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 seeds 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 any idea in heaven or hell what to do with these foolish mortals...
A/N: Sorry this took so long. I was suffering a massive bout of post-Holic angst and was completely unable to write DouWata without banging my head against the wall... I think I've rectified the situation now, though, so please enjoy!
Previous Chapters: 1 2 3 4 5 6
But earthlier happy is the rose distilled
Than that which withering on the virgin thorn
Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness.
~A Midsummer Night's Dream, I; i
Sakura nibbled at her cranberry tart and stared into the whirling lines of milk quickly assimilating into her tea. The palace pastry chefs had truly outdone themselves with this afternoon's tea – a welcome home party, of sorts, for the wayward guests – but nothing she tried (and she had tried quite a lot in the past hour, much to Tomoyo's delight) seemed to satisfy. Even the sweetest of fillings turned to paste in her mouth and no amount of tea seemed to wake her from her daze.
It had been four days since their utterly humiliating return to the palace. Despite the queen's joyous reception upon their return and announcement to the kingdom that her own wedding would now be shared with the Kinomoto siblings, Sakura had spent the intervening three days locked in her room, too flustered and mortified to face the palace attendants with their sideways glances and muffled snickers; it was only this morning that Tomoyo had finally coaxed her out – or rather, assaulted her in her sleep, stuffed her into a frilly abomination which Sakura was repeatedly assured was a "dress," and hauled her out into the palace proper to be paraded around like a showpiece. Their final excursion into Tomoyo's private rooms for tea had only come after an almost complete meltdown upon catching a glimpse of Syaoran across the courtyard.
She supposed she ought to be finding some solace here, tucked back into a far corner of the palace with her closest friends; she ought to have been grateful to Chiharu – one of her oldest and most dear friends – who had made the journey from Tomoeda Province at Tomoyo's request only the day before, after the Queen's announcement. And yet…
"Sakura…" Tomoyo giggled from behind her teacup.
"Hmm?" Sakura looked up from her twiddling thumbs, suddenly aware both girls were staring at her. "I…"
Chiharu frowned. "This isn't like you. Are you sure you don't want to tell us what happened?"
Sakura flushed several shades brighter and contemplated instructing them to go ask one of the gossipy maids if they were so interested. She choked this back, however, and firmly reminded herself that she was amongst friends, and that the version they were likely to hear from the maids would be many times more embarrassing than the truth. She sighed. "Well-"
"Wait!" Tomoyo jumped up from her seat, "We have something for you!" She quickly darted over to a package near the window and, after several moments of rifling through it, returned to the table with a stuffed, golden lion-thing, complete with sparkly wings, which she presented to Sakura.
Sakura's eyes darted between her two friends, growing shifty as she eyed the plushie. "Y-you brought…Kero-chan?" She stared pleadingly at Tomoyo, begging to know why this particular embarrassment had been hauled out of her luggage on top of everything else.
"Of course!" Tomoyo beamed, thrusting the doll at Sakura as if this were the most natural thing in the world, "Everyone knows it's best to have your most trusted comforts in trying situations! So, tea and cake and Kero-chan it is!"
"O-okay," Sakura gripped the doll tightly in her lap and gaped at her friends. Chiharu had propped herself up against the table, her head leaning heavily against her hand and eyes fixed directly on Sakura. Tomoyo was practically sparkling with anticipation.
And so she told them all about her nightmare journey through the forest. About the useless map and the winding pathways, the strange dreams that had been shared between herself and Syaoran and their mysteriously corresponding injuries the following morning. About her sudden and inexplicable lust for her brother's advisor, how she had been willing to defend him from Syaoran's inexcusable and incomprehensible advances, and how their entire group seemed to have lost the exact amount of time in their travels for all of this to actually have taken place.
She left out the bit about their harrowing journey home and the corresponding details of exactly how strong her brother could be during bouts of excessive determination…
"Sakura," Chiharu smiled, "It was just a dream! It sounds like a story Yamazaki would tell – he probably put something silly into your and Syaoran's heads before you came here!"
"Oh, I don't know," Tomoyo chuckled, "It sounds to me like fairies were playing pranks on you."
This produced the intended chuckles from all three girls and, for a moment, Sakura felt at peace. Worries about her past and future fidelities melted away and she was left to bask in the serene warmth that comes of being surrounded by friends who accepted and treasured you, no matter how many fiancés you had beaten to a pulp with pine switches only days before.
