Warnings: Gratuitous hoofshots and innuendo galore
Summary: Midsummer Night's Dream AU
A/N: So many thanks to Bottan for writing the raunchy poetry for this chapter. I would have been stuck for so much longer without her... YOU ARE AMAZING MY DEAR!
I swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burn'd the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
By all the vows that ever men have broke,
In number more than ever women spoke,
In that same place thou hast appointed me,
To-morrow truly will I meet with thee.
~ A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I; scene i
The sun was already high in the sky when Kurogane arrived at Queen Yuuko's palace. He was exhausted, having spent the previous night combing through every single café, pub, and burlesque house Fay had been known to frequent in the old days. He had even traipsed all the way back to the hovel they had shared in exile, but had found the rooms empty and no trace of Fay anywhere.
He swallowed thickly and eyed the twisted vine gates. This was truly a last resort – he wasn't even certain the queen would grant him an audience after everything that had transpired – but he was certain that Fay must have returned the meat-bun-rabbit-thing to Her Highness, and as such, that left her as his last known contact. It was a long shot, and likely to leave him emotionally scarred for the foreseeable future, but the threat of more sleepless night loomed over his head if he didn't at least try.
"Good afternoon and welcome to Queen Yuuko's Palace," an imperious voice barked from overhead, "If you would please state your name and rank after the tone, we would be more than happy to assist you with direction during your visit." As he finished speaking, an obnoxious GONG sounded.
Kurogane squinted and shaded his eyes as he looked up toward the voice. An altogether too serious looking fairy (for the amount of drivel he had just spewed, at any rate) with monstrous blue and white armored beetle wings hovered just above his head, staring down with a sneer completely inappropriate for someone carrying such an obnoxiously large bell (with apparent difficulty, Kurogane smirked). "Captain Kurogane, special task force number 87," he answered with a matching curl of his lip.
The fairy didn't bother to hide his amusement, "One of the humans' guards, huh? And what's your business here? Do you have a summons?"
"No," Kurogane ground out, irritation building at the bug-boy's attitude, "I am looking for an audience with Her Majesty and-"
GONG "And you thought you would just waltz in here to ask?" the fairy raised an eyebrow and folded his free arm across his chest (the other still flailing wildly with the ongoing vibration of the gong), "She is a bit busy, you know. You'll need to get something in writing before-"
Kurogane turned his head just in time to see a red blur heading straight for him and dropped to the ground to avoid a collision. He struggled to his feet a few seconds later, puzzled as to why there had been no loud crash following the barreling bit of…what the hell had that been, exactly? He squinted up into the sky-
And rolled to the side to avoid the gong dropping down on him at an alarming rate. The metal disc bounced once with a fantastic CLANG and embedded itself into the bark of a nearby oak tree. Kurogane rubbed his head and stared at the impact, wondering with no small amount of distain just why the guard would allow someone to carry it who wasn't even able to protect it… Wasn't even able to protect himself, from the look of things; he could barely make out the guard's thrashing movements from behind the onslaught of arms and legs and…strangely coordinated red beetle-wings. Another guard? But then why were they…wrestling – in midair, nonetheless – like that?
"Takeshi!" the red-winged guard admonished (and now Kurogane could see the intricately tied lunch box he carried with him), "You haven't been eating properly! And you're all the more cranky for it – did that poor fairy really deserve such gratuitous crabassery from you? I think not! Now, open wide; you need to eat your vegetables! Say ahhh~"
Kurogane eyed the entrance to the palace as the squabbling and kicking and – from the sounds of it – biting continued. There didn't seem to be any other guards on this side of the door. There were doubtless more inside, but he might be able to convince them that since he'd been able to get past the doorman, he clearly had official business to attend to. He glanced back up at the guards-
"Eat the carrot!" the red one was pleading, "If you don't you will go blind. Where will we be then, Takeshi? My dear husband blinded by his hatred for beta carotene!"
"I don't hate carrots! And I'm not your husband! And this is the same argument you tried when you insisted that I would go blind if I kept-"
"And you would have! Besides which, it's so much healthier for you for me to take care of things like that! They say your palms can go hairy as well…"
And that was about enough of that. Kurogane darted through the front gate without wasting another second listening to the newly developing argument over whether it was even possible to tease someone with a carrot. The inside gates were, as he had assumed, were manned by a second battalion of guards, though only their apparent commander deigned to address him. "Papers?" she snipped, lifting an eyebrow.
