mikkeneko (mikkeneko) wrote,

[TRC] (Midseries) The Missing Worlds (6/12)

This whole arc, and especially this chapter, was very exhausting for me to write. I was trying to imitate the hectic, fast-paced style of Barry Hughart in Bridge of Birds, and while I didn't quite get to that level, a number of readers commented that they noticed and enjoyed the change in style. Which is good that they liked it! But the fact remains that it was pretty grueling.

The Missing Worlds - Middle Earth III
Rating: PG-13
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.

Summary: A daring heist, and an unexpectedly familiar encounter.

"This has got to be the most idiotic thing I've ever taken part in," Kurogane muttered sourly as they filed up the walkway of Fearful Feng's estate.

The lights and decorations looked downright austere compared with the gaudy profusion of the market square, but what it lacked in clutter it more than made up for in sheer ostentatiousness. The marble-tiled path passed through a series of elaborate, topheavy gates plated with silver and gold, each one fashioned like the head of a snarling dragon whose teeth formed a heavy metal portcullis; and, if Kurogane was not mistaken, fully functional murder holes lined the walls and ceilings of each gate.

"You could have stayed home," Fai said mildly.

"I figured someone had to come along to fight your way out of trouble when this whole scheme goes south on you," Kurogane said. Thankfully Xiao Lang had not tried to force him into any ridiculous outfits; in fact he'd insisted that Kurogane don one of the Japanese-style hakama from Outo, with the symbol of the rising sun displayed prominently on both sleeves and a headband. Kurogane still felt a little foolish, but if he felt low on dignity, all he had to do was stand next to Fai.

With help from Mokona, who was waiting for them back at the inn, they had dressed Fai up even more outlandishly than usual. One of Kurogane's shirts (too large,) and a pair of Syaoran's trousers (it was disturbing that they even fit on his hips, and Kurogane preferred not to think about how that worked,) both from a Western-style world several jumps ago and in completely clashing colors. The monstrosity on his head might once have been able to call itself a hat, before Xiao Lang and Mokona had agreed between them that one feather was one-tenth the number of feathers needed. The combined effect was well past "foreign" and hovering somewhere around "ludicrous." Any man with even a drop of self-respect would have hid his face in shame, but Fai just minced cheerfully along like he was having the time of his life.

Fai laughed, and took a half-skip down the gaudy walkway. "Always such a pessimist!" he said. "Lighten up a bit, Kuro-gloom! You can smile, just once, I promise it won't crack your face."

"No, no, don't encourage him to smile," Xiao Lang said. "His dyspeptic annoyance is just the right touch to put on our disguise."

Kurogane glowered at their guide. Somehow, having the obnoxious kid's approval only made him want to change his attitude to spite him. Of course, his annoyance only fueled his bad mood, sending him right back to ground zero. Stalemate.

Out of the whole circus they represented, only Sakura and Xiao Lang were dressed in plain, subdued clothes; Xiao Lang in normal Chinese servant's garb, muted green and grey, and Sakura in a drab-looking Western style dress. Xiao Lang had insisted that Sakura pose as Fai's servant, rather than his apprentice or his daughter, and warned him against showing too much affection around her.

"It'd be best to just leave her behind," Xiao Lang had said, ignoring Sakura's expression, "but if what you told me about the girl and the feather are true, then she just might be the lynchpin to bring the whole thing off."

So Sakura trailed along behind them, gawking at the elaborate gardens visible beyond the richly-appointed walkway. Fearful Feng had the money to import the rarest and most exotic plants not only from every province of China, but from every corner of the known lands; every distant location that China had ever conquered or traded with. Unfortunately, the results had been jumbled together with little thought to their ultimate arrangement, and jungle vines warred with cacti while tropical flowers drooped next to bushes of alpine herbs.

The walkway wound to its end in front of an imposing stone edifice; granite blocks fit together to provide a fortress in the heart of the city itself, with actual arrow slits glaring down from above them. Despite all the paramilitary ardor, however, Fearful Feng was still a businessman at heart, and businessmen didn't make money by walling out their potential customers. Tonight the iron gates were flung open, and rich inviting lantern light flowed from within along with a flood of saliva-inducing aromas.

Once inside, Pawnbroker Feng was waiting to greet his guests; he was on his best behavior tonight, sparing barely an appalled look at Fai's outlandish outfit as he greeted them courteously. Fai was ready to put on a show again, his eyes sparkling brightly as he waved his hat through the air and babbled a stream of musical-sounding nonsense. Kurogane thought he must have been practicing, since he'd incorporated sounds in his "barbarian tongue" that surely could never have been part of any human language. Xiao Lang was right on cue to 'translate' his nonsense, however, into all the appropriate courtesies and a promise to discuss business after the meal. Fearful Feng's eyes gleamed at that admission, and he barely refrained from rubbing his hands together with glee as he invited them to sit and eat.

When it came to impressing visitors, Feng spared no expense; the palatial room was decked out with luxurious tapestries and the food served was sumptuous. Course after course of jellied eels, pickled plums, grilled sparrows served whole on sticks, platters of quail's eggs, tender vegetable hearts marinated in soy sauce, duck tongues glazed in honey, mushrooms simmered in white wine with bamboo shoots, jars of peaches in sauce, crispy sugar-glazed crickets and rich truffles passed down the tables to the guests' place of honor. The gourmet food and fanfare couldn't be cheap, yet if Fearful Feng was able to close the deal with the sale of tea to this ignorant barbarian, he would recoup his profits tenfold.