"So everything is settled now, though – right?" Chiharu prompted, "Your brother has agreed to let you two marry?"
"Well…" Sakura trailed off.
"That's not entirely settled yet," Tomoyo giggled, "My sister has offered to expand her own wedding celebration to include both Sakura's and her brother's, but we haven't actually been able to get much of a response from Touya…"
"No?" Chiharu raised her eyebrows, "But your message said..."
"Well…" Sakura began again.
"He's been occupied," Tomoyo supplied.
"Occupi- Oh," Chiharu chuckled, "That must have been what the chamber maids were talking about this morning."
There was a loud rip, and Sakura was suddenly aware of a mass of fluff spreading across her palms and weaving its way between her fingers. She looked down in horror – there, by her very hands, had the golden head been separated from Kero-chan's over-stuffed body, the filling now spilling out over the torn seams and tumbling in small wisps to the floor. Sakura wibbled, eyes growing wide, "K-k-kero-chan!"
"Don't worry," Tomoyo soothed, sweeping around the table to collect the tattered remains of Sakura's favorite childhood toy, "He's easily fixable." She quickly carried the doll and its head back toward the package she had used to store them earlier. "Now," she turned back to her guests, "Let's put away this silly fairy talk for the time being, and just enjoy our tea, alright?"
Tomoyo made her way back to join her friends at the table. There was the requisite chatting and laughter, and she was truly happy to see Sakura relaxing a bit. However, for all of her joking about fairies, there was one in particular who had captured her attention in the moment, standing reclined against the wall just beyond the window dressing with his arms crossed haughtily over his chest. Tomoyo had yet to speak privately with Kurogane since his sudden reappearance the day before (and the subsequent disappearance of her old guard, Kazuhiko), but there was something troubling about his countenance. While he had always been gruff, rude, and occasionally downright hostile in his mannerisms, there was a hint of something else lurking in his stare now – something older, sadder…
She would have to make time to discuss it later.
Syaoran flipped another coin into the growing pile at the center of the table and glared with determination at his rival, who only smiled calmly and added his own wager.
"Did you know," his rival said cheerfully, "That this game began as a way to settle border disputes in the northern countries?"
Syaoran shook his head and flipped a card down on the table. Damn it! Not only did it match the card just played, it was his only ace, and if his losing streak continued, he'd be out his only trump card… He cursed himself silently for taking Yamazaki up on his offer of friendly gambling – their games always ended like this! Still, Syaoran supposed he was glad for the company as Sakura had taken to her rooms for days on end, and Yamazaki had traveled quite far to be here (though that was probably more for Chiharu's sake than his own – he didn't harbor any illusions of rating higher than Yamazaki's long-time girlfriend), and so he flipped the next three cards in his hand face down on top of the ace.
"Oh, it's true!" Yamazaki continued, laying his own cards on the table, "It's saved quite a number of lives in the past. Of course, that was before they invented the roulette wheel. Now most border disputes are settled with that. Or with marbles," he looked up at Syaoran, his eyes folded into happy little half-cresents and a gigantic smile plastered across his face, "But you know, this was just supposed to help you win a little extra money for your honeymoon. That's not going to happen if I keep winning all your cards."
Syaoran sighed. He really didn't care to be reminded of his impending, though not-quite-officially-approved marriage at the moment. Not when Sakura hadn't left her rooms in days. Not when he still hadn't been able to make heads nor tails of just what had gone on while they were lost in the woods. And certainly not while he was still having the occasional flash of Yukito's impeccably formed posterior jaunting lustily through his brain…
He shook this off and slapped his final card down. No. He didn't need to be thinking about that right now. Although it was quite…luscious…
"I win!" Yamazaki declared, laying his final card on the table.
Syaoran eyed Yamazaki's card pile; a king, which handily beat the queen he himself had just laid down. Which meant that he was also going to lose his ace and whatever else was in his pile, and it was all just so damned perfect-
"Wow, Syaoran, you look terrible," Yamazaki chided, sweeping Syaoran's cards over to himself, "It's just a game, you know?"
"It's," Syaoran searched for the words and sighed when they wouldn't be found, "It's not that. It's just…"
"Are you nervous?" Yamazaki prompted, "Worried about the wedding?"
