of his favorites. He felt a deep kinship with the girl who couldn't seem to catch a break. If he settled in a dark corner where no one would look at him, he'd be safe enough -- and damned if he didn't deserve a rest. Besides, the kebabs would get cold if he went anywhere, right?

     "-- beaten and bruised by the other children, left for dead at last, Cinderella ran to the forest to cry under her favorite tree. 'Please!' she begged, not knowing if anyone could hear, 'Please, won't someone come to save me?' Though she'd never heard an answer before, that night the figure of a woman appeared. She smiled like the savior Cinderella had always dreamed of. Reaching out, the woman said, 'It's my special gift to know the pain in others' hearts, and I have felt yours call out to me. Come with me to my castle each night. I will give you what you need.' Cinderella felt the woman must have been her fairy godmother..."

     Sitting alone on a rock, eating delicious food, listening to stories around a fire, he felt like he could be home. He wanted Fuuma so badly, his fists clenched tight enough to leave prints in his palms, but he beat the feeling down. For now, he'd lose himself in Cinderella suffering under her vow to be silent and walk on glass, breaking her word with a scream as she hurled herself at her tormentors, a shard of her own glass shoe trapping her in delirium -- until the prince who seemed too kind to be real cleaned her wound, stripped the spirits' control and sent her to heal... If only princes like that could be real. This world had no one like that, Kamui'd learned over and over, but today the prince's smile hovered in his mind like something precious that was just out of reach.

     He was tired, damn it. Now that he'd stopped to rest, he could feel the weight of hours in his bones. No wonder his mind was playing with him.

     As he turned from the stage, he saw yet another person looking at him instead of the show. The woman, Magami Tokiko, the one who looked like his mother, was staring across the bonfire. Kamui dared her with his eyes to come closer, to tell him why she acted as if she knew more about him than he knew about himself.

     She stood, and smiled. Like she knew he'd never have the heart to ask his mother whether she'd been born to ninja, and if he wanted to know, he'd have to come to her.

     "Cinderella heard the knock on the door that was nothing like the doctor's, and noticed that the sound of the barking dogs, the wind, and even the crickets had faded away. All she heard was her prince's voice on the other side of the door, calling her name... asking to come in. But how could she forget the inhuman corpse of her fairy godmother, or the memory of her prince's footprints within the toadstool ring that'd seemed to be a castle? Had he killed the woman whom Cinderella once thought might have made her strong? Had he done it to keep her from falling further into thrall, or because he, too, was a hungry spirit out to consume her?

     "Drawing a tight breath, Cinderella looked to the door and knew... this choice could be the first and last of her life."

     The whole crowd took to their feet clapping, cutting the line of sight between Kamui and the woman, and breaking his reverie along with it. Damn all that anyway. That woman was as likely to be Fai playing with him by sending a pirate to infiltrate the festival as she was to be any kind of meaningful thing. For now, he remembered seeing blankets and bags of feathers in the clocktower. Maybe he could sneak a few hours of sleep before the next round of torments started up. He wouldn't want to sleep in a bed Icchan had offered him anyway.

to be continued...

Chapter Text

Day Three Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Appetizer:LI SYAORAN & PRINCESS SAKURA (Malvek) def. Miyuki & Kagami (Ceres)
  • Soup: NAMIYA TOMOAKI & KIZU MASAYA (Chevrolet) def. Shimai Kaoruko & Shimai Sakurako (Chevrolet)
  • Salad: OGATA MASAHARU & HIS ANGELS (Malvek) def. Mukoufujiwara Kousuke & Nayuki Satoru (Nihon)
  • Main Course: WOL MAE & CHUN HYANG (Xinan) def. Inada Shuuji & Inada Yuuko (Malvek)
  • Dessert: UEDA HIROYASU & OOMURA YUMI (Ceres) def. Li Meiling & Wei Wang (Xinan)

Trivia Contest

  • Gold: Humpty-Dumpty (Ceres)
  • Silver: Terada Yoshiyuki (Kia)
  • Bronze: Kudou Shuuichirou (Impala)

Cross-Referencing Contest

  • Gold: Mong Ryong (Xinan)
  • Silver: Gingetsu (Kragero)
  • Bronze: Sang Yung (Fahren)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)
  • Second: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Third: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)

Ghost Story Contest

LI MEILING (Xinan) def. Ogata Masaharu (Malvek)

~//~

     The air from the curing rack came out earthy, hot, and cinnamony, like a scalding breath on his face that made his eyes water. "The leaves are done," Nagumo reported.

     "We're not discussing that," Yudaiji harrumphed back. "Not where people can hear."

     "I mean the cinnamon-cured spinach leaves." He held out one of the racks for his partner to examine. As if he would have mentioned their preparations for the main hall while they were in the open! He wasn't stupid, or careless. Yudaiji was the one who couldn't help monologuing -- among the many reasons why the purple-haired "mastermind" wanted Nagumo prepping their main event while he himself led Takamura and company on a snipe hunt. Next time, Nagumo swore, he'd be working alone.

     Under his breath, Yudaiji murmured, "We'll need something else to call our ingredients. It won't do to get confused. We could call the spinach, 'breadcrumb replacement'..."

     "Or we could call it spinach." Either way, they only had to crumble it over their cinnamon-seasoned beef lasagna and cook it for another five minutes (no more, to retain color) and then it'd be a memory. There wasn't much else to discuss.

     And Yudaiji was cackling again. He almost never did that back in Civic, but the longer he was exposed to Imonoyama, the more prone to stereotypical villainy he became.

     "I've outwitted you this time, Nokoru-san! You thought you could switch ingredients on me, but now I have your number. And my family has a truly undefeatable recipe for unique use of cinnamon! Nothing can compete with this flavor!"

     Nagumo noticed with a sigh that the competitor from England was watching Yudaiji talk with a laughing smile. If only it'd do any good to ask Yudaiji to shut up.

     "Today, I'll take down Watanuki, and then my place in the finals will be virtually secured! Defeating Ijyuin at his own game will be only the first step in stripping everyone Nokoru-san loves of their place in the sun. One by one, all of them will fall! All of Nokoru-san's plans will be in ruins... starting here, now, with the Witch's lackey."

     The only pleasant thing about this conversation was the savory air of baked cinnamon throughout the Coliseum. "I still don't think Watanuki's place in the finals against Ijyuin is so much a plan as, shall we say, an inevitability."

     Yudaiji curled his lip as he put the lasagna back in the oven, snide laughter infusing his every gesture even though he wasn't even laughing at the moment. "I'd like to see him try to design a dish with flavors so delicately balanced, so potent yet supremely edible, as my own recipes, adapted for fast cooking tournaments such as this from notes handed down by the greatest chefs in history!"

     "Behold!" Watanuki called out -- not to them in particular, of course, but to the Coliseum in general. Yudaiji was hardly the only ham in the competition. "Succulent citrus and cinnamon marinaded lamb on a bed of mashed garbanzos steeped in squash consommé!"

     The spatula in Yudaiji's hand snapped. Nagumo seized the spare spatula and the knife laying near his fellow chef's hand before any more damage could be done. "Marinaded?!" Yudaiji hissed, sniffing the air. "I smell orange, wine, cinnamon, coriander, ginger... But there's not even enough time to roast a lamb leg, let alone marinade it!" He sniffed again, and his face contorted into more rage than Nagumo could ever think was called for. "Damn you, Watanuki! You flash-cooked the slices in a pan before you roasted it, didn't you?!"

     Pushing up his glasses, Watanuki turned toward their station with a smirk. "Naturally topped with a brandy reduction, and a dollop of cinnamon sour cream on the side. Let all who wish to partake of this culinary marvel bow at my feet and cry for--!"

     "Kimihiro-kun," his young sous-chef said, tugging on his sleeve. "Don't forget the judges can hear you."

     The Witch's valet turned green, frozen and silent with the steaming (and perfectly plated) meal balanced on his hand. Then he brushed a spot of cornstarch off his apron and turned up his nose for the march to the turn-in table. "Well, obviously I didn't mean everyone. I was just talking about him." Watanuki pointed at the unmistakable hat of Deadeye Doumeki, who was sitting in the front row clapping at Watanuki's performance. "If that scoundrel hopes to eat another bite of the food I cook for him, he should know he has a lot of groveling to do!"

     Yudaiji squinted at the audience, utter confusion on his face. "Has anyone else realized there are pirates here?"

~//~

     If anyone had asked last week what Kamui thought was the worst part of a string quartet of mechanical automatons playing a half-step flat, he wouldn't have known where to start. Now, he knew: the worst part was having to dance to it. At least, dancing was the closest word he had for the inanity he had to perform. The floor was covered from edge to distant edge in pictures of rose bushes enclosed in a maze of shadow lines like sunlight filtered through a stained glass window, but unlike a window, the picture underfoot was always changing. See a white rose sprout, jump to the bush, tap your foot the way it grew, once for each rose, clap for leaves...

     The way it matched the music, there wasn't anything to call it but dancing, Kamui supposed. Tap left on one to turn this rose red, zap forward to tap right on two to color in the next one, spin like a fucking idiot on three and clap on four when the next bush grew a ring with leaves, leaving red roses instead of white ones on every mark he hit.

     And damned if he hadn't hit every mark. He had no idea what'd happen to him if he failed, but Icchan wandering around the maze dressed like the Queen of Hearts and the three pictures of his head glowing on the wall, bouncing up and down to the beat, gave him a pretty good idea. The asshole running this show was probably waiting for the chance to yell, "Off with his head!", and Kamui wasn't going to give him the satisfaction. Even if it meant another hour of tap fore, tap aft, stomp, stomp, clap, clap until his bones broke clean through.

     And he just wanted to say, he never made the comical scowl Icchan had put on the pictures of his head. His scowl was something that terrified brave men and women all the world 'round. Those caricatures were uncalled for.

     "I don't want to see any white roses, now!" Icchan clucked, waltzing around the labyrinth (completely out of time with the music, which was a jig to begin with). And of course the next rose to appear was budding two damn turns away from the asshole. It was hard enough managing his momentum to stop dead on the bushes with his feet tapping the right way, let alone rushing to get them out of order.

     And to make it worse, his best path to get there went right by Icchan. He wasn't allowed to be in line of sight any more than white roses were (nevermind that being a stupid rule when the "walls" blocking line of sight were just lines of--)

     Shadow. He might just be able to twist this ninja shit to his own use.

     He shrank into the closest wall line and zipped past the dungeon master, tapping left with a clap to paint the rose red and disappearing before the asshole turned the corner.

     "Not bad, kiddo! For that kind of spunk, I think we need to up the tempo, don't you?"

     Icchan snapped, and the automatons playing strings screeched to a tempo Kamui was pretty sure had to redefine "fast". The flowers sped up blooming to keep pace, too. He wasn't even standing to tap anymore. This was practically--

     "Eleven Lords a-leaping," Icchan crooned, out of time and out of tune with everything "Ten ladies dancing, nine pipers--"

     "Shut the hell up, would you?!" Kamui's breath burned in his lungs from the speed he had to maintain, but he had enough left to yell.

     His captor clucked his tongue. "No matter how well you score, it just won't do to play with an attitude like that. Life is full of distractions, you know!"

     Tap, tap, twirl -- "This isn't a distraction!" -- Clap, stomp, double tap -- "This is torture!"

     "Torture? A basic training regime developed by one of the greatest minds of any age in service to the most elite ninja clans? Not just anybody can take one of my training sessions, my boy. You should be honored!"

     "I was talking about your singing, not this joke you call training!"

     But while he skittered through the maze and his feet settled into the new, faster tempo, Kamui eyed his warden. If he'd say that much without prompting, how much more would he say with a push? Icchan seemed to run at the mouth an awful lot for a ninja.

     "You mean you're the reason the old bloodlines stay on top, with all this nonsense? Or is this crap supposed to be stuff you can't do unless--"

     "Pish! Hardly! There are naturally disposed people, of course, and it's always news when they're from some old family, but that little fellow from Nihon, what's his name?"

     "Kurogane?"

     "Ah, Kurogane!" Kamui eyerolled through a tap-tap-spin-clap that found him halfway across the floor before it was over. "His family were shrine types, you know, not one of the old ninja clans, and he's done well enough for himself! Not that it matters for you, Mr. Death Shirou Kamui-san."

     "What's that supposed to mean?!" It took all his willpower not to rush the asshole and throttle him, but as close as he was to done with this stupid training exercise, he wasn't going to let Icchan get the better of him. He wasn't going to lose his pace, lose one of his heads on the wall, or start this flower maze over from the beginning.

     But Icchan was asking for pain with the way he chortled, and the way he wiggled in a way totally inappropriate for a waltz. "What indeed? What indeed?! Don't you think you've got nothing to worry about if you're doing fine so far?"

     All Kamui's unasked questions about whether he was only doing "fine" because his mother was actually a ninja came out as a growl. He hadn't known how to put it in a letter last night, and he didn't know how to speak the words now.

     Icchan, of course, sang things he didn't care about along to the music in lines that didn't even scan. "Oh, if I told you about the Imperial family, I'd have to kill you~u..."

     "Not if I kill you first."

     "But it's all about the family secrets! If you want a bodyguard, you've got to get a Takamura! And if you want a poison, only an Imonoyama will do... Not actually," the jackass hissed as an aside, "but their family has all the hidden lore. And oh, for a spy, not just any spy, just the best spy, find yourself an Ookawa, a main-house Ookawa, only not the Magami branch Ookawa because--"

     Ringing bells cut off Icchan's song right when Kamui's ears perked at the Magami name. That'd been the woman he met who looked like his mother, hadn't it? Magami Tokiko? He couldn't have cared less that the bells meant he'd cleared the challenge -- he had to get Icchan talking again!

     Although the floor full of red roses looking like a sea of blood under his feet was vaguely pleasant somehow.

     "Oh, would you look at that!" his captor cawed. "You've finished already, and just in time, too. I knew upping the pace would do the trick."

     "But what about the Magami clan?!" Kamui yelled, stiffening to a board when he felt Icchan zip behind him.

     He could feel the bastard's glasses glinting, and it was even more unnerving than the two fingers he laid like a knife on Kamui's spine. "The Magami, eh? They don't... spy. Now, you're late! You're late! for a very important date!" The portal to the outside appeared in front of him, and Icchan kicked him out.

     Kicked. With a boot. On his ass. Of all the nerve.

     "Bye bye!" that voice that would haunt his nightmares called after him.

     "Don't you 'Bye bye!' me, you son of a bitch!"

     Kamui barely had time to growl about being back in the open again or kick the dust when he felt the imminent presence of someone about to pop out of a flicker-step. And he would complain to Fai in full when he got back about how he could sense that now, but for the moment he was face to face with the basically non-threatening Akechi -- the man in glasses who'd taken his portrait two days ago.

     "There you are! We thought we'd never find you." He waved for Kamui to follow him. "We'll have to run. It's starting any minute."

     He didn't want to run after anyone when he'd spent the last however the hell long chasing Icchan's roses, but Akechi didn't stop for questions, so run Kamui did. He was going to get answers from somebody about something, damn it!

     "Would you tell me where we're going?! How the hell can I be late for anything?!"

     Ahead of him, a girl with bright red hair turned around at the sound of his voice with the brightest smile he could imagine. "Ka--!" she yelled before her blonde friend with more sense covered Hikaru's mouth. She waved, jumping up and down, and so did that jerk Eagle standing behind her (without the jumping). What was he supposed to do with that? He waved back as they dashed past, then started politely asking Akechi for information again since the man hadn't done anything but blink at him.

     "What the fuck is going on here?!"

     Akechi blinked again, seeming not to need to watch where he was going since he was just staring at Kamui. "I suppose Magami-kun couldn't find you yesterday to tell you after all, but I was sure you knew... You've been selected as Mr. Impala for the Beauty Pageant."

     "I've been what?!"

~//~

     There was no doubt in Suoh's mind that his Chairman would have preferred to be anywhere but his dignified office, reviewing paperwork critical to the smooth function of their festival in particular and the city in general. The sunshine was lovely outside -- the shining, golden sort of light that made Nokoru's hair look like it had a gentle glow of its own, and which the Chairman had declared on more than one day to be sufficient excuse to cancel an entire afternoon's work. If that hadn't been enough, the scent of funnel cakes drifted through the open windows, and his blond had added a longing sniff to his usual every-five-inches-of-paperwork sigh. Not to mention the colors and music filling the streets, however there were right ways to run an organization and disordered ways to run an organization, and Suoh was here to ensure that everything was in its proper place, including the Imonoyama everyone was depending on.

     Nokoru sipped tea out of a cup in one hand while whipping down documents and stamping them with the other. Suoh had a cup as well, and savored the perfect strength and sweetness of the brew Ijyuin had prepared before he'd returned to the Coliseum for the judging segment of the cooking contest (where certainly no one but Lady Utako had noticed him leave despite his popularity with the crowds). He'd need the calming powers of a cup of Ijyuin's tea when the inevitable conversation he was waiting for occurred. Naturally, it would be a minute or two more since he'd put his own requisition forms at the bottom of the pile so the Chairman wouldn't use the distraction as a reason to avoid finishing his work.

     Those two minutes ticked by, and just as he drank his last sip of tea, Nokoru addressed him, a teasing lilt in his always musical voice. "Suoh? Why are we pressing additional guards into service around all the events in the main hall? I thought we had more than enough security on duty."

     "Sir, there is still the matter of the problems implied by the unpredictable strange occurrences around campus -- which, by their very nature, I had not predicted during assignment of security personnel."

     "And here I thought we'd agreed they were harmless!"

     "I've agreed to leave off investigation of the feathers," he replied, although he still planned to address the apparent invitation of a Pirate Lord to their city at some point when more pressing matters were settled. A sentiment he never thought he would have expressed as a visiting Pirate Lord was usually the most pressing of problems, but if Death Shirou hadn't attacked by now, he wouldn't be planning to. That man was no infiltrator. "That still leaves the matter of Yudaiji unresolved."

     "Suoh..."

     "The reports attached to my requisition contain all details of current reconnaissance."

     The curl on Nokoru's lip almost looked like a smile, and the way the blond bit it to keep it from turning into one almost took Suoh's composure away despite his fortification with excellent tea. "You never fail to have your forms in order, do you, Suoh?"

     He purred that in a way that made Suoh feel like he was completely inappropriately blushing over paperwork when, in fact, he was inappropriately blushing over innuendo while he should have been insisting that the Chairman do his paperwork. An almost-smile of his own snuck onto his face as he answered, "I have every confidence in your ability to follow my reasoning, Chairman."

     The crisp sound of a turning page filled the office. "Rigs for monofilament wire in the trees outside the Great Hall, disguised as leaves, not Kragero issue. Not, I'll note, Civic issue either. They're a non-standard design," Nokoru challenged him, raising a saucy eyebrow.

     "If you're referring to how that could be anyone's doing, I am no less concerned about an unknown party attacking the Great Hall than I am about a known hostile such as Yudaiji doing so."

     "Excellent. Now, about modifications to the rafters in the Proscenium area?"

     "We suspect a secondary structure has been built entirely in shadow space around our standard catwalks, but due to the nature of the personal technique used and concern over any traps, we're still investigating the extent and purpose. Once Ijyuin is free, I'll be asking for his help in that."

     "Something that intricate..." The Chairman pulled out a new sheet of paper, making a quick sketch of the Proscenium blueprints from memory, then adding lines in red based on the notes in Suoh's report and dotted lines for likely additional structures that Suoh planned to issue copies of immediately. "This had to have been designed by a ninja who's... hmm. He or she would have to be well versed in the arts of architectural design..."

     "So if Yudaiji is responsible, he's working with an accomplice. He's never shown any affinity for construction. Possibly more than one accomplice, given the other..."

     Suoh trailed off as Nokoru flipped his sheet over to sketch a graph on three axes, writing a series of equations across the top. The blond was whispering under his breath and blinking his eyes without focusing on a thing as if using them for code while his hand traced out perfect arcs -- all signs Suoh knew well as indicators that nothing he could possibly say besides "Hark! A lady cries on yonder hill!" would penetrate the wall of Imonoyama Nokoru's cognition. His old friend had told him years ago that he used the blink of his eyes as a mnemonic aid to register facts and conclusions in his memory, and in its own way it was as thrilling as watching a master archer draw a bow. Suoh was loath to interrupt the process with so much as a breath, even though he was sure the Chairman's focus would more than compensate for an interruption, just as a siren going off couldn't shake Suoh's own focus on a strike he meant to execute.

     Or perhaps he simply loved to watch Nokoru work. Either way, he was waiting in silence when his lover turned the page for Suoh to review.

     "I've calculated the probabilities of Yudaiji-kun attacking on any given day, based on the data in your report and the established history between him and me."

     "But--"

     "You think I'd ignore all of your evidence simply because I'd prefer that Yudaiji-kun spend a peaceful week in our city?"

     "Of course not, Chairman," Suoh answered, this time with an actual smile. "So you've analyzed this in terms of the length of his stay, the months since he last attempted to kill you, and the number of people visiting the city at the time?"

     "Yes. You'll be happy, I'm sure, that the higher our ratio of tourists to citizens, the less likely he is to attempt a full takeover of the city, I believe because he considers it less 'mine'."

     "How reassuring." Dates and notes next to the data points on the graph had no doubt been added because the Chairman expected him to want to verify this extrapolation, and indeed Suoh couldn't find a single one of Yudaiji's assaults missing. He remembered every one. The red X, of course, was the relevant point for his purposes. "So you expect him to act in the evening of the seventh day of the Festival?"

     "And if his target is the Great Hall--"

     "The Flower Arrangement finals."

     "My mother's personal favorite competition. We already know he meant to strike against Akira, and against you--"

     "I have no worries whatsoever about his challenge in the martial arts tournament."

     "Don't worry, darling, I'll let you wipe the mats with him. Actually, I don't plan to interrupt any of Yudaiji-kun's preparations. If he's not planning to strike public utilities this time, and he does seem to be keeping his attacks personal, I won't expend public resources to stop him. Besides, you know he always settles a bit when he can get it out of his system."

     Suoh sighed. "So you're saying that you won't approve additional security, not even for the Flower Arrangement contest alone."

     "Oh, I think you, Akira, and I should be able to handle it!"

     "And you want me to let the rest of the security patrols go, too. Don't you?"

     The Chairman sauntered around the desk, dropping his requisition unstamped and unapproved into the trash can with a particular glint in his eye that Suoh had only started noticing since the blond had learned he could make Suoh's pulse race without even a touch. "Oh, Suoh. Let them enjoy the festival. Who wants to work on a day like this?"

     "You don't think everyone would enjoy the festival more in assured safety?"

     Nokoru sat on the edge of the desk, poking Suoh's knee with his toe. "Since when have enough ninja to fill a city like this ever universally wanted anything, let alone 'assured safety'?! Actually, I'd say the majority want adventure, daring... Romance."

     He already knew from the look in the Chairman's eye that his blond genius wanted to retire the afternoon's agenda in favor of a bit of irresponsibility, and more than that, he could tell his lover was in a mood that wouldn't brook resistance. He was like a summer sun shower that came out of nowhere and drove you to an overhang laughing, not sure what to do next. That is, until you found yourself kissing a beautiful man and otherwise doing things you'd never do in public if it hadn't been for the solitude of that hidden moment giving you permission.

     No matter how ready for those moments Suoh thought he was, Nokoru made him feel like his guard was permanently down. The fact that his lover was begging him for a kiss (as much as Imonoyama Nokoru begged for anything) made it that much harder to tell himself their duties were more important. And really, a kiss wouldn't set them too far behind. Like his mother had told him the first time he'd shown up late for a routine briefing with a hickey on his collarbone, sometimes the proper thing to do was to make time for your lover.

     Blushing despite that, he shook a kunai from his sleeve and flung it at the cord holding the blinds open. Only thin slivers of sunlight cutting across the desk remained, leaving streaks of gold fire in Nokoru's hair and hitting his fingers as they inched toward the edge of the desk.

     Suoh trailed the back of his fingers down Nokoru's jaw, studying the slight parting of his lover's mouth and savoring the sound of his speeding breath before he gripped his cravat to draw their faces close. His other hand nudged finely clad legs wide enough to press their bodies together. Both their hearts raced against their chests in syncopated cacophony while he hovered, nose to nose, a breath away from the kiss he'd been planning on. But this wasn't going to end with a kiss, was it?

     "Are you sure you want me to make you late for judging the Beauty Contest? I know how you hate to keep the ladies waiting."

     "I'd hate it even more if I couldn't judge them fairly. All that work... I'm just exhausted. The contestants deserve--"

     The rest of his sentence got lost in a kiss. No one would have accused Nokoru of giving less than his utmost in anything once he was doing it, and the art of a kiss, Suoh was certain, had the honor of being one of Nokoru's favorite subjects. He'd never say so directly. It wasn't his way to express favoritism. But it was clear in every contented purr, every caress along Suoh's neck and back, even in the way he teased open Suoh's shirt, that he relished being kissed thoroughly and having the chance to answer in kind; so Suoh took care to do so whenever opportunity allowed. It'd become one of his own favorite things in life to find those moments when Nokoru was out of breath, light headed and grasping, lips swollen and tongue limp and begging whenever he broke for air.

     Remembering his own feet was no easy task by then, but he always had the strength to never let Nokoru down. It was simply more literal at times like this, when his lover pushed against him until he had wrapped himself around Suoh's hips instead of sitting on the desk. A quick shake of his right hand freed Suoh's emergency supply bundle from the shadow pocket where he'd hidden it, and in a flick of his wrist the sheet he'd prepared floated down to the floor. Rug burn simply wouldn't do when they had public appearances to make shortly.

     "Someday, Suoh," Nokoru laughed as they settled to the floor, "I'm going to catch you unprepared for something."

     "The day you don't catch me unprepared for the things you dream up will--"

     "I think you and I have different definitions of 'unprepared'." The blond stretched out on his back, caressing the inside of Suoh's thigh with the arch of his foot. "Sweet of you to pack ahead so you could ravish me on raw silk, though."

     He wondered if he would ever find the composure not to blush when he settled next to that lithe body, stroking the firm turn of slim hips and skin far finer than silk. Suoh buried his face in Nokoru's hair, murmuring, "It seemed appropriate." He doubted he could have managed that much if he'd been looking into his lover's eyes.

     A split second too late, he realized he should have been looking. If he had, he might have caught Nokoru before the blond flickered out from under him. Suoh dropped four inches to the ground, with no warning but the leg lock of his lover's shins against his knees to tell him what was about to happen. It was clear enough when Nokoru plucked the tub of lubricant from his hand and started working Suoh's pants down around his hips.

     "Do you know what else seems appropriate?"

     Suoh wasn't sure he could fully process the sensation of those lips whispering right up against the base of his spine, then Nokoru's breath trailing lower until he felt his lover's tongue tracing, just for a moment, the ring of muscle that Nokoru always teased was too tight. 'Good' didn't seem like quite a strong enough word, but he couldn't use the word 'amazing' for something he knew was just a hint compared to what was coming. With a laugh and a peck on the birthmark staining his left cheek (though he minded it less now that he knew Nokoru liked it), the Chairman reached around to work a generous dab of lubricant onto Suoh's suddenly straining cock.

     "I think it'd be incredibly appropriate for you to be as hard as possible before you take me. Hmm? And maybe thinking a little less clearly."

     The last clear thought in Suoh's mind for the next while was that he and Nokoru defined a few things differently, but the feeling that made him shudder against his lover's tongue, and arch up gasping at the stroke of his hand was exactly the kind of inexplicable that made perfect sense.

~//~

     After all the rushing to get to the Great Hall, Kamui was just fine with one of the judges running late. It gave him a chance to rest. He wasn't planning to sleep, but there was a snack bar, free drinks, even the occasional chair (although he wasn't going to sit in one while Lantis was standing next to them, staring at him and making it clear in that non-speaking way he had that Hikaru was the only reason he hadn't reported Kamui, and Kamui never tempted Fate because Fate was a bitch). He was less fine with being confined to a cramped backstage area in close proximity with ninja who had nothing to do but mingle.

     Four black-haired sirens were consorting in the far corner, three who looked like women and one he was pretty sure was a man, all with more of Arashi's brand of obvious deadliness than Kamui wanted directed at him when he was this worn out, and all of whom were sizing him up like lieutenants about to break in a new class of middies. He'd already heard them go from wondering, "Who's Mr. Impala? I don't think I've seen him around before," to wondering where Miss Ceres was, since Ceres was the only country here to share a border with Impala. It was only a matter of time before they nominated one of their number to talk to him.

     Not that it'd be any safer back over by the snack bar where none other than Mage Clef was telling some white-haired pretty boy from Civic and a girl with long, tawny curls, "That man looks familiar somehow..."

     Unfortunately, leaving or turning invisible would probably attract the wrong kind of questions, but getting made while standing at the center of the entire festival's attention wasn't the safest thing he could do while exhausted. As quietly as he could, he ducked behind one of the rows of curtains littering the backstage's sightlines, away from the bulk of the crowd. Too late, he realized he should have peeked around the curtain first, since in this company and in his state he couldn't trust himself to sense someone's presence accurately. Either way, he sure was caught now, because there was Princess Sakura, whom he'd kidnapped barely more than a month ago, blinking her shocked green eyes over her shoulder at him as a baton fell on her head.

     But..." she stammered, then caught up her guts to point the baton at him like a sword, setting her jaw as if to say that nobody was going to take her without a fight. It was pretty convincing, even with the backless, mini-skirted dance dress that most people never could've made work. On Sakura, the pleats and ruffles somehow looked deadly.

     Kamui raised his hands in surrender. "I come in peace. I just... want a place to hide."

     "Oh!" The lady smiled, dropping the point of her baton with more trust than Kamui thought he merited in this particular situation. "Okay. If... If you want me to find a different curtain, I can do that!" she promised, so earnest he thought he might die. "I was only back here because Tomoyo told me not to practice my routine where anyone could see, or since they're all ninjas they might figure out how to sabotage my equipment."

     With a suffering sigh, he collapsed against a wall, burying his face in his hands. "Don't go anywhere." Honestly, it was good to see a friendly face, however unexpected it was for her to be friendly. As soon as he was done here, he was definitely going to find Hikaru. After only three and a half days, he'd forgotten how much of a relief it was to be around someone who didn't want him dead. "I don't even know why I'm in this stupid pageant to begin with."

     Sakura patted his shoulder, leaving him eye to eye with her brilliant smile. "Don't worry, Kamui-san. Everything will be all right, you'll see."

     This had to be a new low in his life, but somehow, he did feel better. Minorly, incrementally better. He could almost ignore the hushed whispers of curious ninja past the curtain and Akechi going around asking, "Ladies, Gentlemen, do you mind if I take your official portraits?"

     When he looked back at the princess, she was offering him a cup of water, which he took and drank half of with profound thanks. It was the kind of gesture he'd only ever given an enemy caught dead to rights invading his territory because the Pirate Code demanded it. "Were you born this nice, or is it something you learned?"

     She blinked again. "I don't know. I can't remember anything from before Tomoyo found me on the beach nine years ago... She was thirteen, and she guesses I was, too." Her grin made Kamui wince a bit inside. "Sorry, I just can't say."

     "No, I'm sorry. I can't believe I kidnapped you for an entire week, and I never knew that." That had to be some kind of massive faux pas.

     "It's all right! It's not really a big deal."

     Kamui thought back to his childhood days, playing on the beach with Fuuma and Kotori, and wondered if he could put on half as brave a face if that were suddenly taken from him, or if he'd even know what he was missing. "You can't remember a single thing?"

     "Well. Apparently I remembered a song about the Barrows-guard when your friend, Subaru-san, was playing his violin."

     The mention of that sent a shock down Kamui's spine. He knew the song Subaru had been playing the night Kurogane had taken Sakura and Syaoran off the Dragon of Heaven -- the one he always played when he was thinking about that bastard Sakurazuka and well past pretending his heart was anything but broken -- although he hadn't known it had any words. "I'm..." Sorry wasn't a good enough word for finding out somebody's only childhood memory was apparently about the world's certifiable Worst Person Alive. Possibly Worst Person of All Time, if Sakurazuka actually was the legendary hell-demon that stories called the Barrows-guard. "That's awful. ... No wonder Subaru let you go."

     "That's what Kurogane-san said."

     "Well. I... hope you remember something else, ever."

     "Thanks!" she answered, and as sincere as she sounded, she may even have had a follow-up to prevent what Kamui was sure would've been the most awkward silence imaginable. He never found out, because Akechi's voice through the curtains cut off whatever she might have said.

     "Places, please, everyone! Chairman Imonoyama has arrived! Places! If you're unsure of your order, please check the list by the door. And, due to our shortened time on stage, we will be combining the interview and talent portions of the show with the lingerie competition. Make sure to remove your clothes before heading to the stage! Thank you!"

     "What?!" Kamui hissed.

     Over to his right, he saw Sakura tug a string on her skirt that tucked all the pleats up into sprays of pink flowers on white briefs -- which, as someone who wore clothes every day, Kamui found mindboggling. The knots and twists that transformed her top into a matching, perfectly fitted brassiere were no less staggering. She caught him gaping and smiled. "Tomoyo can see the future, so she made me a costume that changes for my baton routine."

     "I need to never let her meet Fai. But do they seriously expect me to go out there, in front of a crowd of ninja, wearing nothing but underwear?!"

     "Did you not bring any?" Sakura asked.

     Did he not bring any.

     Before he could expound on that, Akechi walked on stage to announce, "Welcome, guests, to the annual Kragero Beauty Pageant, and thank you for your patience. The time has now come to introduce you to our hopefuls competing for the title of King or Queen of the Games!" Kamui scoffed at the term 'hopeful' almost as much as he scoffed at the overly dramatic drum roll and spotlight pointing at the mid-stage curtain behind the host. "Our first contestant is Mr. Hundhammeren, our paragon of the strong, dark, and silent type... the matchless... Lantis!"

     And what should follow but the black-haired hulk striding past the center curtains into the spotlight -- without a stitch of clothing, because apparently he felt the same about underwear as Karen felt about clothes: Why bother? The crowd roared in approval, with Eagle's distinctive whistle cutting over it all.

     It was a good thing he did have underwear, because no competition where he'd have to match up against that was a fair competition.

     And he was not having that thought anymore! He didn't even want to be here!

     "Oh gosh!" Sakura gasped, leaving Kamui gritting his teeth and praying that he wouldn't have to explain that he was not worried about being physically compared to Lantis, at all, not even a little. But he gave her his full attention instead of listening to any of Lantis's twenty seconds on, 'What does being a ninja mean to you?' Her eyes were fixed on her baton. "If you didn't know you'd be competing, you don't have a talent prepared!"

     "Wait, a what?!" he spat, just as half of Hikaru's boyfriend posse started demonstrating his bird calls for the audience.

     "I'm next, so I have to get in position, but so you know, Kurogane-san says you're not allowed to say your talent is fighting. The judges will find you materials for anything else, but just don't say that, okay?! Bye!"

     Kamui could honestly say he was speechless as the lady ran off to her mark before Akechi called out, "Presenting our next contestant, Miss Malvek! What a treat to have a representative on behalf of our Imperial Family this year... Folks, I give you: the charming Princess Sakura!"

     "Hello, everyone!" she greeted the cheering audience. Kamui used his new peeking skills to spot Syaoran, who had to be in the audience. It wasn't hard. He was the one standing red as a beet and stiff as a board to see his Princess in frilly panties, with Kurogane propping him up by the head. The poor kid was going to have to get over that or he'd never survive so much as kissing his sweetheart, which even an idiot could tell both of them were dying to do.

     "All right," Akechi said after Sakura had taken her turn walking the stage. "Time for your interview question. Princess Sakura... what is your most cherished childhood memory?"

     A breath caught in Kamui's throat like a cork. It was as if that question had been picked specifically to be cruel, and he didn't know how she could stand up there with no more reaction than eyes widened in surprise. Kamui looked for anyone who could make the host ask a new question, but the only person in eyeshot was the so-called "English" ninja, Hiiragizawa Eriol, who was staring at the stage with a creepy half-smile. Wearing blue boxers with a cartoon picture of his own face printed on them, as if he weren't already creepy enough. Clearly, that guy wouldn't be any help, but there had to be someone...

     "Well," Sakura answered, the shock barely showing through her smile, "I guess I'd have to say the first summer I stayed with Her Imperial Highness, Princess Tomoyo! I'll never forget how she taught me to make strawberry shortcake..."

     With his heart simultaneously melting and breaking over that, he almost didn't sense the slight wind of movement behind him. Almost. But between the sense of movement, the lack of the sound of curtains rustling (because ninja didn't ever obey any sensible constraints on realism, as he'd learned too painfully this week), and the energy of pure determination pointing like a hot poker at his back, he knew someone was there. He crossed his arms over his chest so as not to provoke anyone by slipping into attack posture when he turned around.

     And saw Hibiya Chitose.

     The woman whose library he'd sacked on more than one occasion, and whom most recently he'd spent fifteen minutes dueling on her fortress walls before he'd escaped by diving about a mile into the sea below.

     Hibiya Chitose was Miss Ceres, because today had clearly not been perfect enough yet. What was next, Imonoyama Nokoru inviting him out for dinner?!

     "Shirou?" Hibiya whispered.

     He sighed, putting on his most resigned face (which Sorata said looked like a wet cat, but what did Sorata know?).

     "Hi."

     Even her polished poker face betrayed a hint of shock when he answered, not that there'd be any point in trying to hide his identity from her. She studied him from head to toe, frowning at his pink armband, and made him miss entirely Sakura's transformation into her baton outfit, which he assumed was the cause of the audience's delighted "Ooh!"

     Finally, she met his eyes again. "Shirou," she asked, "Did you lose a bet?"

     "You know, I ask myself that every damn morning. Is there a reason why you're not calling security on me, because I promise you I'm not here because I want to be."

     She laughed, which was less scary than he'd always pictured it being. "Well, the thing is, the Games only have one hard and fast rule, and it's that there's no such thing as calling foul play after the fact. You have to notice before they pull it off. If someone got away with falsely registering you as Impala's representative, I'm too late to do anything about it, and so are the judges. Anything you get away with is fair game."

     "Great. So what if I 'get away with' leaving the Great Hall before I get outed by marching in front of the assembled crowds of ninja in by birthday suit?"

     He took a step away, but she had one of his arms in her perfectly manicured grip and the flat of a knife resting against his bottom rib. "Don't. Even. Think about it."

     He expected to find her usual deadly glare when he faced her, but instead it was an arch-but-amused glare with no bloodlust whatsoever. And it was the flat of a knife, and if he fought her, he'd be outed for sure. Not that he faked any hint that he'd give in to being threatened, because he wouldn't. "I don't see how that's your business."

     "You stole my best friend's place in the pageant. If you walk away, her country doesn't even get the honor of being represented, and I simply can't allow that. Now, help me with my zipper?" she asked as she put the knife away and turned her back to show him where her dress opened.

     "Excuse me?!"

     "When you beat Sayaka in the run-off, you not only deprived Impala of a native representative -- you also deprived me of my dressing partner, and I expect you to take responsibility for that, Shirou."

     "Okay, okay!" A zipper wasn't worth the fuss, although he had a suspicion the ninja could get it herself without trouble. He knew too well the look of a manipulative liar (he was looking at you, Fai!) giving him stupid reasons to step into line so he didn't start asking for more trouble than he probably wanted. Not that he couldn't have taken it. He could have. But honestly, it offended his pirate dignity (which he had lots of, no matter what any strange women implied about his parentage) to run away and throw a fit. He'd rather get called out on stage than backstage. It had more room to fight in anyway.

     And now, instead of being in trouble, he was standing next to Hibiya Chitose in racy lingerie, wondering how his life had come to this. Up till today, he'd managed not to know whether Hibiya went dom or sub in Ceres's world-famous fetish scene, but the merry widow corset cinching in her waist, with the boning hidden under patterns of leather and the sheer lace panels hiding not much of anything, plus the thigh-high black boots, made it pretty clear where she stood. All she was missing was the cat-o-nine-tails.

     "Nice breasts," he said through a polite grimace. "Very... round."

     "You're sweet. I know it's not really your scene."

     He wasn't touching that with a ten-foot pole.

     "Now could you make sure the backside lays flat? It wouldn't do for it to ride up on stage." She handed him a bottle labeled 'Edge sealer' as if that were a perfectly reasonable request, and smiled the beatific smile of someone who wasn't going to admit there was nothing reasonable about it. "It's really not possible to get that part oneself."

     He knelt down with a glare to glue down the sides of her underwear. It wasn't clear how anything laid flat on a surface that curvy, especially with that few seams, but he managed. "You owe me for this, Hibiya."

     "Next time, don't raid my castle. Now, fair's fair. Do you need help getting ready?"

     Kamui retreated half a step, waving her off his zipper. "Thanks. I've got it." Goodness knew, his years on the Dragon of Heaven, with his fellow Lords and Ladies and their love of fooling around, had taught him the only escape from a potentially embarrassing situation was to have no shame. And apparently, if he was in this contest fair and square, nobody could kill him until the competition was over.

     Slipping off his catsuit, he swept his hair out of his eyes to find out exactly how sweaty and gross it'd gotten from his morning of running from Icchan's ridiculousness. Which was very. "Can you point me at somewhere I can wash up, though?"

     "Showers are the second door past the snack bar. Oh, and I love the briefs, Shirou."

     He eyed the black bikini briefs that'd come with his ninja costume. "Thanks. They were a gift," he grumbled, and shoved everything else he'd been wearing into nothing space, since like hell was he leaving his magic communicator he used for talking to Fuuma anywhere ninja could get at it, and obviously there weren't lockers anywhere to be seen.

     "Shirou, what did you just do?!" Hibiya asked, stopping him just as surely as if she'd grabbed his arm again.

     "Nothing you haven't seen before."

     "Of course, but... But when did you learn to do it?" Her voice sounded more serious than it had all day, but it wasn't threatening at all. More like worried.

     He turned his eyes to the floor to think, then back over his shoulder at his once and probably future enemy. "I've had one hell of a week. That's... really all I can say."

     If there was one thing he knew, it was not to name names, especially not when the leaders of nations were batting him through the shadows like a blindfolded tennis ball. You never knew what could get caught in the crossfire. Everybody knew that.

     With a silent nod and worried eyes, Hibiya let him go.

Chapter Text

     A fine spray of warm, fresh water was like a miracle. Kamui felt like he could breathe, which in turn made it easier to remember that technically speaking he'd survived situations a lot more uncomfortable than the one he was in. The underwear he'd rinsed and hung on the towel rack wasn't dry yet, but that was nothing he couldn't fix by pushing the water out with his telekinesis. One mind-push later: dry underwear -- a commodity no sailor underestimated.

     He heard the door opening and looked over his shoulder just in time to see the Magami woman snapping a portrait with Imonoyama's fancy picture machine. The flash was blinding as it bounced off the shining tile walls through the steam clouding everywhere even after the water was off.

     "Do you mind?!"

     "Akechi-sensei wasn't able to get your official portrait before the show."

     "It's common courtesy to knock." And to mention to people when you were about to make portraits featuring bare backsides, he assumed, especially when you looked unsettlingly like that person's mother, and even though instant portraiture wasn't a phenomenon Kamui had even bothered to imagine before visiting this ninja hellhole. But this woman didn't seem the least bit concerned. He studied her face, with its cryptic half-smile, and Kamui scowled. He hated games. "If you've got something to say to me, just say it."

     "I could say the same to you."

     "Well?!"

     "You should get dressed, Kamui. You'll want to be ready when they call your name," she said, and left without another word.

     Goddamn fucking ninja. This was why nobody sensible liked them. With exceptions for individuals who were likeable personally. And as if it would take him more than two seconds to "get dressed" for this show! With his briefs in place, he took a glance at the mirror to make sure his hair wasn't sticking in funny directions and headed outside. If the ninja didn't like what they saw, they could talk to Fai about having a massive, "Go fuck yourself!" party.

     Actually, he mentally belayed that particular grumble. It'd probably end with an orgy in his living room, which would just make his life even more inconvenient.

     Off stage right, Magami Tokiko was hustling Mr. Fahren with his purple thong and his armful of newly cut paper dolls out of the waiting area, and off stage left most of the remaining competitors were huddled by the snack bar, whispering. "She called him 'Shirou', didn't she?" asked Tawny Curls, aka Miss Chevrolet, who apparently favored boy shorts the same shade of green as Subaru's eyes and was slim enough to disdain brassieres.

     Miss Kragero, whom he recognized as Ookawa Makoto when she wasn't flanked by three other femmes/hommes fatales, warned Kamui with a glance not to approach. Meanwhile, she told her friends, "Can't we talk about something else? This is boring. They'll announce him in a minute anyway." Because of course one of the Ookawa scions was covering for him.

     Clef looked like he was trying to ignore the white haired man from Civic growling at him, "He can't be the Death Shirou. Who could get him here? But then there's that tattoo..."

     Oh, his tattoo. Not that he didn't like it, but there were reasons he and Fuuma didn't go out drinking with Kotori as their only sober chaperone anymore. The two of them waking up one afternoon with matching, aching full-back tattoos in addition to the usual hangovers was one of those reasons. And Kotori had never denied culpability, or been sorry.

     "Well," Makoto said, "Don't forget that double wings are Impala's sigil. Angels are practically their mascots and all."

     "But they don't usually advertise the demon part, and the intel did say Death Shirou has an angel wing on the left shoulder and a demon wing on the right, just like that. I heard the mirror wings were part of some blood pact with Fuuma the Levy to harness dark powers over the earth, air, and tides."

     Catching Kamui's slack-jawed stare, Clef nodded him toward the line to go on stage. The list of people who seemed to have conspired to bring him here was just getting stranger -- although now he could settle the fleet's long-standing bet over whether Clef wore boxers or briefs. It seemed he'd been hiding fundoshi under the vast swaths of his robes. Hibiya, naturally, was the other 'contestant' on deck, but Kamui was just as happy for a familiar face while taking in the odd sight of an excellent classical fan dance performed by Ms. Xinan in her red lace brassiere and panty set.

     "So, any tips?" he grumbled to his erstwhile nemesis.

     "When you go on stage, look at the audience as if you were looking at your favorite person. That's your absolute minimum. Beyond that, don't stare at the judges, and stop crossing your arms..." she added, tugging his elbow away from his chest. "Wave, shoulders down, chin up. You might want to show them your back, too. That tattoo is gorgeous."

     "That was a rhetorical question."

     "The correct answer is, 'Thank you'."

     "I'll let Kotori know you approve of her choice in body art."

     "You're welcome."

     From past the entry curtain, Akechi called out, "Everyone, a round of applause for Ms. Wol Mae!" so the Magami lady could show her out as well. "And now, I'd like to give you... Miss Ceres! The dashing and always poised... Hibiya Chitose!"

     She posed with a hand on her hip and an arm in the air when the curtain parted, walking down the short stairs to stage level to riotous applause. Damn it. The rest of his crew was never going to let him live it down if he frowned and fussed his way to losing next to Hibiya, even if the competition was a catwalk, and she put on a hell of a good show.

     "Now, Chitose-san, are you ready for your question?" Akechi asked, smiling at Hibiya's nod like he'd already picked who he wanted to win (although to be fair he smiled at everyone Kamui had seen the same way). "All right then. Please tell me, when was the last time you failed, and how did you handle it? You have twenty seconds."

     "Goodness! I'd have to say that was a few months ago, when one particular pirate whom I'm sure everyone knows stole a number of books from my library, and dove off my walls before I could apprehend him."

     Oh, she was not doing this to him.

     "Naturally, you can't let these things depress you. I fixed the damage he'd done the next day--"

     As if a couple collapsed archways and one garden path broken into pillars of earth he'd used to push himself up to the walls constituted 'damage'!

     "--and spent a week strengthening my security measures, of course. Then, naturally, I enacted a plan to retrieve my property, gaining several new prizes in addition to my books."

     Damn it! He'd known those jellyfish had been from her!

     "It simply isn't productive to dwell on what went wrong before. You have to think about what can go right next time."

     "What a lovely answer from our Miss Ceres! And now I understand you're going to demonstrate your skill at painting for us! Takeshi, Kentarou, if you would..."

     While two boys hauled out an easel with paper and a table loaded with watercolors and brushes, Kamui contemplated the degree to which he wasn't going to take Hibiya's jabs without utterly destroying her. This was on. Which left him with one question. How was he going to make sure he was the only person the judges remembered today?

     What would Fai do? No one ever forgot him.

     No, Kamui thought. He didn't have the props for that.

