Title: Lovers, Fools, and Madmen
Rating: PG-13 for a bit of language
Warnings: Gratuitous hoof-shots and innuendo galore.
Summary: AU; loosely based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. When Lord Touya seeks the Queen's counsel to forbid his sister to wed her childhood love, he isn't prepared for the interference wrought by two disgraced fairies to thwart his plans. Which is probably just as well; it’s not as if they have a clue in heaven or hell how to deal with these foolish mortals…
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.
-A Midsummer Night's Dream II;i
Shizuka Doumeki latched the gate to his temple with the barest of hesitation and hung a sign advising his parishioners of his absence for the following month. He didn’t enjoy the thought of leaving his temple, much less his home unattended for such a long period, but the royal summons had arrived the previous afternoon and he certainly wasn’t one to refuse the request of his queen.
Still, he wondered at why she had selected a backwater priest such as himself to officiate her wedding ceremony. Certainly he wasn’t anything special – on the best of days he barely managed to keep the roof over his head from leaking and the meager garden from shriveling in the summer heat. A much greater share of spiritual power had belonged to his grandfather, who was still well renowned throughout the country years after his death. Shizuka…well, he had never considered himself much beyond a caretaker to the family business. Which was fine – he wasn’t really one to seek public acclaim anyway.
He gave his saddle bags a final glance over and pat down before latching them to his mule and setting off down the road. It was three days travel to the palace if all went well, which was never guaranteed. His path would take him directly through the forest Cephiro, which, if the local tales and legends were to be believed (and while he had never been fond of putting too much stock in drunkards’ tales, he was also acutely aware that more existed in this world than what his consciousness alone perceived) was home to strange spirits who were fond of playing pranks on travelers and diverting them from their course.
Thankfully, he had packed enough food to last a fortnight.
“Oi!” Kurogane seethed, “Would you get back over here? You’re going to fall in the damned lake!” This was the final straw – he couldn’t endure anymore. It had been a small wonder Fay had gaped in astonishment at him just the night before – while there may have existed some magical flower who’s nectar could reduce any living being to a slobbering, lust-filled fool, it was clear that his own slobbering, stupid-filled fool had no idea what it looked like or where to even begin looking for it, despite his protestations (and they were loud and many) to the contrary.
“Uwah, Kuro-tiodactyl! I think it’s this one – just give me a hand here!” Fay was perched precariously on top of a mostly-submerged rock, reaching, reaching for an ornate purple flower hanging from the farthest reaches of a branch over-hanging the water.
“Kuro-tiowhat?!” Kurogane groaned, stomping toward the water’s edge.
“-Dactyl – it means ‘split hoof’” Fay explained absently, all his attention focused at the bloom just beyond his fingertips, “Hold onto my tail, will you? I think if I just stretch a little more this way-”
Kurogane watched the fuzzy little nub of Fay’s tail swish back and forth with disgust. His lips pulled back into a deep frown as he grasped the end, just tightly enough to keep the idiot from barreling ass-over-tea-kettle into the water. “Hurry up, will you?” he barked, “We’ve been at this for most of the day.”
“Patience is a virtue,” Fay trilled as he leaned further forward.
Kurogane watched in horror as the first of Fay’s hooves slipped down the slope of the rock and into the water. For a split second, he considered yanking back on the tail in his hands, then thought better of it and let go. Fay landed with a spectacular splash and crack of the water and glared back at the shore angrily.
“That was a horrible thing to do, Kuro-chan.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Kurogane ground out with a smirk, but offered the other a hand back to shore anyway. Fay narrowed his eyes and glared for a second, but took the offered hand without other comment.
Once on the shore, he proceeded to shake himself dry – one leg at a time – splattering his unprepared and growling companion with enough water to soak him through as well as a dip in the lake would have. Kurogane considered cursing. He also considered mauling, torture, and outright murder, but in the end only turned silently away from Fay and shook himself dry, trying desperately to tame the wild leg hair that was now sticking up at odd angles and silently promising to itch in strange places for the rest of the day.
Fay watched with barest hint of a frown pulling at his mouth. He’d expected a better reaction than the silence he was receiving, and worried he might have overstepped some imaginary boundary with the gruff ex-fairy. He stepped closer and moved to help sort out the fantastic mess that Kurogane was currently presenting and was quickly batted away for his efforts. “I’m sorry, Kuro-tan; I was just trying to help.”
“I need your help like I need a hold in my head,” Kurogane grunted, slicking down as much hair as he could with repeated strokes, “And don’t get any ideas.”