"Well," Syaoran mumbled, "Maybe a little. Cold feet, I guess."
"Oh," Yamazaki's voice had suddenly taken on a very knowing tone and he crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, "I see. You know, the phrase 'cold feet' refers to the practice of icing the groom's feet before the wedding so that they would be too numb to run away from the altar. So, it's probably a pretty normal emotion."
Syaoran gulped. "Iced their feet?"
"Oh, yes!" Yamazaki continued, "Instead of holding a bachelor party, it used to be a tradition for the groomsmen to head out into the mountains to collect ice and snow the night before the wedding. Then in the morning, the groom himself would have to stand in buckets filled with the ice while the wedding party shoveled more in at half-past every hour until he could no longer feel his toes."
"But," Syaoran balked, "How did they walk afterward?"
"Well, they had better shoes back then, of course," Yamazaki replied, shuffling his pile of cards, "You have to understand, this was a vast improvement over the even older tradition of dragging the groom down the aisle bound and gagged-"
"Bound and gagged?" Syaoran didn't think this was really applicable to himself. He wanted to marry Sakura, after all. Didn't he?
"Well, you have to do something about the kicking and screaming, don't you?" Yamazaki said thoughtfully, "Speaking of which, did you know that the phrase 'ball and chain' comes from the ancient custom of exchanging eyes instead of rings?"
"It's true!" Yamazaki quickly cut off Syaoran's protests, "Couples used to pluck out their left eyeballs and shellac them! Usually they would link them to gold chains to exchange at the actual wedding ceremony. Really wealthy people got a bit more extravagant, of course, attaching gemstones and occasionally even gold leaf filigree – you used to see some really fine examples on display at the bigger museums, but they took down most of the displays because they were disturbing children."
"The practice itself can be traced back to Lord Kokuyo in the early Dark Ages. It sort of fell out of popularity once the enlightenment came along, though, and people started using their eyes to see…"
Syaoran was (thankfully) spared from any further commentary from Yamazaki by a knock at the door. He called for them to enter, and was greeted by one of the many palace servants, who announced a visitor specifically to see him. Syaoran sat a bit straighter in his seat – had Sakura finally decided to venture out of her rooms?
His disappointment at the appearance of a dark haired man in the doorframe seconds later quickly faded to shock as recognition set in. Syaoran needed a moment to be certain of himself; here was a man he had not seen in years, a man whose absence had been long enough and mysterious enough to have caused all manner of problems for the Li family in general, and Syaoran's engagement in particular. The youthful kindness in the man's eyes had not grown dim, Syaoran was only too happy to note, though he had clearly grown out of adolescence since their last meeting.
Syaoran floundered, trying to parse an appropriate greeting, but in the end was only to wave weakly and mumble, "…Brother?"
Watanuki reclined on one of Yuuko's many overstuffed cushions, one hand clutching uselessly at the air in front of him and the other pinching the bridge of his nose. To his left sat the abominable half-horse, whom today was sporting a stupendously chartreuse coat and reeking of some sort of flower. (Peonies, Watanuki suddenly realized, and made a note to check the room after they were finished here for any lingering ants the beast may have carried in with him.) And to his right… The woman was at least recognizable as a fairy, even if her stern expression seemed vastly out of place on such a being. The man (Watanuki assumed it was a man, at any rate, despite learning on several occasions just how dangerous such an assumption could be), while clearly not a fairy, was completely unfamiliar to Watanuki. The large, furred ears lent him a curiously shady air and Watanuki was almost positive that he in no way wanted to know what the creature was doing with its tail…
He scowled, "Would someone please explain to me what we're all doing here?"
The fairy was the first to respond, tucking back her long black hair and getting to her feet. "Her Highness requested that we counsel the two of you on-"
"Counsel us?" Watanuki sputtered, "What in the world do we need counseling on?"
"Your relationship, of course!" the…man exclaimed, jumping to the fairy's side. She batted away his tail, which had less-than-surreptitiously curled its way around her waist, as he continued, eyes sparkling and arm sweeping out in a dramatic gesture, "My honey and I are the Fairy Kingdom's foremost inter-species relationship counselors!"