     So, that left him with the only other people of his acquaintance who random people couldn't take their eyes off of, ever, and since he couldn't do Karen's walk-thing without very different hips... What would Arashi do right now? Besides cut everybody in half lengthwise?
Honestly, she made much more of an impression when she looked like she wanted to kill you than when she was happy (or neutral, which was as happy as Kamui could be sure Arashi got). And based on every situation where Sorata or Karen had proclaimed him good-looking, that was probably a good way to go. How convenient. He wouldn't have any problem acting like he wanted everybody in view to die a horrible death. Except Hikaru and Sakura, but they'd understand, he was sure.

     Kamui slapped his cheeks a few times to bring back some color, since washing up always made him go pasty, and fluffed his hair a little in a mirror that was hanging in the metal rafters for some reason. And straightened his underwear. Might as well. He caught a glimpse of the fairly impressive picture Hibiya had painted (a dragon with some kind of a bunny-eared creature in a pink dress riding its back on the way to an underwater mansion), but he wasn't going to be cowed. Nobody fucked with a pirate, especially not a ninja.

     "Thank you so much for that. Honored guests, a round of applause for Miss Hibiya Chitose! And now, it's my true pleasure to present our next representative, Mr. Impala... the mysterious, the elusive... Aye Ur!"

     So that was what they'd called him. Well, if these people had put Death Shirou in their show, it didn't matter what name they'd written down. Death Shirou was who they were going to get. Just before the curtains parted, he turned his back to the audience, and the first thing they saw was the inked picture of wings stretching from his shoulders to his hips.

     The crowd didn't roar, cheer, or clap like they'd done for the other competitors. They fell dead silent slowly rising to hushed whispers as he turned to stride down the steps, and Kamui couldn't have been happier about it. That was how ninja should react to seeing him there. He scowled his way through a slow prowl from stage right -- where that bastard Eagle looked like he wanted to die laughing and Hikaru was holding out two thumbs up -- to stage left, where Syaoran had clearly been talking to Kurogane when he'd made his entrance. The younger ninja was still canted towards his master. Just his head was turned to the stage, and he was frozen with jaw hanging, his eyes open to saucers, and an uncomfortable-looking blush darkening from his nose to his cheeks. Kamui let himself smirk. You could do that and still look like you wanted to kill everyone.

     "But who is he?" a soft, female voice mused from somewhere behind Syaoran. It wasn't hard to pick out the crowd of kindly faces and pink armbands amongst the throngs of duplicitous assassins. He was looking at Impala's representatives (an absurd number of whom were gleeful, bright-eyed children), and a dark haired lady who looked in charge was asking one of the Kudous (the younger one -- Kamui could never keep the Shini-whatsits straight), "Is he from one of your squads?"

     "Not one of mine. I figured he was your cousin. He's got your look, Sayaka."

     "Well, we certainly didn't register him. I'd recall. But it's true, he does look familiar..."

     "You don't think... not actually..."

     Kamui broke away before he lost the rest of the crowd. He wasn't thinking about the Impalans right now. There'd be time for that later. Right now, he decided, he was going to break every rule in Hibiya's book, and he crossed his arms while giving the judges a death glare, not looking away till they put up their scores.

     Of course Imonoyama Nokoru, right in the center, put up a ten without a pause, grinning like there was no tomorrow. His blue-haired companion who had "Security" written all over him seemed to wish he was anywhere else, so Kamui called it a good bet they were in on the conspiracy to get him here. Not long after, the blond from Impala with the name plate "Kohaku" held up another ten, high and proud. Two ladies from Xinan in short cheongsam whose names were listed as Cho Lee and To Lee (the one in blue sitting on the lap of the one in red) held up yet another ten. Blue kept trying to hold up an extra .5 with a wicked smirk, but Red batted it down every time. Still, at least he could be sure he hadn't gotten a lower score than Hibiya yet.

     Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, the Civic man -- "Jeremiah Gottwald", who kept giving Kamui suspicious glares -- finally finished writing a number that turned out to be 9.8. He'd take it. But Fahren's representative (none other than the ancient woman calling herself "Lady Sumeragi", as if she had any right to connect herself to Subaru!) had crossed her own arms and met him steel for steel with her gaze. At last, she picked up her pen and wrote 2.1, drawing a stunned gasp from the crowd.

     For once, he was in absolute agreement with a crowd of ninja, many of whom were whispering that this was absolute bullshit. Which it was. He might not have been as good looking as, say, Fuuma, but he was a damn sight better than a two! Sorata, who'd never shut up about him some days, did have actual standards for good looking people, and they were pretty damn high! He'd never heard Sorata sigh over anyone who wasn't at least a nine or--

     Huh. He'd never considered that he might actually be hot.

     Around the stands, his ongoing staring contest with the Sumeragi had prompted louder and louder shouts of, "You can't be serious!" and "Come on! Him?!" or a host of more complex things he couldn't hear clearly over the general sound of discontent. It was odd and somewhat uncomfortable to have an auditorium full of ninja defending him against allegations of not being good-looking.

     Oddest of all, the entire Impala contingent was on their feet, with the children standing on their chair arms, every one of them chanting, "We say fair play!" over and over.

     "All right, now," Akechi laughed as he waved for the audience to settle down. "As you know, the judges' scores represent their personal opinions, and are final. We've all seen that Lady Sumeragi has exacting standards, haven't we? So, let's move on to the interview!"

     The audience settled to a grumble, with a few Impalans calling out, "You can do it!" and "Go for it, Aye!" as they sat. One little kid thought he was extra cute and yelled out, "Aye aye!", then got the rest of the kids chanting it until the one named Sayaka got them to stop.

     Akechi managed to keep his focus, even though the sudden call of "Aye, aye!" seemed to flip a switch in his memory. His eyes suddenly widened as he looked back at Kamui, but in a flash the perfect announcer smile was back on his face. For Kamui, this was getting weirder, and probably more dangerous, by the second, but he kept telling himself their own rules meant they probably couldn't try to kill him until he was off-stage at last.

     "All right. For your interview question, Mr. ... Aye Ur. ... Could you tell us your favorite thing about your home? That is... about Impala," he finished, giving Kamui a meaningful look. As if he expected Kamui to talk about how much he loved his actual piratey home of Takifugu in front of... Well, all right. He supposed the warning was justified. "You have 20 seconds."

     Kamui glared at the question card, ignoring as best he could the hum from the audience that he was fairly sure was the massive gaggle of Impalan children whispering a refrain of, "World peace!" Between that and the other interviews he'd heard, it was like the questions had been written by a precognitive sadist! Then again, he was apparently the only one who'd found out about this contest two seconds before it happened. The people running it would've had plenty of time, so they only had to be sadists, which of course were in abundant supply among ninja, just as they were among pirates.

     With a sigh, Kamui answered, "Your favorite thing is whatever you miss when you're not there, right?" Favorites weren't his expertise, any more than Impala was. Most of his few trips to Impala had been forgettable jaunts to stash treasure somewhere remote, or supply stops on the way to Eunos since Impala was less of a threat than Ceres. But he did remember one thing. "I like the sunrise over the Griqarran Sea. The dark breaks to rose, the whole country seems to go silent. It sticks with you." After Akechi nodded for him to go on, Kamui scowled. "You can stop the clock. I'm done."

     "A-all right, then. Let's go to our judges!"

     This time, Kohaku was the first one up with another ten, and so happy the blond seemed to flutter off the chair. Looking more begrudging about it, Lady Sumeragi put up a 9.6 almost as fast. Kamui had no explanation. Imonoyama went with a 7.5, the Lee girls with an 8.3 and a considering smirk, and Gottwald seemed to think a 6.0 was more appropriate, which Kamui couldn't get upset at. How did you judge something like this anyway?

     "A strong response from our Mr. Impala! Now, I'm afraid we don't have your talent written down. Would you like to tell us what you'll be performing today?"

     "Umm..."

     Kamui definitely didn't have anything he'd call a talent that didn't involve a sword, or breaking things in general -- and that might have been more provocative than he wanted to get right now even if he hadn't known that "fighting" wasn't an admissible talent. But he sucked at art, he didn't dance, nobody here had gotten him drunk enough to sing alone (not that he'd call his singing voice "a talent", nor would the chanties he knew go over well).

     "I guess... I build sandcastles?" That was the one thing he was sure he reliably did better than anybody else, although he wasn't sure how it'd help him in a stage contest that wasn't even at a beach.

     "Did you hear that, everyone?! Today, Mr. Impala is going to treat us to a demonstration of his sandcastle construction skills! I wonder what marvelous design he's got in mind? Takeshi, Kentarou, if you please..."

     The two boys came out on stage, just like they had with the easel and paints for Hibiya. One who looked like he hated his life was rolling an actual fucking beach diorama the size of the entire stage, with a functional tide rolling up in waves on the sand. Real salt water, too, if Kamui could judge by the smell, and he never mistook the smell of salt water. The happier boy had a toy bucket and shovel.

     "Here ya go!" he said, handing them to Kamui, then both Akechi and the happy boy flicker-stepped behind the judges, clear of the approaching beach.

     Kamui himself flicker-stepped right on top of the tallest sand dune as the wheels shrank into the contraption and the lighting on stage turned the backdrop into a sunny, blue sky. To make it that much worse, seagull cries echoed from who the hell knew where.

     "You've got to be shitting me..."

~//~

     Although Watanuki naturally kept his ginger miso mackerel bites and tempura vegetables on the warming unit in his hidden storage space right up to the moment he reached Yuuko's parlor (no reason to be silly about carrying two precisely arranged, heavily laden trays!), there was the matter of presentation to consider. One simply did not enter empty-handed when serving guests! Certainly not guests of the blood ro--

     "Watanuki! Nevermind!" Yuuko called from past the door. Watanuki barely managed to sidestep before the paper screen crashed open. The flying pink tresses of Civic's Princess Euphemia barrelled past him so fast, the air whistled. She stopped for the briefest moment to acknowledge his presence and let him bow (as properly as he could while carrying two trays), then picked up her skirts to zip off in a blur.

     "Our apologies," her attendant Kururugi said as he followed her out, although he never got around to saying what for, being too busy running away while yelling, "Euphie! Wait for me!" at the top of his lungs. The manners some people lacked!

     Watanuki grumbled something even he couldn't make out, ready to try the door again. It seemed her Royal Highness wouldn't be staying for mahjongg after all! Although they did still have fou--

     "Pardon us!" Namiya-san laughed, being the next in line to nearly bowl him over. The hulking bodyguard at his shoulder made four -- as if Watanuki would have allowed any harm to come to Mistress Yuuko's guests.

     Hmph. If she had any guests left, that was. Even as Chevrolet's author laureate and accompanying guard-slash-date shouldered past him, disappearing down the front hall, Watanuki saw Nihon's Snow Princess flying through the bay window, riding sidesaddle on one of her many wolves that seemed to multiply every time he looked at her. As if waiting for the door to clear was too long to endure staying in the house! Hmph again! Nobility or not, such behavior from guests was downright rude.

     "Would someone tell me what's going on?!" he yelled, directing the full volume of his well exercised lungs at the only people left -- specifically, Yuuko, who was pulling on a sheer, ruffled blazer that would theoretically make her lounging-around palazzo-panted jumpsuit suitable for wearing in public, while Maru and Moro "packed up" the mahjongg set.

     He would obviously take down the domino course they were building next time they were distracted.

     Yuuko stopped next to him on her way out the door to snag a bit of mackerel and a tempura carrot slice (perfectly crinkle-cut, not that anyone seemed to care about the effort he'd expended cooking for the party they were suddenly not having!) "Mm-mmm! You've outdone yourself. Well, have a good afternoon! You're free for the rest of the day!"

     "But what in holy Hell is happening?!"

     "Oh, didn't I mention? A little bird came to tell us the beauty pageant has gotten wild and we had to see it to believe it. Well, have fun! I'll see you at the ghost story contest!"

     Watanuki screamed, "I beg your pardon?!" at her fleeing back, to no avail whatsoever. "And what am I supposed to do with all the snacks I've prepared? I can't exactly un-tempura the vegetables for later! They have to be eaten fresh! And if you think I can un-pour and un-heat an entire case of sake, I'll have you know, I cannot reverse the flow of time itself! Gyaaah!"

     Kohane-chan poked her head out of the kitchen, soap-covered ladle in hand. "You should find your boyfriend," she said. "He could probably use a rest from winning all the shooting games at the festival booths."

     "Doumeki is not my--!"

     Her unimpressed stare withered his words to a wretched pill on his tongue. Which he swallowed.

     It was impossible to argue with Kohane -- literally, not just figuratively. She never answered back with logic you could refute or arguments you could deny. She looked at you, nothing more, and you had to either face hard facts (such as, for example, overwhelming evidence that you'd been unequivocally dating and possibly cohabiting with a pirate for going on ten months) or lie to her face with full knowledge that you were lying, and she was aware you were lying. And he could never lie to Kohane-chan.

     "Shit," he whispered.

     This wasn't how how today was supposed to go! Or ever!

     "Shizuka-kun likes your food, and with the way he's done in the drinking contest--"

     "Even he can't drink an entire case of sake on his own! Or if he can, he shouldn't. As such, you and I will take thirty seconds to finish up the dishes, and then we will find my lover -- he is neither young nor cute enough to be called a boy, and thus is not my boyfriend -- and the three of us will have a picnic. And that is that!"

~//~

     Kamui could hear that damned Lady Sumeragi clicking her tongue while he worked, but he was all out of fucks to give. Any of the judges who wanted to dock his score because he'd cut one of the stage ropes to balance over his sandcastle while he carved stone details on the inside of the tight-packed wall could kiss his--

     No, the girls from Xinan looked just as shameless as Fai. He wasn't going to give them an inch. But carving details with the side of a toy shovel while trying to hang steady on a rope was no easy task. Usually, he'd have Fuuma holding him by the ankles as they hung off some beached ship's mast, or something like that -- nobody on Kaizuka ever won sandcastle competitions without having nicely carved insides anymore, and stepping around sand was asking for trouble. Of course, the sweat made his hands slippery and his eyes sting on this hot stage, under the watch of thousands of ninja (and growing every minute, with crowds now huddling around the opened doors of the auditorium). If he didn't work fast, those same hot lights were going to dry out his walls, and he'd lose the carvable framework he'd built.

     He swung on the rope to the side of the castle (well, city, but who was counting?) so he could flip to the ground without hitting anything. As the fake waves lapped at his ankles, Kamui looked over the outside. Carving the structural details would be easy, but what this really wanted was flags on the ramparts to finish it.

     Actually, he was pretty sure he had some spare red fabric from one of those shadow-stuffing exercises Icchan had him doing. He pulled it out of nowhere space from over his shoulder. It was easy enough to rip off five miniature flag-shaped pieces. And he had his pufferfish-print hankie and his sewing kit in the bag he'd stuffed away, too. There was no driftwood on Imonoyama's fake beach to make the kinds of flagpoles he'd normally use, but he never went anywhere without toothpicks. Not the best flags he'd ever made, but they were nothing to be embarrassed of either.

     Time for the last round of carving sand. Exhaling slowly, he picked his course, then flicker-stepped through all the motions. There was no way he'd get it all done before the sand dried otherwise. In his wake, he left five red pufferfish flags waving right at the places where his sand city's five crossing thoroughfares met in the points of a star, and the etched outlines of stones with inset wooden gates. The gate facing the audience, of course, had the pufferfish relief bordered in laurel that everybody gasped when they recognized.

     As if they expected him to build anything but their own city. He'd never be so naive as to risk his sculpture betraying the layout of any pirate structure he knew, and even his imaginary castles would probably resemble the things he knew best.

     "Well, folks," Akechi announced. "You really do have to see this to believe it. Let's get a better look, shall we?" The mirrored rig he'd seen before dropped out of the ceiling, reflecting the image of his sand carving where the audience could see it. Because apparently that's what it was for. "A scale model of Kragero itself! I think our Mr. Impala deserves a hand, don't you?"

     While they clapped, the judges considered their score, and Imonoyama's blue-haired muscle looked like he wanted to die. Served all of them right. If they didn't want pirates knowing the layout of their city, they shouldn't have invited pirates to stay in it. But once the numbers went up, he'd be able to leave this stage and disappear.

     Kohaku won the race to put up a ten, with Imonoyama in a close second. This time Gottwald put up a 9.6. Lady Sumeragi took her time putting up a 3.4. Meanwhile, Cho Lee and To Lee stared at him with blank faces, and definitely weren't looking at his eyes. More in the region of his abs, which were aching just remembering the number of hanging sit-ups he'd done off that rope. Fabulous.

     Akechi cleared his throat. "Judges Lee, do you have a score for our contestant?"

     They blinked at each other, and scrawled on their card, both of them holding it above their heads with both hands -- both of them nodding furiously.

     It said, "Room #224". Of course it did. He was pretty sure that made twenty-five invitations for sex so far this trip. Or twenty-six, if both of them counted. He couldn't be sure about these things. He wasn't Fai.

     "Ah, Judges... would you mind rating our contestant's talent on a scale of zero to ten?"

     They put up a ten with an eyeroll. Kamui was so done, he didn't even wait for his outro, just walked offstage to the sound of applause that echoed with a joy bordering on obscene. He glared at the Magami lady showing him the way out. The first person he saw who wasn't trying to turn him into a ninja, he'd ask where he could find another shower so he could get all this sand off his skin. Then he'd stop being mostly naked.

     At least, that'd been the plan. Two steps down the hallway leading away from the stage, he ran into a knot of expectant faces, half of them clearly ten years old or younger, all of them with pink armbands emblazoned with double wings, and the dark haired woman who was apparently Hibiya's best friend right out in front.

     He should have known Impala would track him down.

     Taking the sight of the woman in, from her sleek black hair to her light-toed but immovable-looking feet, he sighed and extended a hand. "Hi. I'm told I took your place in the contest, and I'm sorry about the mix up. If you want me to step down--"

     "Oh, goodness no!" she gasped, clasping his hand in both of hers. "You're the first chance we've had to win in ages! Mr... Aye Ur? It's nice to meet you. I'm Okiura Sayaka."

     His body froze, hand tightening on her wrist. "Okiura?!" Kamui hissed.

     If hearing Subaru's personal surname attached to a ninja had stuck in his craw, it was downright ridiculous for a ninja to even know that name, let alone use it. No ninja should've been calling herself a member of one of Eunos's most ruthless pirate clans. Lord Kigai gave them free reign to keep order back in his home fleet, and was just as happy they'd never shown any interest in breaking into international waters. The Okiura weren't much for diplomacy, or mercy, and Kamui'd understood that when they did meet ninja, they didn't leave any trace behind to spread their name.

     But there the name was. And maybe they had a reputation as pirates who preyed on pirates, but they were loyal to their own. If one of them had gone turncoat, he'd have heard.

     Too late, he saw in this Okiura's eyes that he'd made exactly the reaction she'd been looking for. She knew as well as he did, no ninja should've known that name's full reputation. The lady smiled a kinder, less backstabby version of Fai's 'gotcha' smile. "So you are a pirate," she said, as sweetly as if she'd been asking if he liked cream pies. "I thought the way you walked reminded me of my husband. Death Shirou, I presume."

     There wasn't much point in lying. She could see his tattoos clear as day on his back.

     "Kamui," he growled. "'Death' is a fucking hyperbolic nickname."

     Which didn't throw off her pleasant face for an instant. "It's nice to meet you, Kamui-san. And thank you for representing Impala so spectacularly. People are going to be talking about this for years, don't you think?" she asked the crowd around her, slowly encircling him as they drew closer. All smiling. And agreeing. Happily. It was creepy.

     A long-haired girl in a hat piped up, "Have you decided what you'll do for the evening wear competition tonight?"

     "I ... don't have any-- Wait, what are you talking about?!" He turned away from the unnerving sea of encroaching smiles to find the Okiura woman, who couldn't be as soft as she seemed if she'd baited him like she had. "You can't actually want me to compete for you! I'm a fucking pirate! I've got a price on my head in this goddamn town."

     Sayaka-san laughed like nothing was wrong. "Getting a pirate to represent us, especially an elite member of the Pirate King's Council, is such a coup! No one's had that kind of audacity before. Finally, people are talking about something other than how nice they think we all are." A chorus of murmurs from the other adults backed her up while kids -- so many kids! -- beamed. "If it worries you that much, we'd be happy to extend you citizenship in Impala. You've clearly picked up significant proficiency in nin--"

     "That's not what I was asking for!"

     "And don't worry, I'll undertake the civil duties of the year's Mr., Miss, or Mt. Impala back at home. I know you'll be too busy abroad to stop in often."

     "There are civil duties?! It's a beauty pageant!"

     "But any time you have a chance to visit, we'd be honored for you to come be a role model for all of our children."

     Kamui wanted to object that he wasn't a ninja, and he shouldn't have been a role model for anyone, let alone the tiny ninja in training bustling around him and now poking at the bottom of his tattoo faster than he could swat them away. But objecting wasn't going to help; he could tell. That look in this Sayaka-san's eye seemed harder the more he looked at it, like ice or steel. With that pale skin and dark hair, and the reddish lips in a fragile seeming face that wasn't fragile at all, she was like a living reminder that Impala still had Snow White's blood in the ground somewhere. She was lucky her eyes were a blackish brown, not gold, or he might have killed her on the spot, which he didn't see ending well for him.

     "You don't hear 'No' very often, do you?" he asked. She smiled quizzically, probably playing innocent, while everyone over the age of sixteen (he estimated) shook their heads in unison. "Well, I didn't pack evening clothes, so--"

     "Oh, we can find something for you. Fujimoto-kun, do you think he's more Doumoto-kun's size, or Kohaku-kun's?"

     "I'd go with Doumoto's tux," a man with a ponytail murmured. "It'll be easier to alter."

     With her smile still intact, Sayaka-san waved took him by the shoulder. "Why don't you come with us, Kamui-san? We'll get you cleaned up, find you something to eat, and fit you for alterations. I'm certain we can have something ready by the bonfire this evening!"

     "Fine! Fine! I'll go!" It was a damn sight better than going back to Icchan, after all, and he knew better than to cross people who seemed nice -- although he was going to have a hell of a time explaining today to Fuuma. He narrowed his eyes at the woman leading him away. "Just don't try and make me a citizen. I'm a pirate, and we have a code that says I don't owe allegiance to anybody but my ship, all right? And I'm the fucking Admiral."

     "Well, if you insist. But we'll always consider you one of us in our hearts. Won't we?"

     "Aye, aye!" the children chorused, over and over, more gleeful every second.

     He had no clue how he'd even start explaining this to Fuuma.

Chapter Text

     He'd barely arrived at the stone-paved garden full of hyacinth and jasmine before he realized exactly why Princess Tomoyo had left him a note instructing him to report here, along with the purple-lapelled dress coat and knickers she'd made. Over his shoulder, Syaoran heard Sakura's voice, sweet as a bell in a room made for echoes, calling out, "T-Tomoyo! Where are we...?" His heart was in his throat by the time she got to asking, "...Syaoran?" The heat from his cheeks burned down to his shoes, like it'd melted his feet to the ground.

     He knew, when he turned around, Sakura would be standing right there (which was good!), but also he knew the meaning of finding new dress jackets in his room with no warning. Jackets always showed up that way when Princess Tomoyo finished a dress for Sakura and he was supposed to take her somewhere, because Princess Tomoyo always made sure they matched. Which he didn't... mind. But it meant that, when he turned around, his Princess would be wearing something.

     Of course, she was always wearing something... but... something special.

     Syaoran shook his head to get the silly out, just in time for Sakura to duck in front of him. "Syaoran? Are you okay?"

     "I... I... umm! ... Princess... You..." He could feel his face turning a red so bright, he was surprised the whole garden wasn't glowing with it. And Sakura was beautiful, covered with flowing scarlets and gold curlicues, and peach ruffles and ... and there were feathers, too. That were purple, he thought. Kind of. And she was beautiful. He tried to pull his voice out of the dry sand that was his throat. "H-hello."

     "Do you need to lie down?"

     "No, I... I'm. Hi. I'm fine."

     "Okay!"

     Her Imperial Highness, Princess Tomoyo clasped her hands under her throat. "I want everyone to be dazzled by Sakura-chan's entrance at the bonfire tonight, so while the rest of the competitors are there getting ready, why don't you two take your time out here? Syaoran-kun, you can practice escorting Sakura-chan up and down stairs. You both had intended to go walking in the garden, hadn't you? This seems like the perfect time!"

     The first few times Syaoran moved his mouth, nothing came out, but finally he managed to hold out his arm and say, "Princess... I'd be honored." He thought his stomach might turn into bees and fly away when she took his elbow. She was wearing that smile. The smile that turned his throat into one big choke.

     "Be on stage by the stroke of nine," Princess Tomoyo whispered. He couldn't see which way she'd gone when she disappeared. That really wasn't where he was looking. Somehow, he was walking, though. His legs moved and everything. He wasn't sure how that was possible.

     "This sure is a clear night!" Sakura said. "The moon is just as pretty as I thought!" She squeezed his elbow, bouncing up on her toes to point at the sky. He looked down the line of her red-gloved finger with a gulp. The soft warmth of her hair was on his cheek, but even so he managed to hear every word she said. And he'd probably remember it for life. "Sometimes, I think about how the moon now is the same moon it was when I was young, that he looked down over everything I ever did. And I feel like, in my dreams, I can hear him whispering everything I used to know. One day, I'll wake up in the middle of that dream and ... I know I'll remember, then. I just know." Flashing him a grin without a hint of sadness (because she could never be any wistful kind of sad), she said, "And then I'll tell you all about it!"

     He'd never, ever, contradict Princess Sakura's insistence that the moon was a boy. She could sense things about natural spirits. Her gift didn't present as strongly as Princess Tomoyo's but it was still a gift.

     "I... look forward to that. Whether the moon tells you or not. And... tonight, the moon... I mean... You. You look... nice. Tonight."

     "It's not too much embroidery? I told Tomoyo she didn't have to do so much, with everything that's going on and it just being a few days but... you like it?"

     "I... li--" He clamped his mouth shut when she blinked, her eyes as green as sunlit summer fields. "I mean, I... I lo--" He shook his head. He couldn't. He might slip and say the wrong thing.

     "Syaoran?"

     "It's... that's a lovely color. And. On you. It's ... nice."

     She clasped both his hands in hers. "You're not nervous about being on stage, are you? I know I am, but it's just like the shows Tomoyo does at home, right?"

     "It's... not... that."

     Somewhere, he heard someone stepping around a twig so they wouldn't break it. In a heartbeat, he'd swept Princess Sakura behind him against the nearest gazebo wall and had his sword out to the darkness. "Who's there?! Show yourself!"

     In any other situation, he'd expect a single enemy to step into the light. Five separate people edging out of shadows with apologetic waves and walking away, two of them apparently long lost friends who hadn't met since some old mission and wanted to get a drink, left Syaoran less sure of how to react. Maybe he'd been too abrupt in pulling his sword? None of them seemed threatening, not even that damned Hiiragizawa jerk waving as he left. Putting his sword away as casually as he could, Syaoran offered his arm to his lady again.

     "My apologies, Princess."

     "It's okay! And you know, now that we're alone -- actually, really alone, I mean -- you can call me--"

     "Don't count us out just yet!" rang a voice from a nearby bush. As startled as could be, Syaoran watched a black-haired stick of a man and a brown-haired man who was rolling his eyes emerge from the branches. A purple cape fluttered off the dark-haired man's shoulders, the only pale things on him being his skin and the Civic armband he wore. He pointed at Syaoran's nose, fingers splayed wide, until Syaoran wondered if he should have kept his sword out after all. The man didn't give off any air of wanting to do more than scoff, though. And scoff he did. "We will learn your secrets, and we will defeat you!"

     "Huh?" Sakura asked, beating him to words by a mile.

     The brown-haired man grabbed his companion by the shoulders. "What he means is, we tracked you here thinking you were having a meeting about the Cooking Contest tomorrow because we're your opponents, but since that's clearly not what you're doing, we're leaving now. Come on, Lulu."

     "Suzaku, we are not leaving until--"

     "We're leaving. Let's go." While pushing his friend toward the town, the one named Suzaku offered them a grimace. "Sorry about him."

     "I will not be moved!"

     "Fine. Then I'll just tell Milly you can't join her and the gang in the hot tub because you needed to brood in the gardens. I'm sure she won't show up wearing nothing but a towel to bring the party to you. And maybe those sketches of you modeling her Fall/Winter--"

     "On second thought, it's just a Cooking Contest. How could we possibly fail?" The one whom Syaoran now assumed was Lelouch vi Brittania (or Lamperouge, as he was apparently calling himself here to "stay anonymous", and not impressing Syaoran much with his skills at it) gave them a purple-eyed glare, then huffed away. "We'll see you tomorrow at the Coliseum!"

     Princess Sakura waved after them. "We look forward to it! Nice to meet you!"

     So much for the walk under the moon he'd imagined he'd take with Princess Sakura, when he could imagine it at all without going completely blank. In his dreams, there had always been no one but the two of them, and time went on forever. He'd look into her eyes. He'd get lost like he always did, but in his dreams he never had to pull away. In real life, he clearly couldn't trust any place to be free of prying eyes. And... even if the Princess hadn't had that something about her, where she got under his skin and melted his brains so he had to pull away or he'd be useless -- he'd still have to pull away. This week had been full of reminders that old promises wouldn't let him love her, not that Meiling was the only reason. He'd probably die if Sakura found out how he felt, and decided she couldn't talk to him again because of it. How could he stand losing the best friend he had?

     As he watched the Civic ninja disappear, he cast an eye at the rest of the bushes for anyone who might still be watching. There was no one; at least, no one he could spot. Thank goodness, the thought, scraping his toe on the ground while he turned back to wondering if he could ever give up wanting to feel Sakura's warmth in his--

     His arms. Crap.

     While they'd been talking -- while he'd been defending her -- somehow... His arms. Her waist. She was right there, and her head was on his shoulder and her breath was on his neck, and he definitely couldn't move, and for a second he wasn't sure if--

     He couldn't remember what he wasn't sure about. She looked so happy, with a little curl of a smile on her lips as she laughed into his coat. It felt nice to hold her. Almost natural, just for a moment. Then, as if she'd just realized the position they were in, the Princess jolted up from his shoulder, meeting him wide-eyed gaze to gaze. They both jumped back about two feet, and he knew the shy way she clasped her hands behind her back the same way he knew the sun coming over the horizon in the morning.

     "They seemed interesting!" his princess laughed.

     "I don't like the look of them."

     Sakura laughed at that too. She always told him he was too suspicious, just like he told her she wasn't suspicious enough sometimes. They said it so much, they didn't actually have to say it anymore. So he'd been about to skip straight to why that was a very valid opinion... but the words left him when she reached out, looking down at her hands covered in red silk while he couldn't take his eyes off the curve where her shoulders met the bows on top of her opera gloves. All her court etiquette lessons hadn't broken her habit of scrunching her shoulders around her ears when she was nervous, and he hoped they never did. He loved how honest every move she made was.

     Her hands wrapped around his. This was it. His heart was going to use up all of its beats at once and he was going to die right here. Of course, he thought that every time they were alone together. He should have known it wouldn't happen, but it always seemed so likely.

     "So, Syaoran. We could... still practice stairs. While there's time. If that's okay?"

     "Princess..."

     She frowned that frown, the one with eyes that said she'd never lose, or give up, and the mouth that made a hard pout he could almost tas--

     No. No he couldn't. He couldn't ever.

     "Sa. Ku. Ra," she told him.

     That was the one thing he couldn't say, any more than he could say how special she was to him. She could be so at ease with him now, when they were two people who'd grown up together. He could feel himself blushing like a tomato, and wished he knew how much time he'd lost staring at her. Did they even have time left? What if the bells had already rung? And she wasn't worried at all. He could ruin all of that by saying the wrong thing. Or letting her hear the wrong thing in his voice when he said her name. At least, that's what he told himself when his tongue turned to sawdust every time he tried.

     "We... did you want to--" He gulped down the rest of the words that wouldn't come out right anyway and held out his arm again. He was going to do this right if it killed him.

     She clasped his arm again. "... Yeah," she said, her voice trembling just a little.

     Stairs. He could do stairs.

     He'd walked up a thousand flights of stairs as her escort. It never became less thrilling to see... her. She did what she called the 'long-and-fancy dress walk' up the stairs, pinching up her skirts neatly and stepping like a dancer in line on the stairs like Princess Tomoyo had taught her, not running the way she did on any normal day. She could do it without her mouth clamping into a driven line, most of the time. Only once did he have to cough into his hand to tell her she had her concentration face on. She snapped out of it with a blink and a smile two steps below the end of the flight they were on. And... somehow, when they'd reached the top, he'd ended up pulling her into position for a dance when he'd taken her hand.

     That... hadn't been intentional, and she looked as confused as he felt. But it was as if he could hear some voice whispering, "Ask if you can kiss her!" over the plucked notes of a waltz.

     Was he imagining things?

     "Syaoran... do you hear... music?"

     "Huh?"

     "And I guess the feathers have been because of Kamui-san, but we don't know anybody who makes rose petals, right?"

     He looked over Sakura's head. Just like she'd said, there were rose petals falling everywhere. And if Sakura could hear the music as well, that meant he wasn't imagining it. Only one person could be doing this. He was so sure of that, all he could do was stare at his feet and bite his lip. He'd been had, without a doubt. Sakura had noticed, and he'd been too caught up in his daydreams to see what was around them. It was like Kurogane always said: a ninja can't afford to be in love with someone they've sworn to protect. Of course, the chimes chose that moment to ring, signaling quarter to the hour.

     "Oh no! The contest!" Sakura gasped as she charged toward the bonfire's glow, more than able to sprint despite her high heels. Syaoran stayed just a moment more.

     "Imonoyama-san, if I may?"

     The Chairman of Kragero University, their host for the week, stepped out from the shadow of the gazebo, Takamura and Ijyuin behind him as always. "Of course, Li-san. I had imagined you'd want to discuss something."

     "That was low."

     "I assure you, no disrespect was intended."

     "You invaded our privacy. We may be ninja, but you--"

     The truly unsettlingly pretty man raised both hands to signal peace. His smile was so blinding and his manner so... theatrically proper, Syaoran was befuddled beyond words. And some hint of light seemed to be coming from behind Ijyuin, as if permanent daylight followed Kragero's inseparable Board of Directors no matter the time of day. Of course, given Imonoyama's habits, that could be hidden lighting in the garden turned on to satisfy his sense of drama. "I must apologize for that, of course. Unfortunately, my desire to understand the Princess's suffering overwhelmed my sense of decorum. But now it's clear her pain is something I cannot cure: the trouble in her heart is a matter for the two of you."

     "I..." He wasn't sure what to make of Imonoyama-san's drive to help women in pain, except that helping people had seemed all very well and good until someone had shown up out of the blue to claim that Sakura, his Sakura whose life and happiness he'd defend to his last breath if he had to, but who always made it clear that he never would have to because she'd always be all right -- that Sakura had some kind of heartache that wouldn't simply melt away. But the other thing he'd heard was that Imonoyama Nokoru was never wrong when it came to the heart of a lady. Ever. "What can I do?" Syaoran asked.

     The Chairman handed him a rose corsage the same color as the purple Princess Tomoyo had put on both his suit and the trim on Princess Sakura's dress. "You can listen when she tells you what would make her happy. Now, I have a bonfire to attend, and I believe you do as well. Farewell, Li-san. Please give my best regards to your Princess." And with that, the three of them stepped back into a shadow, and probably down into a secret passage that would take them to the festivities.

     Which he himself did need to attend, and meant to. And if he flicker-stepped instead of running, he stood a chance of catching up with Sakura so he could give her the rose corsage before she reached the stands.

~//~

     The bonfire with the beauty contest finals were always better than the other bonfires, Hikaru thought. Not just the twelve hot people got dressed up! Half the people in the audience wore something fancy, too, like Presea-san and Sierra-san in their best dresses and bangles as they chatted with Clef-san in his robes, or Chun Hyang-chan from Xinan dressing up to match her mother. It gave the whole crowd an extra special party feel.

     She, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan were all in their dress armor to support Lantis, of course. Even though they'd tried to tell him he'd do better if he wore something flashier, he'd decided to go with his old black and silver armor like always. It was okay. Hikaru liked him in his armor even if the judges never did.

     She hopped on a bench to hug him. "You look great," she whispered through a nuzzle under his ear. They couldn't really cuddle with six inches of plate armor between his chestplate and the bronze wings on her shoulders -- it was hard enough to hug without metal screeches -- but she could see a hint of a smile in his cheek.

     "Well, Lantis always looks ravishing," Eagle cut in, goosing them both at once despite the armor. Her extra large boyfriend glared at their skinnier boyfriend, as usual. "It's that parsimony of expression! It keeps his skin young and elastic! No fine lines around the mouth or eyes..."

     As they laughed, Watanuki-sempai, who was never parsimonious with any kind of expression, drowned out every other noise around the fire. He was spiraling around the stage, showing Maru and Moro how to prop up Lady Yuuko's three chair's-worth of bustle and train so it didn't wrinkle, and yelling at Doumeki-san with every turn he could spare. "Did it ever cross your mind that going to the drinking contest might be out of step with my plans for the night? Hmm?! Of course it didn't. When did you even ask what I wanted out of this ... this situation?!"

     The pirate shrugged at him. "If you don't want to go, don't go."

     "And when exactly did I say I was talking about me, you idiot?! -- Not under the wheels," he hissed at Maru and Moro while Lady Yuuko cackled behind her fan. "Think of the stains! Use the pillows, the pillows! -- Now, where was I?"

     "Not drinking?"

     "Exactly! I will thank you to spend at least one night of this festival not out drinking with my boss! What kind of visits to see your lover do you pirates think are appropriate?! Not even going back early to spend the evening in bed once... Honestly, I don't know how I--!"

     "Hey," Captain Doumeki said, opening his eyes almost all the way for a second. Hikaru giggled at the sight of him nearly smiling almost as much as she giggled at Lantis elbowing Eagle and clapping a hand over his mouth before he could whistle.

     Watanuki-sempai just about jumped out of his skin. "My name is not, 'Hey'! And what's that look for? Stop it. It's horrifying."

     "Are you saying you want me to go back to the room with you?"

     "Of course that's what I'm saying! Are you deaf now as well as delinquent?! I should hope that's not too much to ask of my boyf-- Well, not my boyfriend but certainly my sig--"

     Cutting him off with a kiss that looked like both of them had forgotten how embarrassed Watanuki-sempai got when people accused him of dating a pirate, the man who was definitely a pirate murmured, "I'm fine with it."

     "Well, then, what in hell were you waiting for?!"

     "That," Doumeki-san answered, then threw Watanuki-sempai right over his shoulder and jumped off the stage to walk away without so much as a nod to Lady Yuuko to ask permission. It looked like he wasn't wasting any time!

     Watanuki-sempai flailed away at the cheering crowd, batting at them with the pirate's feathered hat. "This is not a public display of affection! Mind your own business," he grumbled. "Shoo! Shoo!" Hikaru would've been clapping herself if she hadn't known how much Watanuki-sempai hated the attention, but she was sure Doumeki-san would make it up to him when they got back to the dorm. Meanwhile, she gave Lantis and Eagle each a peck on the cheek while they shined their fingerprints off of Lantis's armor plates and draped his cape.

     "Everyone looks fabulous!" she squealed, taking another look around the crowd as more competitors showed up. "I don't know how I'd pick if I were judging!"

     Resettling her armor-spiked tiara on her head, Eagle laughed, "You ought to be concentrating on your own performance, hot stuff. You go on stage to tell your ghost story before Lantis goes up to be radiant for his public. Doesn't she, Mr. Beauty King?"

     Lantis stared at Eagle in his, 'Why do I like you?' way, then nodded at Hikaru and tilted his head to the East. And who was walking in but Kamui-san, leading the Impala crowd with Sayaka-san, dressed up in the cutest pink tuxedo!

     He'd actually shown up! "You owe me ice cream," she told Umi-chan, who was staring at the Impala group blinking her gorgeous blue eyes.

     Umi-chan fanned herself with a smirk. "If he's going to strip on stage again, I think I'll need some ice cream."

     "You don't think the pink washes him out?" Fuu-chan asked. "The black and purple he usually wears brings out his eyes so much better."

     But Hikaru didn't stay long enough to debate that. She jumped off her hugging-Lantis bench and broke into a sprint, crowds falling back to avoid her cubit-long bronze wingplates. For the last six yards, she bounded at her friend in a flying leap. "Kamui-san!"

     He executed a quick turn, to exactly the right angle for her to hit his shoulder and spin onto his back. His feet were perfectly braced to absorb the impact, too. Kamui-san didn't even wobble, where most people couldn't take her glomps without falling down. Even Eagle couldn't do that all the time, so it wasn't just a sea legs thing. He must've trained in anti-glomping techniques for years!

     He was still scowling, though. "Don't fly at people when you're covered in armor!"

     "That was for avoiding me before! But yay! I finally get to see you and say hi!"

     Sayaka-san held out a hand, which Hikaru shook from over Kamui-san's shoulder. "It's an honor to meet the Shidou Hikaru of Hundhammeren. I've heard so much about you."

     "Just Hikaru is fine!"

     "And I'm Okiura Sayaka. It's really a pleasure. But would you mind giving me Kamui-san for just another moment? There's something not quite right about this tuxedo..."

     Hikaru dropped off Kamui-san's back, looking over the pink suit. From up close, she could admire even more the super cute wings embroidered on the back, and how all of it seemed perfectly tailored for a garment that Kamui-san wouldn't have been caught dead owning. The shoulders seemed to fit right, the cuffs hit the right part of his hands and the pants broke properly on his shoes. Even the waist came in nicely, and Kamui-san's torso was pretty short compared to his legs, so that detail couldn't have been off the rack. Still, Sayaka-san was right. Something wasn't perfect enough.

     "Allow me," a new lady's voice cut in. Behind Sayaka-san, Hibiya Chitose had shown up wearing yards and yards of iridescent purple flowing off a corseted bodice that made her cleavage look amazing, plus an absolutely adorable riding hat and veil to match. "Shirou, untie that bow tie, unbutton your two top buttons, and put this on, won't you?" She was holding a vinyl strap with a complicated looking buckle that Kamui-san grabbed with a growl. "I won't have you stand in for Sayaka-chan looking like somebody's last-minute usher. I intend to beat you fairly."

     He buckled the vinyl choker thing around his neck, which -- between that and the bowtie hanging all disheveled around his open collar -- Hikaru had to admit really set off his collarbones, and added some pop back into his face. Maybe Fuu-chan had been right about the pink washing him out? Or maybe it was just that Kamui-san was looking angry again instead of resigned and befuddled. "Just so we're clear, I'm doing this for her, not you."

     "Nothing could make me happier, Shirou. Here, why don't you swap this harness for that cummerbund, and you can put these on your--"

     "I know how to wear straps! Do you think this is my first time in fetish-- You know, don't answer that," he muttered at the crowd of faces gathering around him, all of them getting more blushy and starry-eyed as he got all the leather and buckles in place. Hibiya had been dead right about what would look good on him.

     "This must happen to you a lot!" Hikaru said with a grin.

     "Only every time Fai puts on a magic show, or Sorata starts a game of Truth or--" He coughed back his sentence midway. "Wait. I mean, what makes you say that?"

     "Well, you got that harness on without taking off your jacket! Even I can't do that."

     While Kamui blinked at the leather decorating the tuxedo that now looked much more his style, the two ladies dressing him kept debating what they were going to do about how washed out he looked. Which, to be fair, he looked like he hadn't slept in days, and Hikaru got the feeling from the way he rubbed his temples that he actually hadn't.

     "Sayaka, do you have eye pencil? I've only got liquid liner on me, and Shirou here would really look better with a more smudgy style."

     "Oh, of course! Are you thinking a smoky eye, or more of a--"

     "Give me that!" Kamui growled, lifting the pencil from Sayaka-san's hand. He whipped the compass Hikaru remembered from their last adventure out of nowhere (she'd known he'd be good at ninja techniques if he tried!) and used the mirror in the lid so he could line his eyes and blend well enough that even Chitose-san looked impressed.

     This definitely looked more like Kamui-san had to look! "One more thing," Hikaru said, and ruffled her friend's hair. He glared, naturally, because when he was awake he always glared as long as she'd known him (and two weeks was as long as you had to know anybody, really). "Your hair was wilted," she told him. "I fixed it for you!"

     "I didn't ask for anybody's help."

     "That's why we're friends!"

     Kamui-san got three long blinks in, which wasn't enough for him to figure out what to do with that (hint: admit he'd been got) before the nine o'clock bell chimed. Malvek's Princess Sakura appeared on the nobles' seating platform looking every inch the glamorous royal with her embroidered red gown and her boytoy on her arm, seeming to double the light at the bonfire with her entrance. Definitely, she got her share of oohs and aahs. Although Hikaru had to wonder why she didn't ever use the traditional style, Her Imperial Highness the Spring of Havoc's Cry, like rare third princesses or princes did when they sat in the thrones of Malvek with Her Imperial Majesty Whose Divine Eminence Blazes from Heaven and Her Imperial Highness Who Gazes Upon the Moon. The Imperial family had never formally adopted her, but it had to be just a formality at this point, right? Princess Tomoyo seemed pretty set on making her part of the family whether she'd been born to it or not.

     But oh well. There were other things to worry about now. Announcer-san had taken the stage up at the front of the bonfire.

     "Welcome, all, to the fourth night of our Ghost Story Contest! I hope you're ready. We have some treats in store for you tonight. First to share his tale with us tonight: Hiiragizawa Eriol of England, telling that perennial classic, 'The Demon and the Phantom Cats'!"

     Hikaru froze. That couldn't be right. 'The Demon and the Phantom Cats' was her story. Announcer-san must've gotten the cards mixed up! But it didn't look like Hiiragizawa-san, calmly lighting his candle and holding it where the wax wouldn't drip on his navy tailcoat, had any tale in mind except the one that'd been announced.

     The crowd around them settled into their seats with their marshmallows and their significant others. Hikaru knew that from sound and memory because her eyes were locked on the stage, where Hiiragizawa-san was smirking directly at her. He knew he was stealing her story. He'd done this on purpose, she was sure of it, but she settled into a seat next to Kamui-san without making a scene. If she couldn't beat a cheater, what was the point? She wasn't going to ruin her first year actually qualifying for the ghost story contest by calling foul on the most foul-ing-est ninja in the history of ever. She'd just have to be better than him!

     "Once upon a time, deep in the darkest reaches of Hell," he began, his grin made perfectly creepy by the light of the candle, "the young demon Kouryuu heard the pitter-patter of footsteps running down the hall, right where they shouldn't have been..."

     Every word out of his mouth, Hikaru felt her jaw clench tighter, and her hands stuck in fists on her knees. She didn't have to see anyone's faces to know the whole audience had been sucked in by his performance. She could feel the change in the air, could sense everyone leaning closer to the stage when he softened his voice ever so slightly. And even for a story as well-worn as this one, he still got a gasp echoing around the fire when he did Kouryuu's voice asking, "Did I just see something running up the stairs?!"

     "What's wrong?" Kamui-san whispered. He wasn't paying any attention to the marshmallow he was roasting over the coal brazier (they couldn't all be right next to the bonfire), but then again no glowing coals would cook a marshmallow as much as Kamui-san liked.

     She gave him a half-smile, or tried to despite Hiiragizawa-san's mastery of the situation. "I think he just beat me, is all, and I haven't even gotten on stage yet."

     "Who are you, and what did you do with Hikaru? Two weeks ago, you were more optimistic about getting found on a frozen island in the middle of nowhere while tracking an artifact that wasn't supposed to exist. He's just telling a ghost story."

     "He's telling my ghost story, not the one he auditioned with," she clarified, "And he's doing it better than me."

     Kamui-san looked at the stage with so much disgust, it seemed to stir up a wind around him just to ruffle his hair. "This 'cheating is fair play' thing you people do is bullshit. Am I allowed to kill him?" Hikaru very nearly giggled.

     "Better not. He's Lady Yuuko's friend. But I've got five minutes to decide if I take my chances on telling the same story, or if there's another one I can pull off without rehearsing."

     "You've got to know another good ghost story."

     "Not one people here haven't heard ten million times."

     Pursing his lips at the browning marshmallows on his skewer, Kamui-san loaded a second skewer and passed it to her to hide his hands shaking. "You know one."

     "Not..."

     "Can you not make me say it?"

     "But are you sure it's all right? That's not, like... classified intelligence or anything?"

     "Pirates don't need secrets. That's your guys' vocation."

     She reached down and poked his marshmallows with a smile, all three of them bursting into flame to get nice and crackly on the outside.

     "Thanks," he muttered. "I would have gotten it eventually, though."

     "Uh-huh."

     She had just enough time to eat a perfect s'more before Hiiragizawa-san said, "So... Kouryuu gave up searching for the cats in the house, and ran to the demon prince Kokuyou for help... only to find that Hari and Ruri had been in his throne room the whole time." The audience burst into applause.