Kurogane held his hands up, but puffed out his chest at the same time, so as not to appear too submissive. "Captain Kurogane, special task force number 87," he repeated, "I have an appointment-"
"Papers," she said again, eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"They're doing it again, aren't they?" she spat, and stormed to an alcove to retrieve an oversized and decidedly evil-looking mallet.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied; if she wasn't going to give specifics, then he was all too happy to play along.
"Stay here," she huffed, storming for the gate. "And YOU!" she shouted back at the armor-winged guards lining the corridor, "Make sure he doesn't go anywhere." She stomped out toward the gate, then spun on her heel to address them once more, "And if anyone sees any of the Her Majesty's pets without a leash, you have my permission to kill them on sight!"
The guards saluted their assent and clicked their heels together as she stomped from their sight once again. Kurogane scowled, cursing his luck. He had a name! He had a rank! Why the hell should it be this difficult for an officer to get inside the palace he protected? (Well, okay, maybe he didn't protect this palace specifically, but what was the difference?) He sized up the guards, wondering how many he might be able to subdue, given the right amount of time. The corridor was fairly short, limiting their numbers, and Lord knew he already had the right motivation…
He was in the middle of (silently) debating how best to take down a particularly large, overly-muscled guard when a loud clatter from the end of the corridor caught his attention. It apparently caught the attention of the guards as well – or at least the poorly disciplined amongst them – as the two closest to the racket tsked and awed and stepped away from their posts to investigate. Or perhaps they weren't investigating, per se; from what he could gather from around their massive beetle-wings, they appeared to be helping clean a spilled mess. A servant then, he surmised, albeit an incredibly clumsy one as there didn't appear to be much to trip over. He could make her out a bit more clearly as the guards parted – at least, he thought it was a her; their blond hair was long and their frame slender…and the curve of the jaw…
"Fay?" he nearly exploded before his brain caught up.
He kicked himself a moment later as the servant stood back up, revealing decidedly feminine curves, and cocked her head at him. "Chii?"
"Oh dear, Chii, were you trying to carry all of that yourself?" the unmistakable voice of the Queen sounded from behind him (and practically made Kurogane jump out of his wings), "You poor thing. It's so hard without Watanuki around now, isn't it?"
"Chii was preparing Her Majesty's after-survey drink," the blonde serving girl replied earnestly and smoothed her apron across her torso.
She made a soft-clicking sound with her tongue as she glided past Kurogane, throwing him a long look as she did, "I was wondering when you might show up," she said, eyes sparkling with mischief, "You might have tried making an appointment," she paused, glancing back over her shoulder with an amused smirk, "You'll have to excuse my guards, there was an incident with Mokona awhile back and they haven't been the same since…"
Kurogane gaped. She'd been expecting him? What in the…?
"Well, let's not lurk in the entrance all day, shall we? And please stop gaping at my poor serving girl like some sort of obscene garden fountain," she beckoned him sharply forward, "Why don't you join me for my afternoon drink? We can discuss things then. Chii, please prepare a second seat – and have the Mokonas help you this time." She motioned to the guards as she strode past, "And you – we're going to need someone else on front duty. Erii has knocked them both into concussion again."
Syaoran buried his face as deeply into his palms as it would go, and then tried and failed for several more inches. He loved his brother. He did. He really, truly did. That didn't keep him from wishing for his death (well, okay, they'd already been through that – perhaps brutal disfigurement was a better trade, here) at this moment.
Also, he was quite certain that talk like this had no place around a luncheon table, much less one set with such fine china in the middle of a royal banquet hall. He was incredibly thankful that no one else had arrived, yet.
"No, no," Eriol was insisting, "That doesn't quite rhyme. It's hard to rhyme a word like 'vagina'… And it's a bit too coarse – it'll completely throw him off his rhythm. How about:
In times when any other knight
Would wander the lands in search of a fight,
Slaying fierce dragons,
And racing on wagons,
Impressing the ladies with brawn and with might,
Dearest Syaoran landed his greatest success
In convincing the young lord's advisor t' undress.
