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Older Than I Look

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The first time Sakura brought up the problem of birthdays, Fai stayed quiet. One of her returned feathers had given back the memory of a birthday celebration with her brother, Clow Country’s young priest, and a mysterious guest she could not remember clearly, and she was curious to know how long it would be until her birthday came around again.

Hopping from world to world, leaving and arriving from one to the next at different times of the day, possibly on planets where days (not to mention years) could vary in length by as much as twelve hours, made it virtually impossible to track how much time was passing. How long had it been since their journey had begun? Three months? Five months? How much time had passed back home? A few days? A couple of months? Half a century? It was impossible to know.

Fai smiled sweetly at her and directed her to Syaoran who was more likely to be able to answer her questions than he. Within the confines of his own mind he wrestled down the rising, familiar ache, crushing it into the bottomless recesses of his heart and burying it under layer upon layer of self-delusion. His hopes were groundless, he knew that by now, but it was too late to back out.

Sakura was bothered by it for awhile, their inability to track the progress of time accurately, before she accepted it with her usual grace and patience, cheerfully proclaiming that it did not matter so much. She was alive, after all, and that mattered more than knowing exactly when she had aged another year.

~~~

Their mother tells them they were born on the coldest day of winter in the middle of a fierce and terrible storm. But she says lots of things that are not true and no one else bothers to tell them whether it’s a lie or not.

They know that everyone wants to erase the day the Cursed Twins were born from history; they also know that no one could ever forget. Fai and Yuui know that probably every soul in Valeria knows the day of their birth down to the minute, but no one ever tells them.

~~~

It was after Yama that it came up again. They had hardly stopped moving for more than a day, the long night fighting at the moon castle followed immediately with being sent back to Shara country. After the wedding, they snuck out gracefully and decided to move on, landing in the heart of Piffle and winding up ceaselessly busy for the next couple of days working to pay for their lodging and dragonflies. Nearly a week had passed before they had a quiet evening to settle down and relax, to go over the details of what had happened during their time apart.

The children went first, Sakura talking excitedly about their time spent with the Suzuran troupe in Shara before they were sucked into Shura when the statue of Ashura began to weep and the sky split. Syaoran took over the explanation then, since Sakura had slept during most of the few days they spent there, before turning to the two men and asking how they had spent the six long months in Yama.

For once, Fai remained silent, letting Kurogane do all the talking since he had been the one able to communicate during their time there and had a better understanding of the events that had surrounded them. As he finished recounting the basic details, the ninja muttered thoughtfully. “Six months…. For the two of us, at least, it’s been over a year since this journey started.”

Sakura overheard, a big grin taking over her face. “That means your birthdays must have passed since then! How old are you now?”

Kurogane shrugged. “I guess I’m twenty-five now. I had turned twenty-four a few months before…” he paused, brow furrowing. “Before I left,” he finished, and turned to look at Fai. “What about you, mage?”

Fai avoided his gaze, those piercing red eyes that had fascinated and frightened him in equal measures since the moment they met, and shrugged absently, keeping his lazy smile plastered on his face.

The children looked at him curiously and Kurogane raised a single, imperious brow. “You don’t know?”

Fai shrugged again. “I stopped keeping track when I was a child,” he said, a partial lie but close enough to the truth that even Kurogane’s fearsome gaze would not detect it. “No one where I am from thought it was important,” he finished, ambiguous and casual so none of them would guess the heavy weight behind his words.

Kurogane watched him steadily for a long, endless moment, trying to dig his way through the wall Fai had erected around himself, before he finally turned away. “Whatever,” he muttered, standing and marching off toward the kitchen, his empty plate in hand.

Syaoran began rambling excitedly about the differences in worlds, speculating about what climates or beliefs or technology would affect the importance of birthdays in a culture, spouting out theoretical question after question until Sakura began to look dizzy.