     Now it was her turn. She'd show him for messing with her! Zipping to the stage, she took a candle and lit it with a puff of breath. Announcer-san quieted the clapping crowds. Hikaru tried to still the nervous butterflies in her stomach.

     "All right, everyone! Thank you, Hiiragizawa-san, for that wonderful retelling. And now one of our neighbors from Hundhammeren, Shidou Hikaru, is here to terrify you with 'The D--'..."

     He caught his tongue. She waved to the crowd with her brightest smile before he could get around to asking why the title was the same as the last story. "Hello! I'm Hikaru! It's nice to meet you all. There was a mistake on the card, so it has the wrong story name on it. I'm actually going to tell you a true story I heard about a pirate ship, a few weeks ago when I was on a mission with Kamui-san... Oh right! People call him Death Shirou! But his friends call him Kamui."

     Murmurs raced around the audience. Jackpot.

     "Say hi, Kamui-san!" she sang out, waving to him in the crowd.

     He sighed, but still put up his hand while he glared at her. "Just tell the story, would you?"

     Over with the Kragero people, Kentarou-san jumped into Takeshi-san's lap, gripping his boyfriend by the neck. "I handed a bucket to Death Shirou?!"

     "Sit the fuck down and listen, would you?"

     "That sounds like quite a story you've got for us, Shidou-san," said Announcer-san, quieting the audience again -- all of whom were now paying complete attention. "Shall we begin?"

     She lowered the candle to where it lit up her whole face without blocking the audience's view. "Well, you see... it all started when a volcano shot us around the world to a tiny, deserted island, just far enough South to freeze your skin but not your blood. The volcano isn't the part that matters, though. It was the ship sailing off the Eastern shore. Glowing blue in the night, with all her sails in tatters, and a figure of a winged lady on the prow -- her head severed clean at the neck." She made a slice with a finger across her own throat, and saw Eagle's face turn bloodless. He dropped his s'more, too, but luckily Lantis caught it for him. "And what should Kamui-san say to me but, 'It's the Clover Belle. The actual fu--' ...Well, Kamui-san used the f-word, but you get the idea. It was the very Clover Belle people say has sailed for five hundred years, and now I'm sure it's true. So Kamui-san said, 'The one in blue'll be the Captain, Mihara Oujirou,' which of course we've all heard. Who doesn't know how Oujirou left Fahren in the Clover Belle after he lost the love of Princess Shuuko to his brother, the swordsmith Mihara Ichirou? But everything Kamui-san told me next... well, that I'd never heard before."

     She took a deep, deep breath, and tried to remember exactly what he'd said back on that beach and everything she'd learned since. But mostly what he'd said, right down to the tiny tremors in his voice.

~//~

     This isn't the story of how the Clover Belle was trapped by a demon and forced to sail the seas for eternity in the tempest where she should have capsized. No one really knows how that happened but the crew on board, and no one's had a chance to speak to them. And when I say no one's had the chance to speak to them, I really mean that. They were totally busy battling the demon and stuff when I saw them, and it seems like that's how it always is, so when would you have time to ask and get an answer?

     No. This is the story of when the pirate nation of Lifan became the first to catch sight of the Clover Belle after she and her crew were cursed, and of everything that happened after.

     It was a calm and sunny day in Xinyi, a little town off Ransu Harbor in the north, when all at once the seabirds flew inland, screaming like a cloud of imps. Storm winds blew fast enough behind them to bestir the feathers of the ones who couldn't keep up. The seas turned black without a moment's warning, the waves churned high enough to swallow buildings whole. The winds whipped like razors on the skin, and the people heard the clanging bells from the watch tower to say a foreign ship had been sighted on the sea.

     Yet, the villagers noticed as they huddled inland, no one who they knew lived on the harbor shore had come to join them. More odd still, the watch tower bell stopped ringing without any ship putting into port to save itself from the waves. Like all storms, it passed in time. This storm passed with heavy clouds breaking to the clear, inky black of a moonless night. The lanterns in their hands were the only glow to light their paths. But what they found when they went searching befuddled them, almost as it shrunk their hearts with fear.

     First along the seaside road, they found an old fisherman, his hands torn and raw as if he'd been tied to a post with rope, but neither post nor rope to be found. His back had been flayed open with a whip, his blood staining the sand in red arcs all around. But not fresh blood, nor fresh wounds. It looked as if he'd baked three days in the sun despite everyone remembering how they'd greeted him, alive and whole, that morning, not a lashmark to be seen. Sixty strokes if it was ten, one woman whispered at the mass of lines on his back -- sixty strokes of the lash, just the punishment for a mutineer, as a brand on his back marked him to be (though the brand, it must be mentioned, was as bloody as the whip tracks, and none had seen it on him before).

     They rolled him over and covered his eyes, leaving three people to pray for his soul while the rest continued to the watch tower. Halfway along, what did they find but the boat builder, lying dead among his half-made frames and wooden planks? But he hadn't been whipped to death. Oh no. He was covered in the bites of one hundred snakes. Seeping holes pocked the thickness of his bloated, darkened, poisoned skin. The boat builder's eyes were open, his mouth contorted with terror, and the color he'd turned was like a corpse left out for a week, even though the shavings on the ground from his work were barely hours old.

     Once again, they laid him out, and they straightened his limbs, and they laid a handkerchief over his eyes, leaving three more of their number to pray over his corpse. The villagers willing to go on, who didn't run to their homes to light candles and bolt the doors, carried on towards the watchtower. Here, everything was soaked from the storm. The high tide line went far past the beach. Flotsam lay scattered over the sand. Even at the very top of the watchtower, seaweed hung on the roof like groping hands trying to slink through the open windows. The inside was utterly dark.

     "Ahoy the tower!" their leader called out. "Ahoy, can you hear me?"

     But no one answered.

     They climbed up the first flight of stairs, listening for any sound at all. "Ahoy the tower! Ahoy, do you live?!"

     But no one answered.

     Holding their breaths as one, the five bravest men and women, all who dared scale the steps, waited outside the door. Even though the sun had come back, everything smelled of wood drenched with seawater, and the inside of the watchtower was too dark to see anything. They knocked as loud as they dared. "Ahoy the tower! Make some noise if you hear us!"

     But no one answered at all.

     They opened the door, its hinges creaking like the sighs of an ancient hull in the deepest seas. The first man to tiptoe past the threshold struck a match to light the lantern, but the wick was too damp for the flame to take. The sunlight trickled into the shadows, as if it feared to step inside as much as the people did. Inch by inch, it showed the five villagers what had become of the watchman in the tower.

     The floor was streaked in red blood -- drip, drip, dripping from the stumps of his hips. His legs had been torn from his body, you see, and chewed to bones besides. All up his back were the marks of claws laying open his coat, scraping down to his ribs. It would've taken an animal six feet high if he were an inch to make claw marks that size, but there were no tracks in the blood on the floor, and certainly none below. The watchman had died screaming, it seemed, at least what they could tell from the mottled, decaying remains of his corpse whose blood denied the months it seemed to have moldered. No amount of salt brine could blow the stink away. His hand was planted on the desk under his telescope, as though he'd been keeping it closed even as he'd been torn apart. He'd been pushing down on the desk lid with the last of his strength, bracing the stumps of his legs against the floor.

     As the four strongest villagers bore his body down the steps, the last of the five stayed behind to lift the desk lid marked by the watchman's bloody handprint. Inside was a single sheet of paper, new enough that the ink had smudged ever so slightly when the watchman had slammed it inside the desk -- to protect it, now it seemed. His brushstrokes showed a ship upon the stormy waves, with three masts and storm-shredded sails, locked in battle with a roiling black cloud. All the crew had fallen on the decks, save the captain at the wheel. In the lowest corner of the page, the watchman had drawn the flag on her mast in detail: a four-leaf clover over two crossed bones. This, the people said, was the mystery ship, and to be sure an ill wind had blown it to their shore.

     Back on the beach, with six people praying over the watchman's severed corpse, just to be safe, the village leaders argued between themselves what to do -- what could be done. Should they simply bury their dead and go about their lives? Seek out a priest from the capital to rid their town of haunts? Perhaps spread warnings throughout neighboring villages, should they stand any chance of reaching them in time. No wall, they knew, could keep the sea storms out, and even if it could, the sea was their livelihood.

     It was then a bottle drifted on shore, corked and sealed with wax, with a torn sheet of paper curled inside. The note inside the bottle had been written with a rushed hand. Drops of ink staining the corners, but the text itself was clear:

Step not in the tide
That summons specters from dreams
Till the lady's song
Summons the cursed ones home
And quiets the demon's storm.

     And it was signed, "Mihara Oujirou, Captain, the Clover Belle".

     Well, the man holding the bottle dropped it then and there, drying his hands on his sleeves, looking over his shoulder for whatever might attack him. But the calm sea did him no harm. It was only in the stormy waters when you could see the ship herself that those who touched it were cursed.

     Fast as the villagers could go, they formed a party to take the picture and the note to the Wizards' Council in Guodu. They packed their bags with food and water for the long overground route, none of them wishing to risk the seas just then. It wasn't long before they learned their village was far from the only one to see the ship. Along the way, they met other villagers who, like them, had tales of gruesome deaths as soon as someone touched the water. One girl had seen her father burned to ash when his toe had touched the tide. She had even seen the fearsome beheaded lady on the prow, looking just as it had in the watchman's picture.

     By the time they reached the Citadel, their number was one hundred strong, and the Wizards could hardly refuse to see them. "What news?" the First Among Five asked the throng. "What drags you over land to come before us with your shoes in tatters?"

     At first, the Wizards could hardly believe the tale these villagers spun. A mirage, surely, had deceived them! But one among the Wizards could read the truth from objects he touched. The instant he laid his hands on the picture and on the Captain's note, he cried from the horror of what he saw. A demon had indeed taken the boat hostage. She would sail forever, battling her otherworldly foe, and all who touched the water within the power of the demon's storm would die by the stroke of their worst nightmare.

     The Council granted each village five gold coins as reward to help them rebuild, taking the picture and note into their own safekeeping. They agreed to keep watch for this ship over the next week, to see if it would leave their waters, or if some action could be taken to make the waves safe to sail once again. As that week turned into a month, and the bodies of those who wouldn't heed the warnings piled higher, it seemed as though nothing could be done by mortal hands. Whenever the ship peeked over the horizon, no one was safe. All trade to and from Lifan shut down. All her harbors were closed and her boats beached on dry shores, lest the cursed waters stick to the ships.

     It was then a family brought their young sons before the Council, triplets of somber countenance barely past the age of ten. So the mother said, they'd been speaking to the ghost of Mihara Oujirou, who had asked them to come to the abandoned dock. They, who could hear his voice, the Captain had said, might be able to end the curse. News like that thrilled the people, but the Wizards were more cautious. Could the family's words be trusted, they wondered? They decided to take the boys to the dock under guard, to test what might happen. But the seas that always seemed on the verge of tempest since the ship had appeared didn't grow calm when the boys stood forth, and the dark clouds didn't clear. Instead, the ship drew nearer the land than it had ever come before -- near enough to see blue sparks flying off the mast where the storm clouds appeared to grapple with the ship like hands.

     "The ship is coming for them!" their mother cried, and the legion of guards pulled them clear of the dock. Only when they were on solid ground did the Clover Belle turn away to head back to the deeps.

     From that day on, the children were forbidden to go near the docks, but like creatures possessed they tried again and again, always struggling more fiercely. And as if the ghost ship had imbued them with terrible powers, they learned to draw weapons and tools from nothingness to fight their way to the docks. Now, this wasn't the same as the nothingness where we ninja hold things we've prepared. It was creation, like an inborn magic. I've seen them do it.

     But the people of Guodu couldn't stop them any longer. It took the studied magic of all five Wizards together to bring the boys to heel. At last, their mother begged the Wizards to take the boys' memories away, in the hopes that clearing every trace from their minds would break the hold the ship had on them. So the Council did as she asked, wiping the boys' minds clean of all they'd known, including their names, and marking them with a three-leaf clover so that all who saw them would know that these were the three who should never be told of the ghost ship.

     The very next night, however, the boys broke free of their chambers, climbing out the window to the street below. The last thing their mother said she saw was the shimmering figure of a man in blue, scowling at her as he stood between her and the window. She couldn't run through him, that apparition of Mihara Oujirou himself. She couldn't call down to the street without going to the window. By the time she ran out her front door to beg someone, anyone, to stop her children, she couldn't find anyone to stop. The boys had disappeared.

     People say the three boys appeared on the docks in a swirl of metal and light. Perhaps it's true, perhaps it's not. What no one can question is that the Clover Belle rode close to land again that night, and the waves towered higher than the tallest parapet on the Citadel.

     The number of people who died in that storm is lost to memory, but the water's spray didn't harm the children, only the guards who came close enough to grab them. With all the strength of magic the Wizards could muster, they built a shield to hold back the water, slowly approaching the children, but they came too late. One of the boys saw them, took his brothers' hands, and dove into the water. The ship was close enough that, when they reached the Clover Belle, anyone with a telescope could see them clamber onto the empty decks to use their magic against the dark cloud haunting the ship. Somehow, people thought, they'd come through the water safely.

     But while the people held their breaths, they saw one of the boys slit another's throat, then saw the third back away from the first boy's knife along the length of the bowsprit. With conviction in his eyes, he jumped from the prow to the choppy seas, and though the Captain cast a rope overboard, winds hauled the ship past the horizon. No one could hope that he'd lived. The next day, however, the skies had turned blue, and the people saw their first fair wind in what felt like an age.

     That wind lasted five years, even as the country hoped with a mother's tears that it would last forever. But five years was all they had before the Clover Belle came back over the horizon, and that wasn't all that came back. When the Wizards called for the painting made by the watchman in Xinyi, they found the painting was not as they had left it. The bodies of Oujirou's former crew were gone. Now, the three boys who swam to the ship had taken their place, caught there in the acts of murder and sacrifice. And indeed, when the ship came within reach of a spyglass's sight, that was the very thing they saw. The horrors of five years before repeated before their eyes. All at court and across the countryside asked themselves, what price will the ship demand this time?

     The price, they learned before the week was out, was a girl. Her name was Suu. She told me so herself. The people of Lifan heard of her first when she ran unthinking ran through a second-story window after the apparition of the Clover Belle's captain. She might have died but for the the metal wings she summoned to her back, to land gently on the ground like the birds she so loved to watch.

     As much as her family might have wished to hide her, there was no chance. The Wizards called her in, and had her marked with a four-leaf clover. No simple room would hold her, so they locked her in a cage where she gazed forever at the sea while the Council decided what to do. Would they lock her away forever, to keep the cursed ship from coming nearer? Or send her to certain death for a few more years of peace? Perhaps even a lifetime, if her sacrifice to the ship's song would break the curse.

     No reason to play coy. As they walked her out to the pier, one of the guards asked her why she was so calm when the three boys before had turned so violent.

     "Because I could hear them all talking," Suu answered. "The Wizards, the townspeople, the villagers, the Captain. I could hear them all, and I knew they'd bring me here."

     "But aren't you worried? You could die of that curse, like all the others."

     "I'd rather die out here than wait, forever alone."

     When the ship came, as they knew it would, she lit into the air on her metal wings before the waves could reach the shore, flying over and around the spray, diving straight into the battle with the three boys and the Captain. When the ship left once more, sure enough the girl's picture had found its way into the painting made by the watchman years before. And from then on, whether a few years had passed, or a few decades, when the Clover Belle came back over Lifan's horizon, five hundred years of Wizards' Councils have kept a sharp eye for the children they call "Clovers". And every few years, or every few decades, the people of Lifan boxed the Clover child into a wooden cage they could float into the harbor, so the ship could collect its tribute without approaching their shores. Whether the child begged or fought for the right to stand on the dock, or whether they simply cried for freedom, they did it all the same.

     Though you may have guessed from how I began this story that the Clover Belle now charts lands far from Lifan's shores. Some say that's because of the very last Clover. The last Clover, and the first since Suu to be held on shore long enough for true powers to take hold. Old Toujou, lately First of Five on the Wizard's Council, was little Kazuki's grandfather, you see. He knew there was no way to hold off the sacrifice forever, but each time he asked for just one more day, the other Wizards agreed. Thus, Kazuki stayed in the cage, like Suu -- alone, with only Old Toujou's conversations for company -- for all of ten years, and Toujou's visits grew fewer and fewer as his grandchild sank into silence.

     At last, the Council said it had been long enough. Enough people had died. The child would be marked and sent to the sea. There were no conversations with guards this time, only a wooden box carried out to the dock. People wondered if Old Toujou would beg one more time before the tiny craft went out to brave the waters, but he held himself as stone. No, it was the Clover who stopped the procession, just at the water's edge, turning the box to splinters with a single whip of the cloth belted at their waist.

     In silence, the youth knelt to wash their own face in the stormy sea, though the battle of the Clover Belle raged ever closer. Some say, when they did, the Clover brand on their forehead changed to the mark of a lotus. When the old man gasped, "Kazuki! You'll die!" the man's grandchild said the first words that had crossed their lips in years.

     "By what nightmare? I died in that cage, and now I am reborn. My name shall be Nataku. I say, no more children will go to that ship. The chain breaks with me."

     The rest of what Nataku had to say, they said to the Wizard's Council alone -- before the Council Hall fell to rubble and ash in a fire set by no natural spark. And as that Wizard's Council died one by one over the next year -- one by suicide, one by drowning, one in fire, one by falling, and Old Toujou asleep in his own bed wearing a mask of fear -- Nataku is the only one who remembers. All the rest of the world can say for sure is that their proclamation held true. The next Council agreed that no more Clovers would be marked or tithed, even if the ship returned. Nataku, beyond anyone's powers to say them nay, became an admiral with the strength to join the Pirate King, and indeed, whatever they did to the old Council, the Clover Belle has left Lifan's shores for a good long while.

     But though in wider waters, the ship still sails. So be mindful when storm winds blow, and carefully check the seas. If the Gray Lady sails headless on the waves, hope on your life her song calls not to you.

~//~

     In the still silence around the crackling bonfire, Hikaru blew out her candle and watched the smoke curl.

Chapter Text

Day Four Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Appetizer: IJYUIN AKIRA & OOKAWA UTAKO (Kragero) def. Empress Kendappa & Souma (Malvek)
  • Soup: TAKAMOTO CHIKAHITO & TOYOTOMI HIDETSUGU (Fahren) def. Hiiragizawa Eriol & Akizuki Nakuru (England)
  • Main Course: WATANUKI KIMIHIRO & TSUYURI KOHANE (Hundhammeren) def. Yudaiji Idomu & Nagumo Shinji (Civic)
  • Dessert: SHUUKAIDOU TAKESHI & HIGASHIKUNIMARU KENTAROU (Kragero) def. Presea & Sierra (Kia)

Beauty Contest

  • Queen of the Festival: Princess Sakura (Malvek)
  • Mr. Congeniality: Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)
  • Mr. Photogenic: Death Shirou (Impala)

Strawberry-Picking Contest

  • Gold: Eagle Vision (Hundhammeren)
  • Silver: Azuya Nagisa (Kragero)
  • Bronze: Date Masamune (Fahren)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Second: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)
  • Third: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)

Ghost Story Contest

SHIDOU HIKARU (Hundhammeren) def. Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)

~//~

     "You must at least have a preference on style of roast, grind, and preparation even if you know nothing about the origins of the coffee beans themselves!"

     Damn his Doumeki's minutely cocked eyebrow and its accompanying disbelief! Watanuki twisted his lover's messy bed hair into spikes as punishment for his insolence. If he hadn't been nestled under a pile of blankets where it was cozy and warm, and if the room outside those blankets hadn't been comparatively chilly (especially when one was naked), Watanuki might have been obligated to detach himself from the pirate long enough to find something to throw at him. As it was, he settled for spiking his hair, flicking Doumeki's impertinently well chiseled abdominals and wrinkling his nose at Doumeki's leering face.

     "It's the least you can do as a person who is alive and drinks coffee regularly!"

     The shrug his lover dared to answer with was hardly sufficient. "If someone who can cook makes it, they can make it good with whatever we've got on board. You can't be that choosy when you stock your beans by whatever the store has in barrels."

     "Coffee beans in barrels?! You unseal barrels and let coffee beans sit in them?!"

     "You've never been on a ship, have you."

     "Of course I have been on ships! But on no occasion did I let essential aromatic oils evaporate from my supply of coffee beans! There's no excuse!" Grabbing his edge of the blankets, Watanuki thumped onto his other shoulder so he was facing the opposite direction from Doumeki's piratey face, which was about as close as he could get to stomping away without leaving the bed. "You are, and will always be, a cretin."

     "Uh-huh," Doumeki grunted. Shameless lout.

     In a burst of chilled air, Watanuki could feel his pirate reaching up for the hat perched on the corner of the headboard. He was about to yell at him to leave his scalliwag stuff and nonsense out of their heretofore unsullied naked cuddling time when the hat went back on the corner without prompting. Doumeki had gotten a little book out of the feathered monstrosity, if his eyes and the reflection on the bathroom tile weren't lying. Then the pirate rolled him over so Watanuki found his stomach pressed into the warm mattress. True, his insides got the humming, melting feeling of impending debauchery when Doumeki slid on top of him under the blankets, but that didn't mean he was going to surrender his extremely correct opinion on coffee preparation to the base seductions of a work-calloused hand tracing his ribs or those sea-worthy abs using his ass as a pillow (and given that the actual pillows were strewn somewhere on the other side of the bed, Watanuki thought he might forgive the imposition, but not the shivers in his spine that made it so hard to think straight).

     His own breath beating back from the mattress, hot and thick as Doumeki planted kisses on the back of his neck, was utterly traitorous. Almost as traitorous as the moan starting in his throat and the buzzing in his skin left over from last night's rouse heading straight for his nether regions. Apparently the cravings that'd led to him dating this brute and going half-crazy from lack of sex these past few days hadn't been appeased by what he recalled as being four perfectly satisfactory (well, more than satisfactory) orgasms in the last slightly-less-than-twelve hours. He should've known better than to let Doumeki go to sleep in the bed with him afterwards! They always ended up having one last...

     Oh, well, if he were being perfectly honest, which he supposed he was being now, he had known better, and had possibly been half-dreaming about what Doumeki might do in the morning when they'd faded out of consciousness in a deep-breathing, pretzeled knot. He blamed the residual pheromones. And possibly also historical data. Most of the things Doumeki had pulled over the last nine months of mornings were better ways to wake up than even a perfect dark roast double-shot tall latte with cream, brown sugar, and a sprinkle of cardamom on top.

     But he objected, "Don't you ever get tired?!" anyway. He couldn't very well let his pirate get complacent, now could he? A gentleman expected to be wooed! Constantly!

     Which made the abrupt cessation of kissing all the more confusing.

     "I like what I like," that shameless marauder answered, and Watanuki felt a distinct line of cold-ish leather between his shoulder blades, which then opened up into the unmistakable impression of a book. Scribbles ensued, in pencil if he had to judge from the smell of wood instead of ink. Doumeki was using him as a writing desk.

     "Have you no shame?!" he yelled as his lover counted up to thirty-one in a murmur before scribbling some more.

     He answered, "Nope," with no concern in his voice whatsoever, and then had the gall to ask, "Did that thing with the bed sheets count as tying you down?"

     "I should think not! I could have escaped at any time!"

     "So that's a zero modifier for bondage..."

     "I beg your pardon?!"

     "That's not a complaint. I'm not really into the hard stuff either."

     Watanuki bucked his briny bedmate over to his own side of the bed, drawing all the covers around himself as he sat up, like a tent to keep out the chill -- although he cracked it open a little at the top so he could glare properly. "I didn't ask if you were complaining! You have nothing to complain about, you freeloading popinjay! I asked what on earth some abstract rating about bondage you may or may not have performed on me is supposed to modif--"

     Distracted only slightly by the sprawl of a gloomy-faced oaf who was certainly not an Adonis in any way shape or form, Watanuki took a closer look at the leather volume resting against the white Imonoyama-monogrammed bed linens.

     "Is that the book for the sex points you keep claiming you don't care about?" Watanuki gasped. it was, he knew it was, it had to be!

     "I told you, I'm still turning them in." As Watanuki stole the little volume from his lover's hands, the pirate told him, "And it's not the official log. It's where I keep notes when I can't put stuff in right away. I'd never remember everything we did last night for the rest of the week."

     "Then you are a failure. I am extremely memorable! What do all these numbers mean?" One of the zeroes in the last, freshly written line (labeled #36, following in sequence from #35 above... Had Doumeki been counting their dalliances?!) was apparently for bondage, however you measured that, but there was more than one zero, and several other numbers besides. "Let's see, a thirty-one, a ten, a forty-one... oh, well that would have to be the thirty-one and the ten summed together, and the 2,870 is clearly forty-one times seventy, although I don't see where you're getting seventy from..."

     "The seventy is you. I know who I'm sleeping with."

     "... nor the six you'd need to multiply to get the 17,220 at the end from 2,870 ..." Watanuki frowned at the pirate over the book as the words he'd just heard registered in his brain. "What do you mean, 'The seventy is me'? Is that what I'm worth? You put a number on how good I am?!"

     "Technically the Points Committee did. Most times every pirate gets to put his own number on, but when it's over fifty somebody's got to sign off. Then the thirty-one is for what we did, first zero for getting kinky, which you said we didn't, and the ten--"

     "Some committee rated me a seventy?! Out of what?! Seventy, I should hope, although it's a very odd number for setting a maximum..."

     "--is for the situation we did it in, I guess. Dragging you off from a public venue, you being a 'popcorn vendor', if we'd gotten walked in on, that kind of thing."

     "What criteria do you even use to set a numeric value on getting an individual into bed?!"

     "...And I don't use the second zero that much. That's for flair."

     Watanuki paused mid-gesticulation when he heard that, not quite recalling when he'd dropped the blanket and stood up to stomp on the bed while waving a pillow overhead, but now that he'd noticed he realized he was quite cold and dove back into the downy embrace of the quilted comforter. "What do you mean, 'flair'?" he asked. "How is 'flair' not a situation thingy?"

     Doumeki shrugged. "Remember that time we left the bar by rope-gliding out a window? Pirates wouldn't be pirates if they didn't give points for that kind of thing."

     If his jaw hadn't unhinged and fallen on the mattress, that was only because (unlike some people) he wasn't a snake. "I thought you just wanted to go home with me!"

     "I did. You're the one who set up the rope."

     "That is beside the point! Now when are you going to give me a proper explanation for me being rated a seventy?! I have a feeling this is out of one hundred, so you had best explain!"

     With a tug of the blankets back over his piratey person (which, not coincidentally Watanuki was sure, also yanked Watanuki's own person back into the pirate's perilous arms), Doumeki answered with his Mildly Annoyed Deadpan Scowl, "Everybody gets rated on looks and global significance on a scale of one to ten."

     "And you multiplied mine to get seventy. I see." Almost before Watanuki started yelling, Doumeki started moving his fingers to plug his ears, which only made him yell all the louder. "In what world do you think my global significance amounts to no more than a seven out of ten?! I will have you know that I am a critical force in the--"

     "You're the Dimension Witch's assistant. That makes you a ten."

     "Well, I should hope-- Wait. Does that mean that visually you rated me a seven?"

     "That's for 'significantly above average'."

     "A seven?!"

     "It's a damn good score."

     "Unbelievable. Of all the--" Watanuki wrested himself out of his lover's grip, blankets and all, and marched himself and his cocoon of coziness over to the window. "Come on," he beckoned the pirate with a jerk of his head. "Up, up, up! We need to sort this out immediately."

     Pulling open the curtains and throwing the window itself open to get rid of any possible bias from imperfect glass refraction, he looked around for the only mostly stationary group of people in view at nearly eight in the morning -- sound checks for the day's music contest if he had to judge by the girl with the Civic armband singing, "I'm gonna believe in your eyes, so please don't say love is blind!" (what drivel!) and the technicians calling out, "Okay, move the acoustic shell closer! No, Kazami-chan, keep singing till they get it..." The crowds had barely started gathering around the gates, but performers and close supporters were all present. That would have to be good enough.

     He handed his pirate -- who had finally made it over -- the telescope from his own jacket. "All right. Look at the people in the amphitheater. Tell me what a ten looks like on this so-called scale of yours."

     "In your aesthetic?" While Doumeki scanned the crowd, Watanuki followed the path of the spyglass from over the brute's shoulder. "I guess Her Imperial Majesty is a ten? Though you wouldn't catch me trying to bring her into port, if you know what I mean."

     "I should hope not! She's in an exclusive relationship! Not even you could be that rude."

     And he might have been using his finely honed techniques for showing awe at nothing, and as such was going to move right along, but even prolonged exposure to Mistress Yuuko couldn't blind him to the fact that Empress Kendappa's particular puissance was a very ancient breed of awfulness - the kind from before the word meant disgusting, and was more some kind of terrifying aura that made people want to kneel. Even as she was here, setting up for the music competition with her ceremonial crown laid aside in favor of a circlet that let her cradle her harp by her ear, flowing gown hanging like a painted waterfall, face transported into a peaceful otherworldliness when she played -- even when she glimmered like the Morning Star instead of the warlike sun she was supposed to incarnate -- there was that puissance simmering in her bones that left you in no doubt that you were honored to view one of the most magnificent persons in existence, and if it even slipped your mind for an instant, the next time you caught sight of her, you'd feel so crass, you'd want to atone for it. Sort of like he felt now, asking Doumeki to tell him, "Who's a ten if not me?" For Doumeki to go so far as to say he was in the same aesthetic style as the Empress...

     Well, he certainly wasn't going to let Doumeki see him blush. Watanuki ducked behind the pirate's enormous head so his reflection couldn't catch the window.

     "All right, so she's a ten. I suppose I can see it. Would you care to provide an example of a nine, then?"

     His lover nodded his chin in the current direction of the spyglass. "The Magami lady. That's her name, right? The one with glasses?"

     A growl rolled out of Watanuki's throat and right into spitting, "Fine!" Magami Tokiko was standing off to the side, corralling competitors, and he was not too proud to admit that she was slightly more poised and elegant than him, and it set off her features decently enough. With a few more years, he'd master that! "Eight!" he commanded before Doumeki could think about putting the spyglass down.

     "That blond from Impala," Doumeki shot back, apparently having the temerity to have guessed what Watanuki was going to ask. Although it was true that Kohaku was somewhat more eye-catching than most of the people in Impala, he wasn't so far out of line with most people Watanuki knew. He shot Doumeki a scowl to tell him so, to which the cur replied, "You know this is just my opinion, right?"

     "Well, your opinion is what I'm judging you on, since that's what you're judging me with. Now hurry up with a seven, would you?"

     Muttering something that sounded like, "...running out of your type who aren't either bland or fucking gorgeous..." the pirate ran his spyglass over the assembled parties. "The English guy's a seven, I guess."

     "Hiiragizawa Eriol?! You're putting me on a rank with that unctuous snake in the grass?!"

     "Not your personality..."

     "I protest!" Shaking one fist at the window and one at his undeserving boyfriend, he roared, "I am decidedly more attractive than Hiiragizawa Eriol by whatever measure you could hope to set!"

     Doumeki didn't even look sorry when he shrugged! "I didn't say I liked him. I said he was the best bet for a seven."

     Well! They'd see about that! Watanuki jumped up on the nearest chair to get a good intimidating foot of height on Doumeki when he laid out an accusing finger in his face.

     "Yes! A seven! Which is exactly where you ranked me, hence my protestations! I refuse to accept any ranking that does not reflect my visual superiority to that smug, asinine trickster!"

     "You won't catch me disagreeing."

     "For once, some sense! Then it's settled. I am an eight."

     Although his attempt to pose with his arms akimbo was somewhat undermined by the blankets falling around the chair and Doumeki doing that staring thing he did from time to time, with his moody face looking blanker than blank, even devoid of sarcasm. It was a face Watanuki hadn't the least clue how to read, more suitable to scrutinizing something in a museum than to a conversation between two consenting adults. And yet, whenever he asked Doumeki what he was staring at, the answer was (as often as not) "never mind". At the very least, it meant Doumeki wasn't suitably cowed by Watanuki's demonstration of his impropriety, so standing on the chair was accomplishing nothing except making him look ridiculous.

     Waving off the affront, Watanuki strode over to the kitchenette to boil water for tea. "I assume your next ridiculous report to your sex fiend pirate masters will reflect that."

     "Like I said, anything over a fifty total needs to be certified by the committee. Remember back last October when all those out-of-towners crashed Clover bar?"

     Watanuki nearly dropped an entire teaspoon of fine Darjeeling on the counter (nearly). "They were checking me out?!"

     "Standard protocol after a pirate turns in four lays in a row with somebody he rates a real catch. But they underrated you." Which Doumeki said in his usual unimpressed voice, so Watanuki had no intention of melting for his flattery, even if the pirate's arms were rather cozy around his waist now, and those infuriating lips of his were whispering every word like kisses along the side of his neck. "I can't overrule them without somebody signing off. Anyway, if this was about finding a way to out-screw the Pirate King, you think I'd take up with somebody who lives in port?" The sounds coming out of Watanuki's throat as the almost-kisses turned very real and the edge of perfect teeth nipped against his shoulder made it hard to tell if the kettle was singing, they sounded so similar. "His Grace can have the fruitcake. I've got what I want."

     Watanuki paused, then held Doumeki back from his predations with a push to the forehead. "Wait, is that a literal fruitcake? You're going to all this trouble to win a fruitcake?! An actual preserved cake filled with over-sweetened preserved fruit?!"

     "Well, I hear it's more rum than cake by the time it's done soaking, but like I said..."

     "Right, right, you are, for whatever unfathomable reason, not in it to win it, you just happen to be wi--" The quirk of Doumeki's eyebrow said more than Watanuki had ever wanted to know. "Oh my God. We're not winning?! Two weeks ago, that graph you showed me had our screwing for the whole year at twice your Pirate King's number of points! How do you overshoot more than half a year of rather engaging sex -- which you should not let go to your head, mind you -- in just two weeks?!"

     Doumeki shrugged. He shrugged, as if that were no more unreasonable than tacking feathers to a hat (unseemly, but clearly possible). "All I know is Lord Shirou won't stop talking about how much he doesn't want to talk about His Grace's new boyfriend."

     Oh, shit. Shit, shit, shit.

     "Boyfriend" meant the same person as had gotten into bed with the Pirate King before. That meant Kurogane. Definitely, definitely, definitely on the level of jaw dropping, terrifyingly attractive brutality -- the epitome of his own kind of ten that Watanuki wouldn't trust himself to survive a roll in the sheets with in a thousand years, which had to account for some of the Pirate King's prodigious rise in the rankings.

     Clearly the Pirate King was very durable, Watanuki thought as his back hit the counter. Some kind of monster all in leather armor -- which he stopped visualizing immediately because Kurogane having sex wasn't something he wanted to imagine. It wasn't that he had some kind of faintness of heart when it came to "hard stuff", as Doumeki had so inelegantly put it! He had a very healthy range of interests and would consider any sane request a lover made! But sex with Kurogane would likely involve more blood than was sanitary.

     "Are you okay?" Doumeki asked.

     "No, I am most certainly not okay! That is a wholly unreasonable standard of sexual accomplishment for you to expect me to live up to!"

     With a puzzled frown, his lover answered, "Like I said..."

     "Oh, please, you and your gallant bullcrap about having what you want already. Maybe I like winning! Did you ever think of that?" He pulled himself back up and poured the steaming water over the darjeeling. "Now, let's think about this logically. Obviously you'll start by finding someone sensible who'll certify that I am an eight."

     "If that matters to you."

     "It does! And next, I'd like a detailed list of all your dirtiest fantasies so I can procure the proper equipment. Safety first, after all."

     Doumeki pinched his forehead together between his eyes and didn't move any other part of his face, then stayed that way so long, Watanuki could smell the change in the tea as it came near to being fully steeped.

     In a low voice, Watanuki asked, "Your fantasies do involve safety equipment, I hope?"

     "I'm not sure how to answer that question." Suddenly the staring expression was happening again, and Watanuki had the sudden recollection that neither of them were wearing pants. Or anything else for that matter. Also, the tea was definitely done, which meant he could pour it instead of watching Doumeki stare at him. Not hearing him talk was harder. "All I really want from sex right now is for it to be with you."

     Handing him a cup and blushing crimson red in places that shouldn't have permitted of blushing, Watanuki stalked over to the couch. "Which is a perfectly reasonable and even romantic thing to say, and I appreciate the effort if not the saccharine flavor, but I am not some neophyte you're going to shock with your no doubt depraved proclivities. I'll have you know the arts of physical intimacy in all its forms are part of standard training for a ni--"

     He bit his lip. He'd nearly let it slip again.

     "For a popcorn vendor?" Doumeki supplied, sitting on the foot of the bed like the utter boor he was. Drinking tea in the bedroom half of their... of his dormitory quarters! No degree of promissory decadence was going to make Watanuki overlook that.

     "Indeed!" he spat, nose turned up. "And as a truly dedicated popcorn vendor, I--"

     "I really don't want anything from this relationship that I'm not getting. Every fantasy I've got, this is what it comes down to. Me and you."

     And, Watanuki heard in the silence of what Doumeki wasn't saying, an admission that this actually was a relationship. Which, given the way Doumeki had gone about insisting on it, he supposed the pirate never had been secretive about what he wanted. Ever.

     "Well," Watanuki said at last, turning his eyes to the sunlit view outside the window. "Owing... owing to your lack of imagination, I suppose I'll have to provide that part. For now. If something ever occurs to you, this will remain an open offer -- assuming, of course, that you're open to my suggestions."

     The click of porcelain on porcelain was the sound of Doumeki putting his teacup -- empty, which meant he'd drunk it too fast to appreciate it -- on the floor by the bed. Watanuki turned around in time to see the shameless lout resettling himself on the mattress and leaning back on his elbows. Staring again.

     "What?!" Watanuki demanded. "What is it?!"

     With one of his confounded shrugs, his lover said, "I'm open to hearing what fantasy you were having the morning after I got here."

     Naturally, his cock chose that moment to betray him, perking up like he was sixteen and hadn't just engaged in a sexual marathon last night. Watanuki crossed his legs. He wasn't giving in so easily. "You'll have to be specific. I, unlike some people, have many fantasies!"

     "What were you thinking when I caught you touching yourself and calling my name?"

     Those dark, narrowed eyes seemed to look through him. Watanuki wanted to scream, "I was thinking of you! Are you happy now?!" but he was well aware that Doumeki would press him for more details, and the simple words, "You were holding me," sounded so embarrassingly trite, they turned to molten lead in his throat and utterly choked him. How was he supposed to answer that question?! Honestly!

     So he did the only thing that seemed sensible at the time. He stomped over to the bed, handed Doumeki a pillow to use as a shield (this was a civil conversation after all, he wasn't trying to hurt anyone), and grabbed the other pillow to thwack him with. Repeatedly. It'd always been useful for relieving his frustrations in the past.

     Doumeki blocked, of course. He always did, but Watanuki still got a few good hits before the inevitable tumble of his lover yanking him and rolling until the pillows were both lost and a sturdy pirate had him in a leg lock that prevented further demonstrations.

     "Are you trying to say you masturbate to pillow fights? Because if that's a kink for you, I actually can go back and add the points if you want."

     "No, pillow fights are not my masturbatory fantasy! They are a way of getting revenge for you being a ... a thoughtless cad who wants to have teasing, incendiary conversations while displaying your silly muscular body and your silly brooding eyes instead of ravishing me on schedule so I can get to work! I do have a very important job, you know, as I know you must because you gave me ten points for it!"

     And the body in question was an order of magnitude more tempting now that Watanuki could feel well-cut abs pressing against him again. The extra oxygen from his breath racing and his pulse speeding was making his vision spin, and yet Doumeki laying nose to nose with him was a bit like an anchor in the stormy--

     No, no, no! He was not using that piratey wreck of a metaphor! Not in ten million years!

     Predictably, Doumeki chose that moment of confusion to say, "I've wanted to have that conversation for a long time." He'd probably timed it specifically so Watanuki would be without the faculties for a good retort.

     These were always the sorts of times where he ran out of things to say, and started kissing Doumeki to try and say what he couldn't think of the words for. And Doumeki biting into his lip, then scooping Watanuki's legs around his waist so Watanuki could grind to his heart's delight while Doumeki bore him hard into the mattress...

     He tried to say, "Not now!" but it was hard to do when he was groaning and panting and couldn't close his mouth enough to make words. Although he could coax his mouth into almost the shape for coherence if he tried to steal another series of desperate caresses he supposed a textbook would call kisses. "Really. Mmm... have to work!"

     "You saying I should make this quick?" his pirate breathed with a hint of humor in his deadpan. A less skilled ear might not have heard it. But Watanuki knew every inch of this asshole. This terrible, horrible, consummate asshole who'd made such a wreck out of his previously perfect existence, and was so complete in his failure to be sorry that even Watanuki couldn't be sorry he was fucking a pirate on a regular basis. And now he was using his insouciant voice to tempt him, Watanuki Kimihiro, into into flagrant dereliction of duty!

     But the way his hands ran rough between his thighs was...

     But no! He would not be corrupted by his lover's extremely wily piratey wiles!

     "Grrrrrrrr, damn you, no!" With a little momentum and amounts of willpower humankind would never fully appreciate, Watanuki flipped himself out from under Doumeki and got him in a lock of his own! Which was slightly more awkward than the lock he'd been in, given that this one left him with his ear on Doumeki's unfairly firm posterior when he reached across to grapple the bastard's leg. "I want you to make a proper effort, which is why I wanted you to start earlier!"

     "You should've said something."

     No shame. Even in the face of--

     "I think you've got mail," the bastard said.

     "Excuse me?!"

     Pointing to the open window, where a paper butterfly was flapping patiently, he explained, "That's from your boss, right?"

     "Probably telling me she wants some ridiculous thing or another," he muttered, "immediately if not sooner, never respecting that some people have personal business!"

     The butterfly letter unfolded in his hands, which in itself was odd since Mistress Yuuko generally delivered her messages with a spell that let her talk directly to her mark. However, odder yet, it wasn't a demand for anything.

     "No time to chat, just got an invite from the Queen of Hearts, who's got some tarts, and wants a friend to share them. After that, we're playing croquet! Why don't you just stay in bed and 'rest up'. Toodles!"

     The pirate listening with his head poking out of the mess of blankets asked, "Is she talking about pastries, or the Queen's harem thingy?"

     "I'm certain I have no idea. Possibly both?"

     "So I guess you don't have to run."

     "If that's supposed to tempt me back into bed with you--"

     Watanuki bit his tongue. With Doumeki on this, "tell me what you want or I'll give you what you ask for" kick, there were decent odds that what he'd been about to say would leave him taking yet another cold shower to calm his boiling nerves. Since he was being honest with himself, crawling back into a body-warmed rumpled bed and making even more of a mess of himself, Doumeki, and the sheets before the two of them together took a nice, warm shower with probable bonus handjobs...

     He slid under the covers without a second thought, reveling in the luxury of 'sleeping in' as he melted back into Doumeki's arms. "You'd better live up to your promises," he whispered.

     Most of which Doumeki promised best when he didn't have to speak. The tongue slipping into his kiss had a lot to live up to, for example, as did the arms rolling him onto his back to ply him with lubricant (which apparently Doumeki had finally located given that they'd lost it somewhere in the blankets partway through last night). His body was straddling the line between "I'm spent", and, "yes, please, more", but somehow Doumeki could touch him so the "more" always won out in the end.

     "Is this what you were dreaming about?"

     "If I say yes, will you stop asking?"

     "Not convinced." But he slipped another finger inside anyway, answering Watanuki's groans for more that'd turned from a feeling into a demand -- not that one more finger was enough. He could fix that himself. One arm around Doumeki's neck was all he needed to sit up, to lose himself in pressing against the toned precipice of a weatherbeaten torso, right where Doumeki could help him thrust onto his--

     Oh, that was definitely what his body had been screaming for, Watanuki thought as he shuddered at the push of Doumeki's cock plying him open. Some fragment of a thought fluttered by his brain that the two of them had to look utterly ridiculous, hammering away at each other by the loins while Doumeki left bite marks on his shoulder and Watanuki couldn't do much of anything but hold on (he doubted this would get them any points for "flair") -- but it fluttered away just as quickly. Holding on to thoughts was a beyond him for the moment, just like he liked in the mornings, and any thought of winning or losing or scoring strategies was especially irrelevant.

     Although it was a good thing he'd packed something shelf-stable for the evening snack they'd never eaten last night, because that meant it'd serve well for a breakfast he wouldn't need to put pants on to prepare.

~//~

     Skipping away from the music contest, where even Umi-chan couldn't be too upset about not making the finals when everyone was so good, Hikaru charted a course for the cooking contest. Maybe Watanuki-sempai would have crawled out of the sheets with his boyfriend and she could rib them about all the wall shaking last night! Although the Coliseum wasn't full of yelling about people mistreating their cookware, so probably he was still sleeping it off. Apparently even Watanuki-sempai could get too exhausted to move.

     "Hey, Kamui-san!" she called over her shoulder. She wasn't sure he knew where they were going, but if he was okay with just following her around until he had to go train some more, she was happy to have his growly, snarly company. "What do you think the secret ingredient's going to be today? Not lemons, that's for sure."

     "Wait, what?!"

     "Well, lemons is what I spotted Imonoyama-san's people putting out, but somebody's been switching stuff to screw with everybody. I put 300 gold on Eriol-san in the betting pool."

     Even though her pirate friend had finally gotten some sleep last night (apparently Takamura-san had stashed a lot of Kamui's feathers in the clock tower, which made a comfortable and ironically appropriate bedroll) and looked ten times more like himself, he squinted and shook his head like he was still exhausted. "You keep using words like I have any clue what you're talking about. I've been underground, remember?"

     "Then it's time you saw the main event!" She pulled his hand over toward one of the kitchen units with Malvek's flag while she winked at Lantis on the judges' stand. "Come on! Eagle is saving us seats in your friends' section!"

     "My what? I don't have friends here!"

     "But you said they visited your ship!"

     She waved to Syaoran-san and Princess Sakura-chan as they ran up, ignoring Kamui-san's grumble of, "Oh, fuck," and the way Syaoran-san reached for the biggest vegetable knife he had. Luckily Princess Sakura-chan got there first and pulled it out of his reach. Stopping in front of the counter, Kamui-san hissed, "You know the difference between visiting and getting kidnapped, right?"

     Hikaru blinked at him with her most wide-eyed innocent face until he sighed and gave up. Sure, she knew the difference, but that didn't mean they couldn't be friends now.

     "Not here to start a fight," Kamui-san muttered to himself. "Not here to start a fight, not here to start a fight." Looking up, he managed a wince of a smile at the Princess. "Uh... thanks... for your advice yesterday, and um..." He turned to her bodyguard-slash-boyfriend. "Sorry about that black eye, before."

     If Syaoran-san could've blushed any harder or looked any more confused, his head might've exploded. "I... I'm sorry I broke your rib? I guess?" he said, which naturally started Kamui-san glaring again.

     Better to cut them off before they got violent. Hikaru stuck out her hand to shake. "Hi, nice to meet you! I'm Shidou Hikaru!"

     "I'm Sakura, and this is Syaoran," the Princess answered, "I remember you! Your story last night scared me to bits, which is good, you know, because ghosts are scary, right?"

     "Sure!" Hikaru agreed, although technically she was pretty sure that Suu and Captain Oujirou and at least one of the triplets were just caught in a time loop, not dead; and she'd always figured people who'd never been killed for more dangerous. But ghosts were supposed to be scary! Just because she wasn't scared of them didn't mean they weren't scary. Umi-chan and Fuu-chan and Lantis and Eagle had explained that one often enough.

     Syaoran-san tore his eyes off Kamui-san long enough to bow. "I... I'd love to know how much of the story was real. When Gingetsu-san walked off, he was saying something about summoning demons by..." Hikaru could have sworn Princess Sakura-chan kicked Syaoran-san in the foot, and the ninja boy put on a sheepish smile as he rubbed the back of his head. "Ah, sorry! I'm sure Gingetsu-san had work, I didn't mean to say he walked out because of your--"

     The rest of his apology vanished under the terrible clanging of metal on metal that echoed out over the festival, much to everyone's wide-eyed suspicion, and seemed to shake the heavens. Like, actually -- Hikaru was pretty sure the noise was coming from under the ground, but the earth wasn't trembling. The sky, on the other hand, was definitely vibrating a little when she looked up at the clouds. But maybe that was normal for sounds that kind of felt like the soul of the world around you was getting twisted into a pretzel? No, not a pretzel. It was definitely more like the thingy-ness of existence was getting squinched into a pizza than getting twisted into a pretzel. There was a subtle difference.