"Perfect!" Yamazaki exclaimed, slamming his fists into the table and practically jumping out of his seat, "It needs a second verse though – something about slaying the fair maidens with his angry dragon."
"Slaying an angry dragon?" Eriol tapped at his chin, "I'll have to change some of that first verse, then…"
"No, no," Yamazaki waved this away, "Slaying them with his angry dragon."
"Oh," Eriol grinned, "Yes, that is pretty good. This is going to be a classic. Don't you think so, little brother?"
Syaoran groaned and desperately hoped that his soon-to-be brother-in-law wasn't anywhere within earshot. "You two are going to get me killed."
"Oh, no!" Yamazaki blurted, "This is a time honored tradition – a rite of manhood! Did you know that in Yama country they string the bridegroom up by his toes the night before the ceremony and refuse to let him down until his face has swelled to twice its normal size?"
Syaoran balked, "…Why?"
"Well," Yamazaki continued as Eriol nodded profusely in approval, "They have to make sure he's got enough blood to work the old wedding tackle, if you follow my meaning."
Syaoran didn't, in fact, follow his meaning, but he had a distinct feeling that he didn't want to, either. "What does that have to do with, well…anything?"
"It means that you ought to be thankful that your dear brother is so schooled in ancient Clow traditions," Eriol answered for him, "Or we might have to resort to Lord Touya's advice for your bachelor party."
"And what was that?" Syaoran gulped, half afraid of the torture the lord had suggested for him and half impressed that Eriol had managed to encounter the lord fully clothed and breathing normally enough to form coherent speech.
"Oh, I'm sure you're happier not knowing," Eriol grinned and folded his hands over his place setting, "Now, how about:
Once Syaoran had – upon hearing some tale –
The brightest idea of a desperate male
To reach out his dragon to the streaming whirls
In hopes of encountering some mermaiden girls.
What he caught with his love stick, instead, was a trout
(Which made him cry "ARGH" and shout rather loud)
And withdrew with his dragon, sadder and thinner,
Sans beautiful girls but at least with some dinner.
Yamazaki clapped politely and dinged the flat of his knife against his water glass for an encore. Syaoran buried his head in his hands. How was this "praising his virility?" So far he'd been paired off with a fish and Yukito– hardly a remarkable list of conquests (though, of the two, he would definitely have preferred Yukito with his bobbling, bouncing, bountiful buttock- goddamn it, not this again!). He very much doubted that the women of loose morals down the (non-existant) docks would be impressed – unless they had a certain fondness for trout, which was a remarkably disturbing thought and he let it die quietly in a dark corner of his mind.
"Didn't you like it, Brother?" Eriol inquired sweetly, then sighed into his hands, "No, of course you didn't. You never were very fond of upholding our kingdom's traditions."
Syaoran moved his lips to complain, but was cut off before any sound managed to eek through them.
"I suppose we ought to switch gears then," Eriol declared and reached surreptitiously across the table to refill Yamazaki's wine glass, "Have you given any more thought to your wedding night maneuver?"
Syaoran shook his head and stared at the tablecloth. It really did have the nicest embroidery work he'd ever seen; he wondered if Princess Tomoyo had made it herself, or if there were others in this kingdom as talented as she…
"He's hasn't picked a wedding night maneuver?" Yamazaki sounded completely scandalized by this revelation, "But how are you planning to…you know!"
Syaoran did know, and he had no desire to talk about it with either of these two. This was all teetering once again into the realm of "inappropriate dinner conversation" (if they had ever indeed left it…), even if Yamazaki was refraining from outright vulgarity at the moment-
"Dip your stinger in the honey," Eriol helpfully supplied, and hid his grin behind the rim of his glass, "It's not like you can just go dashing in there unprepared." He paused, smiling devilishly at his brother, "Or have you already plundered that hive?"
"I didn't think so," Eriol sighed, "You really are such a good boy, Syaoran. I don't see why that Lord Touya gives you so much grief – you think he'd be happy to have a brother-in-law who hasn't the slightest clue of how to navigate his sister's happy valley…" He tapped his fingers thoughtfully against the tabletop, "No, a maneuver is what you need – its faithful execution is the only thing standing between yourself and years of unfulfilling squat jumps in the cucumber patch."
"Squat in the…what?"