Watanuki balked, "Relationship? Oh no, no, no… This has gone far enough!" He leapt to his feet and stomped toward the door. "I'm done!" He jerked the handle. Locked. Again. How many times was she going to do this to him? He'd been such a loyal servant and yet she kept locking him away with this stoned-faced monster. It wasn't fair! It was a crime against-
"If you're, finished," the tailed-man interrupted, gesturing back toward Watanuki's abandoned cushion, "We can begin."
Watanuki scowled back at him and stormed back to his seat, crossing his arms and flopping down with a huff.
The fairy stepped forward, laying a hand on the man's shoulder to quiet whatever retort might have been forming on his lips. "As my husband said, we're here to counsel you through some of your relationship difficulties. I'm Arashi, and this is Sorata-"
"But you can call me Sora-chan!"
"Yes," Arashi continued through clenched teeth, "We're specialists in assisting couples with different specific and occasionally generic backgrounds-"
"What is he?" Doumeki piped up.
"Don't be rude!" Watanuki spat, "Why are you talking now, when she's in the middle of introducing them at all times!"
Doumeki shrugged, "I wanted to know."
"You wanted to know! So you just blurt it out while she's speaking? You really have no sense of where you are, do you?"
Arashi eyes widened as Watanuki continued to shriek. "Look," she said calmly, holding up her hands, "It's a very common question. I'm sure-"
"What?" Sorata looked crestfallen, "You mean you can't tell?"
Doumeki shook his head. Watanuki looked quickly between Arashi and Doumeki before conceding that he also had no idea.
Sorata frowned, then quickly bent to pull off a shoe. "Look!" he exclaimed, wiggling a large, grasping first toe at the stunned group, "Can you tell now?"
"Honey…" Arashi trailed off, hiding her face behind her hand and shaking her head. Her attention snapped back to the bickering not-couple. "He's one of the cercopes," she said sternly, "We'll be happy to answer any of your questions if you would kindly wai-"
"What's a cercopes?" Watanuki wondered aloud, then slapped a hand across his mouth.
Sorata beamed. "Why, only the cutest and most fun spirit to ever populate this forest! We're famous for our pranks – stealing travelers' supplies, reversing polarity on compasses, taking candy from small children, making strange noises in the night, despoiling virgins and scandalizing housewives – hey, what's wrong, honey?" Arashi only shifted her hand to massage her temples and stared at the floor. The careful observer might have noticed a steep increase in the rate and volume of her breathing (and, in fact, Doumeki did notice just such a thing), but Sorata was neither careful nor prone to observance, and so was left confused. "Anyway," he continued with a flick of his ears, "We took on Heracles, once. Perhaps you've heard that story?"
Watanuki and Doumeki shook their heads. Arashi muttered something that sounded suspiciously like "Escaped by laughing themselves sick at the sight of his bare ass and making a mess of the poor bastard's sandals…" and gripped her husband's arm.
"Oh, come on!" Sorata wailed, "It's famous! It's-"
"I'm sorry," Watanuki interrupted quickly, now quite disturbed by the way Arashi's chest heaved with each breath and her fingers folded into fists, "It's just that it's kind of an obscure reference and-"
"I am not obscure!" Sorata looked completely scandalized by this accusation, "I have an entire family and several genera of monkeys named after me! Look at my tail! Look at my toe! Look at me – aah AHH AHH-"
The simian howling was silenced abruptly by a well-placed fist to Sorata's head. Watanuki and Doumeki stared in mute awe at Arashi, poised like a warrior goddess over her vanquished quarry.
"Now," she began again, carefully stepping over Sorata's unconscious, crumpled form, "Let's start from the beginning…"
Kurogane fluttered down from his perch outside Princess Tomoyo's window just as the evening bells were announcing six o'clock. It had been a long day and he found himself more irritable than usual as he tucked away the brassier parts of his work uniform for the evening. He had expected that returning to work would be a relief, a return to normalcy that would mark a final end to his years of exile. Instead, he found himself…bored by the same work he had once cherished. Make no mistake, he was glad to be back, and damn neargleeful that he managed to reclaim his old post as Princess Tomoyo's personal guard (he had yet to thank Bols for that, though he was wary of asking him what the inspiration for reassigning him to the position Bol's dear Kazuhiko had held for the past six years was, exactly). Still, his day seemed…emptier than it had in the past, despite a full schedule.