     "What do you think's going on?" she asked the group as ear-splitting demonic cackling joined the clanging. "Some kind of surprise event?"

     Turning sheet-white, Syaoran-san said, "No... that's..."

     "Icchan?" Princess Sakura-chan and Kamui-san finished together.

     All at once, the Princess asked, "What's Icchan doing here?" while Syaoran-san gasped at Kamui-san, "How do you know Icchan?!", and another heavens-sundering voice joined the din to say, "Chief, you forgot to turn on the mute!"

     Naturally, it all got super quiet a second later, since that's what mutes were for.

      She glanced back and forth between her new friends. "So, who's Icchan?"

     Kamui-san pulled his hat out of some nowhere space by his hip just so he could draw it over his eyes. "I'm not having this conversation."

     "But if you..." Syaoran-san choked. "And your hat... you just..."

     The growl Kamui-san made got a lot of attention from the Civic duo one table over.

     "Is Icchan training you?!"

     "Not having this conversation!"

     Hikaru kind of wished she had popcorn even if she had no idea what they were talking about (except that situational context meant Icchan had to be a person who trained people, and was clearly in with the Imperial Family, and how cool was it that Kamui-san was getting an imperial-class education?!). And of course, the dark haired, purpled eyed beanpole from Civic rushing over with his perfectly billowing cape made it that much more dramatic.

     "You!" the newcomer yelled, pointing at Kamui-san while the swaggering brown-haired co-chef at the beanpole's shoulder turned on a respectably ferocious battle face. "Death Shirou! Don't deny it! How dare you show yourself here, in front of me -- when I have sworn an oath to have my revenge!"

     The Civic men actually seemed surprised that Kamui-san was around. They must not've been at last night's bonfire.

     "Hi!" Hikaru said, sticking out her hand again. "I'm Shidou Hikaru!"

     The dark-haired man paused with his mouth open and questions in his eyes, so she grabbed his hand, unpointed it, and shook it for him. He recoiled like he was wondering where he'd left his handkerchief to wipe off the cooties, but that was a personal problem.

     With a sigh, Kamui-san said, "Hikaru, this is Lelouch vi Britannia from Civic. He, ah... tried to impersonate me last year. Badly," Kamui-san added with a glare at the ninja. "Lelouch, this is Hikaru. Don't fuck with her. She breathes fire."

     "Nice to meet you, Lelouch-san."

     "And the muscle is Kururugi Suzaku."

     "Oi," Suzaku-san growled.

     "He's all right. Suzaku, Hikaru. Hikaru, Suzaku."

     "Nice to meet you, too, Suzaku-san!"

     "This isn't over!" Suzaku-san grabbed Kamui-san by the collar (since Kamui-san just sighed and shook his head, and Eagle was sitting pretty in the audience giggling away, Hikaru figured she didn't have to intervene). "After what you did--"

     "What'd you do?!" gasped Princess Sakura-chan. Syaoran-san had jumped over to guard her, but she didn't look worried at all, with her hands up in little excited fists by her sunshiney face, and holy crap could she be any cuter?! Hikaru had to grant that she'd won the beauty contest fair and square even if Kamui-san had been totally hot after (and before, but definitely after) his makeover.

     Rolling his eyes at the sky as if asking why this always happened to him, Kamui-san answered, "I broke... things."

     "Oh!" Hikaru squealed, clapping her hands. "You're what happened to the Ashford Fleet!" Clef-san had been complaining about wreckage washing up on Kia's shores for, like, a month after that'd happened.

     "Guilty as charged," Suzaku-san growled. "This is blood between us and him, so unless you want to start your own war with Civic, any pirate sympathizers here had best stand aside and let us settle it."

     With Lelouch-san reaching for his knives, Hikaru didn't see how she could very well stand aside, politics be damned. But Kamui-san held his hand out to stop her before her sword hilt was even out of her storage gem. And another hand to stop Princess Sakura-chan who'd vaulted the stage kitchen to hold a whisk in Lelouch-san's face. No one seemed to want to test what she planned to do with it -- especially not Syaoran-san, who flicker-stepped behind her. Kamui-san didn't have more hands to stop Impala's Sayaka-san rushing down from the judging stand with her lieutenants, but they got the message and waited anyway.

     Kamui-san stared down the Civic ninja who had him by the collar like a cobra daring a mongoose to even try it because this wasn't going to go well, but he was clearly talking to the rest of them when he said, "I'm trying not to get anyone hurt, as much as -- believe me -- I'd like to hurt some particular people right now. Just stay out of my way."

     Well, Kamui-san was no slouch at fighting, so he'd probably be fine. Hikaru disarmed and stepped back, and Syaoran-san pulled the Princess back while Sayaka-san dismissed her battalion. And whatever Suzaku-san had expected to happen next, it definitely hadn't been for Kamui-san to step into his own shadow, melting out of the ninja's grip. Lelouch-san got to look startled by the swirl of Kamui-san flicker-stepping behind them both (all in a fraction of a second, so this Icchan-sensei must've been good), but Suzaku-san was facing the other way. He didn't realize until he heard the cocking hammers of flintlock pistols at his and Lelouch-san's heads. Then he stopped looking surprised and just looked pissed.

     The pissed look only got worse when Kamui-san stepped back slowly, lifting his pistols to the sky while he eased the hammers out of firing position. Of course, he waited for his opponents to turn and face him before he let the pistols drop, and of course he disappeared them as they passed his catsuit's narrow cuffs instead of letting them fall to the ground. He'd probably set them up so he could shake his arms or something to push them into his hands, too.

     Pirates! So dramatic!

     "You... couldn't have..." Lelouch-san gasped. "But you're--"

     "I'm not here to start a fight. If I were, this city would've been leveled four days ago. So back the fuck off, Kururugi. You, too, Your Highness. I don't do warnings twice."

     "Nor do I," added Sayaka-san. "Lord Shirou is here with Impala's colors, and I will view any attack on our representative as an attack on Impala itself, Prince Lelouch."

     A pink-haired girl walked out of the crowd that'd gathered on Hikaru's right, looking so royal, nobody needed to say she was a princess for everybody to get out of her way. "Civic is more than happy to agree to your terms, Lady Sayaka," she announced. "These Games, after all, are a time of peace." She shot a look at her countrymen that made both Lelouch-san and Suzaku-san quail as she said, "None of our people have any intention of marring that peace."

     Kamui swept his hat off again and bowed his head like a proper gentleman. Probably because it looked like it pissed off Lelouch-san for him to be courtly instead of a ruffian. "Princess Euphemia, I presume."

     "Lord Shirou. Allow me to offer an official truce between yourself and our representatives for the duration of these games, out of respect to our mutual host."

     "Euphemia--" hissed Lelouch-san, but the Princess went right on as if he hadn't.

     She handed Kamui-san a piece of parchment all prettied up with a wax seal and ribbon and everything. "Sanctioned by my father, His Majesty Emperor Charles XIII, of course."

     Hikaru stood down completely, and so did everyone else on the verge of fighting. Kamui-san may have been taken aback by the temporary treaty paper (on which he was currently reading the fine print), but he didn't look like he might blow anything up (something you'd think Lelouch-san and Suzaku-san would've taken into account before starting a fight, given their history with him blowing stuff up).

     Lelouch-san choked, "When did you-- when could you have--"

     "Unlike some people," Princess Euphemia whispered back, turning her eyes on Suzaku-san, "I looked at his face during the beauty contest yesterday." It was hard to say whether Suzaku-san or Kamui-san blushed harder at that. They both looked like a couple of tomatoes -- one tomato getting shooed off to the kitchen by Princess Diplomacy, and one tomato pretending he couldn't hear them talking because that was really the only polite thing to do.

     With a glance at the crowd (who were now treating the see-saw between international war and peace like the main event, some of them whipping out signs supporting Princess Euphemia-chan, and some supporting Lelouch-san, which she guessed made Kamui-san the hot potato), Kamui-san tucked the pen he'd been about to use back into his nowhere space before most everybody noticed it. Instead, he pulled out the most vicious, piratey looking knife you ever did see, with a blade honed down to a razor and a wooden handle whose polish had been stripped off by the sea -- smoothed down by spending plenty of time in a pirate's hand instead. The crowd gasped. Princess Euphemia-chan cocked her eyebrow, refusing to flinch (although Hikaru could see the line of armor under her sleeve when she crossed her arms over her heart).

     And it seemed like everyone but Hikaru and Princess Euphemia-chan was surprised when, instead of attacking, Kamui-san sliced one of his palms open and dipped his knife tip in the wound so he could scrawl his name.

     "I'll agree to your temporary truce. Consider it a favor. But remember, Princess Euphemia," he said, taking her hand in his bloody right hand and bowing to kiss her knuckles. Lelouch-san looked ready to explode. "A pirate always collects on his debts."

     "I would expect nothing less, Lord Shirou."

     The crowd erupted in applause. Apparently that'd been dramatic enough for them. Personally, Hikaru thought it was a little cheesy to sign in blood, but who was she to judge?

     A whistle cut over the cheering. Magami Tokiko-san stood to wave everyone to their seats. Her hair was rippling in the wind again, and she absolutely reminded Hikaru of somebody. It was going to seriously bother her until she figured it out! "Would the audience please return to your seats, and the competitors to their stations? The cooking event is about to begin!"

     "Thank you, Magami-san," called the announcer, "And may I say, that was a wonderful performance from Competitors Princess Euphemia of Civic and Lord Shirou Kamui of... erm... I-Impala... I hope the event supervisors were watching. Now, on to our regularly scheduled--"

     "Hey!" Syaoran-san whispered as the crowds dispersed. He didn't grab their wrists, because wow would that have been stupid, but he clearly wanted to. "I just... can I ask...?"

     Kamui-san snarled. "What?"

     "You're... you're here with Shidou-san?"

     "I guess you could say that."

     "So..." The Malvek ninja cleared his throat, looking to Sayaka-san on the judging panel and back again. "Why... Impala?"

     "Do you have a problem with Impala?"

     "No, I mean... ah... that's not..." Syaoran-san blushed again when Kamui-san turned on the glare full-force. "Wow, um, you're-- That is... ah... Hi. There's no... no problem." Some people, when you saw them naked and they're super hot, you really couldn't unsee, and it looked like Kamui-san was one of them as far as Syaoran-san went. Probably she shouldn't mention that to Kamui-san. He probably thought he was being scary right now.

     He swept toward the seats in typical dramatic pirate fashion. "Good. Is that all?"

     "Just--" As Kamui-san turned around, Syaoran-san squinched his eyes shut tight and his mouth tighter, like he'd whisk that last word back onto his tongue if he could've.

     "Yes?" Kamui-san asked.

     Still not opening his eyes, Syaoran-san said, as fast as he could through a wince, "Would you call yourself a ninja-pirate or a pirate-ninja?"

     But before Kamui-san could yell whatever answer (probably that he wasn't a ninja anything, knowing Kamui-san) was ready to explode off his tongue, Princess Sakura-chan tugged her boyfriend back behind the kitchen counter, and Magami-san showed up to personally direct Kamui-san toward his seat with a little smile on her face, like she was laughing a joke the rest of them hadn't heard. "If you don't mind, Lord Shirou, Hikaru-san. They're about to declare the secret ingredient. But while I have you here..." She handed Hikaru's pirate friend an envelope as long as his arms and as tall as his chest, which Kamui-san tucked into nowhere space as fast as he got his hands on it. "You never picked up your photographs from yesterday."

     "I didn't want them."

     "Nevertheless, they're yours. Wish me luck, Kamui!"

     "No!" he yelled at her back as she walked away, both of them with their hair rippling in a dramatic breeze that seemed too picky to touch anyone else. "Now leave me alone!"

     The Magami lady wasn't paying any attention, of course. She was laughing off her cooking partner's puzzled looks and leaving Hikaru to tug Kamui-san toward the audience. It'd be bad form to upstage people now that the announcer was declaring kumquats the secret ingredient. He'd checked under the sheet before he announced it, of course, because like she'd thought, it wasn't lemons. Plus, Eagle was still saving them a seat! Which Kamui-san got, of course. She could sit on Eagle's lap easily enough. She got a better view over the crowd's heads that way, and she didn't even block anyone herself.

     "Making new friends, Lord Shirou?" Eagle teased as Syaoran-san broke dark chocolate bars into a double boiler laced with cointreau and Princess Sakura-chan hauled a candy thermometer and a bowl of kumquats over to her pot of sugar syrup.

     She giggled at the growl Kamui-san made as he pulled out gauze to bind his bloody hand. "Enemies. I'm making enemies." He couldn't have sounded more pouty either, although it was lucky for Kamui-san's self-image that he didn't have a mirror to see how aghast he looked over Syaoran-san beating egg whites so fast, you couldn't see his arms. "He's not making a mousse, is he?! But the announcer said they had an hour and a half. It takes at least four hours in an icebox for mousse to set properly!" And he got such worried tunnel vision, he didn't even see Lelouch-san grabbing white chocolate to melt into his flour and sugar mix -- presumably to contrast with Syaoran-san and Princess Sakura-chan's dark chocolate.

     Desserts were the best, Hikaru had always thought. They looked fun and frothy and gooey even when you were cooking them, not like the meats and veggies from the other courses that always looked a little silly before someone turned them into food. Like the chicken Akechi-san was chopping up over in the kitchen he shared with Magami-san, while she pressed garlic and... stared straight at Kamui-san again.

     Something... about the two of them...

     "Oh!" Hikaru gasped. "Now I remember! You're who she reminds me of! You've got the same wave in your hair! And kind of the same nose, now that I'm looking..."

     Kamui-san frowned, eyes still locked on Syaoran-san. "What're you talking about?"

     "Magami-san! I knew she reminded me of someone! It was you!"

     Eagle hugged her close so he could stage whisper in her ear, "Maybe we shouldn't make idle chatter about a mysterious resemblance between one of the ranking Pirate Lords and the head of the Magami ninja clan?"

     "She's the head? Really? I thought she had an older sister."

     "'Had' being the operative word, hot stuff. One of my earliest memories was from the scandal over Magami Tohru going missing, and I was in Autozam then. I know ninja politics involve a lot of secrets, but--"

     Both of them fell silent as Kamui-san stared at them with his trademark burning eyes that looked like he was about to cry. "Magami... Tohru? But... Tohru is..." he mouthed, barely audible even to her. He glanced at the Kragero team's kitchen, where Magami Tokiko-san smiled at him again, and his face went fierce and firm again. "You can keep your 'Tohru' conspiracy theories to yourself. My mother is Shirou Tohru, and she didn't get that name from my father, whoever he was. Now do you want to shut up? I'm trying to watch people cook."

     Wow. She hadn't even thought about Kamui-san having a mother. He'd have to, though.

     And something sure had Kamui-san jumping to think there was a connection.

     About four years difference between Eagle and Kamui-san's ages, Hikaru calculated. Just right for Kamui-san to have been born after Magami Tohru-san disappeared -- which Eagle had noticed, too, she guessed from the way his grip on her arm turned icy and tight. Not to mention, Kamui-san was sweating more than was normal over the coincidence of his mother sharing a pretty common name with someone who'd gone missing. She must not've been the only one to notice the resemblance. If there was a chance Death Shirou was an heir to the Magami clan's long lost proper leader, straight out of some kind of fairy tale, then she really had better keep her mouth shut. If the audience members around them caught on, the gossip and the potential social ramifications would get seriously messy.

     Luckily, like her, most people didn't even know Magami Tohru was missing! Not that Kamui-san was likely to consider that reassuring.

     "Well, it looks like Syaoran-san really is making mousse," she said, trying to change the subject. "Those are definitely mousse cups!" He was setting them out on a tray of ice and water, all in a neat little row.

     "Which is still stupid when you don't have multiple hours!" Kamui-san grumbled. Then the grumble turned into another growl as Syaoran-san brought up his sword and a paper charm to work a wind spell, funnels of air swirling around each cup so his chocolate foam settled in a perfect spiral with ice crystals forming. "Unless you're showing off with your magic. Goddamn fucking ninja. He'd better be sure that's not going to ruin the chocolate..."

     "I doubt he'd use a technique he wasn't sure about!"

     "He'll pay if he's not. I like chocolate."

     "And who's talking about showing off, Mr. I'm Death Shirou, the Big Bad Pirate Who Signs Treaties In Blood?"

     "That was a completely utilitarian decision." Her pirate friend nodded at the cloud of messenger hawks taking off from the ambassadorial quarter of the city, like they would after any big treaty had been signed. "Political pressure in Kaizuka is going to be nasty once the world knows I'm at a ninja event. They don't need me looking weak to boot. We've had enough rebellions in the last month to last me all year, thanks."

     "Wow," Hikaru mused, suddenly glad she never had to sign any treaties if stuff like that was going to matter. "It must be tough being famous."

~//~

     Perhaps the Chairman hadn't yet authorized him to disassemble Yudaiji's 'hidden' weapons framework, which Suoh could spy through the Great Hall's top windows. Perhaps there was (as usual) even some sense in that decision, given that countering Yudaiji's plan at the very last second would minimize their enemy's -- or guest's -- ability to regroup. Nevertheless, he had no intention of wasting any second he had available to study his opponent's preparations. Ijyuin could handle scouting the rafters. He himself would take the view from the ground. Goodness only knew how the Chairman ever found himself prepared for anything, but Suoh had to and would always trust Nokoru's ability to react to threats appropriately even if he was so completely focused on staging his latest spectacle that he'd failed to notice the world-rending noise of the Imperial Family's personal swordsmith and training master borrowing their forge just under three quarters of an hour ago.

     "And lights!" Nokoru called from the front of the orchestra. "Curtain up!"

     The red velvet curtains drew up from the middle, revealing the Takamura family's ward, Azuya Nagisa-san, playing a lilting melody on her flute. The Chairman had developed a three-lamp colored lighting system that allowed the spotlight to be stark and bright, illuminating her while leaving the rest of the stage in perfect darkness, but calibrated so her features were defined with lifelike color -- not so washed out as stage lighting in other big theaters tended to be. The visual effect was impressive, Suoh had to admit, and Nagisa-san's playing was as lovely as always. It was no surprise that she was one of the four finalists for the music competition. He couldn't have been prouder of her if he'd truly been her older brother by blood.

     On the next measure, Nokoru called to the lighting booth, "Cue 2... now!" and another spotlight went up on the left side of the stage, where Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress Kendappa, sat on a pedestal with her harp. Her bright, staccato plucking blended seamlessly with the flute -- a simple tune, but even Suoh found himself captivated by its charm. Nokoru certainly had a way with event planning. That said, he wasn't going to let a rehearsal get the better of--

     "Cue 3... now!"

     Just as the lights came up on Kohaku's pedestal on stage right, and the Impala ninja sang, "Though the door you seek may be hard for you to find...", a hawk swooped down from the rafters to deliver a message. "Your chance is there if you keep your eyes open wide!" the blond sang, and Suoh turned the attention he could spare from watching the exits toward his letter.

     Far more than the slantwise rhyme on stage (although that was unsavory), the reports that Death Shirou was signing treaties in blood in their amphitheater triggered his recurrent headaches. Also like the slantwise rhyme, there was nothing he could do about Death Shirou engaging in ostentatious politics. Once the Chairman made up his mind that something was a good idea, there was no persuading him otherwise. Tucking away that headache for another day, Suoh glanced at the second report -- strange scratching noises in the warehouse just off the main square. Investigations turned up nothing unusual.

     Which meant something very unusual was likely to happen, he thought with a groan. His headache was only going to get worse. There was only one reason for his security team not to find a cause for a suspicious noise, and that was because the "cause" was someone who was better at hiding than they were at seeking. Yudaiji shouldn't have been up to that level, but then again, everyone did have good days. He'd have to check it out personally, as soon as Ijyuin was done in the rafters so the Chairman wouldn't be unattended.

     To no one's surprise, the Chairman himself was adjusting his radio earpiece, presumably to hear a similar report from his personal information network, and one of the many Ookawa subordinates had stepped out of the shadows to whisper in Utako-san's ear. Why she was suddenly incensed (there was no mistaking the way she propped her fists on her hips), he couldn't say. Her report had to be about Shirou as well, but it couldn't be surprise that one of their more formidable enemies was present at the festival. She'd been one of the more amused and least surprised when Shidou-san had outed Death Shirou at the bonfire last night, in keeping with the Ookawa clan's talents for information gathering. And yet, there she was, glaring now at the Empress, now at the Chairman, and finally flicking a token at Nokoru that was marked with the town's pentagram crest.

     The Chairman caught it, and called, "Cue 4, now!" in perfect time with the music despite his attention being completely on Utako-san. Suoh had long despaired of Imonoyama Nokoru choosing to employ his multitasking skills to do two or more useful things at once, but at least they let him consider his fellow scion's message while he conducted his rehearsal.

     Everyone on stage took the lighting cue as a sign that they should continue despite the Chairman abandoning his place to join Utako-san by the background band.

     Princess Tomoyo sang her part from her platform at the back of the stage. The acoustics of the hall had been designed to project sounds on stage and minimize those in the audience, so the Princess's voice rang out, "Is that the form of a door you see?" such that even most ninja would've had trouble making out whispers from the orchestra below.

     No whisper the Chairman could make, however, was too quiet for Suoh to hear. "Shall we speak in private?" the blond asked the lady. Hardly a surprise that what they had to talk about was a secret. What wasn't when you were standing in front of major foreign nationals?

     Nokoru acted like nothing was the matter. He called out "Full lights, now!" while he and Utako-san walked toward the back of the hall. It should have been his responsibility as the Chairman's second to preside over the now illuminated stage. Nevertheless, Suoh flicker-stepped into their path. Their four finalists were competent enough on their own.

     "I must beg your pardon, Takamura-san," the lady said with a smile. "This is a private matter. Business between our two clans. I'm sure you understand."

     "If your private matter concerns a certain highly destructive pirate -- and, if I interpret your earlier actions correctly, that pirate is connected to the Imperial family's swordsmith -- I hope you will understand that keeping such matters private from the man organizing the entire city's security forces is not in your best interests."

     "As perceptive as ever, Suoh." The clear blue depths of Nokoru's eyes threatened to swallow him up the way they always did when the Chairman smiled his small, proud smile. Suoh had to fight off the choked-up feeling, however, and refocus his attention before staring at Nokoru left him unable to see anything else. There were enemies in Kragero, unthwarted plots. He needed to stay sharp. And yet, Nokoru, who never turned away, was the one to speak first. "Lady Utako, as you can see, there would be no breach of secrecy to invite Suoh to our conference, and his awareness may benefit us all. Nevertheless, the choice is yours."

     The lady narrowed calculating eyes at the two of them, then waved her permission. "Well, I suppose he wouldn't rest until he learned everything anyway, and we don't need him splitting his attention. But if your boyfriend can know, so can mine. Is that fair, Nokoru-sama?"

     She snapped her fingers almost before the Chairman nodded his instant approval. Ijyuin appeared next to his fiancée (he was a fool if he thought no one had noticed their secret engagement) a moment later. Seeing as he was nearly a member of the Ookawa clan now, and someone the Chairman held in the deepest confidence, his presence was hardly a compromise. The four of them walked into the lighting booth as the lighting engineers (whose job was done for the next four minutes) ran away as fast as they could.

     "My dear cousin," Nokoru said, bowing, although the Ookawa and Imonoyama clans hadn't been technically one family in more generations than a sensible person counted, "I understand your grievance--"

     "With all due respect, Nokoru-sama, allow me to be quite clear. I've received intelligence about a discussion between Death Shirou and Magami Tokiko that makes it quite clear that the sword you brought the Imperial Swordsmith here to forge is not the Shinken meant as the Imonoyama family legacy, but the Shinken meant for the Ookawa clan! Or do you intend to deny that you found Magami Tohru's son and brought him here without so much as consulting me?"

     Two feet away, Ijyuin tried to calm Utako-san in their own private language of coos and falsetto whispers, and she assured him with much the same sounds that everything would be fine as soon as Nokoru admitted he was wrong.

     She was a lady, of course, so he would.

     Without so much as a moment to think, the Chairman took to his knee and clasped Utako-san's hand. Suoh made a mental note to book the tailor a week from now instead of a month. The knees on the Chairman's trousers were suffering more wear than usual during this festival. "I cannot deny the truth, Lady Utako. The Lady Tohru required an oath of my mother before leaving with my Aunt Saya, that she would reveal to no one where she had gone and would allow no one to know she had seen a vision -- that her son would hold the Shinken -- until the inevitable had come to pass. It pained me beyond telling that I had to deceive one lady in order to keep the secrets of another, but I was bound by that oath. More apology, I cannot give."

     "Hmph. Aunt Tokiko's sister didn't trust us not to follow her, is that it?" Even Lady Utako couldn't look annoyed in the face of the Chairman's absolute sincerity.

     The blond shook his head. "I couldn't say," he answered, which was fair enough. All of this had to have happened shortly before they were born. Although the Ookawa clan's reputation as spies was well earned. Anyone who refused to trust them when it came to not following someone was more right than wrong, whatever this was about. Suoh knew that much.

     The lady shook her head and cracked the door open as if to leave. After a moment of silence, however, as the mingled voices on stage drifted through the audio monitors singing, "A wonderland that exists only for you..." she shut it again.

     "Nokoru-sama. If you've invited the heir to the Ookawa legacy here to receive his due, from so far away... why haven't you designated your own family's heir as well? Surely time is of the essence, or you wouldn't have..."

     She fell silent, looking up at Nokoru's now sad smile with understanding eyes.

     "The Imonoyama family heir exists, but I couldn't invite him to an event like this. Surely you know why, Lady Utako. I... We. Will find another way."

     "Of course," she said with a nod, leaving the room with her head high as if there had never been a problem. Nokoru held the door for her, and then for Suoh, making it clear that there would be no more discussion now.

     Very well. He'd ask his questions later.

~//~

     "Fuuma..." Kamui wrote on his pad of paper in the last rays of the sunset, his guts tying in knots again. After he'd left Hikaru for another round of Icchan's training, he'd sworn he'd contact his mother to get this all sorted out, but once he finished climbing through the shadows in some absurd forest of giant flowers and come back to his refuge in the clocktower, he couldn't find the words to ask if she'd been lying to him his whole life. But he could always talk to Fuuma. That always made him feel better, even when what he had to ask was absurd. "Fuuma, would we still be friends if I was a ninja?"

     Before he could take the words back, the magic paper he'd stolen from Clow Reed folded itself into a dragon and flew off into the clouds. Kamui counted down from ten. That was usually how long it took before the message got to Fuuma, and he got an answer. Sure enough, by the time he got to three, lines started writing themselves in brown ink on the paper still in his lap.

     Kamui? What are they doing to you over there? I'll always be your friend, of course, but you know they can't make you a ninja, right? But yes. Yes, we'd still be friends. We'll always be friends, forever. Although you still need to tell me what you're talking about.

     ... Kamui? the paper prompted him again, after a second.

     "I'm here," he wrote to Fuuma. "And it's nothing. It's just this place."

     As long as he had Fuuma and Kotori, it didn't matter anyway. Out in the city, he could see for miles, in perfect crystal detail, and he couldn't even muster up the energy to be angry that he didn't need a spyglass to do it. Apparently, he had a knack for ninja techniques, and there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing he could do but pretend there was still a reason he should wonder why he had that knack. At this point, the clearest thing in the world was why the combined heads of the ninja community had summoned him here, of all people, to undergo training. And that goddamn Pirate King, Fai D. Fluorite, had known the whole time, hadn't he?

     He'd been part of setting this up.

     And Kamui was still trying to ignore the pointed hints he'd gotten from Clow Reed two weeks ago that the reason for setting this up was, apparently, that the world was ending.

     What the hell was he even supposed to do about that? Did it somehow help the world not end if he could see through a window fifteen blocks away that Princess Tomoyo was giving orders to Syaoran, Princess Sakura, and Kurogane, or that he could use his enhanced hearing to catch her saying the lot of them should go to the storehouse by the main green, and she'd be fine with the army of kunoichi in dark glasses who'd materialized behind her? He didn't see how that helped anything. Tons of ninja could already see what he could see now, and hear what he could hear.

     What they were supposed to do in the storehouse, Kamui couldn't guess. He could see that rows of stone columns had picked themselves up off their pedestals and started dancing a reel with several dozen statues, but after the week he'd had, why would he question that inanimate objects had suddenly decided they needed to be animate for awhile? It wouldn't be the first time he couldn't see the point in some of the 'games' the ninja had at their festival. Who did competitive paperwork filing?!

     New words on his paper pulled his eyes back to his conversation with Fuuma.

     Okay, well if you don't want to talk about that, maybe you can tell me why I'm getting news about you making peace with Civic? Satsuki nearly broke a teacup in her hand when the stories started coming in. You and Princess Euphemia really signed a treaty?!

     "That was not my fault," Kamui scratched down as fast as he could. "And it's temporary. Although I may have accidentally made actual peace with Impala..."

     Relax. The rumor mill back home says you somehow conquered Impala, then had Civic's royal family at gunpoint begging you to spare them, and you wrote out terms in your enemies' blood. Nobody's calling you a pansy.

     The words paused for a moment, long enough for Kamui to gulp before they restarted.

     You didn't actually use somebody's blood, did you?

     He thought long and hard, but eventually admitted, "It was my blood. For show."

     Kamui...!

     "I heal fast, you know that! You can barely see the cut now. And if Chizeta had decided to revolt again because I looked weak out there, a lot more blood would've been spilt!"

     Careful, Kamui, or Fai will make you an ambassador for a laugh. Don't tell me the rumors about you winning a ninja beauty contest are true, too?"

     "Well," Kamui wrote, then stopped. He wasn't sure how to go on. Having Fuuma ask him about everything that'd happened made this whole messed up trip seem more real. If only he could go back to when he could believe he'd leave all this behind him when he went home.

     Wait, what?! Fuuma's words prompted him. You've got to be kidding.

     "I didn't win, okay?! I got some award for best portrait, but I didn't win!" He'd never wanted Fuuma to know about any of this, but of course once he'd been outed there was no way to avoid it. He could feel himself blushing just looking at the paper. The last thing he needed was to come home to his shipmates calling him a beauty king, and all the tabloids printing, "Voted Most Beautiful among ninja" next to his name for the year to come.

     ... How did they even get you on stage?

     "I can explain--"

     And you got a portrait award? Does that mean there are pictures?

     "Not decent ones! That sneak Magami got a shot with her picture machine when I was getting out of the shower." He glanced at the horribly embarrassing portrait of him looking over his shoulder with his whole back and ass and most of his legs showing. He wanted to put it out of sight, but he hadn't been able to get it back in the envelope, and he didn't want to leave it anywhere these ninja -- or anyone -- might find it. "At least it's not from the front, but I'm still dripping wet in it and fucking naked. Talk about rude. I think I'm going to burn it."

     While he waited for a response, he noticed a spot on the page growing larger and larger, one side a sharp line with round edges spreading around it, like ink bleeding out of a pen nib. Like Fuuma had his pen down on the paper and had forgotten how to move it.

     "Fuuma?" he wrote.

     Don't--

     A few seconds later, he followed with a long, shaky line and another ink blob.

     "Is the ship caught in a storm? If you're under attack, you should--"

     No, we're fine. It's fine, just don't b--

     And yet another ink blob. But Fuuma couldn't have a reason to want him to bring those pictures home. They and Kotori shared baths together all the time at the hotsprings in Kaizuka. It wasn't anything he hadn't seen before. Or... would be particularly interested in, Kamui thought, blushing harder this time. With all the years they'd been friends, Fuuma had had every chance he could have wanted to ... you know ... be interested. But clearly he had some reason for not wanting the portrait burned. Did he think the ninjas had booby-trapped it so he'd get hit with something if he destroyed the damn thing?

     That was a good thought, actually. Ninja did booby-trap things.

     And he'd best wait until after he was gone to burn it anyway. Just his luck, that Magami lady would know he'd destroyed it and give him another before he left.

     While he tried to figure out how to phrase that like he wasn't wondering if there was a chance Fuuma wanted to see him looking ... theoretically sexy, since he guessed he'd won the award and all (he didn't need false hope, and he didn't want to get shot down either), the text inked on Clow Reed's magic paper moved. Just... moved, with all the lines getting closer together, and a few at the top disappearing. In their place, an ink drawing appeared that looked like Fuuma's face. At first, he looked dazed, but it wasn't long before the ink-painted face shifted to a more focused, but confused expression.

     The lips on the drawing moved, in a pattern he'd seen often enough.

     The picture was saying, "Kamui?"

     "Fuuma? Can you see me?" he asked. Even if there was no sound--

     But he never got an answer. The paper crumbled to dust. His conversation had reached its limit, and writing a second letter never worked. It was like he'd run out of power. For all he knew, it was actually that he'd run out of power, whatever that meant to Clow Reed's artifact. He could sustain those chats longer now than he used to manage, and now Fuuma's face...

     Was he just getting better with practice?

     Or were these ninja doing something to make him stronger?

     Fuck if he knew. He wasn't an answer person.

     More importantly, he heard swords clashing somewhere in the city. Not the sound of swords in a tournament, either. Whoever was swinging that sword was doing it in a battle. Kamui jumped to the top of the guardrail to see where the sound had come from.

     That storehouse, apparently, where Kurogane, Syaoran, and the Princess had arrived, and the columns weren't just dancing anymore. They were trying to march out into the main square, and the few ninja allowed to be present were holding them back while security forces around the area kept anyone on their way to the bonfire out of the mess. The red, blue, and green flashes running over the roofs had to be Hikaru's team, going to provide backup.

     And maybe this was a ninja city, but he was still here, and he wasn't about to sit around being protected while someone else had a high-level fight! He'd been itching to break something all week, and now was his chance!

     "Has anyone warned you about fate, Shirou Kamui?" a voice called from inside the tower.

     Kamui spun, pulling his sword as he jumped to the doorway.

     "Who's there?"

     The dark haired man sitting in the corner smiled, exactly the kind of smile Kamui didn't trust. He'd seen it on Fai's face too many times. Dark, nondescript clothes, no armband saying what country he was from. He was pretty, no doubt about that, but "tall, dark-haired, and good looking" wasn't exactly a description that narrowed down your options around here. He was wearing a necklace that looked distinctive, though. Three cabochon cut stones on a ring of gold chains. Somehow, Kamui felt like he'd seen that somewhere before.

     As he stood, the shadows behind the man seemed to ripple into the shape of arching, midnight black wings. "My name doesn't matter." The wings folded into his back and faded out like an illusion, but Kamui was sure he'd seen them.

     "I like names. They make it easier to tell people who to look out for."

     "I didn't come here to talk about me." For all the ninja training he'd gotten this week, Kamui didn't see how the bastard got inside his guard. It was like a bolt of lightning struck, and suddenly the man was tilting Kamui's chin to better see his eyes. What Kamui found himself looking into didn't seem like a human's eyes, though. It was like looking down the wrong end of a telescope, from the edge of the universe down into someone's soul.

     "There's a thread missing," the intruder said.

     Kamui didn't dare move. He didn't like admitting when he was outmatched, but he damn well knew when he was facing someone he shouldn't fight. "What do you mean, a thread?"

     "A piece of your fate. Someone took it. There's a hole, and it's starting to fray. You know, fate's not something you should play with lightly."

     "I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about!"

     The smile came back to the man's lips, and those infernal eyes squinted shut. "Then I hope whoever did it to you knew what they were about. Because with the kind of fate you've got, that's either a really inspired idea, or a really, truly horrible one. Or both! I guess we'll see."

     And just like that, he was gone. Not running in shadows, or climbing, or flicker-stepping. Just gone. Kamui felt the very air around him turning light, as if the man's presence had made the atmosphere thick with all his talk about fate this, fate that. Kamui had grown up with the word on his mother's lips. It was one of her favorites. It'd never sounded quite so ominous before.

     Well, now he really needed something to punch.

~//~

     "I do wish people in this city would quiet down," Watanuki murmured somewhere over Doumeki's head. The quiet, breathing swell of his chest against Doumeki's back let out in a sigh. "It's getting so a man can't find a place to read a book in peace."

     "Hmm."

     He assumed there was some kind of fuss that anybody with super-hearing could pick up. All Doumeki could hear was the Aeolian harp set in the middle of the rock garden where they were lounging, which Watanuki had picked specifically because nobody ever came here when a festival was on. It was nice. Solitude, nice scenery, an extra large box of snacks and drinks, plus a pile of novels Watanuki had produced (gasping, "You haven't read the Ghost Soup series?! Do you pirates have no culture whatsoever? Here, you start with Infidel Blue, and then... oh, I'll just stack them up in order...") had made for a fairly perfect day. Every time he'd glanced up from the text to see Watanuki lounging next to him, or behind him, or on the ground, or wherever he'd decided to lay for the moment before he got up to stretch, looking downright serene except for the occasional smile, Doumeki had to admit he liked this side of his ninja, too. And yeah, Watanuki was hotter when you could see his face without the contortions of annoyance and rage. Definitely at least an eight.

     As he put down Infidel Purple and reached for Infidel Red, Watanuki swatted his hand away from the pile. "If we're going to the bonfire and you plan to insist on attending the drinking contest again, you don't have time to start another one. It's already sunset."

     "Anybody I know telling stories tonight?"

     "That depends. Did you make the acquaintance of Akechi Shigetaka or Namiya Tomoaki while you were running around meeting all of my coworkers?"

     "Don't sound familiar."

     Watanuki's eyebrows started twitching again, which meant there hadn't been any right answer to that question. Grabbing one last handful of snacks before his lover could pack them away, Doumeki marvelled at the way he flailed his way through clean-up. "Well, I don't expect you to know the local doctors, but Namiya Tomoaki is an internationally renowned author! Chevrolet's finest, officially! You could at least know him even if you haven't heard of--"

     "You've got more mail."

     Every ounce of vituperation streaming off his lover's tongue melted to stillness as Watanuki narrowed his eyes at the cloud of butterflies dropping a folded note into his outstretched hand. He pursed his lips as he read it, then handed it to Doumeki with nothing more to say than a brusque, "Hurry up, and stay where I can see you."

     The note, Doumeki saw, said, "Clean up on aisle five." He strapped his hook back onto his right hand and settled his crossbow over his shoulder. Nothing the Witch Queen wanted her personal assistant to 'clean up' was going to be anything good. Even if Doumeki hadn't been able to see the complete seriousness on Watanuki's face, he'd have known that.

     Doumeki had expected they'd run after that, but Watanuki settled into a quick walk instead, the kind of unhurried-looking walk that didn't attract any attention from passersby but somehow got you where you were going as fast as your legs could go. There was more to being a ninja and knowing how to go unnoticed than just hiding in shadows after all.

     The signs behind the security teams around the main square said the area was cordoned off to prep for tomorrow's surprise competition, calling it a hard hat construction area and everything, but something told Doumeki that the clanging and banging echoing from inside the blocked zone wasn't construction. One nod from Watanuki, and the security team let both of them inside. The running started once they were out of sight of the ninja kept outside.

     "I get why they let you in, but why me?" Doumeki asked.

     "Because I told them to," his lover spat. Their eyes met, and Watanuki didn't wait for him to ask anything before he answered, "After your little declaration that you'd always show up if I was in trouble, I couldn't very well risk you deciding I was in trouble -- which I'm not going to be -- and trying to get in without me. The guards would stop you, you'd do something stupid and piratey, I'd have to come bail you out while I'm working... I don't need the distraction."

     With a hint of a smile, Doumeki answered, "Works for me."

     There wasn't much to say after that, or much time to say it in, when they turned the corner to find a handful of ninja holding off a phalanx of stone columns marching (as much as things without legs could march, so more like hopping), supported by a stone cupid artillery unit. There were living ropes and curtains trying to grapple the ninja, too, but the ninja were holding their own with enough knives, sticks, and weapons of all description to furnish an entire warship. Doumeki noted all of their locations and movement patterns as he pulled out his crossbow and nocked his first arrow. Watanuki blended in with the shadows, wearing all black as he did, pulling a net out of nowhere to wrestle a column back into place, but it was easy enough to track him by the sound of his voice ("What sort of nonsense is this, anyway? Now stay! I said stay, or I will kick you again, don't think I won't!").

     The other Hundhammeren ninja, Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu flashed red, blue, and green with swords flying, bright as day. The big one, Lantis, was at the edge of the fray turning columns to gravel with Kurogane as they dared approach the square. Eagle Vision would be more of a problem, seeming to disappear as he did despite his flowing white cape. He'd show up in a lightning flash that left a statue tumbling over, then walk off brushing his hands together only to disappear into plain sight again. Then again, he could trust Eagle Vision to damn well dodge.

     The kid from Malvek with the tasselled sword (the one Lord Shirou had kidnapped, he thought) was clearing roads for the little princess, wasting whatever he could, with her sailing through behind on rollerskates. There wasn't much sneaky about how she skimmed up falling columns, flying into the air in her explosion of petticoats to deliver a coup de grace on a statue with her baton, but it was nothing if not effective.

     Them plus Imonoyama (with his blue- and black-haired backup, of course) made for a full house, but Doumeki could shoot a pomegranate seed in a bar brawl from a hundred paces, drunk on two bottles of rum (long story). He took aim for some of the shit flying through the fracas. His bolt shot through the crowd and pinned one of the columns to a wall with a loop of rope. The stone bits struggled to get free, but couldn't find enough slack.

     Pulling another arrow off his back, he looked for another shot, but just as he was about to pull the trigger, stopped at the sound of a bloodcurdling scream he knew too well. That was Lord Shirou's voice, close at hand, and he couldn't spot a location on him. A breath later, he showed up, landing right in the center of everything like he'd dropped out of the sky on a falling star. Dust rose like smoke off the crater around his feet. He didn't quite punch a pillar that lunged for him, but with one twist of his hand the rock splintered into dust.

     And of course, there were the feathers.

     "I beg your pardon!" Watanuki screeched, marching up to the pirate. "Death Shirou, I presume? No, don't bother explaining, I know all about it. And you can leave this to us! We don't need any pirates helping us with our own affairs!"

     Doumeki wasn't going to say anything. He was going to pick his way forward through the fight, though, and see if he couldn't pull his ninja away from Takifugu's Rear Admiral before things that weren't stone started exploding.

     While electricity seemed to flicker through Lord Shirou's hair, threatening to come right out his eyeballs, Watanuki yelled, "In fact, you can go home!"

     "You think I'd be here if somebody wasn't twisting my arm? Mind your own business!"

     They were three inches from blows, and Doumeki was about to lunge the last three yards to knock Watanuki out of harm's way when a red flash dropped in front of him and grabbed Lord Shirou's shoulders on the rebound. Hikaru swung the pirate's body around to face yet another pillar, yelling, "Kamui-san! Kill it!" And with another roar (and what looked like a series of flicker-steps accented with hissing pops of lightning), Lord Shirou charged into the air and clotheslined the granite monstrosity -- longways, his arm ripping down the whole shaft as it turned into yet more dust.

     He wasn't sure which was more terrifying -- how the stories about what Lord Shirou could do in a fight looked like they might be true, or that one of Hundhammeren's ninja was good enough friends with him to have worked out the Pirate King's own technique for keeping Lord Shirou pointed in the right direction. Either way, his priorities were on the dark-haired ninja who'd scrambled backwards in the dust when Lord Shirou's shockwave had hit. Doumeki gave him a hand up and snapped a few times in front of his lover's dazed eyes.

     "Lord Shirou's not any happier about him being here than you are. You might want to give him a minute to get it out of his system."

     "Shit," gasped his lover, eyes and mouth hanging equally wide. "Well. He and I will just have to take this up later then. I'd... best get back to my work or Lady Yuuko will dock me."

     "Yeah," Doumeki agreed. Then he got out his cudgel to bash his way back to a shooting position. When ninja had a mess to clean up, it sure was a hell of a party.

Chapter Text

     The battle raging through the once-serene and perfectly organized warehouse bothered Suoh on multiple levels, and the level of concentration he needed to kick yet another flying piece of rubble into a wall was just low enough that he could think about all of them. There was the chaos, of course, with destruction everywhere giving way to more waves of things that needed to be destroyed. Windmill kicking his way through a line of granite statues dancing a minuet, he counted 39 stone faces he'd personally kicked in since arriving, which he knew (having double checked the inventory on schedule) was 14 more than had ever been stocked in this warehouse to begin with (not to mention the statues others had destroyed).

     Crossbow bolts and magic fireballs whistling around his head, he could manage. Inventory mysteriously coming to life and multiplying was another matter altogether. And, unlike the pirate of possible ninja descent, Shirou Kamui, he couldn't even take pleasure in the wanton destruction. Their guest, who was screaming his way through the process of turning everything that moved to dust, seemed more at ease in this battle than he had at any other point during the festival, but Suoh could only appreciate that none of his attacks damaged the building walls or structural beams. After all, he'd be one of the people cleaning it up when this was over.

     Ryuuzaki from Hundhammeren whirled off a round of attacks that froze several bogeys in their tracks, and landed back to back with him. "Does anybody have any clue what's going on?!" she yelled. "I don't know about you guys, but our team has a policy. Find out what people want before you fuck them up. Imonoyama-san, you've got to know something!"

     Suoh used the luxury of having another fighter at his back to string several kunai onto microfilament wire so he could knock down a phalanx of columns instead of taking them one at a time, but the flip side of that luxury was that he had even more time to think. Only Lady Yuuko's orders could have gotten Watanuki, all three members of Hundhammeren's top strike force, and the strike force leader's two inseparable lovers to show up here to fight without any of them knowing why they were fighting. Princess Tomoyo saw the future perfectly, so it was no surprise she'd sent her best to help (although Suoh noted for the future that Princess Sakura had made that list, when he and everyone else had heretofore believed she was only trained in theatrical combat). Lady Yuuko, on the other hand, had to perform a reading to see the future, and she wouldn't have paid the price for that without billing the Chairman. It was more likely that she'd sensed the energy responsible for this mess and known it'd be trouble immediately.

     The number of troublemakers whom Lady Yuuko would consider worth her people's time when there wasn't a contract involved was shorter than an Ookawa's temper (which, now that Death Shirou's heritage had been brought to his attention, was a connection he could easily see). There was only one entity Suoh had ever known the Witch to consider her business even when operating in someone else's bailiwick, and that was Clow Reed -- not someone he wanted to find himself fighting in the middle of a city full of bystanders, but a very believable reason to find oneself in an incomprehensible battle with animate stonework. Turning to the Chairman to make sure he'd heard, Suoh caught sight of the blond shaking his head to say no.

     Nokoru had heard. Moreover, he'd realized what Suoh was thinking, and decided it was too soon to be sure.

     The Chairman called out, "I'll need higher ground to analyze whether this is artifact-based magic or caster-based if we want to neutralize the effects!"

     "Fuu-chan!" yelled Shidou Hikaru. "Sakura-chan! Can you get Imonoyama-san up to the fifth floor catwalk?"

     He was changing angles? Through Suoh's next barrage of attacks on the items closing in -- plywood penguins that had never been on any inventory he'd conducted -- Suoh kept a close eye on the Chairman as he scaled the roller-skating Princess's shoulders. The expression on the blond genius's face wasn't hiding anything. He honestly wasn't sure that Clow Reed was responsible. Nokoru must've noticed something he hadn't.

     At a glance from the Princess, Li Syaoran grappled a pillar and aimed it at the fifth story catwalk so Sakura could skate towards her goal. All that remained was for Hououji Fuu to boost them with her wind magic for the final ascent. Once he was sure that Nokoru would reach the landing safely, Suoh went back to disabling their surroundings as quickly as possible, focusing on extending his hearing as much as he could bear in the midst of all this din and screaming. Somewhere, far in a back corner of the warehouse, he heard a deep voice chuckling. It wasn't a voice he knew, which was worrisome, but at least that meant it wasn't Yudaiji.

     A gruff whisper joined the laughter. "There must have been a simpler way."

     As the first voice said, "I did try asking politely for a private audience. All my best efforts were for naught!" Suoh signaled Ryuuzaki to get her ears on the back corner and start moving toward the sounds. She took care of getting Hououji and Shidou into formation, and Suoh whistled a tune that Ijyuin would recognize, wherever he was. He'd take the location from the rear while the rest of them closed in on the front.

     "Perhaps if your best efforts had involved more direct honesty and less taunting?" asked the second voice.

     Their best bet would be to get to the walls, somewhere out of their opponent's line of sight, before they scaled ladders to the catwalk. They didn't have the luxury of the faster but far more obvious means they'd used to get Nokoru a higher vantage point (where now Princess Sakura was catching flying debris and dropping it on wooden penguins -- oh what Suoh would not have done to have boiling oil to burn anything wooden to a crisp!). The four of them spread out in four different directions to keep their plans from catching the speakers' eyes, leaving wreckage of stone and wood in their wakes.