"Yes," Yamazaki agreed, "You don't want to leave her with only a frothy cucumber fountain – you want to try for something mechanically simple but gracefully choreographed…have you considered the reverse pickled turnip?"
"Oh!" Eriol clapped his hands together, "That is a good one, but he might need to work up to it. To start with, why not give her a salty mustard swipe? Or start with a simple congress of the carrot?"
"Hmm…the congress of the carrot is so boring," Yamazaki sighed, "Did you know the Queen of Piffle had her husband beheaded after 16,000 nights of only carrot congressionals?"
"Well, I have to think there were other issues there as well," Eriol countered, "Though the tale is legend. After all, if you perform the congress correctly, it is anything but boring."
Syaoran gulped, "Correctly?"
"With curry!" Eriol beamed.
"Don't be ridiculous," Yamazaki chuckled, "Everyone knows the congress of the curried carrot has been outlawed for centuries in these parts. I hear the queen has constructed a miniature guillotine for just such transgressions…"
"Oh yes! Of course, the locals have come up with their own ways around this. Did you know, I was stopped no less than three times on our journey to the capital by iron underpants peddlers?"
That voice was decidedly female, and Syaoran cranked his head around to find a very unhappy looking trio of ladies standing over the opposite end of the table. Or rather, one very unhappy looking Chiharu (who was in the process of wrapping her fingers tightly around Yamazaki's neck in preparation for a good throttling), one completely terrified Sakura, and one giggling Princess Tomoyo.
Eriol, ever the gentleman, rose to greet them. "Princess, lovely ladies of Tomoeda," he bowed to each in turn, "Thank you ever so much for joining us undeserving menfolk for dinner this evening. You must excuse our coarse language earlier – it is the nature of men to speak somewhat loosely in one another's company. It shan't be repeated."
Tomoyo chuckled at this but thanked him. "I think you'll find us quite able to handle your teasing, Master Eriol," she laughed at she seated herself at the head of the table.
Syaoran wasn't so sure this applied to Chiharu, who was now expertly waggling Yamazaki's head about his shoulders and shouting about his lies. Syaoran blinked. Those had been lies? He stood to assist Sakura to her seat next to him – her expression didn't seem to imply that she could handle the teasing either…
She gripped his hand as he reclaimed his seat and his chest filled with warm – it was the first time she'd touched him since their return to the palace. He smiled back at her, though he was certain the red remnants of flusteration were still plainly evident on his face.
"They're…jokes?" she whispered.
He nodded reassuringly back, though he was still unsure of that himself. He didn't really want to ask…
Luckily, they were interrupted by the arrival of servants carting lunch and one very overstuffed butler to announce the afternoon's menu. "The first course is a hearty serving of mustard greens, dressed with the finest sweet and salty pickled turnips. Following shall be a light vegetable bisque, flavored with curry and carrot, and for the main course, we have prepared our specialty derrière de macaque in honor of the young Master Li. Dessert shall be a choice of honeyed apples, honeyed dates, and crystallized honeycomb, freshly plundered from the palace hives."
Syaoran stared at his plate as the butler bowed and turned to exit the dining hall. His appetite was suddenly nowhere to be found.
The landscape was galloping by far too quickly for Watanuki's liking. He was glad that they had moved on out of the forest proper and into a field where most of the wobbling scenery that tended to make him ill was below eyelevel. Truth be told, he'd never really been fond of riding, even where there had been saddles and actual horses involved – now that there was neither, he was finding the activity less pleasant than ever. The fact that he was riding on a pink centaur (the royal potions master had been feeling exceptionally kind that morning) certainly wasn't making it any more bearable. There wasn't a good place to…grip while he rode; despite all of Watanuki's insistence, Doumeki had steadfastly refused to be bridled and wrapping his arms around the centaur's waist was completely out of the question. He'd considered gripping him below the shoulders, but there was the matter of those pesky…things sticking out…there that he had no intention of even accidentally brushing over (why, oh why had he bothered to point out their erasure before?). He settled for digging his fingers into the top of the centaur's shoulders, where they were at least stable…even if they still left his arms extended and his trunk free to sway with each lurching movement.