Fai tuned them out and heaved a sigh of relief inside his mind, absently realizing that his real age was not a piece of information about himself that needed to be kept secret; it was just one he couldn’t bear to think about.

~~~

It is months before Yuui speaks again. Ashura had asked his name and he had answered “Fai,” and then his swollen, dry, abused throat had remained silent until he could dip his hands in a bowl of water and feel the cool, velvety touch of it against the tips of his fingers again, sensation finally returned to the scarred skin.

His first words in Celes Country are to ask Ashura, “Do you know how long we were in that place?”

Ashura looks at him thoughtfully for a long time before shaking his head. “I do not know, Fai. In Valeria it was nearly ten years, I believe, from the time you and your twin were put in that valley until I arrived to take you away. But you were brought there when you were no more than, perhaps, five years old, yes?” Fai nods and Ashura hums. “And yet you do not seem more than seven or eight years old in body, now. But your eyes.” He pauses and waits for Fai to look at him. “Your eyes seem far older than that. You may have been there far longer than we think.”

~~~

In Infinity, all fighters were required to fill out paperwork on their identities, general health, and physical attributes. The language of the country was one that Syaoran was able to read, thankfully, and he collected the four piles and set to work, filling out his own and Sakura’s almost silently, before firing questions at Kurogane and Fai and jotting down their information. “How old are you, Fai?”

Fai felt his gut tightening with apprehension and tried to cover the tension with a teasing smirk. “How old do I look?” he asked, sensing Kurogane’s watchful eyes from the edge of the room, but he kept his attention on the boy in front of him.

Syaoran looked at him calculatingly for a long moment, pondering. “Hmmm, twenty-three, maybe?”

Fai wanted to laugh bitterly but merely turned the smirk into a grin. “Close enough, I suppose.”

Kurogane’s disdainful scoffing as he turned and left the room made his eyes sparkle with amusement even as the tiny, dying ember of his heart cringed. 

~~~

Fai looks twelve but feels far older when he makes his way to a small town in one of the furthest valleys, intending to spend a few days chasing away the predators that had slunk down the mountainside and were stealing livestock in the night. He walks around the perimeter of the village in the dark, prodding and poking at gnashing teeth and glowing eyes until they flee far up the mountainside night after night, waiting until the day they don’t return. When he wakes up late each day he goes down to the bar at the end of the road for food, hiding in a dark corner away from the crowd and the noise.

A passel of young boys find him there one night, curious about the young magician from the castle. The questions come so rapidly he’s left with barely any time to answer one before being bombarded with eight more until his eyes are nearly swimming in his head trying to keep track of them all.

“Let the poor boy breathe for a moment!” One of the maids shouts, muttering a “noisy devils,” as she swings by with a laden tray of beer and mead, sparing a hand to smack a few boys across their scalps and snickering at the yelps of surprise she leaves in her wake. A few of them dare to scowl and shake their fists toward her while the rest dole out quick apologies to Fai. 

Fai shakes his head, mumbling a quiet “It’s okay.”

One of the older boys shoves his way forward, eager and energetic. “So how old are you? You look about my age but my Ma says only old men and kings can use magic.” A bunch of the other boys nod and chime in their agreements, looking at Fai curiously.

He shuffles in his seat, fingers clenching tight around the mug in his hand and avoiding their eyes. “I’m… not really sure. Ashura-ou says my body is probably about twelve, developmentally, but I think I’ve been alive longer than that.” He works up the courage to peek a glance at the others and is met with half-a-dozen blank stares.

“...Develop-what?” A boy finally asks.

“I think he means his body is only twelve but his mind’s older,” one answers.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” another huffs. “How can your mind be older than your body?”

“Heck if I know, but he’s a magician, maybe they don’t need bodies to live and he only made one twelve years ago,” another speculates.

“What kind a creature don’t need a body?”

“Tabbris-tef said ghosts are people without bodies.”

“So what, magicians are ghosts?”

“I thought ghosts were people who had died?”

“Does that mean he was a regular person once?”

“Hey, maybe we could all become magicians! We just gotta be ghosts first!”

“Guess that means you gotta die, though,” one of them says, a mischievous grin climbing up his cheeks and a couple of boys back away before seemingly rousing their courage and jumping at him, shouting that he’s a crazy louse and he should test the theory first.

Fai watches on with wide eyes as the lot of them are finally shooed out of the tavern by the maids, scattering outside the door with reprimands to go home for dinner. An old man at the next table leans over to Fai and gives him a wink. “Guess you’ll just say twelve next time someone asks, yeah?”

Fai just sighs and slumps down in his seat.