     A girlish voice joined the earlier two as Suoh laid his hands on a ladder at last. "Oh, Suppi!" the third voice chided. "Where's the fun in that?"

     "I can't see the fun in most of the things you do," the second voice answered.

     Zipping through shadows as fast as he could move without sound, up the ladder and across the catwalk, Suoh made it to within ten yards of the corner before tremors started in the walls. He'd have to walk more carefully now. Out in the main fight, Nokoru shouted instructions to the Malvek ninja. "The new columns and statues are coming from the cubbies at 8 o'clock and 3 o'clock from my six!" Suoh made a note to establish a battle code with Malvek once this was over. Having to yell was simply embarrassing.

     The first voice -- the ringleader, it seemed -- spoke again. "Spinel Sun, Ruby Moon, I think it's time we give our valiant opponents something else to worry about, don't you?"

     No sooner had he spoken than a panther with butterfly wings swooped out of the shadows. A humanoid figure with wings of their own followed with magenta hair streaming. The cat opened up a stream of blue fire on Watanuki (answered with profane yelling, a rain of shuriken, and a hail of crossbow bolts from Deadeye Doumeki) while the more human-looking one fired a barrage of red crystals at Lantis and Kurogane. He didn't pity his enemy their attention. Suoh, meanwhile, descended on the mastermind's hiding spot. The three girls appeared at his side just as he arrived.

     To find no one there.

     Ijyuin peeked out of a shadow. "I didn't see him go out the back, Takamura-sempai."

     "Find him," Suoh said. "Signal us when you do."

     "Yes, sir!" He seemed to walk off normally, only to disappear when Suoh blinked, without even a shadow to be seen. Ijyuin's ability to hide was something he would never, ever get accustomed to, but there wasn't time to think about that now.

     "Meanwhile, let's--"

     But his suggestion was cut off by the panther flying back to aim its blue fire in their direction. Everyone dodged. They scattered in four directions to make a less unified target -- Hououji settling to the ground in a bubble of wind that shielded her from the flames, Ryuuzaki sliding down an ice path she built as she went, twisting and turning to avoid the cat's attacks. Shidou simply jumped, slashing through several columns on her way to support Lantis. The fact that most people would break their legs jumping from that height didn't seem to matter to her in the least. Suoh threw kunai on wires, trying to grapple the beast -- or at least draw its attention away from the rest of the battle. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Princess Sakura skating along a ramp on the fifth level to gather speed, and Suoh aimed to keep the flying cat hovering as still as possible in the air as if the Chairman's own life depended on it.

     Because if Princess Sakura missed her landing and fell, Nokoru would dive after her. There was no other possible outcome in that situation, which meant that his Chairman's life very much depended on the lady's safety.

     He managed to distract the cat enough that the creature seemed not to notice the Princess. When she landed on its back with her tulle-puffed skirts frilling out like a tutu, its head jerked as if he hadn't expected the impact. After the panther tried to shake her off, unsuccessfully, it dove into a barrel roll between several rows toppled columns. Suoh, for once, thanked every force in the universe for the growing piles of white feathers covering the floor. If the Princess fell, she wasn't likely to be hurt, and at present his signals to the Chairman that the lady was safe were the only thing keeping the blond's mind on the battle. At some point, however, Suoh would need to find out what kind of theatrical training the Daidouji family gave their ward. That roll would've lost any average rider, but Sakura had bent close to the creature's back, gripped its sides with her knees and held securely to his neck with one arm while bracing her baton with the other, sticking to the animal like a bow-covered burr. The cat had to give up trying to shake her free.

     And Suoh had to slide down the nearest ladder to keep pace with the beast diving at Eagle Vision and Hououji. Princess Sakura needed support, but he couldn't make plans from a distance when they had no codes and he clearly had no idea what her skills were.

     "Mr. Kitty," he heard her saying, "Would you mind telling us what this is about? We'd all really like to know."

     The next three seconds seemed to pass in a series of still moments flashing like miniature eternities in front of Suoh's eyes. The cat preparing to fire again, the Princess tapping him on the nose with her baton, yelling that she couldn't let him shoot at her friends. The howl of the protective winds Hououji summoned drowning out any sound from the cat or the girl while Suoh picked his angle to shoot a net at the beast. And then, even though the winds faded away with Princess Sakura looking like her seat on the creature was perfectly firm, he heard the girl scream. She rolled backwards over the flying cat's tail.

     Suoh's eyes met Nokoru's blue stare across the distance from the fifth floor catwalk, and every plan he'd made, he dropped. The Princess's safety had to come first.

~//~

     "Fuuka shourai!"

     With all the rubble in the air flying, she felt like a leaf tumbling through a sandstorm as she fell, and now the ground rocketing towards her head. She might have thought the new fright would knock away her scaredy-shivers over what Spinel-san had said, but nope. She still couldn't catch her breath, and she had to close her eyes to keep from seeing the rubble because what if they really were ghosts?!

     Syaoran's wind bubble caught her just as she fell onto a net rope, breaking her fall with just a hint of rope burn that probably wouldn't even show in the morning. Somehow, the sound of his voice helped Sakura remember that she was going to be okay -- that everything was going to be okay -- even if she still wanted to shrink down into a little, bitty ball and hide until sunrise. With the wall of wind from Syaoran's spell in place, she could even open her eyes, because any maybe-ghosts were on the other side of it now. What to do, she couldn't say, though. Her mind was spinning so fast with the heebie-jeebies, she couldn't even feel it when the net and the wind let her down onto the ground. But she noticed Syaoran helping her up off the cold stone floor! Mostly because of how differently shaky her legs were when she was looking at him instead of flying on a giant cat. She felt the swimmy lightness that usually meant Syaoran, and then she realized it was Syaoran who'd gotten her standing, and yes, she knew there was a chance the cat had been lying to her, but what if--?!

     All of a sudden, Sakura noticed she was sobbing into Syaoran's jacket, with his arms around her shoulders, and she jumped back three inches. She shouldn't have done that. She had to be strong! This was a big fight, and she wasn't going to chicken out! (But ghosts maybe?!) He was still holding her shoulders, but at least she wasn't getting so close it made him uncomfortable (which she could bet he had been, given how red his cheeks were). Oops. She had to be more considerate of Syaoran's boundaries than that. But what Spinel-san had said...! She shivered all over again, new tears coming up as soon as she'd wiped the old ones away.

     Syaoran coughed over his shoulder to clear his throat. "P-princess... what happened?"

     "Syaoran... Mr. Kitty, Spinel-san... he... he said the warehouse is h-h-haunted!"

     There! She'd said it! Now maybe someone would tell her it wasn't so and the shivers winding her chest tight so she couldn't breathe would stop! But everyone was quiet, and instead her breaths got shallower and shallower, and jeepers creepers if there really were ghosts... she didn't want to faint from not breathing, she wanted to run! But then what about the town, and shouldn't Chairman Imonoyama have known if there were ghosts in his warehouse? He'd seemed so confused before, though. And...

     While Syaoran stroked her hair and sort of croaked in sympathy, Takamura-san's calm voice from behind her asked, "The flying cat said there were ghosts here?" When she squeaked (she hadn't meant to, honest, it just came out), the local ninja swung around with panic in his eyes. "My apologies, Princess Sakura. I could never mean to upset you! What can I do to help?"

     "No, it's nothing, Takamura-san. I'm..." She forced herself to breathe deep and say it all at once before Syaoran had to explain for her. "I'm kind of really, really afraid of ghosts. I'm the one who should be sorry. If I hadn't been so scared, you two could have gotten the cat."

     "You have nothing to be sorry for, Princess," Syaoran assured her, but he was just being nice. She scowled (mostly at herself) for getting in such a fix that two other people had to stop fighting to take care of her. Although Syaoran meant it when he was being nice. She could tell from the way his eyebrows shot into his hairline and his throat got all tight when she pouted at him. Even though she'd been fine three minutes ago, now the thought of going near one of the pillars or the statues or anything just gave her the willies! Her shoulders were shaking too much to even lift her baton properly, let alone hit something.

     Takamura-san reached out to touch her arm as well. "Knowing what the enemy is saying, even if they're lying is critical, Princess. Don't blame yourself for this. Based on what you've just told me and what I've seen so far, I'm confident that our enemy knows all of our weaknesses and intends to use them to distract us. If ghosts are your weakness, we'll find someone who can say for certain whether our enemy's statement is true or not so we can find the best way to use your strengths. For now, Princess, you and your bodyguard should prepare weapons you can use from a distance. Can you make Molotov cocktails?"

     Syaoran nodded yes, bringing out a tray of bottles, a pile of rags, and a few jugs of ethanol, which Sakura started pouring while he soaked the rags. She couldn't believe how much steadier her hands were when she picked up the jugs! Just having something she felt like could do again, she felt better already. She could almost think straight. It sure was nice to have a team. Although she hadn't known ghosts didn't like fire! Maybe it was like daylight? But not all ghosts minded daylight, so... She'd ask Tomoyo later. It was just as likely Takamura-san wanted to clean up scattered wood fragments, and she couldn't blame him. Splinters were awful!

     A few feet away, Fuu-san and Umi-san kept all the mayhem away from their position while Takamura-san made some kind of signal at Imonoyama-san above them, all working like they could read each other's minds. Their signals didn't look like anything more than nods to her. But they must have communicated something precisely, because not two seconds later, Imonoyama-san whistled, and before she knew it, Watanuki-san was jumping through the chaos with his pirate on his heels. She could just about feel ghosts all over his soul, even stronger than the usual ghosts she didn't notice until somebody told her. He had a presence to him like a churning whirlwind of things that weren't quite living -- only with him, she wasn't scared.

     "Now, what's this all about?!" he demanded. Takamura-san whispered in Watanuki-san's ear, and Sakura, kind of frozen in looking at him now that she'd realized what was different about him, kept an eye out for his reaction. When Syaoran touched her hand, she handed him a couple bottles to plug with his damp rags, of course! But then she looked right back at Watanuki-san. She had to know what was happening.

     The Hundhammeren ninja seemed surprised, at least. "Well, obviously I could see ghosts if they were here," he grumbled. "That's not the question! The question is whether they're high enough level that someone else could see them, too, in which case I wouldn't exactly have anything to add, now would I? I'm not a damned exorcist as many times as I've wished I were! Now, what I see is a warehouse full of architectural materials and furniture and such in revolt, and if there's nothing I can add to this discussion--"

     Takamura-san frowned -- more than usual, that is. "You can't tell when it's a ghost rather than a living spirit? Or magic?"

     "Only for the ones that aren't strong enough to pretend they're not ghosts! They all look like people to me! Weren't you listening?! Now I suggest if you want an absolute answer, call your best exor--"

     In one fluid motion, Doumeki-san cocked his crossbow, so smooth and sudden and pose-like (Tomoyo really had to meet this pirate! He was a born pose-modeler-person!) Sakura had to catch her breath while he aimed it one-handed at the alcove across the warehouse. Sakura handed Syaoran four more filled bottles and bounced up to see where he was pointing -- right where Imonoyama-san had said new columns where generating themselves. Sweet! A bolt of blue light sailed out with a high-pitched chiming noise that Sakura thought should have hurt her ears, but somehow didn't. It should've been scary or shocking, but it just felt... strong. Once it pierced through the flurry of flying shards of this and that, it thwacked straight into the alcove and the whole thing exploded in blue. Then, right on cue, a new column hopped out of the alcove, twisting itself into a spiral and back again like someone looking over his shoulder to see where a the projectile had come from.

     "Don't think they're ghosts," Doumeki-san said.

     Well, that was a relief! And super awesome!

     Although the rest of the group looked more shocked than relieved, all of them looking at the pirate gap-mouthed (Takamura-san less than the others, and Watanuki-san much, much more.) "What the fuck was that?!" the ninja boyfriend screamed.

     Sakura just hugged Syaoran with all her newly returned strength -- and oops, apparently hugged him too tight because now he looked like he was having trouble breathing and was turning red and glassy-eyed. "Hey, Syaoran! Let's teach you to do that, too!"

     He nodded silently until he got enough of his brain back to think with. Then he handed her a rack of finished Molotov cocktails and took a rack of his own, lighting a pilot flame on each set with a fire spell. With a grin Sakura couldn't have shrunk if she'd wanted to, she hurled a flaming bottle at some wooden penguins to clear her way back to the fight.

~//~

     The underground laboratory reeked of smoke, quite reasonably given that the air was so filled with it that Tokiko could hardly see where she was going. Navigating the whole complex was like walking through heaving curtains of smoke, and naturally all the lights were out. Of course, one hardly needed to be able to see perfectly when Icchan was cackling louder than the roaring flames of his forge. The heat of the forge would have told her where to go even if he'd been silent, since the hot air billowed towards her like a living thing, but if Icchan had been silent, she wouldn't have bothered going in. It was dangerous to interrupt him when something he was working on was troublesome enough to command his full attention.

     Tokiko pulled on her safety goggles to keep the smoke from burning her eyes and a filter mask to keep it from clogging her lungs, trusting her instincts to tell her when there was some kind of pit trap in the floor -- either left over from her adorable nephew's last training session or being constructed for the session set to begin when this round of forging was finished. The smoke cleared slightly near the door to Icchan's work room. His ventilator fans were working full force to get the forge clear of anything that might block the sword smith's view, but with the festival forcing him to work in stealth mode, he couldn't vent to the ground above -- hence using the main cavern for air filtration, she supposed. She still wouldn't take off her safety gear once she got into the room. Goodness only knew what he had in there, or whether she'd be able to walk in at all. The heat had been intense on the walk up, but at the doorway itself, the temperature felt so hot as to be impenetrable -- as if the forces that made water into solid, impassable ice in sufficient cold had a matching force that made air impassable when heated to the proper, scorching degree.

     It smelled like Hell itself (the hot Hell, anyway, which was the only appropriate one to speak of here, since this was hardly reminiscent of the mint-scented candy Hell), full of sulfur and char, and a thousand things she wasn't sure she had or wanted a name for. It managed not to be putrid, but the air was full of nothing but heat, combustion, and the prickling feel of acidity. Although she could imagine several places that were differently inhospitable to human life, she certainly couldn't imagine one that was more inhospitable.

     Seeing the flames inside the firepit where Icchan worked his metals, burning a mustard yellow on the edges and reaching towards a sort of green at its heart (disregarding the flecks of color that would've come from whatever fuel he was burning), she had more than enough reason to keep her distance. If she didn't wear a more substantial mask and protective clothes to go near, the air itself might burn her skin. Icchan seemed to have no problem. He tromped up and down on the switches for an array of bellows, making the flame burn ever hotter as bricks of compressed garbage from the festival flew down a chute to feed his flames. While he did, he beat the contents of a glowing bowl with a whisk, starting a lullaby she'd never heard before. "--twelve, I was there. I know not where they laid my bones, it could be anywhere. But when fire and smoke had faded, and darkness left my-- Ah, Magami-kun! Checking in, hmm?"

     "Kamui's readiness is something of a concern for me, yes."

     "Well, not to worry. Everything will be ready when I say it's ready."

     Not the most concrete of promises, but there wasn't much one could do about Icchan except trust him to do work that bordered on miraculous.

     "You came just in time to see the shaping of the edge on the blade! I'm mixing the tungsten and porcelain now," he said, nodding toward the bowl in his hands, which looked clear like glass now that she examined it closer. The glowing substance she'd noticed before was something molten within that didn't seem like it would be safe to carry, even with the oven mitts in the shape of woolly sheep that the smith wore on his hands. "The temperature is delicate, so you can't stay long, but I can make you a wind tunnel to see the forging."

     "I'll trust your judgement. So, you can forge porcelain?" She didn't bother to ask how he was mixing it with molten metal without firing it solid by accident. He'd probably just make a pun about tempering his ingredients properly.

     The man cackled, his tempo on the bellows under his feet never slowing. "Trade secrets, my dear. If I start telling, suddenly everyone will have greatswords that cut like razors, never go dull, and act as crystalline substructures for chemical genetic locking."

     "Or they could use Escudo."

     "Can't surprise the people you're forging for with Escudo, or make the materials yourself, or pass it down for generations. Also, you've heard me sing. I can barely keep tune on my Dad's old cradle songs... moreover Escudo doesn't use chemical genetic locking, that's forging actual soulstuff! And if that were safe in this case, no one would need me at all! Do you want Kamui battling his dearest person? Hmm? Well, do you?"

     Tokiko pushed her hand into the wind vortex that appeared in front of her, just cool enough to tolerate, and stepped inside the lab. "I suppose you have a point."

     "I believe I have five."

     From inside the door, she could see the table full of bubbling beakers lining the back wall like an alchemist's playground, and far to her left, a massive network of gears shifted a tiny nozzle that extruded bits of molten gold alloy (it had to be an alloy at that temperature) all along a spinning rod close to four feet long. The dots and lines it left behind formed what looked like an intricate sword guard -- two-handed, with a basket hilt, and stabilisers that would run down the base of the blade. The sword itself rose out of a steaming bath of water in the center of the room, carried by tongs moved by yet more gears and pistons.

     It looked as naked as swords always did when their tangs were exposed, no hilt attached. In fact, it barely looked like a sword yet. It was a thin rectangle of metal, perhaps half an inch thick, two inches wide, and a good six feet long. The machines settled it into a shaping trough, where Icchan poured the mixture in his bowl in two glowing stripes along either side. The whole thing went into the furnace to heat -- or at least to heat the center to match the sides. The molten parts turned smooth and solid even in the heart of that flame. Tokiko clenched her hands, holding back from trying to touch it when she knew it was as hot as liquid fire right now. But the marvel of being present for the creation of such a thing...

     "Never could've done this if it weren't for the festival," Icchan mused. "There's not a fuel stream big enough in the world that I could get these temperatures without someone noticing my supply line, normally, but twelve massive hordes of ninja partying for a week in one little city sure does the trick! If it weren't for Imonoyama and his ideas, I would've needed a volcano. And you know the thing about volcanoes... there's nowhere to stand! Or to put your chemistry set..."

     He zipped to the back table while the glow on the sword evened out, and came back to the furnace with another bowl, this holding about half a cup of a bubbling, purple liquid that let off a green smoke. She wasn't sure what it was, but it looked distinctly poisonous. Icchan dribbled a touch of the metal and porcelain mixture he'd been whisking into the purple concoction, and as he added more and more, it started to turn more gelatinous and fiery red. Then he poured the red, metal jelly in with the rest of the glowing hot mixture, whisking so fast his arm couldn't be seen.

     With a wink, he said, "Got to heat it up slowly so it doesn't burn, you know."

     "I can only imagine."

     And apparently he wasn't worried about her being able to tell what he was doing well enough that she could steal his "trade secrets". He whistled as he pulled the blade out of the furnace and brushed his new mixture along what remained of the melted seams like he was basting a turkey. Turning it fast, he coated the other side, metal flowing down to the point. The mechanisms surrounding Icchan pulled the mold away from the sword. What she'd thought was a solid table spun and popped out an anvil, while the swordsmith produced a hammer that he clanged on the glowing sword with a noise like the Furies' xylophones (despite the blinking red button on the back that said, "Mute").

     He started cackling again, of course. He always cackled. Then he narrated to her, "The core is a softer, more ductile alloy so the blade won't shatter, but this edge! Ha ha ha, the hardest of the hard. Nothing will make it yield..." As if she didn't know how swords were made. She was a ninja, after all. Although, to be fair, even the greatest of common sword smiths probably seemed like amateurs to the man who could forge a Shinken. As he turned the blade in his oven-mitted hands, he hammered the sides to perfect edges, smooth as a weathered stone. When those edges were honed sharp, they'd probably gleam like starlight.

     In fact, as the metal cooled from greens and yellows to orange under Icchan's striking hammer, Tokiko thought she saw hints of shining white. The coolest parts of the sword almost seemed to radiate phosphorescent light that had nothing to do with the heat. When she looked close, she thought she could see the phosphorescence creeping along the edge of the metal, making the whole thing glow.

     The smith smirked at her watching. "I told you, porcelain is the perfect base for genetic locking. Still got to hammer the tungsten fine so it'll hold strong, but I have to do it fast. Once the tincture I made from Kamui's blood catches up to the whole structure, even I won't be able to lift it anymore. Since you're his closest relative, you'll have to be the one to hand it to him."

     "I can't be his closest relative! I'd know if Tohru had died. I think we'd all know."

     "All right, fair, I wasn't specific." His hands were too busy to push his slipping glasses up on his nose, but he scrunched his face to shift them closer to his eyes. "You're not the most closely related to him in the world. But you are the relative of his who is physically closest to the sword, making you his closest relative, and since like Hell am I going to let him into my forge because I assume we don't want the entire continent to explode if he gets tetchy, you're the one who's going to have to pick up the sword when it's done and hand it to him. Y'ken?"

     "I understand." He was slipping into older dialects, asking her if she "kenned" instead of if she followed his explanation. That was only two steps away from him needing his full concentration. Best to leave soon, then. Moreover, the sun would be coming up in an hour or so. She'd have regular duties to attend to after finding her way out of this place. "But one last question before I go."

     "Hmm?"

     Trying not to lose her concentration in marveling at the finest sword she'd ever seen -- one she'd have said could have no equal -- Tokiko mulled over how to phrase her concerns that this one needed an equal.

     "Spit it out, Magami-kun, or leave me to my work."

     "I'm pondering a conundrum. That Nokoru-san... I'm sorry, Imonoyama-sama... insists it's not safe for the other heir to come to a place this crowded, but if your second best option for forging a Shinken is to stand inside a volcano, how do you expect to complete--"

     He brushed her off with a cluck of his tongue. "Volcanoes are annoying, not impossible, and besides, there's still time to come up with another bright idea. The Apocalypse isn't tomorrow. Getting the boy's blood will be the trickier bit, and if we run out of options, we've always got his mother's blood stored as a failsafe. Sometimes seventy-odd generations of preparing for the end times does actually lead to being prepared."

     All it took was one failure to anticipate, of course. Depending on ancient texts and the visions of Dreamseers for hints was nerve-wracking at best. For one, they all agreed that the two Shinken were without a doubt part of the process, but not one of the Dreamseers in the world -- including such notables as the now absent Princess Emeraude, the Daidouji Imperial family's own Princess Tomoyo, and apparently the Pirate Lord Kuzuki Kakyou (whom Imonoyama-sama called "the equal of the Dreamseer from legends of old, for whom all Dreamseers are named" with a twinkle in his eye that meant there was more to that than he could tell) -- could say what the Shinken were meant to accomplish. There was only one reason why Dreamseers of that caliber would universally fail to know something so critical: it had to be tied inextricably to the actions of someone more powerful than the Dreamseers themselves. Someone so powerful, their existence defied any attempt to detect or predict it. In Tokiko's opinion, that was at the very least a cause for concern.

     Well, it took more than that to concern Icchan, she supposed. He had never been the type to see beyond his own project for as long as she'd known him, and his job was to make the Shinken, not to wield one. That, and to see that her adorable nephew had mastered the techniques he'd need to to get him through the next year.

     "Then I think I'll leave you to your work. I'd hate to delay Kamui's training by delaying you. Unless he's in some other room down here? I'd love to see what you're having him do."

     "Oh, no," the sword smith chuckled. "He's in the upper town right now. On one of his 'breaks'. But Ogata's prepping a doozy for him when he gets back, so I hope he's getting some of that 'sleep' he likes so much... Heh heh heh..."

     Some days, she felt more than the usual sympathy for her nephew's lot in life.

~//~

     The echoing battle cries of the visiting admiral, Shirou Kamui, were proof of the hours that'd passed. They'd grown raw and hoarse as the night dragged on, marking the time as well as any clock, but neither he nor any ninja showed signs of flagging. For that, Nokoru was grateful on behalf of his entire city. And bless the ever gracious lady Shidou Hikaru-san's selfless heart, their pirate guest was a targetable force of destruction in the three million cubic feet of pure mayhem that the central warehouse had become. Coaching everyone toward the most efficient pattern of containment would have been significantly more difficult, Nokoru knew, if he'd had to keep their allies safe from an uncontrolled berserker fighting on their own side. Bellowing as he levitated stacks of clock gears in hovering rings around him, Shirou-san's roars overpowered even the clangs of his makeshift brass weapons, and the sparking stone whines when he hurled them to slice a row of statues into paper thin shavings.

     The pirate lord hurled himself after his projectiles, and would've caught Li Syaoran-kun in the blast if Hikaru-san hadn't whistled, then pointed the living incarnation of destruction at a mass of animated ropes weaving themselves into a net -- reduced, by Kamui, to dust moments later. Shidou Hikaru-san, a warrior of endless resourcefulness and dedication. She deserved recognition for that later. He would deliver bouquets of thanks to every lady in this battle, of course, and to Yuuko-san and Princess Tomoyo for lending their fighters to the fray! Fountains of tiger lilies seemed appropriate...

     Pulling a lever inside the warehouse manager's office (note to self: send Benigata-san an apology gift for making a mess in his warehouse, and offer paid vacation until clean up was complete), Nokoru shifted the fifth-floor east moving walkway out of a screaming Death Shirou's path, down to where the fair goddess of battle, Princess Sakura, needed a runway for her next leap. She seemed to have predicted Nokoru's recommendation that swooping in from above would be perfect to drive a group of columns toward Kurogane-san and Lantis-san's gauntlet of destruction at the exit. Nokoru shifted the walkway as she raced along, aiming her attack at the weakest point in the group. One hit from the Princess, and they tumbled like dominoes, skidding into range of the open front doors -- where, as they had been doing unflaggingly for the last nine hours and twenty-eight minutes, their two gate guards reduced the pillars to rubble. They were lucky to have two such fighters as Lantis and Kurogane, who reduced things to rubble so regularly that their attacks included a sweeping component to clear the ground afterwards. Each had built up next to the door a wall over twice his own height by this point, which served as a useful throttle point for more inanimate foes. It was like watching Thermopylae reenacted before his eyes! They as somehow victorious Spartans, dealing death to countless hordes to protect the peace of the city!

     What a wonderful idea for a stage play. Takeshi-san and Kentarou-san would be optimal choices to play Lantis-san and Kurogane-san, of course. There could still be time this week to--

     No time to think about that now.

     From the sealed back exit of the warehouse, the lady Hououji Fuu-san let out a very particular whistle: the high-low pattern meaning, "Mark acquired"! She'd spotted one of the talismans bringing their surroundings to life. It had been a puzzle to work out what sort of magic was responsible while the fight was in full swing -- intentional on the part of their attacker, no doubt -- but they'd managed. Unfortunately identifying an artifact-based spell didn't mean knowing what the artifacts looked like. Fuu-san, however, knew every sign of enchantment at least as well as he did himself, and if she was certain, he could trust her judgement.

     She blinked her intel at him while sweeping another horde of wooden penguins towards the gauntlet of destruction offered by Shirou-san, Hikaru-san, and the paired attacks of Princess Sakura and Li-san. And, just as she indicated, there was a hint of a glimmer in the charred rubble of Li-san's last fire spell. It was intact, unlike the remains of the wooden penguin hordes. In fact, it appeared unaffected by the heat, most likely resistant to magic through powers of its own. How fortunate that Watanuki-san had brought someone with him who could counteract the supernatural! This might not be a ghost, but his arrows still had a better chance of working than an enchanted sword.

     "Avast!" Nokoru said into the amplifier so his words boomed through the warehouse. The network of reverberating tubes carried any voice (usually the warehouse manager's voice) to every corner for the benefit of laymen who worked with their stock, which would serve well now. He had to assume this pirate's hearing was not quite up to detecting speech another ninja could hear, unlike Admiral Shirou. "Mark, five points off the starboard bow! Take it down, my hearty!"

     The pirate, of course, rolled his eyes at being spoken to in such a fashion, but without an established code, Nokoru had to get the man's attention somehow. Sure enough, the famed crack shot captain of the Queen Cassandra took aim, hit his mark, and every piece of flying rope or tapestry in the area fell to the ground disenchanted as soon as the talisman snapped in half. One hazard down, three to go!

     Or perhaps five to go. Two glimmers the same size and luminosity as the one Doumeki had destroyed fell from the ceiling not five seconds later. That couldn't have been a coincidence. None of their people had been in that corner of the air to shake anything loose, and as Nokoru tracked the descent of the sparkles, he saw them drop in perfect parabolas. Normally, anything falling through that battlefield should have been caught up in the tempests of action, but those two glimmers went on undisrupted, even by spiraling attacks that pulled at the very air the items fell through. If he could have risked focusing on them, he could have checked them for characteristic sigils, but for now he couldn't take that risk. Too many lives were depending on him seeing the entire struggle. If he narrowed his field of vision there, he'd necessarily lose sight of the other areas of the warehouse. He could never forgive himself if that led to someone getting taken from behind, and a guest of the city being injured on his watch! Thank goodness he had strong allies to check these things for him.

     "Akira!" Nokoru called as he added the landing spots of the two new talismans to his field of tracking targets -- along with the fourteen combatants (their fighters, minus Eagle Vision and Akira who were untraceable, plus their sentient foes "Spinel Sun" and "Ruby Moon") and the hordes of mobile inventory attacking them. To which he now added a network of powerful light beams that bounced before his eyes between mirrors that'd sprung out of nowhere (and seemed to burn everything in their path), and flocks of small paper squares flying out of every corner. Well, that was going to make things harder. Kurogane seemed particularly upset with -- although not slowed down by -- the ones that kept trying to lay themselves over his eyes. Nokoru whistled a call for Fuu-san to kick up some dust, to make the light beams visible for their mobile forces' benefit, and yelled again.

     "Akira!"

     "Right here, sir!"

     No point in worrying that Akira had appeared behind him, in a booth Nokoru had personally secured against entry at every point. He'd long since accepted Akira's ability to get into any locked room as a fact of life, and embraced its usefulness. He held out his right hand, manipulating a crane with his left to grapple the line of columns trying to break out of Lady Umi-san's ice wall. As expected, Akira had the shards of the broken talisman to hand over, despite Nokoru never having seen him enter the field to collect them. That was Akira for you, always dependable.

     Nokoru brushed the surface of the shards with his thumb. He couldn't look at them just now, too busy using his eyes to ensure the columns on the battlefield were properly trapped while Umi-san fortified her ice wall with a layer of wooden penguins reduced to papier mache -- not helped by the paper squares sticking to the window in front of him, purposefully blocking his line of sight. However, his sense of touch was enough for now. He pushed the shards until their edges matched, so he could get a proper feel for what the original inscription had been. As expected, it was reminiscent of Clow Reed's magic, but had a certain improvisational quality to it that Clow's never did. The god of luck was impulsive, to be sure, but rarely had to improvise. The odds were, whoever had laid out these talismans, he had plenty more, and wouldn't show himself until they were exhausted. Thus, if their group intended to catch the troublemaker before the next day's festivities started, they'd need to start taking out talismans faster than their opponent could drop them.

     He handed the shards back to Akira. "Get these to Watanuki-san. I expect Lady Yuuko has trained him to sniff out just this sort of thing, and we know his pirate captain can destroy them. Any you find before him, take it to Suoh. He'll know what to do."

     "Yes, sir!"

     Then a quick shot from the cooling system, now that he had two hands again, so he could get some condensation on his windows, and a turn of the window wiper knob... It wasn't perfect, but it swept off the paper squares that threatened his view about as fast as they could accumulate. Between those filling the warehouse and the dust showing where the new aerial hazards were (as it would hardly do for the beams to burn even a hem on Princess Sakura or Hikaru-san's clothing as they flew through the vaulting heights of the battle, nor would he want Kamui-san injured, for the sake of everyone's safety), his ability to see the action had fallen by 2.7% already, and it was only going to get worse as the number of paper squares increased.

     The paper flying into the joints on his bridge pulleys, on the other hand, he could manage. He whistled a few notes, and with the fluidity of a goddess summoning divine might, Hikaru-san unleashed a hundred simultaneous strikes of crimson lightning, hitting every pulley in sight. They were designed to operate at super-heated temperatures. The paper, however, was not, and burst into flame on contact. Eagle Vision had already begun putting his technical expertise to work forcing the light beam grid to destroy itself, and -- well, it looked like Watanuki-san had found another talisman already! Doumeki-san fired, and struck...

     And before Nokoru could catch his breath over the statues falling still (while trying to build a pyramid by standing on each other's shoulders in order to reach the ceiling despite Admiral Shirou knocking them over repeatedly), two more glimmers fell from the ceiling and two more hazards presented themselves. The one on the left stuck in a crevice between two floorboards on the third level seconds before the one on the right burrowed into a pile of debris, so he knew which was for the giant worm creatures erupting out of holes in the ground, and which was for the flock of plush flamingos popping out of the trapdoors. He also knew when he was at his limit. Deciphering the pattern of the worm creatures' appearances through the steadily dropping visibility of the air was enough that he couldn't track every fighter in his field of vision and the talismans he'd identified as well. He'd lose control if their opponent dropped two more.

     Nokoru whistled a change in Akira's orders: to collect the talismans, and signal for each one he'd taken. Five seconds later, one talisman was replaced with a small pufferfish pennant -- which was eaten shortly thereafter by a worm creature, but the message was received. Excellent. They could destroy them more systematically that way, without constantly mounting distractions. Meanwhile, if he could trap one of the targets in a crane claw to simplify the battlefield... Watanuki signalled that he'd identified a glimmer on top of a dancing column, one that was milling about instead of rushing the exits, trying to get between the lady Umi-san's ice blasts and her targets like some kind of goalie. A perfect target to restrain. First to avoid Li-san on the ground, and to navigate around the light beams that might cut his crane's claw in half--

     The hordes of plush flamingos swarmed the doors of his control booth, denting the doors, and by the sound of it, bringing the metal about 23% of the way to its breaking point. His barriers would last approximately eleven seconds at that rate, which was .08 fewer seconds than he'd need to capture the column and shift it through the light barriers and ongoing fighting to a safe, containable location, which meant he had to release the crane's controls for a split second to maneuver a battering ram for his own protection (as allowing his defenses to fall would put the safety of everyone trusting his eyes in jeopardy). The column slipped out of his reach by inches, with his next opportunity too many seconds out to matter at this point. But if one of the aerial fighters was in position to seize the talisman...

     He recalculated everyone's vectors of motion for the next 3.34 seconds if he made that change, to be sure no part of the opposition would go unmatched until everyone could resume their standard circuits. As luck would have it, one of his allies would have no trouble.

      "Princess Sakura! Would you take the--"

     "I see it!" she yelled, preparing for a dive. The lady somersaulted off a swinging rope to clear one of the light beams and swiped the talisman off the top of the column with a clear path to the ramp Nokoru set up for her.

     Meanwhile, on the ground, one of Akira's flags marking a collected talisman showed up on Suoh's collar, which--

     ...

     The gasp of a lady, cut off before it could become a scream, filled his head and his heart with utter clarity. Not a voice, not at all, but the true inner gasp within her soul telling him the instant when all was not well in her view. The world around him seemed frozen as his focus narrowed, eyes pulled to the wide, surprised expression on Princess Sakura's face. There was a shadow behind her, someone hovering in the air trailing her roller skates, and her momentum vanished in the instant the shadow's hand touched the center of her back. She hung, for that brief instant, as if impaled, and Nokoru knew that only he could see it. The rest of the world raged soundless to his ears and irrelevant to his eyes. Li-san would notice in another heartbeat, but there was too much in his way. He wouldn't get there before she fell -- and she would fall. The shadow behind her, the image that had barely registered on Nokoru's own eyes even as the world appeared to stand still so that he could know he had to act... it was already fading, and the Princess had nothing under her feet but a sky full light rays that would burn her unblemished skin -- would bring tears to her sparkling, emerald eyes.

     He had to act.

     If the world had seemed to stop in that instant, it came violently back to life in the next. He yanked the control panel for the audio system off its bolts, throwing it and himself down the amplification tubes as if he were riding a toboggan. With the proper turn down the proper conduit, he flew out through the open end toward the Princess, adjusting his flight as much as necessary with the wing apparatus Suoh had thoughtfully installed in his jacket. He caught her half a second into her silent fall, just as Li-san and Suoh were turning around. The Princess said nothing, eyes vacant as if her mind had been taken to a far, distant place. Their two body guards, hers and his own, screamed, "Princess!" and "Chairman!", the sounds merged into one desperate plea. There would be time for Suoh to scold him later, but Nokoru needed all his focus now to hold the Princess secure against his side while he turned the makeshift metal toboggan under him to reflect the light beams away where they'd do no harm. The only thing between the unconscious lady and safety now was the wall they were flying towards, as he'd calculated a path that would fly them clear of their opponent's magic objects. Nokoru dropped the toboggan so he could shift their forward momentum when he (almost) hit the wall at 15.65 meters per second. Sufficient torque would not only slow them down but also convert their momentum to a safer angle. Instead of a crash which might have disturbed the lovely hairs on the lady's head, he landed on the walkway next to it, rolling to a stop with the lady cushioned within his arms -- naturally, with his coat between his hands and her back so the blood on his fingers from tearing the panel off the wall wouldn't soil her dress.

     They slowed, then stopped, and the sound of her untroubled breathing restored peace to Nokoru's heart. There were people screaming, and people running in a clatter, but those were all beside the point. She was safe. All was well. He laid her down, spreading his jacket beneath her on the wooden planks. Her locket, he noticed, had come open, revealing a portrait of a lovely woman, some years older but with the Princess's smile, and pink flowers braided into her long hair. And as she uncurled from him, Princess Sakura's arm, baton still in hand with a grip like steel, fell to the floor. As it struck, something like crawling lightning shot out -- as if she'd been holding a spark from the battle or from the attack that needed to be released -- and hit what appeared to be a talisman hidden in a chink between the walkway and the wall. It snapped in half like a peanut shell. And then, joy of joys, she opened her eyes.

     "N-Nokoru-san?"

     "It's all right, dear Princess. You're safe, and I will see that you remain so. Can you tell me what happened to cause your fall?"

     "I... I'm not s--"

     And in time with her gasp, and with Nokoru moving again to shield her, he heard the tell-tale sounds behind him of a marble column toppling over, right in their direction. Ever dependable, Suoh, Hikaru-san, and Li-san appeared to stop its fall. Less expected, Admiral Shirou was with them as well, and most surprising of all (given that he'd been nowhere in sight moments ago) Yudaiji was there to lend his shoulder. Together, the five of them tossed the pillar over the side, where it dropped to the ground with the rest of its de-animated brethren.

     Notably, no new hazards appeared, and the battlefield looked much more calm with all the columns and statues taken out of commission.

     He called to Captain Doumeki and Watanuki-san below, "It should be safe to destroy the talismans now! The multiplication has stopped!"

     Hikaru-san tugged Lord Shirou Kamui away by the collar, perhaps sensing in her own, empathetic way that Princess Sakura was less than comfortable at the center of everyone's attention just now. "Come on, Kamui-san! Let's help break the rest of the things!" He went with her, glassy eyed with exhaustion, while the ladies Fuu-san and Umi-san brought up the rear. With everyone hard at work downstairs, this would be over in no time!

     "An excellent night's work!" Nokoru sighed.

     Suoh growled, "Is that all you have to say?" in his ear, pulling him up off the ground to check Nokoru's torn up hands. His lover pulled out his first aid kit to clean the blood away. "You're lucky. These are only scrapes, and nothing's broken, but your shoulder will probably need to be in a sling for a week."

     "Nokoru-san!" the Princess gasped. "You didn't hurt yourself, did you?"

     "Never fear, my lady. To lose you, or see you harmed, would wound the very soul of the world, but the light of your smile and the knowledge of your safety is all the cure I need for wounds of the flesh such as these." At which Suoh made a pointedly rough examination of his shoulder, which was sprained enough from hitting the wall that it radiated stabbing pain with any move. He smiled at Suoh to cover the pain, letting out a weak laugh at his lover's frown. "Although keeping it in a sling for a week won't do any harm either."

     "Hmph," was all Suoh had to say, but his hazel eyes thanked him for being safe.

     For Suoh's sake, he did wish he could pay more attention to that, but when it came to a lady in fear, in danger, or in sadness, there was nothing he wouldn't do. There never would be. However, the Princess was now safely in Li-san's care, on her feet and none the worse for her fright. They could go back to cleaning up the remnants of this fight. Akira would be able to oversee that while he could set to work following the trail of whomever had arranged this batt--

     "Now just one moment!" hissed Yudaiji. "What in the name of rhyme and reason is going on here?!" When Suoh whipped around with a snarl, the Civic ninja picked up a passing plush flamingo, shaking it as he shouted, "Oh, don't you look at me like that, Takamura! You can't think I did this? Never in my life have I had such awful taste as this!"

     It was true, Yudaiji tended to favor machines over magic, and traps over toys. And yet, Nokoru suspected Suoh would have a few grumbles to share over Yudaiji's 'sense of taste.'

     And what did you know? The sun glinted like a blade into his tired eyes through the open door, silhouetting tired warriors and the wrecked warehouse against the light of a new day.

     What an excellent time to go to sleep! Assuming, of course, that Suoh valued his health over his commitments to judge today's events. On which note, he had some suggestions to send to the Events Office before they posted the current rankings...

     "Suoh, do you remember--"

     "Your submission stationery is in the nightstand by your bed, where you will get at least four hours sleep before reporting to any events."

     Suoh twitched as Nokoru leaned in to ask, "And will you personally ensure that I stay in bed once you put me there?"

     "C-Chairman!" he stammered, blushing.

     That was a yes. Excellent! Cuddle time with Suoh was one of his favorite things, and worth any amount of effort required!

     Yudaiji-kun, naturally, stopped him on his way toward the door, rushing in to block the path. "Now, just one minute, Nokoru-san! You haven't explained--"

     "I do hope you'll forgive me, Yudaiji-kun, but would you mind calling at my office this afternoon? Critical... ah... affairs of state. You understand."

     And he didn't even feel bad. Surely anyone would agree that, when he was tired enough to collapse into unconsciousness as soon as everyone was out of sight (he was barely awake long enough to feel Suoh scoop him up), it was utterly mission critical that he have a nap.

Chapter Text

Day Five Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Appetizer: OGATA MASAHARU & HIS ANGELS (Malvek) def. Namiya Tomoaki & Kizu Masaya (Chevrolet)
  • Soup: UEDA HIROYASU & OOMURA YUMI (Ceres) def. Ryanban Byun Hak-do & Byun Baek (Xinan)
  • Main Course: AKECHI SHIGETAKA & MAGAMI TOKIKO (Kragero) def. Wol Mae & Chun Hyang (Xinan)
  • Dessert: LI SYAORAN & PRINCESS SAKURA (Malvek) def. Lelouch Lamperouge & Kururugi Suzaku (Civic)

Music Contest

  • Gold: Kohaku (Impala)
  • Silver: Princess Tomoyo (Malvek)
  • Bronze: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)

Diplomacy Contest

  • Gold: Death Shirou (Impala)
  • Silver: Euphemia li Brittania (Civic)
  • Bronze: Toyotomi Hidetsugu (Fahren)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Second: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)
    Empress Kendappa (Malvek) [tied]

Ghost Story Contest

NAMIYA TOMOAKI (Chevrolet) def. Akechi Shigetaka (Kragero)

~//~

     The maniacal laughing was, without a doubt, starting to grate on Nagumo's nerves. Yudaiji never did that at home. Back in Civic, his current (but not likely to be long-standing) partner in machinations tended to be calm, logical... with a healthy respect for the bounds of proper behavior and only enough paranoia to keep him out of deadly trouble. The endless monologuing that had replaced sensible discussion for their first few days inside Imonoyama's city had been bad enough. Now, even that much reasonability was gone, and for the last fifteen minutes Yudaiji had been doing nothing but cackling at the dawn. The only variation was in tempo and volume. Luckily, he was used to ignoring annoyances.

     Nagumo studied the posted list of yesterday's winners on the bulletin board while he waited for Yudaiji to get the laughing out of his system. No surprise that Namiya had won the storytelling contest. Akechi's haunted hospital tale had bordered on cliche, while Chevrolet's poet laureate had told one of the most bone-chilling renditions of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" Nagumo had ever heard. The cake makers winning the soup competition had been a bit of an upset, but other than that there were no real surprises beyond Kurogane seeming to have knocked the Dimension Witch out of her usual spot in the top three drinkers. That cocky shit from Suwa certainly hadn't had that kind of inhuman tolerance last time Nagumo had seen him drink, and if he had to guess, even Kurogane was surprised by that. The extended rankings showed Deadeye Doumeki dropping down to eleventh and Takamura barely holding on to sixth, given that everyone in last night's battle had missed the open bar. The level of pre-gaming Kurogane must have done to hold onto first looked suspiciously like a man systematically finding out how much he could take -- and even after a necessarily staggering quantity of liquor, he'd been fighting like he was sober.

     Something must have happened. Maybe he was testing a new alcohol neutralizer?

     No, that asshole was the type to believe in not cheating at a "game".

     And the blessed silence on his left was Nagumo's cue to offer Yudaiji a scrap of his attention again. He raised an eyebrow at his purple-haired companion, who was staring at him like he was some sort of vile bug to be squashed. Well, after a long night's stake-out, the feeling was mutual.

     "Aren't you going to ask what's so funny?" Yudaiji hissed.

     "What's so funny?"

     "Why, the very happenstance of this completely unrelated attack taking up Takamura and Nokoru-san's attention, of course! It's more perfect than even I could have imagined! The famous intellect of Imonoyama Nokoru can no doubt tell beyond--"

     "Doubt?" Nagumo offered.

     With an unamused smirk, the man answered, "Beyond question... that I had no part in tonight's attack. He knows my methods as well as I do myself, which is of course why I engaged you to provide that unexpected element that will take him by surprise..."

     This part of the speech, Nagumo tuned out. He'd heard it before, and wished he had heard it before he left Civic. If he'd known how likely Yudaiji was to fail, given his history with Imonoyama, he never would have taken the man as an ally. How to put fear and awe into the hearts of the international elite while flanked by a cackling clown was worse than a conundrum. It was a headache. His time would come, however, and with it the influence he needed to enter the circles of society that drove the world behind the scenes. He knew that as surely as he had known the security detail following them after the bonfire last night would suffer some unfortunate accident, letting him and Yudaiji slip through the perimeter around the warehouse unnoticed.

     He was simply lucky that way -- a fortunate son, as it were. There were such fortunate people in this world, born to succeed at all costs, born to leave others broken in their wake, born to command... and he was one of them. He could always count on fortune favoring his endeavors, or at the very least, misfortune would always befall those who challenged him. Always, without fail, since his youngest days. The luck that had guarded him since his birth would even, he was certain, protect him from the failures of the trite, self-absorbed fool Yudaiji Idomu no matter how certain they were to be devastating.

     "--and now that I have gone so far as to save him in his time of peril, Nokoru-san will never suspect the humiliation that awaits him at my hands, before I separate him from everything he loves! Hahahahahahaha!"

     Yet more cackling. How lovely. Sighing, Nagumo asked, "Have we reached a point where you can explain to me how our preparations for the Flower Arrangement contest are supposed to accomplish that?"

     "We have no time for foolish questions." Surprising no one. The fool stalked off toward the Coliseum. "Come. Let's get to the breakfast competition before meal tickets run out. I've no desire to eat anything out of Nokoru-san's kitchens this morning."

     One would think he didn't realize that Imonoyama had provided the kitchen equipment and ingredients for the cooking competition as well as stocking the cafeteria, just like everything else in the downtown, but Nagumo didn't intend to argue. The Best Eight cooking showdowns were today - where the truly excellent chefs began to face each other. Culinary legends would be born in the next three days, and he certainly had no objection to eating them.

     "Welcome, all!" said the Announcer, beginning his spiel for all assembled just as they entered the Coliseum stands. The stage kitchens were still hidden, so they hadn't missed any of the action. And, as luck would have it, there were two seats left in the sampling zone for people who'd come hungry. "Let's begin the the Cooking Contest quarterfinals! This week, our competitors have been narrowed down to the best of the best -- and now, to put their skills to the test, each competing team will have to make, not one dish, but three during their allotted two-hour window. That's right. A full-course meal!"

     As magnificent as he expected the food to be, the people ooh-ing and aah-ing around the stadium were, in Nagumo's opinion, perhaps too awed by the prospect of a full-course meal. Then again, maybe it was only the gourmet aficionados and the hungry bastards who'd been up all night (like him) who had made it to the one and only breakfast competition of the week.