It didn't help matters that the sound of his name – his full, proper name – sounded foreign and grated against his ear drums after so long without hearing it spoken. It was embarrassing, the way the hair at the back of his neck stood on end at its utterance and unbearably annoying that it bothered him so fiercely after years spent demanding (begging, pleading) that fool pronounce it properly…
Or, that bastard, as Kurogane had recently re-dubbed him. That bastard who had apparently disappeared without so much as a trace to track him down – even if only to thank him and go on his merry way. Or at least give him a proper beating…
He scowled and pinched his temples, dragging the pads of his thumb and forefinger across his eyes. "Fuuma," he nodded at the other fairy.
"You look like hell," Fuuma teased with a grin and lifted and eyebrow, "She didn't try to dress you up again, did she?"
"What?" Kurogane's eyebrows made a mad dash for his hairline before realization settled in, "Oh, Tomoyo. No, she's got other…humans up there to play with." Thank God, he added silently.
"You're losing your touch," Fuuma chuckled, "Still, it's too bad. You did look nice in the lavender ruffles."
"Tche," Kurogane scoffed, "Troublesome bastard. Didn't I warn you that if you ever mentioned that again-"
"Easy now," Fuuma spread his hands in front of him and took a careful step backward, "And here we thought you'd be less of a crankass once you got settled back in. Guess there's no cure for it…"
"Do you have a point?" Kurogane snapped, suddenly very tired of this little charade. He had shit to do. Probably. Somewhere. Far, far from here-
Fuuma only laughed and pushed his red-tinted glasses farther up his nose. "I just thought I'd remind you that we have a standing appointment down the pub, since you failed to show last night. Will we see you tonight?"
"Oh come on, now. Since when do you turn down a drink?" Fuuma's eyes practically sparkled, "Besides, we're celebrating Kazuhiko's elopement. You don't want to miss out on thatnow, do you?"
Kurogane bristled. "Elopement?" he spat, "What the hell are you talking about? I just talked to Bols this morning-"
"Ahaha," Fuuma laughed, "You're so far out of the loop. I suppose that's what happens when you disappear for so long…" Fuuma straightened and rolled his eyes at Kurogane's angry glare, "Took up with a little slip of a wood sprite a while back – Su something – at any rate, they took off about…oh, three days ago now?" Fuuma scratched his chin, "Anyway, guy bought her a pair of metal wings as an engagement gift – can you believe it? Seems he forgot to mention the whole affair to Bols, though. Probably smart, considering their, uh, relationship."
Kurogane shuddered and stepped past Fuuma, fluttering a few inches up into the air as he moved.
"But, hey, it got you your job back," Fumma continued, spreading his long, surprisingly sparkly, white wings to float easily back in front of Kurogane and paying no attention whatsoever to the brush-off, "And it's put Bols into a right foul mood. So that's two things to celebrate right there." He raised his eyebrows meaningfully and fluttered a few feet higher to stare down at the unwitting recipient of his invitation, "So you'll be there."
"Tche," Kurogane scoffed and flapped his wings forcefully to put some distance between himself and his bothersome assailant, "I'll think about it." He glanced back over his shoulder after a few moments had passed without further comment to find Fuuma floating where he had left him, arms crossed and a smirk plastered across his face. Shady bastard.Probably just looking for someone to pay his tab after he'd taunted the wait staff and gotten tossed out of the pub…again.
Still, while Schadenfreude was, strictly speaking, not a pastime Kurogane frequently found himself indulging, there was something incredibly satisfying about Bols suddenly finding himself cuckolded and swapped for an (assumedly, it was difficult to tell with forest spirits at times) younger woman. He wasn't really one to rejoice in others' pain, but, well…it wasBols. And that might deserve a drink. Or two.
He changed course abruptly, and headed deeper into the forest toward a drinking establishment whose doorway he had not darkened in many, many years.
"Now," Sorata pointed toward his captive audience with authority that was only partially belied by the massive swelling on his head (which he was currently nursing tenderly with an ice pack), "The key to any interspecies relationship is acknowledging and celebrating your differences! You've got a tail; use it to swing from the ceiling! Use those ears as love-handles! And if you're hung like a horse-"
"What my husband means to say," Arashi cut him off with a stern glance, "Is that it's important for you both to accept your physical and emotional differences. You'll need to work within them for your relationship to flourish. So, just as an exercise to work us into the topic, why don't the both of you start off by naming a positive trait and a trait that you feel inhibits your relationship." She glanced quickly between the young men and made special note of Watanuki's grimace, "Doumeki, why don't you start?"