~~~

Age seemed of little importance for a long time after that and no one brought it up again, not even in Clow Country. With the real Sakura and Syaoran picking up time from almost the exact moment they had left, their physical age was quite clear, though how old they were in mind, especially Syaoran, was unclear. They seemed unbothered by it, or had kept such conversations private from the two men, at least.

Fai’s heart was not so dark and secretive any longer, he did not feel the need to hide anymore. He just wasn’t sure how to bring it up, now, after so long. 

~~~

“I thought that I would be normal now. But I have looked the same for years. Did that place… change me? Could it have affected my body permanently?” Fai looks at Ashura, pleading for answers. His hands stay clenched at his sides, the mirror in his left nearly cracking from the pressure.

Ashura’s eyes widen in surprise. “You do not know?”

“Know what?”

The King deflates slightly, brushing his hand over his eyes and heaving out a sigh. “Oh dear, no wonder you seem so frightened.” He looks up and spread his arms out in invitation. “Come here, Fai.”

Fai hesitates, a part of himself stubbornly insisting he is too old for this, but mostly he’s just desperate for the comfort. So he rushes forward and tucks himself into Ashura’s chest, clinging to his cloak and inhaling the scent of coldness and pine-scented soap.

Ashura wraps his arms around him, gentle but firm, resting his cheek on Fai’s head and holding him close for many long minutes. Eventually he pulls away just enough to tip Fai’s head back and look him in the eye. “There is nothing wrong with you or you body. It is your magic that keeps you young. Magicians who do not meet death in battle or illness can live for centuries. I am already many times older than I appear. You are perfectly well, my prince,” he promises.

It takes a moment for the words to sink in, to make sense, and when they do Fai buries himself in Ashura’s embrace once more. But whether the tears he sheds are of relief or dread, he doesn’t know. 

~~~

Summer in Nihon was hot - unbearably so - Fai learned many months after arriving in the ninja’s country. They had come back in late Autumn and spent the winter season at the palace with Tomoyo and her family before setting out in early spring for Kurogane’s destroyed home in Suwa. Rebuilding an entire town under the oppressive sun was exhausting and Fai had spent many afternoons languishing in the shade after nearly fainting from the heat.

Kurogane had teased him, at first, until Fai explained that summers in Celes lasted barely a month, not even long enough for all the snow to melt, even in the lowest valleys. He needed time to get used to the heat and it would take more than one summer for that; the leaves were turning color before Fai began to feel comfortable again, and only in the lightest, breeziest clothing he could find.

He was still spending most afternoons in the shade, studying Nihon’s written language or humming softly to himself as he watched the clouds drift by. Sometimes the ninja joined him for a time, taking a break from the hard work beyond the walls of the newly finished castle.

Today he was lying next to Fai on his back, his head resting on his palms as he stared up at the branches they sat beneath. “My birthday is in a few days,” Kurogane said.

“Oh?”

The ninja grunted and shifted his legs. “I’m not really sure how much time has passed for us since I left, but by the years passed in Nihon Country I would be twenty-six.”

“You said once that you left here a few months after you turned twenty-four, yes?” Fai asked.

“Yeah,” Kurogane said, chuckling. “Obviously it is been much longer than a year-and-a-half for us. I’m probably almost thirty by now.”