     "If you want to see all four of today's match-ups, be sure to come back for Lunch, Tea, and Supper! Now, are you ready to meet our breakfast competitors?!" Hushed but tense applause filled the stands. Everyone would be waiting to find out if Ijyuin or Watanuki had this meal, or if the ensuing competition would actually be a competition. "On my left..." One kitchen platform rotated to show a man and a woman, posing with their most impressive intimidating faces -- hers being more impressive than his. "Akechi Shigetaka! Your friendly neighborhood internal medicine specialist! And his sous-chef, that nurse among nurses, Magami Tokiko! Well, you know whatever they make, it's sure to be healthy as well as delicious. And on my right..." The second platform rotated to reveal two boys whom Nagumo knew he'd seen before but could never tell apart, posing back to back with their arms crossed before they fanned out into some gaudy 'action pose'. "The famous Duklyon Bakery's own... Higashikunimaru Kentarou! And Shuukaidou Takeshi! Yes, folks, we've got ourselves a Kragero vs. Kragero showdown. Allies in arms are now rivals in the fierce flames of the kitchen. Who will fall and who will advance, only our judges can decide!"

     Kurogane was sitting at the judging table, looking unnervingly awake for what he'd just been through. He only had a slight trace of plaster dust to show for his time in battle, and looked like he was already drinking what appeared to be a ginger-shochuu mimosa. The other judges were his own Emperor Charles XIII and Hanato Kobato of Impala (with a blue plush dog propped on her hat, presumably to make her look less miniscule next to those Goliaths), which meant the crowd could trust at least one of them to be impartial. The girl didn't look like she could be duplicitous if her life depended on it.

     "And now the moment you've all been waiting for! The secret ingredient for our Breakfast competition is...!" The announcer peeked under the sheet on the podium, then pulled it away to reveal a pile of multicolored, round vegetables. "Onions!"

     His favorite, Nagumo thought with a smile. How fortunate.

~//~

     As placid as their little breakfast in the private parlor appeared to be, Utako was completely unsatisfied with the situation. She'd known that even without having received an official memo that the main warehouse was still cordoned off after last night's flurry of activity. Long (entire minutes!) before she'd received her spies' first reports on the status of the town, it had been clear there was something amiss from the white peony that had floated down to her balcony while she'd been getting dressed (after waiting up most of the night, of course, taking the occasional catnap by the window). That peony was Akira's usual signal that the trouble was over, and that he was headed to his mothers' estate to rest and resupply. There had been no official proclamation, of course, no doubt because everyone involved was asleep. She wouldn't be an Ookawa if she waited for something as paltry as official word before knowing what was going on.

     But then, she could hardly blame the Chairman and his entourage for sleeping instead of announcing things if Akira had been out working the entire night. Unlike Nokoru-sama, he never dawdled, which meant they'd actually been busy with something legitimately troublesome. Utako could wish, however, that after everything that had happened, everyone around her would stop pretending the situation was perfectly normal for just two seconds! Honestly.

     "Another cup of tea, Lady Imonoyama?"

     Her sister, Makoto, was the picture of a perfect hostess. If Utako hadn't known for certain that no one could actually enjoy potentially impending disaster (in the small scale of this festival as well as the larger scale), she would've thought the other ladies in her presence were happy that something had gone horribly wrong! Imagine, her sister sitting there, pouring rose tea for the former Chairwoman, smiles on both their faces. Utako most certainly had not slept enough last night to join them in their idle chit-chat or their facades of perfect calm.

     Their visitor stirred her tea with a style that betrayed her preference for traditional tea ceremony, but her smile was entirely suitable for a casual gathering. "Oh, Makoto-san. You know, I'm no longer the head of household now that I've left Nokoru-san to manage affairs. Please, call me Tohime. Let's talk as friends, we three." It wasn't her name, naturally, since not one soul Utako had ever questioned knew her real name, but whatever nickname their eccentric Lady Imonoyama had chosen this week would do.

     "And you mustn't pout, Utako-san," Makoto said to her silence, "You got the signal that all was well, did you not?"

     Of all the poppycock. "I most certainly got the signal that some particular trouble was ended, and whatever reason Nokoru-sama had to put his best anti-infiltration guards on alert has been settled, but--" She paused to bow her head politically to their guest. "My apologies, Lady Tohime. I know your esteemed son would never have anything but the good of our town, our people, and our visitors in his heart."

     "And yet," the lady answered, smiling from behind her fan, "you wish to say that, although all might presently be stable, all is not entirely well. My dear Utako-san, you have always taken the long view. Is it so wrong to enjoy the moment's peace as it comes? It may be all we have."

     Makoto made a perfectly polite laugh. Because she was perfect. "Too true, Lady Tohime."

     Well, this visit was going absolutely nowhere toward getting Lady Imonoyama to reveal Magami Tohru's location, or why she'd kept it secret. They might well have to mount an expedition to Kaizuka in order to find out what had been hidden from them all these years, although they'd have to be careful. The hush-hush backroom deals (what her mother preferred to call the 'gentleperson's agreement' between their city and the Pirate King) that amounted to, "I won't attack your capital if you won't attack mine," would offer very little leeway to their people if they were discovered surveilling the floating metropolis at the heart of the Takifugu fleet. Why, they might even have to disavow any agents they sent, which was never pleasant.

     If they got caught, of course.

     She'd take it up with Nokoru-sama later if local information gathering proved useless.

     The rest of their conversation was doomed to wait a little longer. The sound of five ninja flicker-stepping into ranks before knocking on the parlor door caught the attention of everyone in the room. "Enter!" Makoto called out.

     The five people who walked in were naturally not Nokoru-sama's alpha squadron of organizers, as Nokoru-sama's personal best were all either sleeping or defending the peace of the city by making a fabulous, distracting spectacle of themselves at the cooking competition. They were, however, still ninja of Kragero whom Nokoru-sama entrusted to do more than follow orders. The fact that they were even here was distressing in the utmost. What in the world had gone wrong last night?! But there they were, three bright-haired ladies, and two stone-faced men -- the shorter one with the distinction of being a Takamura, though not quite so absurdly talented as his cousin, Suoh-san -- standing to attention beside their breakfast table.

     The young lady in charge of Nokoru's beta squad, Ajiadou, swept her blonde hair aside and took to one knee with more than enough drama to fit in quite well with everyone at this party. "Lady Imonoyama, Lady Ookawa, Lady Utako... I regret the intrusion, but we have a dilemma."

     "Oh dear!" Makoto answered, fanning herself to hide her smile. Lady Imonoyama was, meanwhile, hiding everything but her smile, as usual. "A dilemma? Not serious I hope!"

     As if anything but a dire matter would lead their city's ninja to interrupt them like this!

     Ajiadou took to her feet again with fire in her eyes. "We have no instructions on what to prepare for the day's main event this afternoon, and Imonoyama-sama is entirely unreachable! We were hoping he'd left word with you, Lady Imonoyama, as to where he stored the equipment he intended to use. We can take it from there!"

     "Oh goodness, my dear. So sweet of you to come all this way and ask me such a thing, to do an old, retired lady such as myself the favor of feeling relevant again!" laughed the gentlewoman who'd been the head of the clan up until a month ago, and who was nosy enough to watch every move her son made. "I am flattered of course, but must admit I cannot help you."

     Dread filled the eyes of all five ninja. Even the bubble-headed Mizukagami reached up to grab the sword strapped to her back, apparently as a way to calm herself down. There was no cure for nervousness while being jerked around by a purposely unhelpful person in a crisis better than reminding yourself that you were well armed.

     Makoto, meanwhile, sipped tea with a pleasant smile. "But doesn't the fact that Nokoru-sama insisted on keeping today's special event a secret make your job that much easier? Why, you could do anything you wanted, and no one would know the difference!"

     Lady Imonoyama nodded while the underlings valiantly didn't cry. "You could play charades! I always love a good game of charades."

     "Surely there's a deck of charades prompts we can use," Makoto agreed.

     Usagiya, the taller man, spoke up from his place in line. "What of complications beyond the event itself?" The poor dear probably hoped reason would sway someone as unreasonable as the former Chairwoman. Utako wished him luck. "Should we not be concerned over the whereabouts of whatever supplies Nokoru-sama acquired for his event? If they were perishable, or even alive, there are entirely unconsidered issues with leaving them unfound."

     "Then my son must be the one to help you, my dear. I was never aware of the location for those materials!"

     Lies, Utako thought to herself with a sigh. Their entire festival, subject to potential ruin because her sister and Lady Imonoyama were lying liars who liked to tell lies, or at least leave important details unspoken, to see how much havoc they could cause! And that havoc could be quite considerable. Goodness only knew how much mayhem could happen while trying to herd fifty or so ninja into assigned teams for charades, deciding how to eliminate people! A logistical nightmare with so much potential for unsportsmanlike cheating in plain sight between those persons who had established non-verbal codes!

     There were certainly not going to be charades here on her watch!

     Utako raised her chin high enough that she could look down her nose at even the tallest member of Nokoru-sama's beta squadron. "I must assume you've made every possible attempt to contact Nokoru-sama himself before coming here to find us. Am I correct?"

     "My cousin left a sign outside the Chairman's window," Takamura muttered. "It said they weren't to be disturbed, even if the world was ending."

     No doubt Suoh-san had been so very specific because their earlier conversation had given him reasons to think the end of the world was a risk. The gentleman wasn't prone to hyperbole.

     "Well then, you're quite lucky to have come to me." She set her fork across her plate to signal that she was done, and stood, leaving her sister to deal with frittering information out of Lady Imonoyama. They were suited to each other, and she was much more suited to this. "As Nokoru-sama's co-organizer, I have kept myself apprised on all arrangements, even the secret ones, as only an Ookawa can. It so happens that Nokoru-sama has been hiding his materials in plain sight. Follow me, if you would. There's no time to waste." She swept up her parasol (a lady never left home on a sunny day without a parasol properly loaded with spring-action blades, climbing-strength monofilament wire, and a few cyanide gas pellets) and headed for the door with the unit of betas at her heels. And she didn't stop -- not even to follow Shirou Kamui when she spied him sneaking into an alley and disappearing, as tempting as it was. The reputation of their city was at stake.

     Honestly. Where did anyone think Nokoru-sama would hide such a large volume of material except the main warehouse? People trusted him so implicitly, all he had to do was say something was a secret, and they assumed it was hidden! He never actually hid things unless he meant for them to be found, and when he did so, he always left clues. Today, he'd only left a squadron of guards keeping visitors away from the square, although they let her pass when she gave them a good, hard glare. She was prepared to forgive quite a bit of unwarranted foolishness (Nokoru-sama may have been a model gentleman, but he was still an Imonoyama, and that meant whimsicality) on the part of the beta squadron, however, given that they'd offered her a chance to get away from that tedious breakfast.

     Regarding the state of the main warehouse, she felt somewhat less forgiving, but she wasn't going to say anything about her co-organizer out loud in front of their subordinates. She wasn't rude.

     Ibuki, with her pigtails practically raising off her head in alarm, gaped at the scene even more than usual. "What happened here last night?!"

     Utako would have some questions about that herself when she next spoke to her fiancé. Shattered stonework, scattered papers and plush dolls, rags everywhere and goodness knew what else, the whole scene covered in dust! However, this was not the time to be incredulous. They had a deadline.

     She leveled a finger at the leader, Ajiadou. "Crates. One cubic meter each. Go! Usagiya, fetch a medium-sized raised swimming pool, filled, with a hose. Takamura, get me six brooms. Ibuki, Mizukagami, start carrying any stonework your height or taller out to the green and stack it in regulation log piles by height. I'll stack wooden planks."

     Every member of the beta squad stood dumbfounded at the wreck for another second. Ordinarily, Utako would have been understanding. It was, after all, a truly ponderous wreck; but today, they didn't have the time.

     "And step on it! We need this cleaned up and ready to go by the time the lunch competition ends, or the entire ninja world will get to see Kragero with its pants down. You have your orders. Now move!"

~//~

     If it hadn't been for Princess Sakura holding his hand while he ate his competitor's pan-seared rolls of sashimi-grade salmon packed in something he would've called a pesto if it'd been basil-based instead of parsley-based, Syaoran probably would have cried. Paired with perfectly seasoned sticky white rice, Watanuki had managed to overcome any trace of sultry pungence in his ingredients and create a thoroughly refreshing light lunch, perfect for a summer afternoon. And the balsamic-parsley reduction on the fresh tomato salad! Not to mention how Syaoran himself never even would have considered sprinkling parsley on watermelon cubes for dessert, with some kind of vanilla-orange custard that made the world taste like sunshine.

     "Watanuki-san really is a genius," he murmured, while next to him Princess Sakura's eyes filled with tears, too. Her mouth was as close as it could get to her most utterly blissful 'swimmy' expression while the custard spoon was still in her mouth. But they were happy tears, and the Princess was nodding in perfect agreement. "Someday, I'll learn to cook this well," he vowed, crushing his napkin in his hand. He'd spend his life training if it meant he could put that expression on Princess Sakura's face with a custard of his own.

     Leaving her dish by the sink, she clasped her other hand around the one she was already holding. "But that parsley rub for the chicken skewers was delicious! And I know nobody but you could've made that wonderful gelato so quickly, and I like lettuce salads better than tomato salads anyway, even if Watanuki-san's was really good. Yours was amazing, too, Syaoran! It's kind of funny that both of you decided to go for a parsley-lemon flavor set, though. What a coincidence!"

     "There's no such thing as coincidence," Watanuki interrupted, appearing on the other side of their stage kitchen with his sous-chef, Kohane-chan. "Lady Yuuko always says that. Everything is inevitable." He extended his hand for each of them to shake in turn. "Impressive work. Your roasting technique is excellent. It's rare to face someone who can manage such juicy but thoroughly cooked chicken skewers under pressure."

     "It was an honor," Kohane-chan added, shaking their hands as well.

     "The honor is all ours!" Sakura answered, full of smiles and grace long before Syaoran managed to shake the odd feeling he got from looking at Watanuki-san up close, while it was calm and he had time to sense... something.

     He wasn't sure what. But his spine shivered like someone had stepped on his grave when their eyes met. Watanuki-san's eyes widened like his own, and he looked away quickly to sniff and huff and brush flour off his clothes. Maybe he felt the same odd something. Nevertheless, no reason to be impolite.

     "Watanuki-san, I consider it a privilege to compete against a master chef such as yourself. I... I can't even fathom how you got the seeds out of the watermelon without disturbing the cube shape! It's an unbelievable skill."

     "Hmph! It's nothing so special!" He started sticking his nose in the air and waving off the compliment, but Kohane-chan nudged his shin with her toe. "I mean... thank you. Well. Good talk. All right. Let's go, Kohane-chan! Time to clean up!"

     While pushing his sous-chef back to their kitchenette, he looked over his shoulder once, for a good, long stare that Syaoran returned without blinking. When the Hundhammeren ninja looked away, and only then, he went back to washing their own dishes.

     "Syaoran, what's wrong?" the Princess whispered. "You two aren't still nervous over last night, are you? Tomoyo said everything seemed all right now, in her future dreams for the rest of the festival and stuff. Although she was laughing so maybe it won't be totally perfect, but I'm sure we'll be fine!"

     "It's... not that. I'm not sure what it is. He just... makes me worried."

     "Really? Watanuki-san seems so nice!"

     That was a relief. He heard too many people tell him that Princess Sakura was too trusting, but they didn't know her like he did. Her trust could be absolute, and she could get away without being as paranoid as most ninja like him, because he'd never once seen her sense for a person be wrong. When she felt good about a person, that person would never disappoint her. When someone was bad news, she felt danger immediately, and she never hid it from him. She could put on a courageous face, and stand up against anything when she tried (ghosts were a special exception, of course, and even then she was brave), but she always told him as soon as she sensed something bad, with as many details as possible about where and what it was. And she never lied. So if she said Watanuki-san was a good person, then Watanuki-san was an ally, not an enemy.

     Hot water ran into the soap on his dishes while he stared, transfixed as always, into Princess Sakura's eyes. He had a little time for that before the roasting pan was full of steaming lather. "Thank you, Princess."

     "For what?" she asked, drying all the knives and sorting them back into the knife block.

     "Oh. Um. For..." The blush on his face got deeper and deeper, until he had to start scrubbing madly just to remember how to move. "Because you... because I feel better now. T-thank you."

     "Ah!" She blushed as well, and the bright peach frock that Princess Tomoyo had chosen to brighten her complexion after a long night out made her blush seem almost as red as his own blushes could be. "It's n-nothing..."

     He scrubbed at the dishes so hard, a wall of foam built up around him, and Princess Sakura dried as fast as he could scrub, neither of them saying another word. In fact, as he reached the bottom of his dish pile, Syaoran couldn't help worrying about how he was going to suggest going to their next event when he was still choked up from this conversation. Why, oh why, oh why did he even try to tell the Princess how much she meant to him? He was her bodyguard, and of course she was nice to him. She was wonderful to everybody. That didn't mean he had a right to think about being more than her bodyguard. Or at least her escort, someone who could stand at her back in a fight. Even if it weren't for his engagement to...

     "Syaoran, come on, what's taking so long?!" Meiling called out. Syaoran nearly jumped out of his skin. He hadn't noticed when she'd appeared by the kitchenette, and that, in a nutshell, was why he couldn't fall in lo-- why he couldn't admire Princess Sakura too unguardedly. He hadn't mastered the trick of staying alert when his Princess was too cute for words. "You usually wash dishes ten times faster than this when you're washing with me."

     "Meiling! I didn't know you were here!"

     She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Did you honestly think I'd miss my own fiancé competing in the quarterfinals of the biggest event of the Games? Please! Oh, hello, Your Highness," she said, as if just noticing Princess Sakura there.

     "Hello, Meiling-chan. Thank you for coming to watch us!"

     A hint of tightness in his cousin's mouth made Syaoran cringe, even before she said, "Just so we're clear, I came to see Syaoran. Not you. Got it?"

     "Meiling!"

     "It's all right, Syaoran! After all, Meiling-chan barely knows me, so it's only natural!"

     But he pulled Meiling aside -- gently -- anyway. "Meiling!" he hissed, "the Princess is my... she's my friend. And you shouldn't speak to her like that!"

     "Princess, Princess, Princess! You can stop calling her that, you know. You're not fooling anyone. Do you think I hadn't figured out by now that she's not even a real Princess of the Daidouji clan? That Princess Tomoyo found her on a beach nine years ago with no history, no nothing? She's Her Imperial Highness's favorite, and you deserve so much better than to be stuck guarding--"

     "I wouldn't ask for anything different!" Meiling could pout all she liked, but he wasn't going to let anyone say that spending time with Princess Sakura was some kind of disgrace. "Whether or not she's royalty has nothing to do with it. She's still my friend, and I'd like to think that means something to you."

     The sad look she gave him didn't have tears in it, or anything he recognized as pain, but he knew it was sad, and that cut deep enough. She stared him into silence (it didn't take long), then murmured, "It's cute how you think you can say anything to me about what should and shouldn't mean things to people, Syaoran. Now, hurry up! The scavenger hunt is going to start in a few minutes, and they're allowing mixed country entry! I want you on my team at least once during this competition."

     "Meiling, I'm..." His cousin pouted again, and he wasn't sure what words to use from there. He sensed his head turning toward Princess Sakura, and he knew right away he'd done something wrong again.

     Arms crossed, she whipped her head away over her shoulder. "Let me guess. Her Not Actually Royal Highness Princess Sakura the So Unbelievably Cute Everybody Could Die is signed up for the Mystery Main Event, and you have to go with her."

     "I'm sorry, Meiling."

     "No, Syaoran, you're not. The least you could do is grow a spine and tell me that's what you'd rather do."

     She stalked over to the kitchenette before Syaoran could grab her elbow, where Princess Sakura was putting away the last of the serving plates. "Meiling, wait!"

     "Have a good time in the Mystery Event, Your Highness. If Syaoran needs me, I'll be entering the scavenger hunt -- alone, because unlike some people, I don't need a bodyguard."

     "Okay!" the Princess answered, looking so confused, Syaoran's heart squeezed tighter than it already was. "Good luck, Meiling-chan!"

     With another pout she stared at the Princess. "Same to you, Sakura-san. At this point, you're the one who needs it."

     Meiling flicker-stepped out of the Coliseum, and Syaoran didn't try to follow her. He'd have to catch up later and find a way to apologize for upsetting her. Maybe she was right that he wasn't sorry to be with the Princess today, but that didn't mean he wanted her hurt. And when he followed her in moods like this, he only ever hurt her more. The worst part was, he was grateful for the feel of Princess Sakura's hand slipping into his. He just didn't know if he was allowed to be.

     "It'll be okay, Syaoran. Why don't we ask Tomoyo if we can invite her to dinner again? That'll give you a chance to make up!"

     "I don't think Meiling will be all right making up with me as long as you and I are together," he murmured, not realizing he'd said it out loud until it was too late to take back. Sakura's green eyes had widened into giant, wordless questions that he didn't dare answer. Not now, certainly, if ever. "That is... umm... My apologies, Princess. I didn't mean--"

     "No, no, no! That makes sense. She's your fiancée. Of course she'd want to have a private conversation with you. If you invite her somewhere, I can always go--"

     "That's not what I meant!"

     Thank goodness all the crowds had cleared away to go watch other events during the dishwashing period. The stands were clear of everyone except a few discreet custodial engineers sweeping the area before the time came to set up the next event. That meant, when he and the Princess stared at each other for what felt like a full minute -- neither of them sure what to say, neither of them able to break the lock between their eyes, neither of them able to do much more than hold hands, blush, and keep staring -- the only witnesses around were people who wouldn't tease them about it later.

     "Syaoran..."

     "I'm... not leaving you." His throat choked up, and he had to look away this time to clear it. "That is, after you were attacked last night, my duty is clearly to remain by your side and ensure that no further danger befalls you."

     "... oh. Okay."

     "I guess... we should go, then. To the Mystery Event."

     He snuck a glance back over his shoulder to make sure the Princess seemed... Sakura-y. She had on her brave smile, the one that made Syaoran want to tell her she could do anything. Today, though, he didn't know what she was being brave about.

     "Yeah," she answered. "Let's go."

     Syaoran didn’t dare hold her hand as they walked toward the green by the main warehouse. He didn't want to be afraid of seeing last night's nightmarish battleground again so soon, but the sight of Sakura stabbed through from behind while he was unable to reach her still made his blood run cold. At least now, she'd be in a friendly crowd, and of course she could take care of herself as well as anyone could under these circumstances, but he couldn't bear the thought of--

     "Syaoran. So you know," his Princess whispered, like she couldn't say this to anyone but him, like she knew what he'd been thinking, "I don't think whoever attacked me last night wanted to hurt me."

     He couldn't have imagined how much better those words would make him feel. So much fear and confusion (not all of it, but a measurable amount) evaporated with her words. "... Really?"

     "Yeah. I was scared when it happened, but there was something about the way they struck me. It... it kind of makes me think of how it felt when my brother teased me about waking up late. No matter how mean he was, I could always tell he'd never... Syaoran, why are you looking at me like that?"

     His feet were rooted in place, and for once he wasn't embarrassed to stare. "Did you say... your brother?" Sakura had never told him anything about her past before. She'd never been able to.

     "Uh-huh! I--" She clapped her hands to her mouth, tiny happy tears suddenly fighting to get out of the corners of her eyes. "I... I remember! Not everything, but... I remember that I have a brother." Sakura took him up in a tight hug. He held on, and squeezed her shoulders and her back for dear life, because now they had two new hints about her past. That memory, and the portrait of a lady that her locket had revealed last night. "I have a brother, Syaoran! And he's a jerk!" she laughed by his ear.

     "Princess, that's wonderful. I mean, not that he's a jerk, but..."

     "Syaoran, this is the best vacation ever. Thank you for being here with me."

     "Always, Princess," he answered with yet another blush. He honestly did think he could stay with her forever. Knowing she was nearby, breathing the scent of her hair on the wind... or, right now, he guessed his nose was buried in her hair, and he'd combed his fingers into it to hold her next to his shoulder. Oh gosh. That probably wasn't the most appropriate thing for him to do...

     Her body stiffened at the same instant his did, and they both jumped back, not quite in time to keep Kurogane from noticing as he walked up the opposite path with Her Imperial Highness, Princess Tomoyo. His master, the one who'd always been there to tell him not to let attraction distract him, gave him an eyeful of a look, then yelled, "Quit messing around, you two! You going to the contest or not?!"

     "Sakura-chan," Princess Tomoyo cooed, motioning to a mobile trailer Kurogane was pulling, "I've brought your change of clothes for the event! Let's hurry!"

     The two ladies disappeared, leaving him alone with his master. Who was going to scold him any minute for being too familiar with his charge, and neglecting his duties as a bodyguard. In fact, the continued silence where Kurogane was just standing there, watching the city go by while they took their positions next to the door to the trailer, just made him fear more and more for what was eventually going to come out of his mouth.

     "Kurogane-san..."

     "I'm not going to lecture you, kid. You're old enough to make your own choices and face the consequences." His red eyes bore down on Syaoran with an even heavier pressure than Syaoran remembered. Something about Kurogane had changed in the last few weeks. The weight of the world had always been in his eyes, but now there was something more. Not one of the stories about what his mentor was capable of had ever made him tremble as much as he was tempted to at that moment.

     "Just remember, don't come crying to me over how to turn back the clock if you do something you regret."

     "Yes, sir."

Chapter Text

     For some reason, Kamui was standing on a beach. Not a manufactured beach created by the whim of the Imonoyama clan for the sake of their ridiculous festival pitting ninja from every major country on the planet against each other in stupid games, but an honest to goodness, real beach. He had sand under his bare toes that he could feel went all the way down to the continental shelf, created by the washing tides from shells and bones and sea glass muddled together over aeons. This wasn't something imported, filtered for aesthetic perfection. This was living sand with sharp bits of flotsam hidden beneath the surface, waiting to cut the unwary. This was sand filled with the essence of the untamed sea, that roared on his left and filled the air with the sting of salt. The waves went on for miles in the grays and blues of the best of days, with no end in sight. And given that Kamui knew he hadn't left the land-locked city of Kragero, there was only one explanation for that.

     This was a dream.

     And what was more, instead of his usual clothes, he was wearing threadbare, white linen britches that ended in tatters just below his knees, and no shirt. It was just like the clothes he'd worn to the beach at home before he'd joined Kaizuka's navy. Just like the clothes he'd been wearing on the best day of his life, when he'd met his best friends. Maybe it was too much to ask for Fuuma to be here, but he knew what this scene meant.

     "Kotori!" he yelled, running around a grass-covered dune toward the logs he just knew had to be waiting. He could've cried, seeing her beautiful face smiling, with hair the color of the sand and the shape of the wind trailing down her shoulders to mix with a gossamer skirt. She toyed with the long string of pearls around her neck, dangling like a garland a mermaid had put on a sunken statue, except Kotori was waving, which a statue never could have done. He definitely could have cried, if he weren't an Admiral now. But he swore, those tears were caused by the biting northern winds his sweetheart had dreamed up to make him feel at home, and he wiped away the damp tracks on his face. "Kotori!"

     "Kamui-chan! Finally! You can't have been sleeping properly this past week."

     "For once, that's not my fault!"

     She ran the rest of the way to him, since his feet seemed anchored where they were. Light on her toes as ever, and lighter than a feather when he caught her jumping at him. Well, not actually. Kotori was good enough at working dreams to give herself a proper human weight, but squeezing her to his chest while her feet flailed in the air was like suddenly remembering how to breathe, so it wasn't that heavy at all. "Really, Kamui-chan! You shouldn't worry me like that! And you've got Fuuma-niisan all in a tizzy, too! He just doesn’t know what to say, but it's pretty clear he thinks he needs to sail in and liberate you immediately before you do anything more dramatic."

     As he set her back on the ground, he pushed their foreheads together. "I don't know when I'll talk to Fuuma next, so could you tell him to stay put? I'm going to see this thing through."

     "He knows."

     "... Yeah."

     "Now, before you start crying on me again..." Kotori laughed, pulling him down to sit with his feet in the tide.

     "I'm not crying."

     "Oh, right. It's the wind."

     "Damn right, it's the wind."

     With a squeeze of her hand, Kotori reshaped the dream to a balmy afternoon, the kind that Kaizuka was too far north to have, with a breeze as gentle as his mother combing his hair. "All right, then," she said with a wink. "Let's get to the truly urgent matters. Kamui-chan, you've been awfully busy down there."

     "If this is about Impala, or the treaty with Civic, I know there's supposed to be a second witness, but--"

     Kotori waved him off, laughing again as if he'd just tried to hang a jib from the topsail bar. "Don't be silly, Kamui-chan! You'll hear enough about that nonsense from my father, and trust me... It'll all turn out fine in the end."

     She always said that, Kamui knew, even though he had trouble believing that all her dreams of the future looked rosy. It just didn't seem possible that everything could be fine. But hearing her say it, he still felt better. Letting the water bury his feet in sand for the first time in far too long, he laid down to feel the burn of the beach on the back of his neck. It was the feeling of being alive.

     "If not that, then what?"

     Leaning over him as if to block the sun (but this was a dream, so he could still see her scheming eyes perfectly), Kotori whispered, "Fuuma-niisan said there were pictures. Did you really have a portrait done, Kamui-chan? I want to see!"

     Oh no. "I was going to burn those..." he groaned. Why, oh why, hadn't Kotori dreamed him a hat to hide under?

     Right. Because it was Kotori. Even playing hide and seek, she never let him hide. She always found him in two seconds flat. For all he knew, she'd even be able to find him if he used his new ninja tricks to hide. But that was fine. Kotori and Fuuma were the only two people in the world who never made him feel invisible, or want to.

     "No, you don't!" Kotori rolled him over in the sand, so he barely missed getting a mouthful. "Here's your penalty for even thinking about burning your pictures!" she said, drumming him on the back of the ribs. It kind of felt nice, like he could relax for a moment, but he pretended it hurt.

     "Okay! You got me, I'm sorry!"

     "Fuuma-niisan and I both want to see your sexy pictures, Kamui-chan. Especially if they've got your wings in them! Kamui-chan's wings are hot!"

     He picked himself up out of the sand, eyes on the nearest shard of rock that jumped out of the sameness. How could he meet Kotori's eye when she said things like that? He theoretically should have proposed marriage ten times over by now according to the tabloids, but he still couldn't make up his mind. Not that he was surprised she thought his tattoos were hot, since she'd picked them because she had a wing fetish. Kotori was probably the one person in the world who could tell him he was hot, and he was just... fine with it.

     Okay, and maybe Hikaru. Kotori and Hikaru both said it like it was just a fact, like the sky being blue and water being wet. He knew Kotori was never going to ask him to make up his mind between her and her brother. Kamui felt her arms drape over his shoulders, her front pressed to his back, and felt the rhythm of her calm heartbeat. Was she so calm because she didn't want him as anything but a brother (which would make his choice for him, not that he was complaining), or was that the confidence of knowing everything would turn out? And of course, if that was the case, she'd never tell him how it was meant to go. Dreamseers never did. It wasn't a rule so much as an idea that made every Dreamseer he'd ever met wince over the times they'd slipped, and everything had gone to shit. Sometimes he wondered just what kind of bullshit made this world a place where people could see the future, but got nothing but bad from sharing what they saw.

     "Kamui-chan," she said at last. Her voice was sad enough that he knew she'd had a vision she couldn't tell him about. "It's okay to trust the people you're with. I hope you know that."

     "Are you talking about the crew of the Dragon of Heaven or that Icchan asshole?"

     Shit! Icchan. This was no time to be asleep!

     Kotori whispering, "You can do it, Kamui-chan!" was the last thing he heard before the weight on his back faded from the touch of a beloved friend to the crush of a giant, mushroom-shaped metal tower holding him in place. That he wasn't allowed to just turn into splinters with his mind. He had to destroy each level by pulling some oversized object out of a pinprick shadow and wield it on a puzzle. He'd been using a ten-foot wrench last time he remembered being awake, and now he had a pink pencil three times his own size in his hands.

     Because apparently he could now literally ninja in his sleep. Fantastic.

     The floor in front of him opened up, and a platform rose covered with paper that someone had marked with the unmistakable pattern of scattered cherry blossom petals -- which, given that he had a pencil, he assumed he had to trace. Pushing and pulling a giant pencil so the point traced an aesthetically pleasing curve wasn't easy.

     He didn't do things because they were easy.

     He was fucking Death Shirou. He did things to kick somebody's ass. And also, he was kind of a pro at sketching sakura by now, after all the doodles he'd done of Subaru fighting that he was absolutely not going to admit to, ever. Kamui drew the last line into place and tucked the pencil back into its pinhole shadow, then braced himself for one level of the tower on his back to shatter so the rest could come crashing down. It wasn't fun, but he could take it.

     And now, to see if he could spot the location of the next pinhole shadow storage unit, and hopefully finish this before Icchan could set up the next test so he could take an actual breather.

~//~

     "You can do it, Eagle!" Hikaru yelled as loud as she could (which was pretty darn loud) from her perch on Lantis's shoulders. Two hours after Lady Utako had presented the competitors with the neatly piled and organized remnants of last night's battle, Eagle was building the best tower, she was sure. That wasn't even her being biased, either! Most of the other people hadn't thought to pack diamond-tipped drill bits suitable for turning granite into a construction material, but Eagle always carried his travel tool pack in one of the hidden pockets under his main weapon belt. Habit from living on a ship, he said, first as an engineer and then as a captain. His movements didn't feel right unless he had the weight of his tools in place.

     And boy, did his tower look spectacular! He'd made gargoyles out of the plush flamingos, waterproofing them with some scrapped up cement so when he built a pressure fountain on the inside, they channeled the spray like real gargoyles catching rain! Only flamingos, so cuter!

     "Fifteen more minutes, everyone!" Lady Utako commanded the field. "Please have your finishing touches in place when the bell sounds!"

     In this city, it was always a figure of speech when someone said "the bell". There was never just one bell. The five Kragero ninja behind Lady Utako were watching a draining hourglass for their signal to slam their five mallets into five different bells, probably in a tune. Kragero hadn't become synonymous with over-the-top showmanship for nothing.

     Hikaru cast her eyes around the competition. Princess Sakura-chan's tower stood out as the only one that used the red drapery as a major design element instead of as a connector. Princess Tomoyo seemed to have outfitted her in a sewing-themed costume, which meant the Princess had the tools to hem ragged edges fast, without running out of thread. Too bad her seams were a little uneven! The design was totally cute! And wow, Hikaru kind of wished she'd been watching to see how Watanuki-sempai had turned a layer cake made of paper mâche and wood panels into a perfectly carved bunny statue that even had realistic fur. (Not that a bunny was a tower, technically.) Maybe Umi-chan had been watching him, and she could ask!

     Of course, Nayuki-san, that boy who'd told the ghost story for Nihon the first night, would actually be competition for Eagle. Even without chisels and drills, he'd assembled shards of rock into a spiralling staircase-y thing, with tiny origami figures all around that told the story of Alice in Wonderland as you went up. It didn't even look like he'd used glue, just natural notching! That kind of construction was nothing to scoff at.

     "Oh my god," Umi whispered. "What does Ascot think he's doing?! This is tower construction, not a diorama-building contest!"

     "But he made all the penguins so pretty again!" Hikaru answered. After last night, the worn out planks of painted wood needed a little love. Although time was running out. Ascot-san might get disqualified for lack of height if he didn't stack all his penguins up or something.

     Sixteen towers, as different as could be, rose up all around the field, from the Duklyon pair's giant tiered cake (the builders couldn't agree on whether the figurines they'd sculpted of a lady with a hammer and a man with huge hair should go on top, or if they should go with two figures that looked like self-portraits) to the clockwork contraption Kazuhiko-san had built, which probably would get more points if the gears had moved. But then again, even Civic's Earl of Pudding (that was his name, right?) was having trouble getting his giant robot-shaped tower to move without engine parts, and he was a pro!

     Fuu-chan caught the way she was pouting at the robot and petted her hair. "You know what they say about working with items that were subject to broken enchantments. You either have to be stronger than the original spellcaster, or you have to use mundane force. We're probably not going to see anyone's tower mo--"

     "Ah! Syaoran-kun, look!" Princess Sakura-chan squealed from across the green. "The wind!"

     The crowds around them ooh-ed and aah-ed, while Syaoran-san looked up from the ofuda he'd been trying to make work. Their tower's ribbons had billowed out into something like sails on a carousel, catching the wind to spin around on its bottom gears. How cool was that?

     Pursing her perfect, lady-like lips, Umi-chan put on the kind of pouty scowl that always looked like it was ready to be kissed off, although Hikaru wasn't silly enough to test Umi-chan's reflexes without warning. "Is that boy's magic stronger than I thought? He could be a serious contender."

     "Well, they do say his family descends directly from Clow Reed's eldest son, Mihara Ichirou," Fuu-chan answered.

     But the flickers Hikaru saw of a lady's face and form inside the wind, sitting on top of the tower and twirling it like a toy, didn't look anything like Syaoran-san's Fuuka Shourai. His magic had always been geometrically formed, centered on his sword and charms. Strong, to be sure, but not the kind of strength that manifested in person-shaped familiars. She was about to point it out when the wind lady twirled around as if the tower were a new dress and she wanted to see the skirt spin -- and sure enough, it spun out of control, tipping off its balancing point. While Princess Sakura-chan and Syaoran-san caught it, the wind lady clapped her hands to her mouth.

     Classic 'oopsie' face.

     Then she flew away, unnoticed by either of the tower's builders. So, was she not one of their familiars after all? It was weird for a random elemental spirit to come out to play in a place full of humans (what else could she be, even if she didn't look normal for an elemental spirit?) but Hikaru supposed it wasn't unheard of. And it wasn't really worth pointing out to anyone, either. They'd realize the situation when Syaoran-san couldn't make the tower move again, or if they brought it up later, she could mention the wind lady.

     "You have one more minute!" Lady Utako called out. The Ookawa scion took a judging glance around the field, then studied the flow of the hourglass behind her. When it was nearly out, she started counting down from ten, and called, "... three, two, one!" exactly in time with the last grain of sand falling through the middle. The little bell choir behind her started their rendition of Kragero University's fight song, "Peony Pink", too. It was so much cuter than Lady Yuuko's fight song, whose actual title she could never remember because Watanuki-sempai's personal title for it ("Fuck My Life", or at least that's what he always said when it started playing -- "Oh god, fuck my life...") was so much funnier. But Lady Yuuko's fight song was badass, so that was okay.

     "Competitors, please step away from your towers. They must be able to stand on their own." Per the lady's instructions, everybody stepped away, even Princess Sakura-chan and Syaoran-san. They held their breath with every step, but their toppled tower managed to stay mostly vertical thanks to their last-minute patching. Lady Utako nodded her approval of every competitor's work like a good hostess. "Preliminary judging will begin in five minutes. Everyone, please feel free to examine all the towers, although I must ask you to stay three feet away from the structures at all times. When we announce our four finalists, those competitors will transport their towers to the Main Hall, where our second panel of judges will name a winner!"

     Hikaru was pretty sure most people in the audience ignored the whispered aside, "Which should give our honored judge enough time to wake up, I should hope!" They couldn't possibly understand how much Nokoru-san would've needed the sleep.

~//~

     For once, the Chairman was up and dressed with no fuss. No tug of war on the blankets, no whining or cajoling, no sudden distractions. Instead, Imonoyama Nokoru stood at the open window, jaw set and eyes a little sad, without a single attempt at misdirection while he fastened his tie into a perfect Windsor knot despite one of his arms being secured in a sling. Suoh had always known he would dislike seeing the Chairman focus like the responsible, committed executive he was underneath all the frivolity. And yet, like most things where his blond was concerned, he was bewildered at the scale.

     "Chairman," he murmured from his post at his lover's shoulder. When blue eyes cut to him with a hint of a smile, Suoh turned his own gaze discreetly away and corrected himself. "Nokoru-san."

     "I assume you have questions, Suoh. That's fine. We have a few more moments, and it sounds like my dear cousin, Lady Utako, has things well in hand."

     He had to think about how to phrase his question, since he'd get nothing out of the Chairman if he asked for anything that would betray Magami Tohru's confidence, or Lady Utako's. For neither love nor suffering would Imonoyama Nokoru cross a woman, but there had to be something he could ask that would let Nokoru say the words he could tell his lover wanted the chance to share. He could read Nokoru's eyes better than anyone. Their current expression screamed that he hated keeping this secret, but promises kept meant that Suoh had to find his own way to setting it free, and Nokoru trusted him to do it.

     Very well. He was hardly going to fail at that, not after what he'd heard yesterday. Moving to the window so he could look Nokoru in the eye, he asked, "What's this legacy that makes the Imonoyama heir so dangerous?"

     Nokoru let out a long sigh, but there was a smile on his face, and the afternoon sun caught the angles on his hair as if to make them glow. "That's a long story, Suoh. It goes back almost two thousand years, and I'm afraid some of the details have been lost, but I assume you've heard the story of Abaddon Falls?"

     Suoh didn't care for myths, especially those of the 'rocks fall, everybody dies' variety, but it was hard not to know the basics. Dioscuri tales were a staple at storytelling contests, including the one they'd staged this week -- although it was considered bad luck to narrate the story of Abaddon Falls for a performance (mostly because no one would vote for you if you did).

     "Some time after the stars in the Heavens supposedly evicted the Dioscuri, the Six Divine Warriors came back to the human world, cursed with immortality. One of the stars followed them down: technically speaking, a comet, on a trajectory to wipe out all non-aquatic, air-breathing or sun-dependent life on the planet. The Dioscuri stopped the impact, although casting one final spell to do so is said to have cost the Heavenly Twins their lives -- which, given the so-called burden of immortality the others took on, some have called an equitable trade. This all took place at a waterfall, hence the dramatic name, although scholars debate exactly which waterfall is indicated by the events in question. Currently, at least twelve locations advertise to tourists that they are the 'true impact point' of the comet, all debunked by authenticators."

     "As academic as ever, Suoh!" Nokoru giggled. Suoh's heart twinged in a familiar way to hear lightness in his voice again. "I don't think I've ever heard such a dry rendition in my life!"

     "I'm not a storyteller, Chairman."

     Beaming, Nokoru whispered, "I know. And it's a good thing, because I plan to tell you something I, and a few others, prefer to keep out of storytellers' hands. Back when it all happened..."

     Suoh used the Chairman's dramatic pause to sigh. He'd just known Nokoru was about to tell him it was all true.

     "... One of my ancestors and one of Lady Utako's ancestors were present, and became -- if you will -- ambassadors to the future," the Chairman said, spreading his arms in a grand gesticulation towards the window. "To protect and defend this beautiful world against the certainty that the danger at Abaddon Falls will come again!"

     A balloon over the window burst open at a wave from the Chairman's fan, dropping a scroll that read, "Worldwide Peace and Safety", a widely applicable sentiment that Nokoru liked to keep at his disposal in case he wanted to be dramatic. Unfortunately, the confetti that came with it always made a dreadful mess. It nearly got in the teacups that Ijyuin had tastefully arranged on a tray and delivered a few seconds ago while neither he nor the Chairman had been looking. Suoh pulled the tea service to safety on the desk nearby, pouring a cup for each of them. It would be a shame to waste good tea, and serious conversations were better had with something to do while listening.

     "Your tea, Chairman," he said, passing a cup and saucer with the usual lump of sugar, which had the beneficial side effect of getting Nokoru to put away the fan for the moment.

     "Ah, thank you, Suoh. Rose and hibiscus, is it? As always, Akira has exquisite taste."

     He did, it was true. The herbal blend was delicate, yet lingering, with a smooth aftertaste. Which was not going to distract Suoh from matters at hand. "But you were saying, Chairman?"

     "Yes, the impending Apocalypse. It's not a legacy we make public, but Apocalypses being what they are, one simply must have the resources to combat them in advance. Once they begin, it's too late. Our families, you see, became one of those resources."

     "Well, Death Shirou is a powerful weapon if you can aim him." Whether or not he would be a match for a comet large enough to cause an extinction event was yet to be seen, but surely they'd manage something.

     "And he's always aware of when he is and is not decided," Nokoru murmured with one of his secret smiles. When Suoh made a questioning hum into his teacup, he explained, "I have it on excellent authority that Lord Shirou never believes himself certain of things unless his heart is truly clear. And when his heart is truly clear, nothing can stand between him and that which he desires. I believe you'll find in him a paragon of a certain power every Ookawa has to some degree or another. The power to choose their own destiny, some have called it. It's a bit more terrifying in its raw form than when it's metered out in grains."

     Nevermind his sheer force versus astronomical objects, then. If choosing one's own destiny was relevant, this couldn't possibly be an ordinary comet they were talking about. However, it did raise other concerns.

     "Shirou didn't seem much in control of his destiny to me." If anyone but Nokoru had described their guest that way, Suoh might have scoffed, but he had never in his life scoffed at one of the Chairman's analyses.

     Nodding sadly, his lover answered, "You'll see him differently, I'm sure, when he has to make the choices he was born to make. We were lucky enough to get our warning signs courtesy of the Dimension Witch in time to invite Lord Shirou here while he has yet to learn there's a choice to be made, let alone what he's going to choose. It the stories about his Twin Star are true..."

     With that, Nokoru fell to silence again, taking a long sip of his tea, but not seeming to enjoy it.

     "Chairman..."

     Forcing a laugh through a pained smile, he pretended nothing had happened. "You asked me about the Imonoyama legacy, did you not? Our family's paragon would be somewhat more dangerous to have amidst a throng of cutthroat ninja politicking and machinating, I daresay!" The Chairman's tone seemed calculated to exude pride, but Suoh could hear the worry underneath. In his opinion, Suoh would say that what he was about to hear scared Nokoru more than any number of Apocalypses. He so rarely heard fear in Nokoru's voice at all, Suoh had to fight the urge to coddle him, to tell him it was all right to stop. "If the Ookawa heir knows his own heart perfectly, the Imonoyama heir is his equal and opposite. He knows the hearts of others. We can't even be certain that he has one of his own. Those who see him in passing can't call his nature, or even his face, to mind, and those who speak with him remember a striking resemblance to that which they desire most. He becomes what you wish for, nothing more, nothing less."

     Years of field reports filtered through Suoh's mind, matching Nokoru's description to a gaping hole in their intelligence gathering. Someone Nokoru had told him not to waste his time targeting on more than one occasion, and who conveniently came as a matched set with Death Shirou. There was no doubt.

     "You're talking about Fuuma the Levy."

     "Quite so. I understand the Pirate King keeps him isolated on the Dragon of Earth, a ship with no crew, and officers with the coldest of hearts. He's safest among those with no wild desires. I shudder to think what would happen if a man like that were to walk through this town right now. The wishes of so many ninja together at once could destroy the world on their own."

     The idea of a person with no true face, who transformed that way, refused to sit in Suoh's mind. "But how can someone like that exist? He can't simply be no one when he's alone."

     "If a tree falls in the forest, it makes an audible pressure wave, but if no one's ears transmute it into understanding, is that truly a sound, or merely the possibility of sound?"

     "It's a sound. The listener doesn't change the nature of the thing itself."

     Nokoru finished his tea with the most irrepressible of smiles on his face. "That's something I love about you, Suoh. You're always so practical." Truly, he thanked all the fates for the existence of tea, since taking a sip of his own meant he didn't have to answer that. His blush could answer for him. "But unfortunately," the Chairman continued, "I and every member of my family knows exactly how powerful the doom Lord Monou carries can be. In his case, it must be a curse."

     "You, Chairman?"

     "Suoh, how many times have you lamented the fact that I will never rest when a woman feels grief or sorrow?" he asked with a teasing grin.

     Suoh shook his head. "I accept that you consider it your calling--"

     "And yet you scold me, tell me to hold back, prioritize..." Nokoru gestured to the sling around the hand holding his saucer. "Mind my boundaries."

     "Someone has to."

     "And I never listen. Because I can't, Suoh. I will always know if a woman has a reason to cry, no matter how deep it's hidden in her heart, and I will always act. I'm lucky that I'm bound to do something I believe in. If I could choose, I would always choose to return smiles to ladies' faces. However, the fact is, I don't get a choice. As such, I know enough to be chilled to the bone when I understand that Lord Monou never gets a choice, about anything."

     Ignoring the Chairman's statesman-like pose, which was as transparent as the window glass, Suoh slipped his hand into his lover's palm and squeezed. "Nokoru-san. When you must exceed your boundaries, you can rely on me to bring you home safely."

     "I know. And that means everything to me, Suoh. Please, continue to watch over me?"

     "Until the world ends."

     Although no one else ever heard his jokes, Nokoru laughed, and hugged him with a tight squeeze. Suoh buried his smile in the lavender scent of his lover's hair where no one could see.

     "This doesn't mean I'll go easy on you with regards to your paperwork or your other official responsibilities. Judging still begins in fifteen minutes."

     "I would expect nothing less, Suoh."