"You see?" Watanuki raked his fingers down his face, "This is what I have to put up with!" He buried his face in his palms and leaned forward to balance his knees on his elbow. This was the last straw; he could practically feel the steam rising from his skull. He would throw himself upon Yuuko's mercy later this evening, beg, plead, bargain – whatever it took to convince her to send this interloper packing. Maybe if he-
"You know," Sorata's voice suddenly broke through his stream of consciousness, "If you want to pull off tsundere, you're really going to have to start working in a few flashes of kindness here and there."
Watanuki lifted his head. "What the hell are you talking about?" he demanded, "I don't need flashes of anything." This guy was nearly as aggravating as the damned centaur.
"No, he's right," Arashi quickly agreed, "Look, we can go through all of these relationship building steps, but really, it's you," she looked directly at Watanuki, "You're far too focused on the hard-to-catch aspect of all of this. I'm afraid your relationship is doomed if you don't relax, just a bit."
"Good!" Watanuki spat, leaning back into his cushion and draping an arm over his eyes, "I don't know what Yuuko paid you two, but I'll do my best to double it if you just let me be…"
"I don't believe you," Arashi said sternly.
"Well," Watanuki sat back up quickly, "I might not have it now, but I'll work it off! Anything you want-"
"Not that," Arashi continued, "I don't believe you're completely uninterested in making this work."
Watanuki bristled; hairs that he hadn't been aware were growing at the back of his neck suddenly wrenched themselves to attention. "You're as insane as the rest of them," he murmured in despair. Why did the entire world insist upon conspiring against him?
"Not at all," she assured him with a secretive grin, "But, as they say, we can smell our own."
"What is that supposed to-"
"Oh, my honey was quite a handful back in the day!" Sorata chirped, eyes closed and fluttering longingly, "She was the most fearsome opponent I ever had! And to think, all I did was steal her black lacy-" He ducked and folded his ears down this time as Arashi's fist once again sailed perilously close to his head. "But enough about us! I say it's time to move on to something more fun," he paused to hold up a hand at Arashi's complaints, "As my honey was saying, interspecies differences are key! You," he pointed at Watanuki, who flinched slightly, "Ever ridden bareback?"
Watanuki felt his jaw drop to the floor, but was too busy trying to remember that he even had a jaw to do anything about it. He glanced quickly back and forth between Arashi, who was too occupied with gaping at her husband in mute horror to notice, and Doumeki, who had paused midway through devouring a piece of cake to stare, confused, but apparently lacked the decency to even manage polite surprise at this turn of phrase.
"What?" Sorata continued, despite the confused and horrified stares he was receiving, "It's great exercise! It really works the thigh muscles. And! They say that if you curl your toes and set your hips just right-"
"Sorata!" Arashi and Watanuki screamed in unison.
Doumeki swallowed his cake audibly. "No, go on," he insisted, "I want to hear this."
Sorata grinned to himself. His wife may have been the more sensible of the pair, but he'd had far more experience in capturing and keeping the attention of a multitude of creatures. Not that he was especially confident they could do anything for this particular bickering duo, but he would ensure they received a lesson in interspecies courtship they would never forget.
He only hoped Arashi would forgive him once they returned home.
Kurogane pushed through the pub's entrance with a small amount of trepidation. He hadn't set foot in this particular bar for nearly six years and wasn't particularly looking forward to the return welcome the long memories of fairies practically guaranteed. He would have been perfectly happen to slink back into his old corner seat behind the chess board, where he had spent many restful nights in quiet solitude before the idiot had waltzed in to find shelter from a storm one night and taken the seat across from him. He hadn't had a moment of quiet since…
He snarled and tramped down the laughing voices in his head that insisted that that wasn't entirely true, was it? The last four days has been remarkably quiet. Fantastically quiet. Completely, utterly, and in all other ways maddeningly quiet. He had gone so far as to wind the cuckoo clock that had hung silently from his wall since he had inherited it so many years ago, just for the steady stream of ticks and tocks it provided. He'd ripped the eponymous bird from its perch after the first day.