"Mokona, get back here!" That blasted rabbit-thing was veering evermore out of their sight, twisting and weaving through the tall grass ahead of them without leaving much of a trail to follow. He wouldn't have minded losing the little nuisance so much if it hadn't also confiscated their only map earlier in their journey. Pilfering eggs from a golden goose was not only the most ridiculous errand she'd ever sent him on, it was also the furthest from home and was proving to require with the most convoluted instructions to find as well. And now their map was darting off, nearly an acre in front of them and almost out of sight. He couldn't figure out just how the little beast was managing to outrun a half-horse-thing and that was making him even more flustered-
"He's gone." The galloping quickly came to a halt as Doumeki paused to raise a hand and shield his eyes from the mid-afternoon sun.
"What do you mean 'He's gone?'" Watanuki grumbled, "He's right over there." He waived his hand vaguely in the direction he had last seen the little pest, "Just keep going."
"Do you see him, or are you just guessing?" Doumeki strained to twist himself far enough around to meet Watanuki's eyes, "It's a pretty big field, and it was bouncing all over the place."
"But he was bouncing in that direction," Watanuki insisted and flailed his arm out once more, "So just…keep moving that way and we'll catch up with him."
"I don't know-"
"Of course you don't! Which is why I'm the one making the decisions here" Watanuki kicked at the centaur's flanks with his heels, "Now, come on – YONDER HO!"
"Did you just shout 'Yonder ho?'"
"Alright," Doumeki sighed as his hooves picked up the pace once again. He was moving much faster than was necessary, Watanuki decided, probably out of some latent desire to send his rider flying without having to resort to bucking. Well, he'd have to work a lot harder than that. Watanuki dug his fingers deeper into Doumeki's shoulders and pinched his thighs tighter about his back – there was no way in hell he was budging from his mount-
So it was that he was still clinging tightly in place when the first of Doumeki's hooves struck a log hidden within the high grass. And he was still clinging as the first of the centaur's legs bent under his gate, only managing to roll to the side at the last moment to avoid being crushed by the large horse's ass bearing down upon him.
Lord Touya paced the balcony walkway, occasionally stealing a suspicious peek between the half-cracked doors of the dining hall. He'd refused an invitation, preferring instead to take his lunch in his chambers (as he was finding he preferred taking everything lately; it was very strange), but that didn't mean he couldn't shoot death glares at his sister's now-fiancé from afar. He doubted the little bastard would see him, but he hoped the gesture would at least send icy shivers of dread down the brat's spine.
He'd been tricked – that much was certain. He didn't have a clear idea of what had all gone on during that night in the woods, only that he'd woken up where he hadn't fallen asleep and his mind had been nothing but a pulsing throb of…wantonness since waking. He was certain that little brat had slipped him something, though he had no idea what it might have been and he had been too otherwise occupied to confront him about (and to fling about the wild and baseless accusations he felt were appropriate).
Yukito seemed happy with the turn of events, however, and that was definitely a good thing.
A very good thing, he decided as a slender arm wrapped around his waist. After a bit of shuffling, Yukito's head emerged from beneath his arm on the opposite side, his shoulders following quickly thereafter as he twisted himself into position between Touya and the banister.
"You're doing it again," his voice was amused, but his eyes remained serious enough that Touya supposed he had better find a better way to spend his afternoon if he didn't want a surly advisor slung around his neck.
"Sorry," Touya muttered, though it was somewhat of a lie.
"To-ya!" Yukito admonished, and gave him a gentle shove backward. Touya rolled with the momentum back into the stone wall, where he coughed and held up his hands in mock defeat. "Are you really so angry?" Yukito murmured as he slid himself back into Touya's chest.
Touya considered this. On one hand, yes – absolutely. On the other…
He weaved his fingers through Yukito's hair and pulled him in for a chase kiss on the forehead. "No," he grumbled halfheartedly, "I suppose I'm not."
"Well that's a relief," Yukito breathed and pulled back slightly to cock an eyebrow, "What is it that you're so worried about him for? His brother has returned – or so I've heard – and there doesn't seem to be any sort of foul play involved..."
Touya's eyes grew momentarily wide. He'd thought it was obvious that the missing siblings had been nothing more than a handy excuse on his part, and didn't especially think it needed a detailed explanation… "You remember the cream from breakfast?" he asked, rather than try to explain.
"Mmmh - oh."