~//~

     Kamui was content to let Hikaru's explanation of how amazing this tower-building contest had been wash through one ear and out the other. After a day of being the living foundation of a particular bitch of his own tower, the only reason he was at this bonfire instead of dead asleep in the clocktower was the food. Giant piles of shish kebabs, and even glorious salad the likes of which a seafaring man rarely saw, and the vendor from his first night up here kept him in enough buckets of fresh water, Kamui was surprised Kragero still had rivers. He even managed to steal some of Doumeki's boyfriend's amazing popcorn while said boyfriend was waiting on the Dimension Witch, and the biggest mystery bothering him at the moment was how he'd turned into a person who didn't bother checking whether food he'd stolen from a ninja was poisoned or not.

     Well, actually, looking over Hikaru's shoulder at Lantis giving him the evil eye, it was kind of mysterious how his pint-sized ninja friend managed to have sex with an actual mountain-sized person. Lantis was even bigger than Kusanagi, the so-called Juggernaut. Eagle, sure. Once you took off the three-inch platform boots filled with hidden weapons and the armaments stashed in various places that made his shoulders look like they needed their own address, he was a perfectly reasonable person-sized person. But Lantis? Did he even fit in a bed? Whatever. That was a mystery Kamui was just as happy not to know the answer to.

     "Yay, s'mores time!" Hikaru squealed. Now she had his full attention.

     The blue-haired one, Umi, had come back from the refreshment stand with enough marshmallows, chocolate bars, and graham crackers to feed a small nation, with who else but Mage Clef himself levitating a case of dessert wine by her side. "Eat, drink, and be merry, guys!" the lady said.

     Clef locked eyes with Kamui before taking his other case of wine off to the Kia delegation. The man Kamui would've considered attacking on sight a week ago, and who'd turned every one of his drinking buddies tonight into a magical fighting machine, gave him a cordial nod, which Kamui returned, and that was that.

     Because fuck everything. This week didn't count.

     "Chocolate," Kamui murmured. "Thank god." The bruises on his back from the tower levels dropping were most of the way healed, so it wasn't like the chocolate served a medicinal purpose right now. He'd always healed fast. A little chocolate went a long way to making him feel like whatever horrors he'd been through were really gone, though. "Pass me a skewer, would you?"

     This time, he was going with four marshmallows. Aoki wasn't here, so no one was going to tell him that a double-decker s'more was a bad idea. Not even Hikaru's snicker was going to stop him while he set up an extra layer of graham and chocolate on his knee. If this didn't fail spectacularly, it was going to be amazing, and if it did fail spectacularly, he didn't have to worry about being seen because everyone around the bonfire was watching the announcer go up on stage.

     "And now, what you've all been waiting for, let's have tonight's Ghost Story contest! It looks like we have a treat in store for you..."

     Which they said some variation of every night, so Kamui wasn't all that impressed. It was the usual showmanship.

     "Everyone give a warm welcome to Toyotomi Hidetsugu of Fahren," the announcer said, gesturing to a competitor with a green armband marked with a sakura blossom. "He'll be telling us the story of 'Arslat and the Guardian of the East'. A round of applause for Hidetsugu-san!"

     Kamui didn't clap with the crowds. His hands were too busy juggling marshmallows onto sticks. Also, he recognized the sketchy as fuck grin on the storyteller, who was without a doubt one of the many people who'd propositioned him for sex earlier this week. And on top of everything, he was from the same country as that damned Lady Sumeragi, who thought she had any right to claim the same name as Subaru, while wearing a goddamned sakura mark. Kamui was more than prepared to absolutely hate this fucker, and whatever story he was telling.

     While Sketchy Dude set his ceremonial candle on a table and took a chair, though, Hikaru was clapping enough for both of them. "Yay! Another Dioscuri story! I love these!"

     "How is this a Dioscuri story?" Kamui couldn't claim to have tracked down every one fanatically like some people (although now that he'd been forcibly informed that some of the Six Divine Warriors were on his own fucking boat, he was thinking about it) but he knew their hero names as well as anyone who'd ever been in a nursery school, and counted them off on his fingers. "Dimension Witch," he said, nodding at the asshole ninja queen, "Snow Fox, Dreamseer, Barrows-guard, Divine Twins. There's no Guardian of the East."

     "Of course there's no Guardian of the East," Hikaru answered with her trademark wide eyes. "That's one of the four Generals of Heaven."

     That uncomprehending look boggled what was left of his mind. Lucky for him, Hikaru's friend Fuu jumped in to explain. "I must beg your pardon, Kamui-san. I've been teaching Hikaru-san about the more esoteric details of the mythology since our encounter last month. Arslat, although considered a descriptive hero name like Tom Thumb or Momotarou rather than a proper name, is particularly used in Fahren because-- oh, well, he's starting." On stage, that jackass Toyotomi had picked up an erhu from the table, leaving the bow for the moment, and was plucking a simple rhythm. "I'll explain later if you're interested," she whispered.

     Damn straight he'd be asking later. How was he supposed to have known any stories existed that used names for those assholes? No one ever used names! If they had, he might've noticed earlier that Fucking Fai the Pirate King was the Snow Fox -- assuming the names were recognizable, which clearly these weren't. And Kamui did grant that failing to realize Sakurazuka was the actual Barrows-guard and not a fanboy was on him.

     In time to his plucking on the erhu, Toyotomi, whose voice had a deep and lustrous tone that was annoyingly perfect for storytelling, sang, "There were days when stars were young, the seas not salt with sorrow. From all the world was beauty hung, and from these days I borrow..." The same haze of dread that Kamui had felt at the opening ceremonies, what seemed like a lifetime ago, grabbed him again while the storyteller, still plucking, went from singing to speaking. "Come with me, if you will, to the gardens of Karasuk where Arslat and Chegen spent their youth, brother and sister learning their trades before they set off to see the world.

     "Arslat, who played his one-stringed lute, the ektara, had turned his fingers to another twang when the Air Spirit Kiishimu had challenged him to an archery contest -- a tale for another night. His sister with her song and dance kept his spirits high and healed him when his fingers bled, as he on other nights had wrapped her ragged feet after a day's work. Shot by shot, he trained his eyes and arms to sight his target. Perhaps it was the work of Kiishimu herself, or one of her soldiers, who carried his final arrow off on the wind. Far beyond what the eye could see, even such sharp eyes as his, his arrow arched toward the setting sun."

     Kamui shoved a spare brick of chocolate in his mouth before he could scream any of the things he wanted to scream. He didn't want the attention right now, not if this was what he thought it was. Even if they had unfamiliar names here, there was only one brother-sister pair among the Six Divine Warriors: the Heavenly Twins, who were supposed to have died at Abaddon Falls. But the people who said both of them had died hadn't seen the picture history Clow Reed had shown his and Hikaru's teams last month. In that, someone had lived. Someone who used a magic circle that looked a hell of a lot like the one Subaru used when--

     He did not have the brainpower right now to acknowledge that he might be listening to a story about Subaru from fuck-all thousands of years ago. He was roasting marshmallows. That was how much brainpower he had, and that was exactly how much brainpower he was going to use.

     Okay, and maybe he could manage a thank you to Hikaru when she lit his marshmallows on fire, although he wasn't going to deal with the look of concern on her face. Everything Subaru had told Kamui about his older sister, he'd said in confidence.

     "... Although Chegen tried to keep him there, Arslat would not stay. What if his arrow had struck a stray bird, or torn a person's tent flap? He could not rest until he had set right any harm that may have come from an arrow loosed by his bow."

     Well, that sounded more interested in anything than Subaru ever got. But when he did decide to do something... If he felt responsible for something...

     No, Kamui thought, shoving a graham cracker in his mouth to follow the chocolate. He wasn't going to think about this now. Although he regretted the graham cracker when it meant he couldn't blow out his marshmallows. Fuu used her wind magic to get it, while Umi took care of the important job of mocking him, but he didn't think any of them really understood that looking like a dork was the least of his worries right now. He knew he didn't have a right to feel hurt if Subaru had been hiding all this from him, but who ever felt hurt just because they had a right to?

     "... She bid her brother well, warning him that if he should not return by midnight, she would follow after to find where he had gone. Heading towards the sun, he played upon his lute for the arrow he had fired, and listened for its song to come back to him: Cross the fields to forests deep, where starlight shines in shadow. Listen for the shades that weep upon their withered barrow."

     Subaru and barrows in the same place? No thanks. Kamui swallowed and murmured, "I don't think I can listen to this," stacking his s'more to eat on the road. "I'll be in the clocktower." But before he could get to his feet, a paper butterfly fluttered over and unfolded into a note on his lap.

     "It's not what you think," he read out loud.

     "I think Mistress Yuuko wants you to stay," Hikaru whispered, her two team members nodding in unison while her two boyfriends looked suspicious. He knew which side of that divide he was on, but he also wasn't an idiot. Everybody knew the Dimension Witch didn't give advice for free. That meant that something had to constitute payment for her advice, and he hadn't personally made a contract with her. So either Fai had arranged part of this week's hell to be Kamui's payment, or worse yet, Fai might have paid her himself. What kind of a pirate would he be if he let that go for nothing? And if he could trust that the Witch was honest, then he wasn't listening to a story about Subaru walking toward Sakurazuka.

     She'd pretty much confirmed that the story was real, but it didn't have that asshole in it, and that was good enough for him right now. From the next lines he picked up, it sounded like the story's hero had made it to the forest.

     "--smelled of dust and cobwebs, the way a living place never should. The water between the trees ran black in the darkness, and in every bend of a branch, he heard a spirit's cry. Closing his eyes, he listened for where the weeping of the forest was loudest, and followed them into the darkening woods. There was nothing to fear from ghosts, he told himself. He'd spoken to so many before. These could be no different. As he walked through hanging vines toward a point in the deep, distant trees that looked like starlight, he played the spirits he passed to sleep.

     "May the Lord of Heaven's Warriors act as vanguard where I tread, and may all this world's horrors no more rest upon your head. So Arslat sang as he walked through the forest, his words and music cutting through the blanket of the damned like a sword. But as the trees grew thicker, as he drew closer to the point of light he followed, the shadows reached like hands to bind him. The spirits grew bodies that blocked his path, no more crying voices but men and women who whispered of atrocities they had seen in the human world. Singing with all his voice, he kept them from consuming him, drove them away from where he stood, but the smell of blood was on their breath, and it blew on his face like a cold wind. In the darkness of their crowd surrounding him, he could no longer see the road, yet he sensed where the spirits were strongest and walked on all the same.

     "He knew he had been pulled into this haunted forest to give his life, as fierce as these spirits were. Where they were thickest was his goal, and he would go slow and careful. You may ask, why not exorcise the spirits, but recall: when you lower your defenses to attack with no one there to shield you, the foe with numbers will find a way to hit -- and a single hit was more than Arslat would allow. The broken shaft of an arrow he had fired would give a spirit the power to become a demon, and a bite of his flesh would feed one for a thousand years. How could he let a bloodthirsty spirit loose on the world, knowing how many could suffer for his carelessness? So Arslat walked in inches, heedless of the time it took to find his way to the forest's hellish heart.

     "He couldn't see how dark the night had grown when all at once the tiniest of sounds pierced through the wailing of the spirits, as if a person had run a sounding rod around the edge of a bell on a silent altar..."

     Kamui thought he heard the sound himself, bewitching and soft, high and clear, shivering through the air to still the chatter around the campfire. He didn't recall when he'd fallen into the storyteller's grip, but the story had immersed him enough that he hadn't noticed Toyotomi take his rosined bow from the table. For the first few shivers of sound, he thought he was hearing a spirit, and didn't realize the sound came from the erhu on stage. Fucking ninja. Props were cheating, he was sure if it. Hikaru had done an amazing -- by which he meant, clearly better -- job without props at all!

     Pulling notes slowly from his instrument, bending the pitch to make a shifting, ghostly chord without any seams, Toyotomi stage-whispered, "All at once, the path was clear before him, and he could see his arrow untouched on the ground, beckoning him to take it up. The spirits that had been so thick around him were nowhere to be seen, shrunk back into the shadows. Only the sound remained, growing louder in his ears, tones and overtones freezing him in place, for he could feel the power behind them, and he didn't dare move. It seemed as if the very trees were singing. After what could have been a breath or an eternity, a voice that sounded as potent with authority as it was clear with youth called out, 'You must know this place is not safe for you.' As soon as Arslat thought to ask where the speaker hid, for his voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, a child who looked barely more than ten but whom he knew was no child at all stepped down from a broad, flat rock in the forest clearing. Every step the boy took cried that he was lord of this place, not least because his passing thrummed the roots and branches of the trees until they, too sang his ghostly music. Tight-wound string or breaking glass, all things have their waiting tune. And some there are who play the grass, the sun, the stars, and moon.

     "Arslat looked the child spirit in the eye and said, 'Forgive me. I came to retrieve my arrow, not to do you harm. By your leave, I shall take it now, and leave your woods in peace.' But the lord of the woods would have none. 'You have come too far,' he said, 'to leave in safety now. I will not let you go.' Fearing not for his own life, but for those that would be troubled if he never left these woods -- foremost, his own sister who would already be on his trail -- he pleaded once more. 'Let me make some trade with you. My life is in your hands for my intrusion, and I have nothing to my name but the ektara I carry. Yet I will earn my way with deeds if you will let me.' The child sighed, contemplating thoughts beyond our hero's mortal fathom. With eyes as deep as night's spiralling reach, he said at last, 'I heard you play as you entered the woods, and to summon me, you must have some skill.' Sitting crosslegged at the center of the clearing, the spirit drew a two-stringed erhu from the air and bade Arslat to sit. 'Listen to me, and match my tune. If you should last the night, you'll have safe passage at daybreak. Is that a deed within your power?'

     "'It must be done, and I will do it,' Arslat answered. 'There's no song this ektara and I cannot play.' Although every such challenge he'd taken before came from a man more like himself, he wouldn't haggle with the likes of spirits." Plucking his instrument again, Toyotomi sang, "Would you take a backward glance when a demon bids you play? It may be your only chance at the light of one more day. Tightly tune your silken strings, pluck your fingers to the bone. Hark to what the demon sings if you'd keep your life your own."

     Kamui stuck four more marshmallows on his skewer while he silently munched the last bits of his first, wildly successful, chocolatey and perfect double-decker s'more. If he had to remind himself repeatedly that he knew the hero was going to live, because he knew there were other stories after this one and because he very possibly had tea with the hero on a regular basis, he didn't need the rest of these assholes knowing about it. They'd never let him live it down. Best to pretend he was more concerned about whether he could get extra chocolate on the next set of s'mores and still get it to melt right. These were important questions. Definitely more important than whether a fictionalized character who proveably didn't die would get through a musical showdown unscathed.

     As if even demons or gods could outplay Subaru. Not fucking likely.

     "The lord of the forest played the first of his notes, a wail weeping off his bow like mist rising off a mountain. It was the songs of birds in swirling flight and the breeze's gentle touch. It was the glow of a volcano set to burst in flames. It was the smoke of funeral pyres that caught in Arslat's eyes until he wept upon the ground for souls he'd never known. And through the sting of tears, he thought he saw a wall of ghosts stir at the forest's edge to bend their knees and sing upon their host's command."

     Cheating, Kamui thought to himself.

     "How should a boy with one silk string to play return a sound, the likes of which he'd never heard? But Arslat bowed his head and said, 'I will do what I must.' On his one silk string, he plucked the songs of sunrise, sweet and low, burning mist away. He made the chords of the tune he'd heard through magic he'd made his own to call back the rustle of feathered wings and the smoke of fires high. Then he played for the lord the roaring winds too swift to catch your breath, and children rocked to sleep by candlelight and lullabies in a parent's arms. He challenged the spirit with the best he knew, and heard his songs return filled with tempests that seemed to beat upon his back. But like the parent with babe in arms, he sheltered his lute from the rain. He kept that one string warm and dry, though he be soaked to the skin. All the night, they played and played, Arslat's fingers blistered and the child demon's choirs growing with each note, when with the last pluck with the last of his power, Arslat felt his one string snap." The music played with the tale vanished, Toyotomi's hands hushing the wires on his erhu, and the silence felt to Kamui like his heart had stopped. He'd forgotten how to feel its beat without the thrumming chords. "That was the last thing he felt that night. He fell to the ground, all in darkness, sure he'd never rise again, breathing one last, wordless apology to his sister that he might not come home. Brave you were to take the dare, and a little foolish, too. But haunts and hosts are only ware of what the foolish do."

     The audience held a collective breath, waiting to see if he'd continue, or if that was the end. For Kamui's part, he felt like screaming that it couldn't be the end, and that the fucker better not mess this story up. But heckling was bad manners. A pirate only did it to his friends, or when he was picking a fight, and Kamui didn't plan to extend either courtesy to the Fahren bastard with the sketchy smile. The only thing to do was eat another pile of marshmallow, chocolate, and a nominal measure of graham cracker to hold it all together.

     At last, Toyotomi started plying his bow on his erhu again, playing a bright, staccato tune. "When Arslat woke, the sun shone bright, not a spirit to be seen. His sister kneeling by him washed the dust from his face and scolded him for taking so long on such a little trip. She handed him his arrow, still unscathed upon the ground. 'Now, what brings you to sleeping here, your fingers raw, your precious ektara in such a state?' At first, astonished enough to still be alive, he could only look around for any sign that this heaven or hell. But what his eyes fell on was the broad, flat stone from which his companion last night had descended. It was no mere rock, but an altar, topped with the statue of Karasuk's own protector: Jikokuten, the Guardian of the East. Lord of no mere haunted forest, he, but of the choirs of the heavens and of the ravaging rakshasa who defended his demesnes. Arslat bowed low to beg forgiveness of that dread lord for trespassing, and to thank him for his mercy. Looking deep into the statue's eyes, he searched for a hint of the child he had seen, to know if his apology was accepted. The only likeness between the statue and the figure he had seen was the erhu in the demon-god's hands, but that was proof enough. As he looked at the statue's feet, that self-same erhu he saw again, bundled with its bow for travel on the road. With thanks, Arslat took it up, leaving his broken ektara in tribute, swearing to play this in Jikokuten's name for the rest of his days. Not until they left the forest in silence did he say to Chegen, 'Oh my sister, have I a story to tell!'"

     Toyotomi played one finishing chord, then blew out his candle while the audience clapped. Kamui even clapped a few times himself before he remembered that he didn't like the guy. Ghosts were one thing, but accidentally finding out you'd challenged the bloodsucking, flesh-rending footsoldiers of a god? That was like something he might do, Kamui thought, only this had a much better ending because he definitely would've tried blowing the forest to bits, and gods weren't likely to take that well. Kamui shuddered, realizing he'd never considered Subaru having been that young. It was as if, never realizing he knew it, he'd always known that Subaru was old enough that he'd forgotten -- truly forgotten -- what a childhood afternoon felt like, more than any old sailor who haunted the docks. It was hard to be mad that Subaru had never said anything about it when he looked at it that way.

     "And now for our next competitor, please welcome Hibiya Chitose of Ceres, with her retelling of 'Motosuwa Hideki on the Six Paths of Pain'." The announcer gestured to the lady, stepping up with her candle with her unflappable smile, which other people wouldn't use for a ghost story contest, but she made it work. "Everyone, let's hear it for your Miss Ceres!"

     Now this was a story Kamui knew by heart, right down to the way Fai made different whiny, dorky faces every time the King of Valeria sent Hideki off somewhere else -- Hell, the Blessed Realms, the Heavens, the Nirai Kanai Below, the Spirit Paths, and the worst parts of their own human world. Fai loved doing impressions of Motosuwa Hideki, and was so good at them, Kamui had almost started thinking of that hero out of myth as a real person, too -- although more of a dork than most people thought he was. He wasn't sure if he could even enjoy listening to someone tell this story straight-faced anymore.

     On stage, Hibiya pulled out illustration boards she'd probably painted herself, the first showing an island full of spired alabaster buildings glinting in the sun while the dragon god Ceres reared out of the ocean, and posed on the chair so the candlelight brightened the pictures for the whole audience. "Once upon a time, before the great dragon Ceres sank the island kingdom of Valeria, the king sent for a hero who could reverse the doom prophesied upon their land, offering any reward that hero should ask." Her next picture was a stuffy old king with a beard like an upside-down glacier sitting next to a blonde queen who looked born to make sculptors cry in joy, while two blond tots who had to be Valeria's twin princes played on the floor. "As hundreds tried and hundreds failed, at last the challenge reached the ears of Motosuwa Hideki, who presented himself before the king with promises that he would save the island."

     Kamui couldn't help noticing that Hibiya failed to point out what Fai always whispered: that Hideki totally and utterly failed also, seeing as Valeria still got destroyed, but nobody involved had noticed when they got distracted from the actual quest.

     "Accepting his offer, the king asked, 'And what will you claim as your prize in this, should you fulfill your word?' Hideki replied that he had no need of wealth or land or favors. The only reward he would seek was the hand in marriage of the fair Princess Elda, twin sister the kings's own Queen Freya, should the lady wish to have him."

     It took physical restraint to keep his mouth shut and not yell, "You're changing the story!" when Kamui heard that. But then he remembered, it was only Fai who insisted that the king claimed sole control over whom Princess Elda consorted with and hadn't cared what she'd had wanted, and only Fai who said with his fakest of laughs that "stuff like that" was why Valeria had been destroyed at all. He'd forgotten after so many years on a boat where everyone just knew that nobody told Valeria stories but Fai, because Fai always said they told the stories wrong. And knowing that Fai was a fuck-off old hero, too, he'd probably been there or something, so he'd know. Kamui was so used to thinking of his own floating city of Kaizuka as "the new Valeria", he'd forgotten these stories weren't just his.

     As Hibiya switched to a romantic picture of Hideki and Elda holding hands and staring into each other's eyes (wow, schlock overload, Kamui thought with a shudder), he whispered to Hikaru, "Remind me to tell you how this story really goes sometime."

Chapter Text

Day Six Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Breakfast: SHUUKAIDOU TAKESHI & HIGASHIKUNIMARU KENTAROU (Kragero) def. Akechi Shigetaka & Magami Tokiko (Kragero)
  • Lunch: WATANUKI KIMIHIRO & TSUYURI KOHANE (Hundhammeren) def. Li Syaoran & Princess Sakura (Malvek)
  • Tea: IJYUIN AKIRA & OOKAWA UTAKO (Kragero) def. Ogata Masaharu & His Angels (Malvek)
  • Dessert: TAKAMOTO CHIKAHITO & TOYOTOMI HIDETSUGU (Fahren) def. Ueda Hiroyasu & Oomura Yumi (Ceres)

Rubble Tower Contest

  • Gold: Nayuki Satoru (Nihon)
  • Silver: Byun Baek (Xinan)
  • Bronze: Eagle Vision (Hundhammeren)

Scavenger Hunt

  • Gold: Hiiragizawa Eriol (England)
  • Silver: Miyuki (Ceres)
  • Bronze: Yudaiji Idomu (Civic)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Second: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)
  • Third: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)

Ghost Story Contest

TOYOTOMI HIDETSUGU (Fahren) def. Hibiya Chitose (Ceres)

~//~

     There had never been any question in Watanuki's mind that he and Kohane-chan would defeat their competitor, whomever this Takamoto Chikahito thought he was, in the semi-finals. Despite one judge who rated the Fahren ninja's dish higher simply because it happened to contain noodles, their superiority was obvious. The other two judges were more than capable of discerning that his own ingenious ability to create a tomato zest was far better than the utterly pedestrian spaghetti sauce Takamoto had made. The world would tremble before his invention of flash-frozen sprinkles of potent tomato adding an umami twist to his mint sorb--

     "Ah! Watanuki-san!"

     He spun on his heel and found himself face to face with none other than his rival, Ijyuin Akira. How dare that scoundrel always appear behind him?! A true ninja would meet him face to... Well, actually that wasn't right at all. Thank goodness he hadn't been talking out loud!

     "That was marvelous! You really managed to make a confection out of tomatoes!"

     "Flavor is a matter of balance! All things in their proper proportion! Anyone who thinks a tomato has no place in a dessert lacks imagination, Ijyuin-san! And your dessert tomorrow had best be beyond your usual standards if you expect to defeat me in the grand showdown!"

     Kragero's master chef and spy extraordinaire giggled with his trademark smile. "I'll try not to disappoint you! Are we going to see one of your famous seared fish entrées this year?"

     "Your wiles will never work on me! Not on the great Watanuki-sama!" he snarled in the other chef's sunshiney face. "Take your bag of spying tricks somewhere else. I will never reveal what secret techniques I've honed for this contest, Ijyuin-san!"

     The slick bastard didn't even flinch, so Watanuki couldn't allow himself to give either, despite Kohane-chan tugging on his sleeve to say, "Kimihiro-kun, I think he's just being nice."

     "Don't let him fool you, Kohane-chan." He knew perfectly well that Ijyuin could hear him. That was the point. "Behind that happy face lies a man who can bluff kings out of the deeds to their castles and confuse the loyalties of the truest warriors, without error or remorse -- and no one ever sees it! So take my word for it, and don't let his personality fool you! Ijyuin Akira is a trickster and a spy to the very cockles of his soul!"

     Who had the gall to blush as innocently as a third grader offering and/or receiving his first bouquet of flowers on the playground.

     "Oh, thank you, Watanuki-san!" Ijyuin squeaked, clapping his hands together with an ever brightening smile. "I think you're great, too!"

     "We are leaving!"

     Of course, his hopes of making a swift and dramatic exit were marred by the fact that he had a pirate in tow. He couldn't disappear under these conditions! He could only walk, and walk slowly at that -- not to mention that the "help" Doumeki offered in the form of carrying his equipment was utterly unnecessary. He supposed it did make his lover feel useful, as well as giving him a chance to stuff leftovers into his enormous black hole of a mouth, but oh, the ignominy!

     "Hurry up, would you? I need to set up for Lady Yuuko's tea. I still don't know why she invited you along, but that's how it stands so I will thank you to move your feet! I am on a time clock even if no one else here is!"

     "Hmm," Doumeki answered, stuffing another croquette into his mouth and lengthening his stride. Not hurrying the rate at which he made steps, no, just taking longer steps with his ridiculously long legs! At least it was somewhat better.

     "Kamui-sensei, Kamui-sensei!!" Watanuki heard a young voice calling out, and he froze in place. Kohane-chan could lead Doumeki. He would catch up. He'd almost forgotten he still needed to give Death Shirou a piece of his mind, and saving this passel of impressionable Impalan children from that damned Pirate Lord was practically heroism.

     Kohane-chan did not head on, however. She read the change in direction before he even got two steps into his angry march. The dear, sweet child was entirely too skilled for her pay grade. "Kimihiro-kun. I don't think you should bother Kamui-san when he's around friends. You might end up having to sign a treaty with him, too, and you know what Lady Yuuko would say to that."

     Didn't he just. She'd quiz him to make sure every aspect of his treaty was completely balanced in every way, and any imbalance to either side would come out of his paycheck! She liked to call that a "learning exercise", and he could ill afford to pay for anything on a national scale.

     He laughed it off, of course. "Goodness, Kohane-chan. I wasn't walking towards him, I was walking past him! The place I want to go just happens to be on the other side of the courtyard there!" He squinted to get a better view of the shop sign. "The convenience mart. We need more tissues around Lady Yuuko's rooms, and I shall buy every single box they have!"

     Which was all well and good. One could never have too many boxes of tissues. All he had to do was not pay attention to the Impalan children asking a pirate, of all people, for advice on how to be intimidating. As if you could be any such thing in their ridiculous pirate outfits! Laughable!

     "Now, the first thing is bold colors, okay?" Shirou sighed. "No more pastels! Pastels are for people who want to be underestimated. Also, red is cliche. Use it sparingly."

     Surprisingly good advice for a pirate. How annoying.

     "White's tricky. Don't wear it unless you know you can fight without getting dirty. Nobody ever looked intimidating by looking like a wreck! That's why I like black. It doesn't show blood, any road dirt just makes it look rugged, and--" The pirate pulled a pocket watch out of his utility belt. "Oh fuck, I'll be late!" and flash-stepped away without a goodbye. What he yelled as he disappeared sounded more like, "Fucking Icchan and his fucking mind games!" than a proper farewell.

     At which a cry went up the likes of which could only come from a handful of disappointed children suddenly bereft of their favorite new toy. He didn't pity Okiura Sayaka's newest henchperson, Kobato, her need to calm them. "What Kamui-sensei means is that a fearsome ninja always keeps his appointments, just like he's doing now. So what do we say, kids?"

     "Thank you, Kamui-sensei!" the lot of them yelled at the air. Maybe Death Shirou could hear them wherever he was, maybe he couldn't. Either way, Watanuki supposed they were in good hands as long as they were with someone who taught them proper manners instead of letting piratey rudeness rub off on them. Honestly, leaving in the middle of a lesson! One more thing he'd have to call that rapscallion to account for. And now, he had errands of his own to--

     "ICCHAN GO BOOM!"

     "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!" Watanuki screamed. "Who?! What?! Why?!" The bespectacled man standing directly behind him was no doubt an interloper, and Watanuki pointed a finger at him to show he knew it -- little help Doumeki was being, standing there eating and looking amused! "State your purpose, and perhaps you'll escape with your life!"

     With no apologies whatsoever, the stranger scratched his head and laughed. "I signed myself up for the Flower Arranging Contest, but I can't seem to find the greenhouse. I don't suppose you could point me towards it, young man? Hmm?"

     "How do you not know where all the event buildings are by now?! It's the seventh day of the festival! Have you been living underground?! Are you or are you not a ni--" Doumeki ambled up to his shoulder to look pointedly interested in what was about to come out of his mouth, which Doumeki certainly couldn't be allowed to hear because Doumeki might dump him if he found out he was a ninja. That wasn't acceptable in the least! Doumeki couldn't be the one to dump him! Only he was allowed to dump Doumeki! That much was clear! But what else to say?

     "Are you a nincompoop?! If you had any sense in your head, surely you'd realize the greenhouse is that way!"

     As he pointed northwest, coincidentally over the heads of all the Impalan children, Hibiya Chitose joined Okiura-san with her crew, and the most unbelievable thing Watanuki had seen in at least three hours happened. The stranger's glasses glinted opaque, and he appeared to melt like a wet noodle onto the ground. Which Watanuki could understand the means of, naturally. He'd done it himself enough times, but never on purpose as this man seemed to have done.

     "Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle..." the odd, odd, odd fellow murmured as he did, in fact, wiggle across the ground, reconstituting himself next to the buxom Ceres ninja with a shady smirk. "Don't think I've seen you around, but I'd like to. If you're looking for the Flower Arranging, I can--"

     And now he was hitting on her? Unbelievable. Watanuki simply had to stop listening. At least when he'd met Doumeki, the asshole had said hello and bought him a drink like a normal person, none of that wiggling bullshit! Not that he had any intention of telling Doumeki that it had, even for an instant, crossed his mind to not only accept that Doumeki was his boyfriend, but to appreciate it. He wouldn't want that louse getting complacent!

     "Hey."

     "My name is not hey!"

     "Did you still want to buy tissues? Because it's almost time for tea."

     "Is food the only thing you think about?!"

     "Nope," Doumeki answered. As usual, his face looked permanently lewd.

     "You are a sex fiend and a glutton, and I hope you're prepared to run because now there is no time to amble! Didn't I tell you we had to be at Lady Yuuko's rooms by 2PM sharp?!"

     "Hmm."

~//~

     From behind his Princess, Kurogane could see every corner of the greenhouse. If Shirou showed his face again, he wanted to know. Thanks to all the shit going down this week, he'd have to keep a closer eye on Impala in the future, too, and forces closer to home. Empress Kendappa wasn't even trying to hide that her personal swordsmith was making Death Shirou a sword that could shake the heavens. At least Watanuki'd made it clear Yuuko hadn't brokered an outright alliance.

     Meanwhile, Takamura was walking in from his latest bout at the fighting hall with a scowl Kurogane had seen enough times in the mirror. That was the face of a man who'd had enough bullshit, and he walked it right into Imonoyama Nokoru's reserved box. Imonoyama raised his fan to keep people from reading their lips, but Kurogane had trained to hear whispers a mile away for a reason.

     "No sign of him," Takamura was telling his boss. "I had men on him when he left the arena, but he disappeared into the Damocles airship and onto Civic's sovereign soil, which as you requested, I have not entered. However, once Ijyuin is done with his competition--"

     "We know where he'll be, and when, Suoh."

     "May I remind you, Chairman, that the closer we allow him to get to fulfilling his plans, the more likely someone is to get hurt?"

     They had to be talking about Yudaiji. Kurogane had seen Imonoyama and that asshole go head to head so many more times than he'd wanted to.

     "I appreciate your concern, Suoh, but you remember last time we cut him off before he had his fun? We were still finding poisoned needles for months! They were worse than glitter. There's no reason to rush when we know his pattern."

     "Yes, Chairman."

     He felt for Takamura. It wasn't easy to wait, even on your liege's order. Maybe he'd buy the man a drink later.

     "You can stop making that face, Kurogane," his mistress laughed, just between them.

     He knelt, bowing his head by hers. "Princess Tomoyo?"

     "You're worrying again! I assure you, you can relax. Have fun!"

     "I don't relax when I'm watching your back. That's one thing you can't ask of me."

     How did he know if she only dreamed of safe futures because he was here to watch more than the flower show on the greenhouse floor? But she knew that, too, and it didn't need to be said.

     This contest wasn't really a competition, either. Not one of the entrants made better arrangements than his mother had made when he was a child. But if somebody had to win, he wanted Snow Princess Shirahime to take the gold for Nihon. She'd made a frozen landscape with one perfect, pink blossom under a glassy lake. The other blossoms hung like the sun in the sky and one like a man bending over the water. The judges might not know the myth it was based on, but they had a job to know art when they saw it.

     On the chaise that Princess Tomoyo had brought to replace her favorite's usual chair, Princess Sakura stared in at the competitors putting final touches on their designs. "I-is it really okay for Eagle-san to use kale? And that big drill machine?"

     "I wonder!" was all Princess Tomoyo said, touching a hand to her cheek with more eyes for the little Princess than for the flowers. Well, flowers and other vegetation.

     His brat trainee was the only other one here who understood anything about it. Syaoran turned to the Empress and two Princesses, saying, "Oh, you see--!" before he remembered that bodyguards don't speak till they're spoken to. Empress Kendappa had her whims. Speaking out of turn could get any guard on stable cleaning duty for a week -- or what might be worse for the kid, a letter sent to his mother.

     Her Imperial Majesty had him in her sights, with the shade curtains of their box showing only a glimmer of her lapis lazuli eyes. In sunlight, they were deeper than the fluorite blue eyes folk in the south shared with that damned pirate who Kurogane wished he could stop thinking about on duty, but in shadow the Empress's eyes were black and unreadable as midnight.

     "We will not be left in suspense as to what you meant to say, Syaoran-san."

     The kid looked like every drop of blood in his body had rushed straight to his cheeks, but he'd been brought up around his own kind of royalty in Xinan. Her Ladyship Li Yelan wouldn't have sent her youngest to Malvek if she hadn't trusted his wits. In one breath, he blurted, "There's a long tradition of using non-blooming foliage as a support material, and when you have wooden elements like Eagle-san that are too big to hold with wires, it's common to use screws. I apologize for speaking out of turn."

     Her Imperial Majesty nodded, then turned to the young lady he was there to guard. "Princess Sakura. We would have your bodyguard join us to offer his opinion on the contest, as he seems to have an understanding of the rules. I assure you, Souma and Kurogane will be all the security we will require." She barely waited for the little Princess to say yes, since it wasn't a request. "Syaoran-san, you may sit."

     He went to pull a chair from the side, but Princess Sakura had other ideas. She scooted over, and patted the cushion next to her in an invitation the kid would never turn down even if it made him look more than ever like his head might explode. That'd probably been Tomoyo's entire reason for bringing a chaise for Princess Sakura to sit on.

     "Y-you're too kind, Your Majesty. I've heard stories from my mother about the competitions she had with your mother, Dowager Empress Sonomi. Surely you and Her Imperial Highness--"

     "Alas!" Princess Tomoyo interrupted, cupping her cheeks. Dramatic bullshit, on its way. "I'm simply useless with flowers! Poor things. Once they're cut, they have no futures!"

     When his Princess always knew the end of every single tournament, sometimes he thought her only entertainment was making up weird-ass excuses no one would question, just so they stopped asking her for spoilers. He'd rather think that was the case than believe most of the excuses.

     Ignoring the awkward silence she'd caused, Princess Tomoyo went on with a laugh, "But our dear mother's dedication to her art is an inspiration. I don't know if you've noticed, but her own personal challenge is to always use nadeshiko flowers somewhere in her arrangements. No doubt she would have had so many intricacies to discuss with you if she'd been able to attend this year, Li-kun, but you know how it is with politics."

     The kid and the little Princess shook their heads in time. Neither of them had been alive when the Princess who'd served before Tomoyo had disappeared and the Dowager Empress gave up her throne rather than find another Dreamseer. Even in Nihon, he'd heard about that mess. Malvek, without a Dreamseer until Empress Kendappa's sister was born and came into her gifts? Kurogane didn't expect Dowager Empress Sonomi to show her face for at least another decade.

     Princess Tomoyo sighed. "Mother still laments that my dear sister never followed in her footsteps."

     "As you see, Syaoran-san," Empress Kendappa said, "your expertise will be much appreciated. Now, your opinion."

     The kid jerked his head back and forth between the Empress and the little Princess giving her full attention like he wasn't sure where to look. "Did... did you want me to explain the traditional forms, with the three anchor lines, or--"

     With a shake of her head, Her Imperial Majesty said, "The round is too close to finished for a full lesson, but we would like the merits of our own representative's entry explained." She pointed to the swirling plate of flowers in front of Icchan, and Kurogane could have laughed at his apprentice's terror if it wasn't so well earned.

     "Th-that's what's called... a freestyle arrangement," he answered, looking green as a spring lily. Kurogane could only imagine what the great technician, Li Yelan, thought about freestyle arrangements. The kid was probably trying to find anything to say that wasn't calling Malvek's arrangement a disordered mess with no real meaning.

     Lucky for him, Princess Sakura gasped, "You can just do whatever you want?! But then why were there tests at the beginning of the week to show that you know how to arrange flowers? Even I can stick flowers in a vase any which way!"

     "Oh no," Syaoran corrected her. "Freestyle is actually the hardest design school to qualify with. You ignore all the usual rules, but it still needs to have proper balance and harmony. If you can pull it off, it gets you more attention, but that's a big risk. More often than not, a freestyle arrangement will--" He froze right before his review turned sour, glancing back at the Empress. "Not that Your Majesty's competitor did a bad job. H-he did a good job. I think. That is, I mean... um..."

     For the first time all day that hadn't involved stealing into a broom closet with Souma in less than imperial fashion, Empress Kendappa made an expression that looked like a smile. "We are aware that Icchan is an acquired taste."

     The judges walked on the stage with their finished ballot, saving Syaoran more embarrassment.

     "Everyone, attention please!" said the announcer. "We have our finalists! Returning to our top five this year with her arrangement of white egret orchids and pussy willow -- our perennial front runner, Lady Li Yelan of Xinan!"

     Kurogane's apprentice clapped extra hard for his mother, like a dutiful son.

     "And next to make our final round, showing lavender and yellow camellias, is Kia's master among masters... the indomitable Mage Clef! Also from Kia, a strong entry with an ombre carpet of gardenias and forget-me-nots, meet first-time entrant Sasaki Rika! Let's give the young lady a hand, shall we?" The newcomer looked ready to die over standing that close to the leaders of two nations, even though she had two inches on Clef. Kurogane couldn't blame her. Maybe Yelan had too much pride in her craft to stick someone with a poisoned needle over flower arrangements, but that fucker Clef took every chance he got to screw around when the stakes were low enough that people wouldn't die.

     When the applause faded, the announcer took up his card again. "Our fourth finalist, bringing us a cascade of wisteria elegantly set in a spray of decorative grasses, Kragero's darling, Azuya Nagisa! And last but never least, from Malvek, our final finalist has made an exquisite display of... ah... begonias ..." The announcer paused to give the card in his hand a confused look, like he wasn't sure he was reading the right line. "Mr. Icchan!"

~//~

     Leaning over the railing, with Umi-chan tugging the end of her braid to remind her not to go over, Hikaru locked her sights on the contestant in the white lab coat, the one the judges had called "Icchan". That had to be Kamui-san's ninja teacher! It had to be! Kamui-san wasn't with him, which was sad, but she still wanted to know more about this guy. She recognized the man walking next to him from the cooking contest. That was Ogata-san, who'd lost to Ijyuin-san at tea time yesterday, despite his robot sous-chef brigade who'd reminded her so much of their own--

     "Hey!" She jumped around, right onto Umi-chan's lap, and tugged at her friend's collar. "Do you think Icchan-san is where Lady Yuuko got Other Hikaru, Not-Nihon Shirahime, and Blanche?!"

     "We don't talk about them in public," Umi-chan reminded her with a nose poke. "They're a secret."

     Well, that was true. They hadn't even been allowed to bring their Angel doppelgangers with them to Kragero, just in case someone noticed them, but it didn't make Hikaru wonder any less. And now Fuu-chan was coming in through the mezzanine doors with Lantis and Eagle, so she only had a few more minutes for spying before it was time for the competition to begin. With Icchan-san going up on the stage, though, she didn't have to leave Umi-chan's lap.

     Ogata-san hissed, "Sir, are you sure it's wise to leave... you know... alone for this long?"

     "It's fine, I calibrated the machine to increment the... Wait." Icchan-san whipped around, scrunching up his face behind his glasses. "Doubting me incurs double penalties. Get the macaroni and cheese with wasabi."

     "H-how much wasabi?"

     "All the wasabi. And five bottles of hundred-fold refined hot pepper curry sauce."

     Wow. That was going to be some pretty harsh punishment, whatever it was for. Last time Hikaru had checked Kragero's storage lockers, they had enough wasabi for an army to go swimming in it. She hoped Ogata-san either had really strong tastebuds, or really good swim trunks.

     "Having fun, Hot Stuff?" Eagle asked, taking the seat on Umi-chan's right. Fuu-chan sat on her left with a wave and a smile, and Lantis finished out the row next to Eagle.

     She dashed over to give both of her boyfriends little cheek kisses. "You bet! I found Kamui-san's ninja teacher. Do you think there'll be time after the competition to track him back to his lair? If he keeps Kamui-san busy until the end of the festival, I still want to say goodbye!"

     The extra two percent frown on Lantis's unhappy face wasn't a good sign. She knew he thought Kamui-san was dangerous and all, which was only natural since obviously you don't get to be a Pirate Lord without being dangerous, but he probably thought it wasn't safe to track Icchan-san, either. That was easy to read in the way he narrowed his eyes at the white-coated, smiling figure on stage. It was true, a guy would have to be pretty scary to make Kamui-san go to ninja lessons, or to make anybody do anything with an entire swimming pool's worth of wasabi.

     But just as she started worrying, Eagle pinched her cheek. "Now, don't you get sad on us. If I know Death Shirou -- and my former career provided ample opportunity to observe his habits -- he won't leave without fanfare and fireworks. He's nothing if not dramatic!"

     Well, that was true.

     "Okay. I'll wait," she said, nestling into Eagle's arms so she could see the master of ceremonies walk onto the stage. "Oh, hey! That's not Announcer-san! What's Imonoyama-san's mother doing running the show?! Wasn't she competing with you guys before?"

     Her pale-haired boyfriend and her blue-haired sister in arms both cracked up. Fuu-chan had to be the one to explain. "Lady Imonoyama wasn't actually competing, Hikaru-san, not according to the program booklet. From what I've heard, she hasn't done so in years. She sits to work with the competitors because, well..."

     "She gets a kick out of it," Umi-chan finished.

     Smirking, Eagle said, "She is an Imonoyama after all. And the reason I was late is that she also meets with the unchosen competitors to decide who can be an unbiased judge for the finals. This is her event. She wouldn't let a layman pick the winner!"

     Hikaru's jaw went slack. "But why didn't Umi-chan go to the meeting?! She was a competitor!"

     "Oh, sweetie!" Umi-chan sighed. Pinching Hikaru's cheek, she nodded at Clef-san sitting on the stage next to Icchan-san. "No one would let a student judge when their teacher is competing! That's, like, the definition of biased!"

     "I thought biased meant you wouldn't fair, and you're always super-fair, Umi-chan. You're the fairest of them all!"

     "I'm so touched you think so, honey."

     She and Fuu-chan shared winking giggles, with Fuu-chan adding, "Well, that's one of the things that makes Hikaru-san special."

     Apparently she'd done something cute again. Hikaru wondered what it was, but not for long. The parade of selected judges coming on stage meant the competition was about to begin. Milly Ashford of Civic was the first one to sit down, then Hiiragizawa Eriol from England, who hadn't been thrown out yet so Takamura-san must've hit a wall proving that he'd done half the stuff Hikaru was sure he'd done, and the last judge was a big man from Fahren with spiky white-blond hair whose name tag just said "Sakura". Well, that was bound to get confusing! Princess Sakura-chan from Malvek didn't technically have a last name, either! But she was sitting in the Malvek Imperial Box Seat with her fellow royals, not on stage, so maybe it was fine?

      "Good evening, honored guests," Lady Imonoyama said from behind her fan. She looked just like a painting with the way her red kimono pooled around her feet and her hair was piled just so. "It is my pleasure to introduce tonight's final round of the Flower Arrangement competition. You've all met our finalists. And now, our assistants will bring in the flowers that our competitors selected and cut before leaving the greenhouse."

     The spotlights lit up on the two helper bakery boys who seemed to be doing the grunt work for everything. Between them, they had five red toy wagons with cut flowers sitting in pots of water waiting to be arranged, which they dropped off one by one at the competitors' tables. The audience clapped, with a fair amount of hooting, hollering, and chanting from the fan galleries as well, but it wasn't loud enough that Hikaru was going to miss the sound of stiletto knives whistling out of the tree branches outside. Sharp, stabby metal rained through every window of the great hall. Glass shattered, ninja jumped up out of their seats, and with a movement as graceful as any first-class kabuki star, Lady Imonoyama stepped in front of the competitors, twirling her fan.

     It caught fifteen knives in its slats, all of which shattered as she flicked it closed. Her son, Imonoyama Nokoru-san, and his two aides had appeared in front of the judge's table just as fast as anybody could blink.

     "Everyone, please remain calm!" the Chairman assured the audience. "The Flower Arrangement competition will proceed as scheduled!"

     The blond waved for the bakery boys to guard the table as a voice echoed out of the rafters, cackling. "We'll see about that, Nokoru-kun. Let this be your final warning... the time for my vengeance is at hand! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!" Then bolts slammed shut on the Great Hall's doors -- which Hikaru had to assume weren't any ordinary bolts since everybody here was a ninja except for Kamui-san, Doumeki-san, and technically Eagle -- and metal plates covered the windows. Now, the only lights were the ones on stage.

     In the row behind them, Gingetsu-san groaned, "Not again..."

     In fact, almost everybody who lived on the Kragero University campus was groaning into their hands instead of jumping up to join the defensive wall around the competitors or any of the squadrons forming up on the ground to make plans. Of course, all hell broke loose when salt and mothballs poured out of nowhere space around the stage, accompanied by more mad cackling.

     "That won't be good for the flowers at all," Eagle tutted.

     Good thing for the flowers, the Magic Knights were on call! Fuu-chan yelled, "Winds of Protection!" pointing at the stage below so her green swirls of wind magic would hold back the falling salt before it got in anyone's water or pelted any blossoms. That would hold for long enough for them to get to the stage, at least, where Nokoru-san was giving orders to Takamura-san and Ijyuin-san. No reason why they couldn't help out! While Lantis and Eagle headed for Lady Yuuko, she, Umi-chan, and Fuu-chan jumped off the balcony lickety-split to make for the front lines.

     Clef-san and the others were calmly arranging their flowers inside the cocoon of ninja protecting them from flying knives and stuff. Total pros!

     Oh, and apparently it wasn't salt falling next to the mothballs. It was some kind of dehydrated seaweed pellet or something, because the sprinkler system went off as soon as they landed on the stage. One hint of water, and the room was like a big, wet, seaweed jungle -- if seaweed were eight feet tall and full of razor sharp seed pellets that went kablooie every time you ran into one. Somebody had put a whole lot of work into their ninja botany, that was for sure.

     "Yay!" Hikaru squealed, looking at the chaos spreading in the auditorium. "It's, like... extreme flower arranging! Do you think that seaweed burns?"

Chapter Text

     This was the first time Kamui had seen Icchan put actual food out in this fucking cave, so he didn't waste any chances to stuff danishes and savory popovers into his belt pockets. He'd want them once he had a chance to eat them. The wheezing steam-powered machinery swirling around the room while it lifted him toward the vaulted ceiling of Icchan's hellhole didn't provide many dull moments when he could grab a tart, but between speed-buttering a piece of bread and ducking the flying knives whistling by his throat, he managed -- although the lid rattled on the giant teapot in front of him. Shit.