Fay watched him in silence for a few moments before daring to speak again. “I got it.”
Kurogane snapped to attention. “You did? I mean – good,” he wandered over to get a closer look at the blossom in Fay’s hand, “You’re sure it’s this one?”
“I’m not entirely sure…” Fay admitted, staring dubiously at the flower, “I mean, it looks sort of like it should…”
“Sort of?! You said you were sure!” Kurogane roared.
“Well, it was a lot further away at that point,” Fay eyed the petals closely, turning the bloom over in his hands, “I’m not so certain now,” he looked up suddenly, “There is one way we can find out.”
Kurogane ground his teeth. “How?”
“Hold still,” Fay instructed, and before he had a chance to react, Fay had mashed one of the purple petals gracelessly across Kurogane’s face.
Fay stared expectantly. “Well?”
“How do I look, Kuro-puu?”
“Like an idiot. What did you do?”
“Awww…” Fay frowned and sighed melodramatically, “I guess it’s not the right one…”
“How do you- What did you- You bastard!” Kurogane shouted, lunging toward the blonde.
Fay sprang quickly out of his way, spry hooves carrying him deftly back toward the forest they had come from, cackling as he went. “Calm down, Kuro-horny! The worst that could happen is you would fall madly in love with me!”
That, Kurogane decided as he hurried to catch up, was possibly the only fate worse than what he suffered now…
“S-Sakura?” The boy’s voice was quavering slightly, clearly conveying his surprise.
“Hoe?!” Sakrua quickly leapt behind the nearest hallway pillar and poked her head back out, “Syaoran! I…I…Tomoyo was-”
“You look…beautiful,” he managed, holding out his hand for her.
Sakura accepted the gesture and stepped out from the nook she had wedged herself into. “I feel ridiculous,” she murmured, eyeing up the flowing gown she’d been dressed in.
Tomoyo had made good on her promises of designing and fashioning the most extravagant dress she was able (with the “tragically limited” supply of fabrics stored in the palace, of course – there would be more and better to come later), and Sakura (to her everlasting credit and great personal embarrassment) was a patient and indulgent model who allowed Tomoyo to plan and trim to her heart’s delight. Only a scant few hours of sleep had been shared between the girls the previous night, sacrificed instead to the arduous tasks of outfitting Sakura and appeasing Tomoyo’s incredibly specific notions of where lace and bead ought to overlap (minimally), how many layers of petticoats were required to provide the right amount of flourish when she spun (three), and how high the bust needed to lift (only two inches, though Sakura was very certain she would bump her nose if she leaned too far forward). Their efforts had been largely successful in terms of the gown itself, but while Sakura was no stranger to fancy dress, she certainly was not accustomed to the long, trailing skirts nor the heavy petticoats that rustled beneath with every step she took. They made the simple task of walking more onerous than usual, and she flushed furiously as she advanced toward Syaoran with tiny, delicate steps.
Syaoran was too immediately preoccupied with the gown’s bodice to pay much attention to this, however, and turned beet red as he realized he’d been staring (rather obviously) at something other than the intricate beadwork winding its way up his lady’s abdomen.
“I- uh…” he stammered, quickly looking away, “Are you ready?”
“Yes…” Sakura trailed off, searching the hallway desperately for any signs they were being watched, “I don’t know how well I can make it through the forest in this…” she pulled at the skirts, “But everyone is occupied meeting Brother’s new fiancée…we should leave now.”
Syaoran nodded and lead her down the long corridor. He was confident that he would be able to navigate their way through the forest to the neighboring town of Outo, where he had hired a coach to take them along the final leg of their journey back to Clow. He had other misgivings, however. “You’re absolutely certain you want to do this?” he asked nervously. They had talked, planned for countless hours to make their escape, but the thought of Sakura leaving her family and country still weighed heavily on his heart.
“Yes,” she said, resolution welling up into her eyes, “This is the only way everyone can…” she trailed off, seemingly lost in thought for a moment “Let’s go.”
“Alright, then,” Syaoran nodded and waved to the guards at the gate, looking for all the world as if they were headed out for a simple stroll around the palace gardens.
Touya quietly closed the door to his rooms and quickly locked the latch behind him. He tossed his over cloak onto the bed and sank into the mattress, thumbs kneading at his temples.