"Oh," Yukito paused, "But she'd do that with anyone she married, To-ya," he socked him playfully in the chest again, "Are you telling me this would have continued with every suitor?"
Touya looked shifty, "…Possibly."
"Well thank heavens for foul play."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing," Yukito smiled and slipped his arm around Touya's elbow, subtly pulling him back toward their rooms, "Only that I'm glad I won't have even more women to compete with in the future."
"Wasn't much of a competition," Touya scoffed and pulled his arm back slightly, "She was terrifying."
"Oh, I don't know," Yukito renewed his efforts and successfully hauled Touya back into the room, "I thought she was quite lovely, you know? She had this nice little-" he paused to make an obscene gesture, "-and these great-" another obscene gestured followed.
"What are you saying?" Touya slammed the door shut and gripped Yukito's wrist with his free hand, "That I don't have a nice-" obscene gesture, "Hmm?"
"Well, that I couldn't say…I'd better have another look."
"Hmph." Touya grinned to himself. Perhaps that little brat knew what he had been doing, after all.
And there would be years to come in which to pay him back…
Watanuki cursed whatever gods were mocking him, even as he thanked them all the same for sparing him death-by-equus-maximus. He strained his eyes over the horizon in despair, shielding them from the afternoon sun and cursing that little rat Mokona for disappearing into the wilderness.
He turned back to his fallen companion. "Are you sure you can't move it?"
"If I could move it, I wouldn't have spent the past half hour on the ground," Doumeki grumbled back at him. His right front leg stil lay sprawled out in front of him, where Watanuki had dragged it half an hour earlier; the knuckle joint above the hoof was swollen and raw-looking, and Watanuki had to work to pry his eyes away from the grotesque angle it made with the remainder of his leg. This was much worse than either of them was willing to admit out loud. Assuming Doumeki could get back to his feet (which he couldn't), it was still half a day's march back to anywhere where they might find treatment. Watanuki might be able to head back on his own to find a doctor, but that left the centaur in the awkward position of spending the night, defenseless and alone, in a field with no cover from the bears and jaguars that roamed the forest edges.
Watanuki bit his lip and paced around Doumeki's back-horse-end. The icy fingers of guilt were wrapping slowly, painfully around his throat; this was all his fault. If he hadn't been in such a hurry to catch that blasted Mokona, this never would have happened…
He sighed and kicked at the grass. What the hell was even supposed to do here? He may not have been fond of the centaur by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly didn't want him injured and he didn't want him left out in a field overnight-
"Just put me down."
"What?" Watanuki spun on his heel, "How much more down can you go?"
"No," Doumeki grunted, "Put me down. Out of my misery. Like you're supposed to do to old horses."
"Don't be an idiot," Watanuki snapped. He certainly didn't want that either. Goddamn it, why the hell did he even care? This was a quick and easy way to be rid of the nuisance forever. Blasted humanity. Blasted compassion. Yuuko had always insisted they were his best traits, but at the moment he certainly felt life would be easier without them. "I'll figure something out. Don't go getting too comfortable there. If you fall asleep, I'll…I'll…"
"Good evening, gentlemen. We've been expecting you."
"Heh?" Watanuki spun back to face the exact spot he'd been staring at only moments before to find it occupied by the strangest….girl, he supposed, that he'd ever seen. She looked human enough – she lacked fairy wings, at any rate, which was usually a good indicator – but her golden, tumbling hair was threaded through with vines…that by all appearances seemed to be growing directly from her head. He dress – long and free-flowing, without any bells or whistles or even ties for that matter – was more akin to the clothing he was used to seeing in the forest than anything he'd ever seen a human wear (though in truth, he hadn't seen many humans of late, so he could easily have been mistaken). He gaped for a second, trying to place her amongst the forest lore he had tried so hard to devour in Yuuko's libraries. "Wood sprite?" he asked at last, dragging a hand through his hair nervously.
She smiled back at him and took a step forward, "Kind of," she said gently, "You can call me Kohane. My grandmother and I received word from the queen that you would be passing by here today and asked that we shelter you for the night. It was getting awfully long past noon and we hadn't seen you yet, so I came to look…"
Kind of? What kind of an answer was that? And what did she mean "received word from the queen?" He hadn't received word! He hadn't received anything! What was that meddlesome queen up to this time? Or, worse, was this girl a con artist? She certainly didn't seem as suspicious as that blasted centaur did, but then again…
That blasted centaur. "Well," he sputtered nervously, "We kind of hit a stumbling block. Or a stumbling log, as it were. My, uh, friend here is hurt pretty bad. I don't think he can walk."