The pub was ringing with the sounds of happy hour – raucous voices, rolling laughter, glasses clinking with the occasional toast – but otherwise remarkably unchanged. Tangled vines still adorned the walls around the mismatched, raw-wood furnishings, and the blond and green-haired dryad bartenders were achingly familiar. Kurogane waded his way through the patrons, keeping an eye out for his obligatory companions. He found Fuuma seated at the far corner of the room with a larger fairy dressed in their familiar uniform – Kusanagi, if the strangely patterned green and brown wings set atop a massive back didn't deceive him – propping up the bar. Fuuma caught his eye and waived him over excitedly.
"Just you two?" Kurogane grunted as he pulled up a stool next to the pair and tucked his wings back so the rustling crowd would not crush them, "Thought this was a party."
Kusanagi raised an eyebrow at him, then glanced back at Fuuma, who was presently occupied with an attempt to smirk around the rim of his mug and failing quite badly. He frowned, "If this is a party, I haven't been invited…"
Kurogane rolled his eyes and waved to the bartender, whose eyes lit up as she made her way down the counter. He should have expected this much. "So what the hell are we all doing here?" he demanded.
"Drinking!" Fuuma raised a glass toward him. Kurogane sneered, but sighed resignedly as the blond dryad frinally made her way to him.
"Kurogane!" the bartender smiled happily, "It's been so long! Has Umi been taking care of you?"
"Fuu," he nodded, "Yeah, it's been- Wait, why do you know Umi?" His memory drifted back to the blue-haired dryad who had tended the bar below his previous hovel and her gossipy teasing. He shuddered; that was just perfect – even in exile he couldn't escape the scandalous nonsense most fairies seemed to revel in propagating.
Fuu chuckled and handed him a draft. "Why wouldn't I know Umi?" she teased, "She was quite fond of you and Fay, you know. Though she did say she doesn't miss all the noise wafting down through the floor boards at night…"
Kurogane watched out of the corner of his eye as Kusanagi gruffly pulled a pile of coins from his pocket and chucked them irritably at Fuuma. He felt his upper lip pull back into a snarl. "What noise?" he hissed through clenched teeth.
Fuu laughed, "All the screaming and shouting, of course!" she turned to Fuuma and Kusanagi and snickered, "Apparently no one throws a knock-down, drag-out argument like these two." She turned back to Kurogane, concerned, "Where is Fay? He didn't want to come out to see us tonight?"
Kurogane shrugged and fought down a grimace. "Why should I know where that idiot is?" he growled, "He's not my problem anymore."
"Oh," Fuu looked surprised and backed away quickly, "You're right, that was completely out of line. I'm so sorry."
"No, don't-" Kurogane began, but quickly silenced himself as she hurried back toward the other end of the bar. Wonderful. Well, at least he was working himself back into a symbol of fear and respect (loathing" was probably more accurate at the moment, but respect would come later) instead of someone to be constantly mocked and taunted. That was a silver lining, at least. He looked back to Fuuma and Kusanagi, who were now apparently quarreling over something locked in Fuuma's grip. Kusanagi wrenched suddenly to the right, twisting Fuuma's arm just so…and loosed a fistful of coins which scattered noisily across the bar and were quickly plucked up by other patrons.
Kusanagi scowled back at Fuuma, muttering curses for cheats and thieves under his breath before taking a sudden swing at the other's head. Fuuma dodged the blow easily, laughing all the while, but found himself dragged into a merciless headlock only a moment later. He threw his hands up as best he could around Kusanagi's massive arms. "Alright, alright!" he grumbled, "I'll get the next round. Now get off of me, you big oaf."
Kusanagi settled back against the bar with a smirk as Fuuma straightened his collar and climbed back onto his stool, just in time to flash a dazzling smile at pair of passing fairies. The smaller of the pair, a fairy with wild black hair and spiky black wings, snarled back and gripped the arm of his companion more tightly. Fuuma blew a kiss.
"That's got to sting," Kusanagi mumbled.
"You're not still doing this, are you?" Kurogane groaned and drained his glass. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised; Fuuma's…antagonistic relationship with his underling, Kamui, predated Kurogane's employment in the guard. It was only recently, though, that the antagonism had started to border on sexual assault. Kurogane had been present to witness plenty of that, and he had no real desire to relive any of his carefully repressed memories on this night.