He had to hand it to Queen Kendappa; she was no less shrewd than popular lore credited her as, nor did she betray any outward signs of empathy for her subjects once her decrees had been made. She had watched the intricate cat and mouse game play out before her very eyes and had offered nothing more than a thin smile of amusement to ease the tensions.
Touya sighed heavily and rubbed at a bruise on his forearm. It was no longer a mystery why the queen had ordered him to marry this Lady Akizuki – there was certainly no person in this kingdom of stout enough heart to attempt it of their own free will. He rubbed at his neck, still sore from where she had draped herself like some sort of living piece of jewelry and refused to let go even after she had been (accidentally) swept into a door frame as the party attempted to navigate between rooms. He hoped there would be no scars where her fingernails had dragged once he’d finally managed to loose her hold on him somewhat…
He shuddered and shuffled further back onto the mattress as the shrill voice rang through the hallway. Somehow, he decided, the brat was going to pay for this humiliation…
“I’m going to eat you all up when I find you!”
Yes, the brat was definitely going to pay.
Touya jumped up with a start as he heard a key click in the lock and cursed himself for not barricading the door while he’d had the chance. He steadied a hand against the sword at his hip and fell into a crouch. There was no harm in being prepared.
“To-ya!” Yukito’s soft laughter rang across the room as he quietly shuffled through the doorway and locked it once again behind him. “What in the world are you doing?”
Touya stretched back to a standing position, hand dropping back to his side and eyes flitting nervously about the room. “I was thinking,” he said simply.
“About what?” Yukito chuckled, taking a few steps closer.
“About how I’m going to wait until the last possible minute to give that brat what he wants, just to make him suffer like I have suffered.”
“What a horrible thing to say,” Yukito chided, “After all, it was you who threw Lady Akizuki into a fit of hysterics when you disappeared. She’s been terribly distraught – practically tearing apart the palace trying to find you.”
“Yuki…” Touya nearly growled, “You’re smirking.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“You are!” Touya was indignant, “You’re enjoying this!”
“Never, my Lord,” Yukito bowed low, “I would suggest, however, that you come back downstairs, as the entire guard is now looking for you.”
“Maybe I will marry her after all,” Touya grumbled, grabbing his cloak back from the mattress, “Would serve the lot of you right.”
“That is, of course, your decision to make,” Yukito said softly, releasing the latch on the door, “Though I have to say I think you’re still missing the point behind all of this.”
“There’s a point?” Touya scoffed as he stalked from the room, “Beyond humiliating me in front of the royal court for the crime of wanting to protect my sister?”
Both men turned their attention to the guards hurrying toward them. Touya sighed; whatever Yukito wanted to say would have to wait until he’d dealt with these men. “What is it?”
“Your sister, my Lord,” of the men panted as they stumbled to a halt, “She left the palace earlier this afternoon with Master Li-”
Touya felt his brow twitch, guessing at what was coming next.
“And neither of them have been seen since.”
Damn it. “What kind of idiots do you have guarding your gates that they could just wander off without being seen?”
“They were heading toward the gardens, my Lord. It is possible that they scaled a wall and managed to leave the palace grounds, but that would place them at the borders of Cephiro forest, and…”
“And?” Touya demanded, squaring his shoulders. He didn’t put it past his monster of a little sister to scale a wall at all; what he wanted to know what was what was being done to bring her back. “Your men?” he prompted sharply.
“Our men are searching, my Lord, but if they’ve gone into the forest, it could be days before they’re found.”
Damn it. “Come on, Yukito,” Touya decided firmly, “We’re going to look for them. We’ll bring them back before the sun sets.”
“But, my Lord…”
“We’ll find them,” Touya repeated, gritting his teeth as he strode down the corridor. Yukito hastened his steps to keep pace.
Kurogane batted vines away from his face as he wound deeper and deeper back into the forest, grumbling noisily to himself about the amount of time they’d wasted already. Noon had long since passed and the forest grew ever darker as the sun sank toward the western horizon. From somewhere behind him, he could just make out the sound of hooves against the poorly kept path, clip-clopping ever closer, and punctuated every-so-often by an obnoxious giggle.
“Come on, Kuro-sama! One of these has to be it!”
Kurogane spun to face his pursuer. “No!” he spat, crossing his arms across his chest, “We’re not doing this; I was a fool for even thinking it might work to begin with. We’re going home to figure out a different plan.” And by “we” Kurogane really meant “I” – Fay would be lucky if he allowed him through the front door of their hovel after the abuse Kurogane had suffered at his hands today.