"Oh no!" Kohane gasped and moved to inspect Doumeki's swollen ankle, "Can you move it at all?" She looked dismayed as Doumeki shook his head no. "I see," she said sadly, "Well, we might be able to help dress it at home, and from there we can at least help you to a doctor in the morning."
"R-really?" Watanuki stammered, his face lighting up in spite of himself, "That would be so…so….wonderful! Um, is there anything I can help with in the mean time? Do you need someone to go back to the village with you to find someone to help move him or anything?"
Kohane blinked back at him, confused. "We don't live near a village," she said simply, and hauled Doumeki's front legs up over her shoulders – gently, so as not to upset the injury any further – "And I don't think I should need any help moving him."
"What are you…?" Watanuki coughed, "You're far too small to lift such a huge beast! Don't- I mean, you're going to put your back…out…" He stared in dumbstruck fascination as she – seemingly effortlessly – hefted the centaur's bulk on to her tiny shoulders and started off across the field.
"It's not far from here," she nodded toward the forest edge, "Come along!"
"Kurogane," the queen admonished, taking a long sip from her goblet, "I did ask you to stop gaping at my serving girl, did I not?"
"Sorry," Kurogane breathed, still not paying his full attention to his monarch. The resemblance was astonishing – it wasn't only the hair, but the face as well; if Fay had been female, this is exactly the appearance he would have taken (apart from the cat-ears, but those were easy enough to overlook). He fought to pry his eyes away as she set a goblet for him on the table and reached for the wine. "She just looks so…familiar."
The queen laughed heartily at this. "Yes, I suppose she does," she agreed and set her glass to rest on the table, leaning over it to pull his attention back toward her, "Though it's often said that children of fire closely resemble their 'parents.'"
"What do you mean?" Kurogane wondered, toying with the stem of his glass. He was far too used to cryptic conversations that never seemed to go anywhere, despite his best efforts to force the other party to talk sense, to expect a straight answer. And he wouldn't be disappointed here, either.
"I think you should know the answer to that."
Kurogane sighed and gulped his drink. Parents and fire…what the hell was he supposed to get from that? As far as he knew, Fay didn't have any children and the only fire he'd been involved in had stemmed from…
"How," he stammered, his goblet clanking ungracefully back onto the table, "How…old is she?"
The queen smiled serenely back at him. "Chii is six years old, though to fairy eyes she appears almost full-grown," she grinned widely back at him, "She's a cat sprite."
"How," he started and fumbled once again. This couldn't actually be real; the idea that Fay's dabbling into creation magic had actually borne fruit was insane enough on its own…to actually see that being standing here in front of him was enough to make him sniff again at his goblet for hallucinogens. "I thought that all- That is, that failed, didn't it?" He hadn't even wondered if it was possible that Fay might have succeeded; even if he had, the destruction of the forest around them had been so utterly complete – lost to a ravaging hurricane of wind and flame – that they had been lucky to survive. If it hadn't been for the arrival of Her Majesty and her guard… "You spared her."
"Of course I did," the queen looked politely offended, "You make it sound like I am prone to killing off my subjects."
"That's not what I meant," Kurogane stammered, "You saved her. But you never said-"
"No, I didn't," she agreed, "You burned down nearly a quarter of the forest, Kurogane. Despite the fact that fire is necessary for creation magic to work, it doesn't excuse the destruction of so much of our home, and, as per the law, you were exiled for a century. An exceptionally short century in your case, but that was the sentence nonetheless. What responsibility I had there was to her, not to a couple of convicted criminals." Her face softened, "And it would only have tormented him more…"
"Tche," Kurogane scoffed, "Somehow I doubt that was high on your list of priorities."
She laughed at this and shook her head, "Now, now. One of my points of pride as the ruler of such a small population is that I am able to take a direct interest in my subjects. And Fay has lived amongst the royal magicians for so long – ever since their mother abandoned he and Yuui to run away with a centaur…" she paused, looking thoughtful, "That's nearly 500 years, now."