Fuuma looked insulted. "Of course I am!" he exclaimed, "I can think of nothing more fun."
Kusanagi frowned, "Isn't that Subaru he's with?"
Fuuma stretched to get a better glimpse of the pair across the room. "Probably," he shrugged, "They have seemed awfully fond of each other of late."
"Lovely," Kusanagi banged his glass against the counter. "And now we can wait for Seishiro to show up here and beat the hell out of the kid. Only relationship in the forest more messed up than yours," he grumbled.
"I wouldn't worry about that for right now. Seishiro is down for the count, last I heard. Some sort eye injury," he waved this away, "Who knows? Anyway, I'm not the one who's suddenly taken an interest in pedophilia."
"You bastard," Kusanagi hissed.
"What?" Kurogane was genuinely confused. In the long years that he had known Kusanagi, he had never known the man to take an active interest in anyone, much less a much younger someone…
"Oh yes," Fuuma's eyes sparkled, "His little wolf-girl. She still quite a pup-" he exhaled most of the last word as Kusanagi's fist collided with his abdomen.
Kurogane shifted in his seat and rolled his eyes. He certainly hadn't come out here to gossip like a gaggle of frivolous fairies about their romantic exploits and, in all honesty, the topic was grating on him more than it ought to have been. He wasn't sure why – most likely residual irritation at being baited and lied to come here in the first place – but listening to these two bicker about their lovers was making his skin crawl. Surely there was something better to discuss – troll hunting, banshee extermination, anything.
Goddamn it. He spun on his stool to face this newest addition to their group. "Rikuou," he nodded curtly. Perfect. If the punk was here, the flaily rodent-boy wouldn't be far behind – ah, and there he was now, looking especially…
Kurogane gaped at the new osteological appendage curling its way out of Kazahaya's lopsided hair. He squinted, craned his neck, but nothing seemed to make any more damned sense of it. Kazahaya caught his eye and huffed indignantly before stomping off to claim a stool of his own.
"What's his problem?" Kurogane grumbled over his shoulder as Rikuou settled in next to him.
"He's horny," Rikuou replied with a shrug.
"Tche," Kurogane gripped his glass more tightly and stared straight ahead, behind the bar. What exactly, he wondered, had he missed so goddamned much about this life, anyway?Nothing here was all that much better than in the seedier parts of the forest; the beer was still warm, the company irksome, and every last one of them seemed more than content to float around in a sparkly sea of lovesick stupor. Even now he could see Fuuma traipsing across the room with his eyes set on Kamui and his tongue clenched menacingly between his teeth. It was all terrifically disgusting.
"It's hard, you know," Kazahaya whined from behind him. Kurogane started and cursed beneath his breath; he hadn't been paying attention to hear the other fairy approaching. "Teaching transfiguration," Kazahaya continued as he slithered in between Kurogane and Rikuou to lean against the bar. His eyes glowed with anger beneath the unruly horn sprouting from his head.
"You're teaching now?" Kurogane scoffed. The last he had heard, Kazahaya had still been struggling to pass his exams, which hadn't terribly surprised Kurogane at the time.
"It was a special favor to Her Majesty," Rikuou answered before Kazahaya was able to blurt an appropriately indignant response, "We felt we owed her."
"We owed her?" Kazahaya sputtered, "Who is this we? I don't see you sitting here with a horn sticking out of your head!"
"Just get rid of it!" Kurogane growled, "You're a magician – it's your damned job!"
"Hah!" Kazahaya chuckled bitterly, "Well, that should be no problem in theory, except that Her Highness assigned me a student with more powerful magic than my own, so no, I can't just get rid of it."
"You should have seen him before we changed most of him back," Rikuou huffed, "It was a mess. It's a good thing the student is somewhat of a quick study…"
"Not quick enough," Kazahaya grumbled.
"Well perhaps if you put less pissing and moaning into your spells and more actual effort-"
Kurogane abandoned his glass on the bar and slid away from his stool. That was about all he could stomach for tonight. He didn't need to sit here and listen to idiots bicker back and forth – he could get that any time he wanted at home-
Well, home would be quiet, anyway, and that was still better than being here. He stomped toward the door without even a final wave over his shoulder.
Fuuma could pick up his tab.