“But Kuro-sama…” Fay pouted through an enormous armful of flowers, “I spent all afternoon picking these! Do you have any idea how hard it is to coordinate a bouquet this big?”
Kurogane growled and squinted down the path. They still had a long way to travel before they were home for the night, he noted with a bit of despair. His stomach was growling – lunch had been skipped in a thoroughly misguided effort to speed up their doomed search – and his mouth was dry. He hoped there was a stream somewhere nearby.
Fay kept pace with him as he started back down the path, warbling on about the various shades and shapes of the flowers he had gathered and being a general nuisance until Kurogane came to a halt at the edge of a small clearing. “Wa-aa-aa,” he breathed, coming to a rest next to the darker faun, “What a gorgeous spring.”
“I told you to stop braying like that,” Kurogane grumbled, stomping off into the clearing. Gorgeous or not, the spring was a welcome sight and he hurried toward it, eager to sate the thirst he’d been fighting all afternoon.
“Wa-aa-aa, Kuro-nub is so cruel,” Fay whined as he chased after him, refusing to abandon his gigantic bouquet. He set it down carefully at the water’s edge and crouched to dip his hand, not about to let himself go thirsty either. They drank in silence for several minutes, both thankful for the distraction.
Kurogane’s ear twitched. “Did you hear that?” he asked a moment later, straining to listen.
“Hmm?’ Fay looked up at him with surprise, having been caught completely off guard with his cupped hands halfway to his mouth. “I didn’t hear anything.”
“I could have sworn I just heard…ahh shit,” Kurogane cursed as the source of the commotion stumbled into view, or rather…what the hell was it doing? Dancing? It didn’t matter, it was human – Kurogane was certain of this as it drew near enough for him to catch a clear whiff of its scent – and there, fluttering above it…
“What the hell is she doing out here?” Kurogane grumbled, joining Fay at his perch at the water’s edge and staring as the duo approached. “And with a human, no less.” He dropped to one knee in a proper show of obeisance to his queen. What the hell was going on?
“Maybe it’s a lover?” Fay mused, a faint smile tugging at his lips.
“Oh for-” Kurogane practically choked, “Why would she take a human for a lover? It doesn’t even look like it’s fully grown yet…”
“You never know,” Fay’s voice dropped as the queen drew closer still, waving as she spotted them, “Love is unpredictable. Maybe she’s into that sort of thing.”
“Will you shut up?” Kurogane hissed, bowing lower still, “If you don’t watch it, she could tack on something even more outrageous to our sentences.” Kurogane shuddered at the though and kept his eyes trained on the ground.
“Well, well. If it isn’t my two favorite subjects,” the queen laughed gaily as she set down on the ground before them. “Oh, stand up; you’re making a spectacle of yourselves.”
They did as they were bid, Kurogane meeting the queen’s gaze with a terse “Your Highness” while Fay chuckled and ran a hand through his hair.
“Fancy meeting you all the way out here, your highness!” Fay exclaimed, all pretence of formality dropped within mere seconds.
“I might say the same of you,” the queen regarded him with a smile and folded her wings gently back, “This is such a long way to travel on foot…or hooves, as it were.”
Kurogane scowled as she grinned and opened his mouth to form a retort, but was cut off as Fay gestured toward the earth-bound creature following (and flailing) in her wake. “Speaking of foot travel,” he said brightly, “Who is that, Your Highness?”
“Ah,” the queen smiled as she observed the bizarre creature wind its way toward them, “That is Watanuki.”
“What’s a Watanuki?” Kurogane wondered as it finally caught up to its master.
“It’s not a ‘what,’ Kurogane,” the queen answered, eyeing Kurogane with what might have been amusement, “It’s a ‘him.’ He is my newest acquisition.” She grinned toothily and Kurogane felt the hair of his legs stand straight on end.
“Yuuko!” he shouted as he huffed and doubled over at the queen’s feet. Kurogane flinched at the casual use of the queen’s name; maybe it – he – was a lover, after all. The thought was unappealing and Kurogane pushed it to the back of his mind as a new stream of cursing and flailing came from the human. Kurogane watched in fascination; he had never seen movements quite like this before.
“Such energy!” the queen laughed, “And after I’ve taken him for such a nice, long walk as well!”
“A walk?!” Watanuki shrieked, “You’ve been dragging me around all day looking for a specific beehive to pilfer honey from! A beehive that probably doesn’t even exist! I knew I shouldn’t have let you at the sake before breakfast! We’ve been wandering since early morning – I’ll bet you don’t even know where we are!”