Kurogane balked. Who the hell was Yuui? And Fay was 500 years old? How the hell was that even possible – he still acted like a goddamned child most days! He'd never mentioned any of this, and Kurogane would have never even thought to have asked (it wasn't like sordid family histories like this were common), even if he hadn't been so busy grumbling and stomping about the place. The cold fingers of guilt were creeping up his spine at this – he ought to have known something, at least.
"Yuui was his twin brother," the queen supplied, and Kurogane could only assume that his confusion had crawled into a twisted mass on his face, "Though I'm not surprised he didn't mention him. Fay hasn't spoken his name since his death – probably a good 200 years before you were born, Kurogane."
Kurogane swallowed. So that was it… "How did he die?" he murmured, somewhat afraid of the answer.
The queen shook her head sadly. "Senseless accident. A lightning strike during a routine phoenix census – it probably wouldn't have been fatal if he hadn't fallen so far," she closed her eyes, "No one was able to reach him in time, though it seems Fay still holds himself personally responsible."
Kurogane sighed. It would be just like that idiot to blame himself for something beyond his control, as well. This, at least, explained his fear of heights. And why he refused to get close to anyone…
"You should know better than most just how…destructive the death of loved ones can be for we fairies," she said calmly, "After all, your exile might have started much sooner, been much longer, and certainly far more lonely had the half-human princess not managed to work some of her own magic on you." She leaned in over her glass once again, face twisting with a mischievous grin, "But I'm surprised you didn't know this already, Kurogane. You seemed like such an astute fairy."
Kurogane grimaced at this, mostly because he knew it was true and didn't want to admit it to a pompous, ill-tempered fairy who showed off far more of her wing-span than was appropriate to her station… But she was his Queen, after all, and he owed her due deference. "Yeah," he agreed, simply and without making specific concessions.
"And now you've been returned to your original form and reinstated to your guard…" she trailed off, lifting an eyebrow, "And yet I still find you darkening my doorway, gaping at my serving girl who looks so much like your dear friend. Might I guess why this is?"
Kurogane shrugged, knowing full well that she was going to make him ask anyway. "I suppose you could. I haven't been able to find him since, well…since that whole business with the humans. I thought maybe there was a chance he'd come back here – taken up his old post, or something."
The queen frowned back at him. "No, he hasn't taken up his old post, though he has conferred with some of my more trusted magicians as of late... It's a shame – I had hoped he would come back to us. It's a rare being indeed that can successfully perform creation magic – we had hoped to nurture that talent once the price had been paid." she paused and stretched, unfolding her hands across the table as she settled back into her chair, "Have you considered that you might be looking for the wrong thing?"
"What do you mean 'wrong thing?'" And now they were back to cryptic bullshit…
"I mean, Kurogane," she fixed him with a stern gaze, "That I assume, as you have come here, that you have searched everywhere else. And I also assume that you are looking for a fairy."
"What else should I be looking for?" Hadn't the idiot been transformed back? Had he done something else?
"This is the type of information that comes with a price, Kurogane," she grinned, "Is this important enough to you that you're willing to pay it?"
He considered this for a moment. Everything was always about "prices" with her – he supposed he couldn't fault her for (so thoroughly) embracing the necessary cost-benefit analyses that went hand in hand with being a ruler, but her terms were more often than not ridiculous and not, he suspected, dictated by anything more than her whims. Now that he knew he wasn't looking for a fairy, he could at least eliminate that from his list…but there were still so many creatures in the forest, and without any clear idea…
He wasn't going back home alone, though, that was for damn sure.
"Yes," he growled, his determination growing, "I'll pay. Now tell me."
"Very well," she smiled and rose to her feet, gracefully floating across the room to a less furnished corner and beckoning to him, "Come over here then."
He followed her lead and joined her, looking suspiciously around him as he did. "What is this?" he grumbled. Why couldn't (wouldn't) she just tell him?
"Your price," she assured him, and plucked a wand from her inner robes, "Now, I should warn you that I am not a professional, but any mistakes made here will certainly be corrected by my court magicians."
"Also, today begins the rutting season. You'll want to be prepared, of course."
"What in the hell are you talk-" But before he could finish, sparks flew from the tip of her wand, surrounding and tugging him in every direction at once. And then, the world went dark.