     He must've rocked his chair too hard and made a noise. All the chaos flying around didn't bother the fucking teapot, oh no, but if he caused any tremor that could be construed as a sound, it woke the fucking Dormouse inside! One more slip-up, and the rodent's little nose would pop out. As fast as the Dormouse could say, "Dear me! Is it time for tea?" this infernal machine would eject Kamui from his seat and land him on the previous level -- where everything went slower, sure, but he was a dozen seats further away from the end of his Mad Tea Party hell.

     Fine. He could be quiet. Even if he wanted to scream, he could be silent as death itself. That was fine. It was even good, because when he wasn't yelling, it was easier to hear the audio cues that got quieter with every new level.

     "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" whispered a voice that, by now, seemed miles off. Three doors appeared on the other side of the table, each one with a symbol on it. He'd tried not taking any doors once, and just ignoring the riddle. That made all the seats drop out. He didn't have any interest in taking another free fall ride to the ground floor, so that wasn't an option. The one marked with a smiley face was obviously wrong, which left the one marked with a musical sharp, and the one marked with a flat.

     Right. "They both produce notes that are very flat," he didn't say, because that would wake the Dormouse. But he flicker-stepped through the "flat" door, and down Icchan's shitty shadow tunnel until he ended up right where he started. Regular walking wouldn't do, since he had to make it back to the chair before the machine noticed he'd left. At this point, that meant practically teleporting. The pressure switch underneath would dump him down one chair if he didn't get his weight back on it fucking instantaneously.

     Fucking ninja tricks.

     He hadn't gotten one of these damn puzzles wrong yet (except the one he'd ignored), but he had to assume there were penalties behind the wrong doors, too. Well, he didn't intend to find out. He was going to beat this damn machine and rub it in Icchan's smug face when he got to the end -- and the end had to be coming soon. The whine of the beams lifting him up was a very particular sound every seaman knew. As they spun faster, Kamui heard metal fatigue. He was reaching the stress tolerances of this Mad Tea Party ride, even without trying to break it the easy way. If he hung in there just a little longer...

     "Killing Time?!" came a tinny echo, not quite lost in the din. Damn it. More knives were coming.

     As he yanked his butter knife, butter, and bread out of their randomized shadow slots so he could earn himself another rank by fucking buttering bread he didn't get to eat, he kept his eyes on the horizon. Somewhere, there was a glowing speck in the shape of the Hatter's head.

     He spotted it, and put away the butter and knife just in time to do something about the knives that came out of the Hatter's mouth. With them flying head on, he wouldn't have time to duck, but he didn't need to duck. That fucking neverending bolt of red cloth Icchan had made him practice with was still in his shadow. Kamui whipped a swath of it out like a cape, catching all of the knives in a silent arc. More knives for him, which he stashed before the next bread and butter set. You could never have too many knives.

     "I want a clean cup," called the disembodied machine voice. "Let's all move one place on!"

     Kamui jumped to the next chair before his current one could dump him. Everything was about to speed up again, but he was ready. He was ready as hell.

~//~

     Another sword flew past Syaoran's eyeline, a frond of giant seaweed whipping it out of some poor soul's hand. Before the ninja managed to steal it back and destroy the eight-foot plant, the blade had cut the ropes on the protective screen for the Imperial box. The bamboo slats guarding the privacy of the Empress and the two Princesses clattered to the floor, and -- not for the first time -- Syaoran nearly choked on his worries.

     "Excellent," Empress Kendappa said, as if there weren't a battle going on two feet away. "Those screens are such a bother to see through. Now, Syaoran-san. You were saying about the meanings of the flowers each competitor chose?"

     "Y-yes, Your Majesty. The apple blossoms your... Icchan... used are very interesting, referring to the idea of a choice in combination with the milkwort he's... um. Braiding around the branch." Which Syaoran found impressive, considering how quickly the swordsmith had coated the wood in purple flowers as tight-knit as moss on a rock, but he'd never claim to understand why he'd done it. The result was more like an ugly Christmas sweater than an elegant flower arrangement. "Milkwort represents a hermit. You rarely see it in competition."

     While he narrated, he signalled Kurogane as fast as he could move his fingers to ask for permission to go back on full alert. Surely the time was long past to evacuate the Imperial Family?! Whatever seals had covered the windows and doors may have trapped this entire hall full of elite ninja, but even so, they couldn't possibly be enough to stop Kurogane and Souma from finding a way out! Their skill was beyond elite! But the signal that Kurogane sent back was the "All Clear" sign, when obviously there was nothing "All Clear" to be seen. From the smirk his master made, Syaoran guessed that "All Clear" was the closest their battle code had to "Give it a rest, kid. This ain't nothin' to worry about."

     If two thousand ninja trading blows with semi-animated giant seaweed was nothing to worry about, then there was quite a bit to bodyguarding that he didn't understand. The part where he grabbed a stray knife out of the air before it could reach Princess Sakura made sense, of course, but the part where they were still watching the flower competition in the middle of a melee was frankly unnerving.

     And his Princess! Sakura was so cute, with her baton at the ready. Having that degree of cuteness nearby was already enough to unnerve him for fifteen lifetimes. He wasn't sure he'd be able to survive standing next to her while there was a fight going on without being allowed to guard her with his full attention, or better, to end the danger completely.

     "Syaoran!" she whispered. "Let me get the next one! You should keep your eyes on the flower stuff, so you can tell us about it!"

     Exactly what he didn't want to do. He would have protested that her safety was his primary concern, but the Empress raised her hand before he could start. "Our sister's ward is well defended, Syaoran-san. Please continue."

     On the one hand, she was the Empress, and if he was seen publicly arguing with her she'd practically be obligated to punish him more severely than Icchan did Ogata-san. But on the other hand, this was just about as much nonsense as he could take -- and it wasn't like anyone was looking at them when there was rampaging seaweed to consider!

     "Respectfully, Your Majesty, the seasonal nuances of snow daisies paired with early spring ferns can be appreciated without explanation, and I seem to be the only one concerned that the Great Hall is in an extremely dangerous state!"

     "Oh, is that what this is?" Her tone by itself made him wince. She wasn't an Empress for nothing. "How foolish of Us to believe we were watching an entertainment coordinated by Our hosts."

     As if to punctuate Her Imperial Majesty's sarcasm, Yudaiji's voice echoed through the Hall again. "Mwahahahaha! Your tricks won't work this time, Nokoru-san! What you stole from me can never be repaid, but at least I can take something just as precious from you!"

     "Idomu-kun!" Imonoyama-san answered. He was riding a cut curtain rope to a scaffolding on the stage, every bit as dramatic as his attacker. "I know I can never give you back your mother's life. But I cannot let you hold these good people hostage over a debt that is only mine to pay!"

     Someone who sounded like Takamura-san grumbled, "Again and again and again," from somewhere Syaoran couldn't see.

     What was everyone thinking, sitting here like nothing was wrong?! Kurogane-san was even laughing! He never laughed when there were blades in the same room as Princess Tomoyo!

     Then Princess Sakura tugged on his sleeve. Normally, he would have expected her to be just as concerned as he was about the fighting going on outside their theater box, but today she seemed as completely at ease as the rest of their party. "Don't worry, Syaoran! Look at the people still sitting in the orchestra seats!" Past the end of her pointed finger, clumps of Kragero citizens and veterans from all over the world were paying more attention to the content of the flower arranging contest than to the flying knives and phalanxes of giant seaweed trying to overgrow the seats. They brushed off parts of the battle that might affect them directly, but beyond that... nothing.

     "Something's not right here," Syaoran mumbled.

     "Given that the battle is well in hand," Empress Kendappa said, "your skills interpreting the finalists' flower arrangements are far more pertinent to the situation."

     Far be it for him to push his luck contradicting her again. "Well... In that case..."

     "I want to know what your mother is doing!" Princess Sakura added.

     "O-of course." He forced himself to look through the battle rather than at the battle to be sure he'd seen the shape correctly on her supplemental flowers. The primary one, he couldn't fail to recognize. "The bright pink you see is a Bauhinia orchid. It isn't special in its symbolic meaning so much as it represents Xinan. It's our national flower, just like Malvek uses the chrysanthemum. And she would have chosen bellflowers to go with it for color. Mother believes in entirely aesthetic arrangements. I'm... guessing that Mage Clef doesn't, since he chose Witch Hazel. It's unlikely he'd pick the only flower associated with spells by accident. So if he's pairing it with red maple, which means, 'a cherished memory', I'm sure he's putting a great deal of personal feeling into each element of his framing. The last competitor is working with Fragrant Olive blossoms and mint, which--"

     Syaoran stopped dead as a new sound joined the clashing of metal and the thwack of bodies against seaweed. There was only so much he could pretend not to notice. It was the soft mew of a cat. There was no mistaking that sound. Both his and his Princess's eyes darted toward the noise. Sure enough, there was a small black cat perched on the ledge of the mezzanine. How it had gotten there was a mystery, but it kept dodging out of the way of anyone who tried to pick it up.

     Princess Sakura clapped her hands to her cheeks. "Poor kitty! He must be so scared! Don't worry, kitty! I'm coming!"

     "Princess--" he said, even though he knew she wouldn't wait for him.

     "It's okay, Syaoran. You stay with Her Majesty. I'll be right back."

     She flashed him a smile that froze him long enough for her to get away. As she swung over to the mezzanine ledge, he regained his dignity and turned to the Empress, who was smirking expectantly. "Olive blossoms mean high-mindedness or first love. Mint means virtue."

     "You may go," she told him with a wave of her hand.

     He'd never climbed onto a ledge so fast in his life, and as a ninja he'd seen his fair share of ledges. The Princess had reached the cat already, and was having no trouble anchoring herself so she could pick him up. Syaoran was more worried she'd be too preoccupied with the rescue to take full account of the melee around them. The faster they returned to the safety of the--

     Too late. Knives were coming at her.

     "Sakura!" he yelled, signalling the bogie location. As soon as she met his eyes, she spun out of their path. They lodged in the wood next to her, shivering from the force of impact. Those knives had been moving faster by far than any others in the battle, then, given that every other knife he'd seen clattered off the walls, or only made a hole so shallow that it fell out immediately. Thank goodness he'd been able to warn her in time! Both she and the cat were unharmed, but that didn't stop him from holding her as tight as he dared when he flicker-stepped to her side. "You're safe," he sighed. "Don't scare me like that."

     "Thank you for watching my back, Syaoran."

     A new voice interrupted. "And thank you for saving my cat!" That bastard Hiiragizawa Eriol appeared behind the Princess, unable to tell as usual that he wasn't wanted. They would have found the cat's owner after the battle! Besides, something about his smile made Syaoran want to punch him, and definitely for more reasons than the way he was directing that smile at Sakura. "Come on, Suppie. Let's give these nice kids some time alone."

     The cat -- it looked like -- glared at his master. That was all very well for a cat, but it also coughed up blue fire before it let out what sounded like a, "Hmph!" in a much lower register than the one he'd been mewing in. But before Syaoran could say anything, the ninja from England zipped back to the stage to resume judging the contest. That, and the Princess threw her arms around his neck, rubbing her nose against his. He could've ignored ten thousand Hiiragizawas with ten thousand fire-breathing cats for that. He did have to hold her tight around the waist, but that was only to keep their balance on the ledge. Nothing else.

     "You finally called me Sakura!"

     "... Yeah," he answered. He supposed he had.

     "Promise you'll do that from now on?"

     "I-if... If you want me to, Pr-- Sakura."

     When he heard the unmistakable sound of spotlights bursting on, he nearly stepped back to kiss Sakura's hand like he'd had to do in the last show they'd rehearsed. The staging was so similar to this; but he realized before he made a fool of himself that the spotlights weren't on them. They were aimed at a scaffolding above the flower competition where Yudaiji Idomu had a knife at Imonoyama Nokoru's throat. Takamura Suoh stood just outside of the circle of light, rubbing his temple like he had a headache with his other hand on a trapdoor to drop Yudaiji into a net should circumstances call for it. Syaoran couldn't imagine how much restraint Takamura-san had to be using, watching from the side while Imonoyama-san's life was in danger. It couldn't be easy for him to watch a man threatening his lover, whom he'd sworn to protect, even if Imonoyama-san was waving at Takamura-san to stay back from behind Yudaiji's shoulder.

     "Nokoru-san... I can never, ever forgive you until you return my mother's last smile -- the one you stole from me that day under the evergreen trees!"

     The swell of tense string music from behind the curtains could only mean one thing. Imonoyama-san was an utterly inexplicable person who always had musicians around to provide atmospheric music. It was ridiculous! But also effective. Syaoran found himself wiping away a tear as Imonoyama-san smiled a smile of heartbreaking, pure friendship. "Idomu-kun. All you had to do was ask."

     Kragero's Chairman snapped his fingers, and Ijyuin Akira pulled open the curtains behind them. There was a portrait there, on canvas twice as tall as either man, showing Imonoyama and Yudaiji as children on either side of a lady under an evergreen tree.

     Yudaiji gasped. The clatter of his dropping knife matched the jubilant roll of hidden timpani drums as if the band had been counting on it. "Mother! I'd... I had almost forgotten what you looked like! I was so jealous that you'd given one of your precious smiles to Nokoru-san before your illness took your life..."

     Wait. Did that mean Imonoyama-san hadn't actually been responsible for the woman's death? Syaoran was right back to being confused. In fact, seeing the Civic ninja fall to his knees in tears over the heads of the flower arrangement finalists while an invisible concert orchestra shifted from a minor to a major key, not to mention the horde of ninja keeping militant seaweed at bay, was one of the more surreal moments of Syaoran's life. Then Yudaiji pressed a button, and the chaos at least was over. All the seaweed fell. Knives clattered to the floor from a thousand different hiding spaces. The steel barriers around the windows and doors disappeared, with only shattered glass to remember them by.

     "Is this some kind of a joke?!" Syaoran muttered.

     "I wish it were a joke, kid. That was as real as it gets." Kurogane-san had joined him and Sakura on the ledge, and his master was laughing. "Congrats on surviving your first Yudaiji Special without doing anything stupid. Well, except nearly yelling at the Empress, but I think she thought that was funny."

     Sakura gasped. "Our first? You mean he's done this before?!"

     "All the damn time. That guy's a regular hazard of doing business with the Imonoyama clan."

     Which, quite frankly, would have made Syaoran wonder why anyone did business with the Imonoyama clan if he hadn't been so familiar with their published works on poisons -- and that was just the published ones. But no time for more questions. Five more blurs appeared on the ledge around them, causing space to get somewhat tight, but Syaoran didn't have to wait to find out who they were. He'd know his sisters' cooing anywhere.

     "Syaoran!" his oldest sister scolded. "How dare you go this whole week without bringing your adorable girlfriend over for dinner!"

     "G-g-g-girlfriend?!"

     No sooner was the word out of his mouth than he and Sakura realized that their arms were still locked around each other. That... that was definitely not something he was allowed to do! He hadn't even asked her if it was okay to do! And... and...

     They both jumped backwards, he into Kurogane's grip -- his master was sighing again, which meant he'd be talking his way out of this himself -- and Sakura into Meiling's.

     With the way Meiling was staring at him right now, he was kind of surprised she caught Sakura at all. His cousin... his fiancée... was more hurt than mad, though, if he had to guess. Not to mention, Sakura hadn't done anything wrong. Sakura didn't even know how he felt. If Meiling dumped anyone off a mezzanine ledge, it probably would've been him. She was fair like that.

     "Syaoran's my bodyguard!" Sakura was busy explaining while he and Meiling were trapped in stares. "He's not my boyfriend! I mean, I like him and he's a boy, so he's my friend who's a boy, but we've never... you know... oh gosh, I mean Syaoran wouldn't--!"

     He dropped a hand on his Princess's shoulder, smiling as bravely as he could while his sisters giggled. "It's okay, Sakura. They're just teasing. Although I guess this is their way of saying they want you to visit, so... if you want..."

     Sakura clapped in pure joy. "Really?! Can Tomoyo and Kurogane-san come, too?!"

     "If our honored mother is in a mood to entertain royal guests, I'll extend the invitation to Her Imperial Highness, Empress Kendappa, as well," he answered. Syaoran couldn't help smiling at the gleeful blush on Sakura's cheeks.

     And of course, Meiling saw that, too.

~//~

     From his hidden perch above the Judge's table, opposite the pathetic display that was Yudaiji weeping into Imonoyama's arms, Nagumo seethed at the pitiful, laughing crowds that filled up the Great Hall. Well, the man who was attempting to put green-colored macaroni and cheese up his nose was crying, not laughing, but that wasn't the point. The point was that this so-called plan his partner had laid out may have been a farce, but he at least didn't intend to remain a joke. He picked up three of the knives that'd fallen when Yudaiji hit the release button and took aim at Yudaiji, Imonoyama, and Takamura across the stage. An ordinary ninja would never stand a chance against the three of them together, but he was no ordinary ninja.

     He was lucky. His luck had never failed him when put to the test, and he planned to use that luck to make sure those three died, definitively, before he dealt with the rest of the scum in this building. Nagumo's hand whipped forward, fast and sure--

     But the knives had... disappeared? Something wasn't right here. He hadn't felt them slip, nor had he heard them fall, but they were nowhere to be seen.

     "I'm afraid I can't let you do that!" said a cheery voice behind him.

     Nagumo expected to see someone at least phase out of a shadow when he turned, although it should have been impossible for anyone to infiltrate the shadow structure he'd designed. This nineteen-year-old dressed in a spotless tuxedo, however, didn't appear to have been properly hiding at all. Imonoyama's younger lackey, Ijyuin Akira, was perched on a crossbeam without a care, holding the knives he must have taken from Nagumo moments before. Sneaking in undetected would have been hard enough, but stealing those weapons out of his grip without him feeling a thing? This was beyond absurd!

     "What's the meaning of this?" he spat at the Kragero ninja.

     Ijyuin rubbed the back of his head with a bashful smile. "Well you see, it looked like you were trying to attack the Chairman, and it's my job to make sure that doesn't happen!"

     "That doesn't explain how you got in here!"

     "Into your tower? But there's nothing weird about slipping into shadow space!" When the man blinked, his eyes went as wide as saucers that were missing their teacups.

     This was pointless. Clearly, he needed to accelerate his plans. Pulling out the detonator for the bombs he'd planted while Yudaiji was busy cackling earlier this week, Nagumo smiled at Ijyuin -- disarmingly, he hoped.

     "I'm about to blow up this building and everyone in it, Ijyuin-san. A building that currently holds the heirs to both the Imonoyama and Ookawa families, so let's make a little agreement. If luck so chooses that you survive, I'll surrender. But if I'm the one who survives, I will claim this city for my own. And before you think about taking this detonator from me, I'll tell you one thing--"

     "It's a dead-man's switch," Ijyuin answered, turning serious -- although on him seriousness looked like a petulant pout. "Stealing it would set it off. But I can't take your offer, Nagumo-san. I can't let you kill these people. We'll stop you, I promise you that!" The Kragero ninja pulled a cord that someone had added to the hidden structure Nagumo had built, triggering a technique beyond anything Nagumo himself could have imagined. It undid all the work he'd done to hide this structure out of sight from even the greatest ninja (except Ijyuin, apparently), and revealed his perch to the crowds in the Hall.

     Where every eye seemed to have been on him, even before he was visible.

     "Damn you, Nagumo! Didn't you see that I called off the attack?!" Yudaiji growled. "And what's this about a bomb? That was never authorized!"

     "You could hear that?!" How had the situation gotten completely out of his hands?

     Ijyuin hopped down from the beam where he was sitting, pointing to a lavalier microphone on his tuxedo lapel, answering both of Nagumo's questions at once. "I switched the sound system to broadcast from this," the young man said.

     He'd underestimated these Kragero fools up until now. He wouldn't give them the chance to get the better of him again. This was his ultimate attack. When he walked away from the rubble of this thrice blasted flower contest, none of them would be alive to stop him again. Nagumo had blown up hundreds of places better defended than this, and his luck had made sure he was the only survivor to tell the tale, each and every time. Perhaps Yudaiji had flummoxed up all the parts of this he'd touched, but that ended now. He, Nagumo Shinji, had nothing to fear!

     Naturally, brave souls from every side of the Great Hall leapt to take him on. As if a frontal assault could defeat his luck! Many had tried, and many had been struck by out of season lightning. Ijyuin was the only one close enough to try anything, and he was frozen, looking for a way to disarm him without setting off the bombs. The rest weren't even worth worrying about. Any moment now, some apparent 'happenstance' would knock them all aside. It always did.

     Ah, there it was, right on cue. The rumble of an earthquake started underground, its tremors shaking even his own scaffold while it tore open a chasm in the floor. Collapsing columns made most ninja dodge for safer paths. Others lost their footholds and tumbled into the wreckage. One of the Malvek princesses and her unfortunate bodyguard, who were perched on the mezzanine ledge across from the stage, had swung across the audience from ropes they'd hooked to the chandeliers, poor fools. Cracking ceiling beams sent the young man plummeting into the chasm below, and surely the girl would follow after.

     Nagumo didn't have the chance to see for certain, however. In that same instant, he saw something that made him -- for the first time in his life -- doubt that he would be the one to walk away the winner.

     He'd heard that people saw their lives flash before their eyes when they died. He'd never experienced anything like the phenomenon until the Dimension Witch rise from her seat at the front of the orchestra rows. She locked her eyes on him, and suddenly the moments between ticks of the clock felt like aeons. Even while she pulled her lackey away from the chasm edge to shove him at the pirate holding an arrow shaft he'd lodged in the floor, she never took her eyes away. It turned his soul to ice.

     Whatever she did to move from the seats to his landing, it wasn't flicker-stepping. It seemed as if she was simply there because she'd decided to be, her hand curled around his throat. She wasn't choking him, although he found it hard to breathe. Her fingers cradled the back of his neck and the pointed nail of her thumb brushed his chin while she sighed. She seemed so very high above him. He had to crane his neck up until it hurt, just to keep his eyes on hers. He couldn't have looked away, even if he'd wanted to.

     The sounds of crashing and yelling flooded back into his ears as if the entire room had been muted while she moved. The moment had ended, and he realized she was above him because he'd fallen to his knees. Then, before he could draw his breath in again, the Malvek Princess landed beside the Witch, with her baton pointed at Nagumo's head. Apparently, she hadn't fallen with her guard after all. Hiiragizawa appeared on the Witch's other side with nothing but a smile, but that was enough to make him seem dangerous. Flanking them, a red-haired girl with fire in her eyes and a sword taller than she was -- its tip grazing the other side of Nagumo's throat -- and that damned Takamura with a glinting knife pricking between two of Nagumo's ribs.

     "How..." Nagumo gasped. "No one has ever..."

     The Witch leaned closer and purred, "That's a very interesting gift you were born with. It's rare to see such strong luck even once in a generation. But you should be careful how you choose to use it, and who you choose to use it against. Every gambler loses someday, because there's no such thing as chance. Only inevitability."

     He disabled his dead-man's switch and dropped it in her waiting hand. He wasn't stupid. In fact, he felt relieved when he saw it crumble to dust in her grip. The dust likewise falling from every beam where he'd planted explosives told him there was no coming back from this. He was done. Another fraction of a second, and Takamura pushed him to the ground to bind his arms behind his back. "Ijyuin, would you keep this gentleman in custody? I have to see to the Chairman."

     "Of course, Suoh-san!" His new captor pulled him back to his feet and asked, "If you don't mind, I'll hold you here until we can clear out the area a little more. Safety first!"

     Nagumo grimaced, watching Imonoyama's blue-haired bodyguard return to his master. There was a chance he could have escaped from an ordinary guard, but after Ijyuin's performance earlier, he wasn't sure his dignity would survive an attempt. "Please don't let my capture inconvenience you."

     The sarcasm seemed to be lost on the man whose smile never faded. "Okay, great! Hmm. I wonder... Should I alert the medical services to help us? What do you think Nagumo-san?"

     "You're asking me?"

     Setting aside the fact that his guard was even asking him about clean-up and rescue, Nagumo couldn't smell any blood in the air. The hall was full of slightly dusty ninja helping each other up from the floor and cleaning crews with brooms shoving remnants of seaweed down incinerator shoots. In fact, it looked like he hadn't even managed to disturb the flower arrangement competition, because all of the competitors and their tables were floating in green bubbles of wind, still sculpting their entries, slowly being lowered back to the stage by a blonde with glasses and not so much as a scratch on her clothes. Meanwhile, no one seemed to have followed the Malvek boy through the chasm because a blue-haired girl had made a plate of ice to replace the floor, and all the survivors looked uninjured enough to walk. The Princess standing nearby was wringing her hands while the red-headed girl hugged her, going on about "Syaoran" this and "Syaoran" that, but no one else seemed worried in quite the same way.

     "Well, if you want my opinion, everyone seems just fine, but it's not like it'd be a bad idea to have a doctor come check for concussions."

     "You're absolutely right, Nagumo-san! This is Ijyuin to the medical corps," he spoke into his microphone. "Please send-- Oh! You could hear all that? Great! Then we'll see you in a bit!"

     Maybe he had no idea how the Kragero ninja had snuck into his personally designed hidden space, but surely there had to be some way to escape. Nagumo wasn't sure he could take much more cheerfulness. And, just as he began looking for a way to slip his bonds and run, another earthquake started, shattering the new crystalline floor made of ice. Was this his chance? He thumbed at the ropes while everyone was distracted, slipping free with more trouble than usual (they were Takamura's knots, after all) but getting out nonetheless. He kept Ijyuin in the corner of his eye as he stepped backwards toward a shadow. The young man was still staring at the rumbling below, utterly unaware! He was--

     Falling. Then flying, and stopping upside down, hanging from a rope trap looped around his ankles, with the other end of the rope in Ijyuin's hand. The Kragero ninja turned around with a sunshiney smile to say, "Uh-uh-uh! It's not time to go just yet! But don't worry, the ambulance is bringing a prisoner transport, too!"

     This day could not possibly get any worse, Nagumo thought. Then, he looked at the floor again.

     Of all things to follow an earthquake, a strange table built like a spiral, set with countless plates, scones, and teacups, rose out of the ground on a creaking metal frame that vented steam like a broken engine. Standing right on top was Death Shirou, like an insult cherry on top of an injury sundae. And naturally, he was carrying the boy who had fallen earlier. In a single bound, the pirate jumped to Nagumo's scaffold, landing next to the little Malvek princess. He spared a disdainful glance for Nagumo himself, swinging from a pulley with the blood rushing to his head, then gave his full attention to the girl.

     "I think this belongs to you?" Shirou said. The bodyguard in his arms was blushing as brightly as a festival lantern with his eyebrows arched into his hairline. No one could blame him for that. Shirou was nothing if not uncomfortably attractive, and stronger than he looked. He was bridal-carrying the boy as if he weighed no more than one of the many feathers falling inexplicably from the air around them.

     A tiny pile of them built up on the Princess's head after she rushed over to cry on his cheeks. "Syaoran, thank goodness! I was so worried!"

     "S-Sakura, I... I'm fine, the fall wasn't that bad and... Shirou-san..." The bodyguard gulped, jumping out of the pirates arms like a popcorn kernel in hot oil, turning even more red as he looked back at Death Shirou. "Th-thank you? For catching me? When I couldn't get my breath, I--"

     Shirou turned away from everyone, or as close to everyone as he could when there were this many people around. Nagumo, who was not quite unconscious from hanging upside down, had a perfect view of the pirate's embarrassed flush while he grumbled. "Don't worry about it. I'm not going to watch someone who fought me evenly die from a goddamned fall."

     "Syaoran, why don't you ask Kamui-san to meet your family, too?!" asked the Princess.

     "L-let's just go!" the kid stammered, taking the princess's hand and flicker-stepping away.

     Meanwhile, over with Imonoyama, Takamura was offering Yudaiji a slip of cardstock. "Yudaiji-san. I took the liberty of producing a photographic duplicate of your mother's portrait. Please, take it with our compliments. I hope you look at it often and remember your feelings at this moment."

     Imonoyama couldn't have looked happier. Nagumo thought he might be sick. "Brilliant thinking, Suoh! And you simply must spend the evening with us, Idomu-kun. I need to hear all the adventures you've had since we last met!"

     "Nokoru-san... after all the trouble I've caused... I couldn't possibly! I must leave Kragero."

     "No, no. It simply won't do for you to leave so soon! Aren't you scheduled to tell a ghost story this evening?" They walked off, arm in arm and thick as thieves, like the happiest friends there ever were. "I must insist that you stay at least long enough to regale us with your wit! Tell me, Idomu-kun, what story should we expect from you tonight?"

     "Well, you might be familiar with the tale of Oedipus descending to the world of mirrors?"

     "You're in for a competition, then. I hear that Chuusonji-san from our local bakery will be sharing a true story of something that happened to her on shift!"

     "Oh, Nokoru-san! You do know how to tempt me. I never could resist a good competition!"

     Any doubt was gone. This was the worst day of Nagumo's life.

Chapter Text

Day Seven Results:

Cooking Contest

  • Lunch: WATANUKI KIMIHIRO & TSUYURI KOHANE (Hundhammeren) def. Takamoto Chikahito & Toyotomi Hidetsugu (Fahren)
  • Supper: IJYUIN AKIRA & OOKAWA UTAKO (Kragero) def. Shuukaidou Takeshi & Higashikunimaru Kentarou (Kragero)

Flower Arrangement Contest

  • Gold: Azuya Nagisa (Kragero)
  • Silver: Li Yelan (Xinan)
  • Bronze: Sasaki Rika (Kia)

Dramatic Monologue Contest

  • Gold: Lelouch vi Brittania (Civic)
  • Silver: Watanuki Kimihiro (Hundhammeren)
  • Bronze: Yudaiji Idomu (Civic)

Drinking Contest

  • Current Leader: Empress Kendappa (Malvek)
  • Second: Kurogane (Malvek)
  • Third: Snow Princess Shirahime (Nihon)

Ghost Story Contest

YUDAIJI IDOMU (Civic) def. Chuusonji Erii (Kragero)

~//~

     Their week had, in Syaoran's opinion, felt more like a year, but the pressure was finally letting up. Sakura looked so happy as she scooped up a bite of the chocolate cake she'd gotten at today's Bronze Medal lunch competition, Syaoran was at a complete loss for words. Was he imagining that she looked more carefree now than before? Did using her name instead of her title really mean so much to her? He would've started blushing, but for the first time in his life, he'd been flushed for so long that his ability to blush had burned out. Unlike every moment in his life before this, he'd found the strength to simply marvel at how cute Sakura was without tripping over his own toes.

     "Syaoran," she asked with a smile. "Would you like a bite? The chili-radish frosting is amazing and you didn't eat anything at the competition today!"

     "Well..." Syaoran said. He wasn't sure how to explain that being around her today had given him butterflies in his stomach. Whenever he tried to think about how he'd called her by her name, the butterflies flew into his throat to stop him from saying anything. Like now. So instead of trying to explain, he held out his hand for the plate.

     But not before Sakura got her fork to him with a bite of cake balanced on it, which he wasn't about to refuse. It was first-class cake, made by first-class bakers, offered by his Princess's own hand...

     So no surprise that it was unthinkably delicious. The moist, rich chocolate flavor mixed with sharp spice to create a texture he'd usually associate with a truffle rather than a cake -- and yet it was light enough that it didn't seem like an entire slice would by cloying. He didn't remember until too late that he was eating from the same fork Sakura had been using. Suddenly, everything from Syaoran's neck up felt like it was on fire.

     It looked like he could still blush after all.

     "Oh no! Was that bite too spicy, Syaoran?! The one I had was fine! I can find you some milk!"

     He wasn't quite sure how long they stood there, him shaking his head ,"No," until his brains felt wobbly, her beaming when she realized he was fine, ready to strike with the cake fork again. Once he got his composure back, time seemed to disappear, and the space around them faded away into a gentle, bubbly blur where the only thing he could see was Sakura's face. If only he could think of something to say!

     But someone else's voice cut in instead. "Hey," the voice said. Death Shirou was standing about two feet away -- closer than Syaoran liked to find pirates without noticing them first, although this pirate had been surprisingly... pleasant... recently. And was possibly also a ninja? At the very least, Death Shirou was very confusing, and Syaoran was very, very confused.

     "Kamui-san!" Sakura said, happy as could be. "Are you coming to the Mud Hunt, too? We're on our way now!"

     "Mud Hunt? What the fuck is a mud hunt?"

     Syaoran started to explain how it worked, but the pirate held out a hand to stop him. "Look. I have places to be," Shirou sighed. "I just wanted to say goodbye. And... thanks. You've both been really gracious, considering I kidnapped you a month ago."

     Most confusing of everything yet, Shirou lowered the very hand he'd used to give Syaoran a black eye last month, which had only finished healing a week ago, and offered it to Sakura... to shake. Like a civilized person. And when she was done, he held it out to Syaoran. Who never would have predicted that this week would end with him shaking Death Shirou's hand, but here they were. Acting like friends, or at least non-enemies.

     "You're... welcome?" Syaoran answered. The pirate was starting to look uncomfortable with how long Syaoran had been shaking his hand like an automaton, but letting go was difficult when the situation was this confusing, and when Shirou's uncomfortable glare was best described as looking like violet-flecked burning coals. A man could lose himself in a glare like that.

     Sakura leaned between them with a grin. Not her floaty, happy grin -- more like her embarrassed grin for when she walked in on something awkward, which Syaoran guessed this kind of was. The spot where he'd broken Kamui's rib couldn't have fully healed, given how recently his face had still been bruised. But Sakura didn't seem to expect a fight when she said, "Why don't I let you two have a moment alone?"

     "Um. Sure," Shirou said, peeling his hand out of Syaoran's grip.

     "It was nice to see you again, Kamui-san! And could you tell Fai-san thanks for the hair clips he sent back with Kurogane?"

     "If you want. Fai, uh, says you're welcome to visit anytime, Your Highness. And that goes for you, too," he said, nodding in Syaoran's direction. "No kidnapping."

     "Yay! I'll write him a letter to figure out when!" Syaoran wanted to think she didn't mean to actually pay a social call to the Pirate King, but he knew better. This was Sakura.

     He whispered, "Let me walk with you..." trying to stop her from leaving, but she shook her head.

     "You don't need to 'bodyguard' me through a half dozen yards to the green where Kurogane is waiting. And you deserve to say a proper goodbye to Kamui-san, since he came all this way!"

     "But why just me?"

     "See you later, Kamui-san!" Sakura sang out as she ran toward Kurogane, leaving Syaoran staring at an equally confused Death Shirou.

     "Wow. That was just like Kotori leaving me alone with Fuuma," the pirate mused. "But just so we're clear, I'm not into casual sex, and I'm not now nor do I ever plan to be dating you. Nothing personal, you seem like a great guy, but my life is complicated enough already and also I don't like you that much."

     "What?! No! I didn't-- I don't-- Why would...? What?!"

     Settling his hat on his head, Shirou sauntered off towards the carnival games. "Glad we cleared that up," he said, and disappeared.

     What?!

     By the time Syaoran got his senses back, Meiling had walked up and was checking him for a fever.

     "Syaoran, maybe you should go lie down. You don't seem too well..."

     "I'm not trying to date Death Shirou!" he yelped.

     Meiling narrowed her eyes. "Um. Okay, Princess Cutie Pie is clearly going to have her hands full with you, because if that's you trying to reassure me that our engagement is still on, you picked the wrong person to not be dating. Anyway, I'm not going to call off anything, because my feelings haven't changed and I'm not going to break up with me for you. If you don't want to be engaged, you're going to have to grow a spine and break up with me for yourself."

     All of his nerves and all of his frazzled sanity shrunk down to the pit of his stomach like a flower closing up at the last frost in spring. His cousin had every right to be upset that he hadn't done this as soon as he'd realized he'd want to spend his life with Sakura. Telling himself for so long that he was only her bodyguard, and he couldn't ask his Princess for anything else was an excuse. He could never claim to believe the Imperial family would censure him for caring too much about her, not when Souma and Her Imperial Majesty were just as close as Imonoyama-san and Takamura-san.

     "Meiling..." Syaoran said, finding his voice somewhere. "I think... it's time I--"

     She wiped a tear away from her eye. "Yeah. It is. Just promise me you won't let her wonder what the heck you're going to do, because Sakura is way too nice to call you out. Got it?"

     He tried to answer, although he didn't know what to say, but Meiling ran away towards the Xinan contingent waiting by the now mud-covered field at the center of town. Across the distance, his mother was looking him straight in the eye. She didn't have to ask what'd happened. That much was clear. With a firm but somehow proud expression, she nodded in the direction of the Malvek group, where Princess Tomoyo was helping Sakura into a colorful raincoat and hat with matching galoshes. He could have wished it felt less like his mother orchestrating a political alliance, but Syaoran didn't have any doubt in his mind...

     He cared about Sakura more than anyone else on Earth. She was his number one.

     When he reached the Imperial Party, he didn't quite know what to say to her, but he'd have some time to think about it. Besides, it wasn't something he wanted to say in public, anyway. She was there, holding his hands, and grinning as Princess Tomoyo teased him about how red his face was, and that was enough to compromise his ability to make meaningful conversation until the Announcer appeared on his platform to explain the event.

     "Welcome, all, to our closing day free-for-all! Hundreds of tokens are hidden throughout this Mud Pit -- some are as simple as golden coins for you to keep, some are prize tokens you can use to claim the matching prize from our Treasure Board!" Gesturing to his left, a curtain flew back from a long list of prizes, some of them worth as much as a small country. "Anyone who wishes to hunt for tokens can be a winner! There's no time limit, and no methods barred. Everyone together, on the count of three!"

     Fireworks overhead wrote out the numbers as the crowd counted, "One! Two! Three!" and a siren blared to signal everyone to rush in -- himself and his Princess included. Princess Tomoyo and Kurogane preferred to stand on the sidelines, as did Empress Kendappa (although she sent Souma in to find her a prize). The field was a frenzy of people rushing, diving, and having friendly contests for who would take objects that both people saw at once, not to mention trying to steal high value tokens from each other; but Sakura seemed to be able to wander through the clash in peace, never having to look up to avoid a collision, never having to dodge or protect herself from a thief. They'd been hunting for less than a minute, but given that most of the field was a blur of ninja moving like lightning, a minute was quite a bit.

     "Sakura!" Syaoran called out, her name starting to feel more natural on his tongue. "I found a few coins!"

     She looked over with a smile, about to run towards him when something caught her eye (just in time for Kururugi Suzaku and Lelouch vi Brittania to miss running into her while they chased a blonde lady who was holding a pizza over her head). The token his Princess found was an opalescent pyramid, gleaming like it had its own light when she brushed off the mud, and it had a small carving of the number one on each face.

     "The board is a little far away for me to read, Syaoran... can you see what this one's for?"

     "Of course." And he didn't have to look very long. The number one was, right at the top, next to the grand prize. Naturally, Sakura wouldn't have stumbled on anything less. "It looks like you've won... a small open-sea sailing yacht."

     "My very own boat?! I can't wait to show Fai-san!"

~//~

     "Hey! Asshole!" Kamui yelled, his words echoing off the empty walls of the underground chamber where Icchan did his nonsense. With all the equipment gone, he could see that the actual walls seemed to stretch on forever. The emptiness was unexpected, in a more sinister way than the weirdo's usual bullshit. Even the smoke that'd been haunting the ceilings was gone, leaving the air so clear that Kamui could see straight out the hole at the other end of the mile-long room (at least) where he'd broken through into the Grand Auditorium. "I'm here like you asked, but if you don't show your face by the time I count to ten, don't count on me hanging around! You can go to hell! One... Two..."

     "Mihara-sensei isn't coming, Kamui."

     It didn't even surprise him anymore that a ninja had appeared right next to him, although he still pulled up a fighting stance. Just because he wasn't surprised didn't mean he was happy about somebody sneaking up on him -- and by 'somebody', he specifically meant Magami Tokiko, who was holding a long object wrapped in purple cloth. The air around her just smelled like metal, and he didn't need to ask. He knew what she was holding. It was the sword Icchan had promised (not that he wanted a sword from that asshole).

     Sure enough, when she untied the end of the fabric, he saw a gleaming, golden hilt with room for two hands, attached to a sword that let off a faint glow. So, at least Icchan could make swords that looked pretty, although this one seemed a bit long to be practical. It might have been longer than Kamui was tall.

     "He asked me to tell you that his work with you is done, and to give you this," the Magami woman said. "Although neither of us had much choice about the second part. This sword was forged for you alone, and no one who isn't your blood relative can even hold it."

     Kamui's eye twitched. "Fuck."

     "Which is to say, the answer to the question you didn't ask me is 'Yes'. I'm your aunt. Your mother was my older sister."

     "I hate today. I would like to go back in time and spend this entire week being anywhere else but here. Can your ninja magic teach me that?"

     Her laugh was anything but comforting. "Unfortunately, if things that have been done could be undone, no one would need to give you this sword. It's possible you wouldn't exist at all."

     "What's that's supposed to mean?!" Kamui snarled.

     She smiled her stupid mysterious smile, and said, "Oh, nothing!"

     Oh nothing, his ass. There was more to it than that, he could tell, just like he could tell she was the type who wouldn't give him a straight answer until it got her something she wanted. If he knew anything about that kind of person (and he did, because fucking Fai D. Fluorite pranced around his ship being that kind of person), showing that it got to him would only make this worse.

     He still glared at her, though. No reason to pretend he wasn't pissed the hell off. For crying out loud, if they needed him to have some special damn sword, you'd think they'd at least tell him what he was supposed to cut with it so he didn't break something important by mistake, or neglect to slice up whatever they were worried about.

     "The training caverns are yours for the rest of the day, if you want to get the balance of your new weapon," she said, pushing the hilt closer to him.

     It was warm in his grip, not from residual heat but as if from some kind of pulsing heat emanating from inside. However Icchan had forged it had to involve magic, because the length of the blade should've rendered it too top-heavy to wield, but it settled comfortably in his hand. In fact, the balance on it was perfect. Maybe better than any normal kind of perfect, because no matter what angle he held it at, or how he spun it in his hand, it felt like the sword worked as an extension of himself. The razor edge cut through the air with the merest hint of a whistle, the movement was so smooth. So it wasn't just pretty. He'd try as hard as he could to break it on something later, so he could be sure, but from where he was standing now, this was the finest blade he'd ever held in his own two hands. Possibly the finest he'd ever seen, including Kurogane's Ginryuu, supposedly forged by the greatest swordsmith in history five hundred years ago, Clow Reed's demigod son, Miha--

     Mihara Ichirou. Fuck everything. "Icchan", the asshole who'd been tormenting him all week probably was Clow Reed's centuries-old spawn. That would just be the cherry on top of the shit sundae that had been his last month, and would explain so much.

     "It's too long," Kamui told his aunt. "It won't fit in any scabbard I've ever seen. What am I supposed to do, strap naked steel to my back?"

     "Technically, it's not steel. It's not even all metal."

     "It's not practical, especially not on a ship of the line. It'll catch on the rigging just trying to cross the deck." He doubted it'd even fit on his sword rack. What the hell could a sword like this be for that was worth all this trouble?

     "Luckily, you don't need a scabbard," she said, folding up the cloth it'd come in and tucking it into nowhere. Oh right. He could do that now, so not fitting in a sword rack wasn't actually a problem. Fucking ninja and their stupid fucking ninja tricks.

     But instead of reminding him of his training this past week, her answer was, "That sword is part of you."

     Kamui narrowed his eyes. "What?"

     With a wink, she said, "I'll let you figure that out," and disappeared, because what else could a person in this town be expected to do? Help? Not in a million years.

     He didn't need her help anyway. Honestly, he had a pretty good idea, since everything on this trip had been ridiculous and basically literal. Holding his hands out wide and choking up on the grip, he could just barely rest the tip of the monstrous sword on his empty palm. The blade disappeared into his arm as he pushed it forward -- slowly at first, so he didn't cut himself if this failed, then with more confidence. Soon, all that was left was a fading tingle.

     So apparently he was now part sword. Wasn't that fucking fantastic. At least no one could ever disarm him without physically cutting off his arms, and he'd like to see them try. But first, he had to find Doumeki so he could officially leave this hell hole... maybe also pick up some dinner, because something outside smelled amazing.

~//~

     "Five, four, three, two... and stop!" yelled the announcer while the airhorns over the Coliseum signalled the end of the cooking phase of the competition. "Chef Watanuki, Chef Ijyuin, please bring your five dishes to the front where we will meet our final judges, and crown one of you the winner of this year's cook-off!"

     Thousands of spectators had crowded into the seats for what was inevitably the most hotly debated competition of the entire festival every year -- and thus, from Suoh's perspective, the one that represented the biggest safety risks. But not a single thing had disrupted the gallery's opportunity to watch the two annual champions put together a feast they'd be talking about for the next year, until they competed again. Even the mysterious problems with the secret ingredients changing at the last minute seemed to have ended, as the competitors were making their sauces and syrups and fresh produce concoctions with the very grapes that Suoh had been at such pains to import from the finest vineyards from around the world. An event hosted by Imonoyama Nokoru deserved no less.

     Suoh, for his part, couldn't take his eyes off of Nokoru's delight at the whole spectacle. When the Chairman saw one of his events proceeding with no hiccups and no disasters -- and, thank goodness, no more assassination attempts -- his overflowing joy made Suoh think that all the hell his lover put him through might just be worth it. Not that he'd ever give it up.

     The blond tugged on his sleeve in restless glee. "Oh, Suoh. This is my favorite part! I don't know how the judges will manage to pick. Akira and Watanuki-kun both make such excellent cuisine!"

     "Not to worry, Chairman. I've had the judge selection committee observing every competitor closely to ensure that this competition is decided by the persons with the most discerning palates out of all attendees of the Festival. An ordinary person's sense of taste could hardly be expected to assess two such masters."

     The two contestants rolled their carts of artfully plated culinary delights up the ramp to the central dais, where the announcer grabbed the lever to work the trapdoors behind the judge's table. "And now, I'm pleased to introduce our three mystery judges for the final round of our cook-off. First, from the fair nation of Kia, the redoubtable... Mage Clef!"

     Swathed in robes as always, the man rose up through the floor to wave at the audience and levitated himself into his chair. "It's a pleasure to be here. I'm expecting great things of our two competitors tonight."

     "And we know they always deliver," answered the announcer. "Now for our second judge, you know her as the Daidouji Empress whose Divine Eminence Blazes from Heaven... Give it up... for Her Imperial Majesty Kendappa of Malvek!"

     Naturally the Empress would have one of the most refined senses of taste out of all the ninja in attendance, Suoh thought as she rose from the floor. Her Imperial Majesty was accustomed to nothing but the best.

     She took her seat with an impish smile for the competitors. "We do hope your meals are all we've heard. Both your names are spoken with great respect by our personal chef."

     The announcer signalled for a drumroll. "And honored guests, for our last judge tonight, we have a special treat indeed, because our scout assures me that this man has the most perceptive tastebuds the world has ever known. In fact, I'm told his standards are so high, it's a miracle he eats anything at all. Let's give a warm Kragero welcome to the infamous pirate--"

     On stage, Watanuki flailed in such a fervor, he almost knocked over his cart of dishes.

     "--Captain 'Deadeye Doumeki' of the Queen Cassandra, Doumeki Shizuka!!"

     The roar of the crowd was nearly drowned out by Watanuki yelling, "What?! You?!" while the pirate plugged his ears. "Excuse me, I need to speak to a moderator! There must be some mistake!! This... this... this pirate has no capacity to savor food, no judgment! He just bolts down whatever I feed him and grunts, It's good! Where is the moderator?!"

     All smiles as usual, Ijyuin reminded his competitor, "But remember, Watanuki-san! That's your food. Of course everyone with a skilled palate would think food you cook is good!"

     "Well, of course they would!" Watanuki shot back while Doumeki nodded silently. "I am an excellent chef! But even if he does have good taste, which I refuse to accept, he should be utterly barred from judging this competition because I am sleeping with him! That cad is my lover!! If I successfully defend my title here today, I will not have anyone saying I won due to bias on the part of the judges!"

     "I don't mind!" said Ijyuin. "I believe that anything good Doumeki-san has to say about Watanuki-san's cooking is absolutely deserved, and not bias at all. Right, guys?" he called out to the crowd in the bleachers.

     The applause from the spectators spoke for itself. Even Watanuki Kimihiro had to relent, and it wasn't as if unfairness was of any concern to any ninja here. One should always try to gain an advantage over one's opponents.

     "There we have it, folks," the announcer finished after the cheers calmed down. "Our elite panel of judges is ready to taste the final culinary masterpieces of the festival, and reveal which of these two men will be the Greatest Chef in the World for the next twelve months!"

Chapter Text

     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."