The queen looked put-out. If Kurogane hadn’t been terrified of the prospect of being turned into an even fouler creature, he might have been tempted to remark that she was putting on a terrific pout. His silent assessment was only further affirmed when she opened her mouth to whine, “But I want honey for my cakes! No other will do!” She turned back to Kurogane and Fay to whisper loudly, “Such a troublesome child – he doesn’t even know when he’s been given proper exercise.”
“I can hear you, you know!” Watanuki bellowed, “And I am not a dog that needs walking!”
“Watanuki!” the queen exclaimed sharply, putting a momentary end to the human’s flailing as he paused to gape at her, “Break out the good sake – we’ll have a picnic.”
“You just drank not fifteen minutes ago!”
“Yes, but not the good sake. I want the good sake while I talk with my subjects!”
“Oh, for the love of…” Watanuki grumbled, but stooped to dig through the backpack he was carrying, “We only have one glass,” he said, passing the sake off to the queen with an annoyed glare.
“That’s fine,” the queen waved this away, “They don’t mind, do you boys?”
“Not at all!” Fay exclaimed, taking a seat in the grass before Kurogane could voice his opposition. The queen smiled and passed him a bottle, which he promptly tore the cork from with his teeth, much to Kurogane’s chagrin. “Your Highness is far too kind.”
Kurogane joined the others in the grass, sighing deeply as he sat, and watched in morbid fascination as the queen emptied more than half of her bottle into the cup her pet-servant-toy-thing had carried so carefully all day and drained the vessel in one sip. He knew damned well that she was going to want a full report on their progress – a report that he was more than a little embarrassed to deliver as things had progressed so miserably thus far. Fay, on the other hand, seemed to have no qualms about detailing their failed exploits and gestured wildly to the pile of useless flowers he’d collected over the course of the day. Kurogane covered his eyes with his palm; this was going to end badly.
“That’s quite clever,” the queen said after Fay had finished regaling her. Kurogane felt his jaw drop. “You know, Kurogane,” she continued, “When I gave you this assignment, I thought for certain that you would be the one doing all the planning. You are the one with military experience, after all,” she eyed him reproachfully, “But I’m delighted that Mr. Fluorite here has developed such an excellent strategy. True love is, after all, the most powerful motivator.”
“Hah!” Watanuki chirped from behind them, then lowered his voice to a dull murmur, “Like she would know.”
“Don’t mind him,” the queen declared imperiously, “He’s just upset that he has can’t get a date.”
“You don’t stop working me for long enough to get a date!” Watanuki squawked, “I asked; I begged! And now Himawari will…” he doubled over into the grass, muttering something about his “darling falling into the arms of a cretin.”
“Ah, children,” the queen sighed with a smile, “The course of true love never did run smooth…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kurogane grunted, rather disgusted by the whole display.
“It means, Kurogane,” she continued, turning back with a serious expression, “That this flower strategy guarantees a measure of success that you would otherwise not be granted. What is the next stage of your plan?”
“Have to figure out which flower it bloody is first,” Kurogane grumbled.
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Ah,” Fay chuckled, scratching at his horns, “My botany knowledge seems to be a bit…rusty. Not much use for it these days, you know?”
“No, I imagine not,” the queen frowned t the discarded bouquet, “In that case, might I suggest an alternative?”
“Ugh,” Kurogane sank back into the grass, “What’s that little piece of information going to cost us?”
“Nothing at all,” the queen smiled again, “Well, almost nothing – Watanuki!” the boy snapped to attention, “Gather up the rest of those flowers. We’re bringing them back with us.”
“I want you to make wine from them!” the queen exclaimed, clasping her hands together.
“Of course…” Watanuki groaned as he packed the blooms into his knapsack.
“Don’t whine!” the queen commanded, “We’ll head back after this, even without the honey.”
“And now for you two,” the queen turned her attention back to the fauns seated opposite her. Fay smiled brightly. Kurogane tensed in fear. “As an alternative to hunting down this flower – which is such an old and overused plot device – I will offer you use of one of my pets. Mokona!” she called sweetly, “Won’t you come out and meet some new friends?”
Kurogane watched in horror as two balls of fluff – one black, the other white – jumped out of the knapsack and landed in the queen’s lap.
“What the…?” Watanuki sputtered angrily, “I thought I left the two of you to clean the hall!”
“Mokona is not a servant!” the white one chirped.
“Yeah! That’s Watanuki’s job!” the black one agreed.