Fai hummed and leaned back against the truck of the tree, feeling the dappled warmth of the sun coming through the leaves of the tree and trying to ignore the churning in his gut as he realized he was ten times his companion’s age. How would the ninja react if he found out? Minutes passed as they were both absorbed with their own thoughts and Fai was startled out of his nervous pondering when Kurogane spoke up softly.

“When is your birthday?” Kurogane asked.

Years ago Fai would have cringed but time and forgiving friends had done much to heal him; he still had far to go to be completely well, but this question in particular brought nothing more than a distant sadness. He shrugged. “I don’t know. Not for sure.”

“You don’t know?” Kurogane asked, and Fai could hear his brow quirking. “I mean I guess it could be hard to translate one world’s calendar to another but there must be some way to calculate an approximate date in Nihon time.”

Fai shrugged again. “By the time Fai and I could understand speech no one would speak of it. I’m sure everyone in the country knew the date the Twins of Misfortune were born but none of them ever said.” He heard Kurogane push himself up into a sitting position and turn to look at him, but Fai kept his gaze toward the sky. “My mother once said we were born on the coldest day of winter, but she was delirious by then and much of what she said was either nonsense or lies. I think the coldest day of winter is rather fitting, though.”

“No,” Kurogane said, thoughtful and serious, his gaze like a brand. “No, I don’t think that suits you at all.”

Fai turned to look at him, finally, and raised a brow in question. “No?”

Kurogane shook his head. “Things as beautiful and full of life as you are born in the spring,” he said, his gaze overflowing with something Fai was still afraid to name, sometimes.

~~~

“This storm is savage. Terrifying. I have not seen one like it since just before that avalanche when I was still a child.”

Ashura hums next him, looking out at the swirling snow thoughtfully, but otherwise silent.

“I wonder if it was like this the day I was born...” Fai says, trailing off into silence.

“Why do you say that?” Ashura asks.

“My mother said we were born on the coldest day of winter in the middle of a storm,” Fai explains, turning to the king with a furrowed brow. He’s often wondered if maybe she was wrong or lying, but there was never a way to know.

Ashura looks confused for a moment before his face breaks into a smile. “No, Fai. Even in Celes we heard of the birth of Valeria’s princes. You were born in the spring.”

~~~

It was Syaoran who finally asked. He and the Princess had come to visit, a couple of children in tow, and had spent the previous minute or so explaining how much time had passed for them in Clow Country and the names and ages of their offspring. It seemed to spark his memory and he turned to the magician with a curious expression. “That reminds me, Fai. You never did say, how old are you?”

Fai’s eyes darted immediately to Kurogane where he stood just off to the side, a child clinging to each of his legs and looking at the magician just as curiously. His heart raced in his chest, nervous to reveal this truth that could change so much about how they all saw him. “Yes, I suppose that has yet to be discussed. I-” he paused, fumbling for where to start. “I have no idea how long Fai and I were trapped, but I know it was longer for our minds than it was for our bodies. Mentally I’m probably a few years older than I have actually been alive and my magic keeps my body from aging as quickly so I’ve never tried too hard to keep track precisely.” He paused again and looked around, seeing that everyone was watching him intently, even a few of the guards and servants who were standing around in the courtyard, and he squared his shoulders and squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m definitely older than two-hundred-and-fifty but I’m probably still a ways off from three hundred.” He stood there for a long moment before finding the courage to crack his eyes open again and look at the others.

Syaoran and Sakura were openly gaping, jaws unhinged and eyes wide, before Syaoran’s expression shifted into one of abject wonder and curiosity though he kept his questions to himself for the moment. Sakura eventually seemed to settle into acceptance - still surprised but not nearly as intrigued as her husband. The guards and servants were whispering among themselves, no doubt wondering if where he came from such age was more typical.

And Kurogane. Kurogane wore his usual stern mask, piercing eyes revealing nothing of his thoughts for a long moment before his lip quirked into a smirk. “Guess I have a thing for older men,” he said and Fai could only chuckle as his nerves fled.