“Why you little-”
“Don’t yell, Watanuki,” the queen chided, “It’s very unbecoming. Now,” she turned back to the two fauns seated opposite her, “The white Mokona here will help you.”
“What does it do?” Kurogane asked suspiciously.
The queen grinned. “One kiss from Mokona will make any human fall in love with the next person they see.”
Kurogane balked, eyes flitting back to the human accompanying the queen, and forced down the impetuous nature that insisted he demand to know exactly why she had something like that. She was the queen, after all, and perfectly entitled to whatever stupid magical creatures she wanted to keep... “What about the black one?” he asked instead.
“Oh, the black one is just for entertainment,” she assured him, “You shouldn’t need his services at all…”
“Entertainment?” Kurogane choked, “What kind of entertainment?”
“Oh, songs, dances, peep shows…” the Queen grinned, “It’s really no concern of yours.”
Kurogane sighed. “And this isn’t going to cost us something extravagant?” he repeated. He watched as the white ball of fluff bounded into Fay’s arms and nuzzled against his chest.
“Love doesn’t cost a thing, Kurogane,” the queen smirked. “Now,” she continued before he was able to retort, “As we discussed before, if you should succeed, your sentences will come to an early end and you’ll be welcomed back into the Fairy Kingdom,” Kurogane twitched with excitement, “But ONLY if you succeed,” the queen finished, looking at them sternly, “Fail me, and…” she let loose with what could only be described as a cackle.
Kurogane cringed at the sound of it. “We won’t fail,” he said, more with more confidence than he actually felt.
“Of course not,” the queen grinned again, rising to her feet as the black Mokona bounced back into the knapsack, “I’ll leave you to it, then. Good luck!” With a flourish of brightly colored wings she had taken to the air once again, bellowing for Watanuki to keep up even as he scrambled wildly behind her.
Kurogane plucked the ball of fluff from Fay’s shoulders by its obnoxiously long ears and stared. This was it? This little white bastard was the key to his salvation? He frowned. Now what they really needed to do was…was…
“Oi, puff ball,” Kurogane grunted. “How exactly are you supposed to go about kissing this human?”
Mokona blinked and wriggled in his grip. “Please usually works.”
Kurogane unceremoniously dropped Mokona to the ground.
“Kuro-gruff…” Fay murmured reproachfully, “You don’t have to be so mean to her!” He picked the indignant Mokona up from the ground and set her on his shoulder. “We’ll just have to catch him while he’s sleeping. We can sneak back into the palace tomorrow.”
“And you’re actually prepared to do that?”
“Yes, Kuro-steed,” Fay returned patiently, “Now, I’m sleepy and hungry. Can we go get some food and go home?”
“I suppose…” Kurogane agreed. It was only getting darker as they dawdled in the clearing and there was little opportunity to make use of their newfound trump card tonight – especially as he had no idea how they were going to guarantee the first person that Lord saw upon waking wasn’t a servant or a relative. It was going to require more planning; he’d probably have to lug himself all the way back to the humans’ palace and work something out with that bastard Bols, and then there would be sneaking, and ducking, and all manner of obnoxious espionage that Kurogane really wasn’t suited to, and good gods above he was getting a headache just thinking about it. “Come on,” he mumbled, beginning the long march back to their hovel.
Fay was on his feet seconds later, prancing circles around Kurogane as the other trudged toward the edge of the clearing. “Hurray!” he shouted, hunger and fatigue seemingly forgotten, “Last one to the pub buys the first round!”
“Mokona wants a drink, too!”
Kurogane could only stare wearily as the blonde skipped back into the forest.
“Syaoran, please slow down!” Sakura begged as the young man pulled – just a bit too harshly – at her hand, urging her more quickly along their path. Her earlier fears about her state of dress were proving (most unfortunately) to be well-founded; the skirts snagged on bushes and low-hanging branches, the heels of her shoes sank quickly into the soft ground, and the corset cinching her waist made it all but impossible to take the deep breaths necessary to supply the grueling pace Syaoran had set for their travel.
Syaoran grimaced and looked toward the sky. The sun was setting quickly – in another hour or two it would be completely dark, and they would have naught but the sparse view of the stars the canopy afforded them to guide them. On top of that, he was fairly certain they should have reached the border of the forest well before now, but it seemed that no matter how closely he followed the map and calculations he had spent hours preparing, their journey only ever lead deeper into the darkness of the woods.
“I’m sorry, Sakura,” he said, slowing his steps and squeezing her hand, “I’m just afraid we’re not going to make it out of the forest by nightfall. I’d hate for you to have to sleep outside, and I don’t know how long the cab I hired will wait.”
“It’s okay,” she soothed, “Just please, walk a little slower – I can barely keAAUP!”
“Sakura!” Syaoran cried, moving swiftly to catch the girl as she stumbled. He was not swift enough, however, and Sakura toppled to the ground at his feet, a mess of pink satin tangled with the underbrush. He knelt slowly to take her hands again and frowned. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Sakura assured him, accepting his assistance back to her feet and brushing away the stray twigs and dirt that clung to her, “Maybe we should stop here for the night,” she murmured, looking nervously around them, “If we build a fire, it should be safe.”
“But, Sakura, the cab…”
“Let’s not worry about it for now,” she answered quietly, moving slowly off to the side of the path.
Syaoran could see, even in the low light that she was favoring her right ankle and sighed in resignation. “You’re right,” he said, bracing her arm as she stepped carefully over a fallen log, “Stay here, I’ll gather some wood to make a fire.”
Sakura obliged him, settling down amongst the leaves gathered at her feet. She shifted restlessly, finding it quite a task to get comfortable beneath the layers and layers of fabric enveloping her. She wondered vaguely if that was what Princess Tomoyo had had in mind when she designed it – no matter how carefully Sakura had guarded their plans, she couldn’t help but feel that the other girl had known their intentions, even before she had spoken. She sighed; there was nothing for it – some of the skirts were going to have to go. They couldn’t afford the hindrance any longer, she decided as Syaoran vanished completely from sight, and set about tearing away the petticoats that weighed her down. They tore easily enough – Tomoyo had insisted on tulle for the outer layers (the better for flouncing) and the deepest was only a very thin chiffon – and Sakura smiled happily at the nest she was able to make of them spread across the cold ground. She pulled her knees against her chest and waited.
She hoped Touya would be alright. And Yukito as well – her brother’s fiancée (Or was it former fiancée, now? The mere possibility broke her heart…) had been almost a member of their family since she was small; she couldn’t bear the thought of the two separated. Really, this was best, wasn’t it? Or was this just her mind rationalizing her utterly, stupidly selfish actions? It had all seemed so much more convincing before they had set out into these woods…
“Here,” Syaoran’s voice sounded from behind her, and his hand reached over her shoulder to press an apple into her hands, “I couldn’t find much food, but you should eat this.” He set an armload of dry brush and branches to her side and crouched to arrange them into a suitable pile for burning. He worked quickly, and in several minutes had constructed a small, but comfortable fire.
He turned back to Sakura, now lit by the dull roar of the flames…and quickly turned away. That was… Surely she hadn’t… Oh god! He could feel every ounce of blood in his body pouring into his cheeks and bit his lip to keep from spluttering.
“What’s wrong, Syaoran?” Sakura asked worriedly, “Are you okay?”
“I…I…” he stuttered, still staring intently into the forest, up a tree, down the path they had traveled – anywhere but back at her, “It’s…your…!”
“What?” Sakura knelt forward to clutch his arm, “Syaoran!” she shook him brazenly, “Look at me!”
“I…can’t!” he clapped his hands over his eyes. Why – oh why – was this happening to him? “My lady, your…!”
Sakura sank back, smoothing what was left of her dress out around her. “Syaoran,” she said, very patiently, “You’re frightening me. Come lie down, and let’s get some sleep.”
Syaoran peeked through his fingers and over his shoulder, feeling an enormous sense of relief wash over him as he looked. He slunk back toward Sakura, settling back with his face toward the fire, intent on keep watch through the night. “You sleep,” he instructed softly, “I’ll keep watch for awhile.”
“O..kay…” Sakura stammered, confused by the abrupt change in her companion’s demeanor. She lay back amongst her tangle of skirts and closed her eyes, trying to shut out the noise of the forest, and drifted peacefully off to sleep.
Syaoran exhaled deeply and massaged his face with one hand, the other tugging at Sakura’s discarded skirts to pull them more snugly around her.
He supposed he was really going to have to get used to seeing her ankles exposed, or this entire marriage would be a bust…
Lord Touya darted behind a tree, quickly pulling his advisor with him and clapping a hand over the other’s mouth. They had been wandering the forest fruitlessly for what seemed like hours, completely unable to find any trace of his sister or her soon-to-be-worm-meat companion. Still, it seemed that no matter how far they traveled, how twisted their path, or how far off the beaten trail they roamed, something still pursued their footsteps closely.
“Lord Toooouya~!” it called through the darkness, “Come now, it’s well past supper time and your lady is hungry for something other than food!”
Touya shuddered, then glared as he felt Yukito snort against his palm. “It’s not funny!” he hissed through clenched teeth and pressed his hand tighter as the single snort devolved into a fit of (mercifully) silent giggles.
“To-ya,” Yukito coughed moments later as Touya released him, confident for the moment that their pursuer had passed them by, “It’s very funny.”
Touya shirked away irritably. “I’m going to kill that kid,” he growled, smacking a fist against a tree.
“Don’t say such horrible things,” Yukito chided, “Sakura would be devastated to hear you say that.”
“And it’s not devastating to me to have her run off like this?”
“I don’t think she would have run off if you had just told her the truth from the beginning.”
“The truth?” Touya demanded, “What truth would that be?”
“To-ya,” Yukito said, mustering an infinite amount of patience, “You didn’t expect anyone to actually believe that you were going to take the Queen up on her bargain, did you? I don’t think Her Highness even considered it seriously.”
Touya looked defiant. “Of course she considered it. Why would the Queen do something so frivolous?”
Yukito shrugged, but smiled. “She said it herself – it was an exchange. You asked her to settle a domestic dispute, so in return, she asked you to settle a national policy matter. Quid pro quo. It was only fair…”
Touya sighed, knowing full well what Yukito told him was true and not feeling the least bit inclined to argue. “Well, Sakura took it seriously enough, it seems. We have to find them,” he repeated.
“Yes,” Yukito agreed, “I think I smell smoke coming from that direction,” he paused to point, “Let’s head that way; maybe they’ve set up a camp.”
Touya nodded, but remained silent as he followed Yukito along the dark path. The scent of smoke grew stronger as they wound through the never-ending maze of trees, and soon the dull glow of dying embers revealed a small clearing occupied by two sleeping figures.
Touya sighed with relief even as he stomped irritably at the remains of the fire. “Idiot didn’t even put it out before he fell asleep…”
“They’re probably exhausted,” Yukito murmured from his side, gently tucking Sakura more snugly into her makeshift blankets, “We should let them rest for awhile. We can all go back together in the morning.”
“Hmm…” Touya frowned. He didn’t like the idea of waiting any longer than absolutely necessary, but was acutely aware that they had strayed quite far from their original path and were unlikely to find their way back to it in the dead of night. “Fine,” he agreed at last, “But come the first sign of light…”
“We’ll head back,” Yukito finished for him, tugging at Touya’s arm to lead him away from the sleeping couple, “We should keep watch from over here,” he explained, “That way if they wake up during the night they won’t spot us and run off again.”
Touya opened his mouth to argue that he had no intention of allowing his sister more than two feet away from his side ever again, thankyouverymuch, but closed it just as quickly and settled down, crossing his arms across his chest and leaning back against a tree. Yukito joined him a few seconds later and together they fought off the encroaching drowsiness brought on by a long day of wandering and kept watch into the night.
Shizuka Doumeki was, in a word, lost. He had come to terms with this some hours earlier, but had not yet worked out how he had become so. He knew where he was (Cephiro Forest), he knew where he ought to be (somewhere else in Cephiro Forest), he knew how he had arrived here (by following the map), but was at an utter loss as to why none of the landmarks – so painstakingly plotted out on his map – seemed to fall where they were supposed to and even more confused at how walking a straight path due north had managed to bring him full circle back to this clearing not once, but three times. He stared at his compass and shoved it deep into his pocket. It wasn’t like it was doing its job, anyway.
He tied his mule to a tree and fumbled through his bags for a loaf of bread before settling down next to the beast. It was dark enough now that there seemed little point in continuing on, especially as the forest was proving more formidable than he had planned. There was nothing for it; he could set out again once dawn had broken. For now, he would have to content himself to sleep on the forest floor and enjoy the little peace the quiet night afforded him. The cool night air was soothing, and soon after he had settled down, the wayward priest drifted off to sleep.
He did not wake to the excited shouts of one who thought they had found a long-lost lover, nor the cries of despair as they realized that the dark-haired man dozing beneath the tree was not their intended. He slept through the wailing, the petulant grumbling, the cackling in anticipation of payback, and – most impressively – the bright lights that subsumed him as fey spells danced about the clearing, thrashing and thwacking and sparkling before enveloping him completely.