Yet Kurogane couldn't help but notice that neither the sumptuous food nor the prospect of massive profits seemed to be putting Feng in a good mood. The little man seemed peevish and irritable, favoring one side of his face; and indeed there was a reddish, painful-looking lump swelling along one cheek that made his face look distorted and bloated.

Once the initial fanfare of welcome and hubbub of the food being served had died down, Fai looked up at Fearful Feng on the platform with bright, appraising blue eyes. He pointed one long white finger at their host and recited a string of nonsense, ending on a rising note like a question.

On cue, Xiao Lang rose and bowed, and addressed Fearful Feng as he 'translated' for his master. "Most esteemed purveyor of fine food and goods, are you in good health?" he said. "As you know, my master is a renowned doctor from the barbarian lands beyond Crete. He is curious as to the cause of your affliction and wishes to offer his diagnosis and prescribe a physick."

"I'm fine, I'm fine," Fearful Feng said peevishly. "A sudden acute pain on my cheek which flared up overnight; my own physicians have already diagnosed a toothache and have prepared a poultice for it."

Fai tilted his head to the side, blue eyes artfully concerned and curious. He made another query, this one ending with a gesture towards his plate.

"A toothache? Surely not," Xiao Lang said. "After all, you have been eating your dinner with no sign of pain."

"Why - yes," Fearful Feng said, looking at his plate in puzzlement. "I suppose I have. But what else could it be?"

Fai stood up, swept off his ridiculous hat and placed it over his heart as he bowed. "My master wishes to examine you," Xiao Lang translated. "Completely free of obligation, of course, as repayment for this most excellent meal you have provided us."

"Er - " Feng hesitated for a moment, but an attempt to purse his lips turned to a grimace as his cheek throbbed. "Yes, I suppose I'll try anything! You can't do any worse than those quacks I employ as physicians. It's a wonder I even bother to pay them at all!"

Fai purposefully approached the head table where Feng sat, and Kurogane had to admit; in spite of the ridiculous clothes, he managed to project a very convincing demeanor of cool authority. He peered into Fearful Feng's eyes, took his pulse three different ways, pinched his skin and tsk'ed disapprovingly at the results. From one of the wide floppy folds of the oversized shirt he produced a small horn, which he used to listen to Fearful Feng's heartbeat and the sound of the breathing in his chest. Another sleeve produced a tiny pair of scissors, which he used to cut off a tuft of Feng's eyebrow hair and hold it up to the light, his expression stern.

"What is it?" Fearful Feng asked at last, unnerved by all these elaborate productions. "What's wrong with me? What's caused that lump?"

Fai turned towards Xiao Lang and said something. "My master wishes to know about your recent health," Xiao Lang reported. "Have you recently experienced any of the following: fatigue, pain in the stomach or chest, aching joints, periods of unexplained anxiety, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, or perhaps hallucinations - for example, attributing human motivations to inanimate objects, or perhaps imagining that someone has been in your room while you slept?"

Despite himself, Kurogane couldn't help but admire the artistry of Xiao Lang's bullshit. He sounded so very confident and earnest, his face practically glowing with sincerity, that it was easy to forget that fatigue and joint pain afflicted almost every man over a certain age, and indigestion was almost a given on a diet this rich. Or that both the painful and irritating welt and the disturbed sleep could have another cause, such as for example someone entering his bedroom while he slept and inserting the tiny thorn of a stinging nettle into his cheek. Hair-fine, the thorn would be almost invisible and undetectable among the red and swollen pain of the injury, and yet such plants were common enough to be found on a casual walk through Fearful Feng's own garden.

"Why, yes!" Feng said, his expression transformed with astonishment. "How did he know? What does that mean?"

Now looking very solemn, Fai returned to his table at the other side of the room and spoke a quick string of nonsense to Xiao Lang, shaking his head as if in regret for the recently - or imminently - departed.

"Master Feng, I hate to admit it, but the situation is grave," Xiao Lang said after listening for several minutes. "This is no ordinary welt; this is a symptom of a potentially much more serious problem. I regret to inform you, that in cases as far advanced as your, the survival rate is only one in one thousand."

"What?" Fearful Feng cried, clutching at the arms of his chair. "But how can this be? Isn't there any medication?"

"Apart from some palliatives to reduce the pain and swelling, no," Xiao Lang said after consulting with Fai. "The only solution is to remove the source of the ill. Then you will recover swiftly with no further treatment needed. But if you fail to do so, then you will surely die."

The statement rang out through the dining chamber, and Fearful Feng broke out in a sweat as his face went pale. He trembled. "What is it, what is the source?" he cried out. "Tell me, so that I may rid my household of its influence immediately! Please, sir doctor, I'm far too young and innocent to die!"

"Indeed, we will do everything in our power to postpone that final hour," Xiao Lang said solemnly. "Master Feng, it seems that you have earned the grudge of a moon fairy."

"A what?" Feng said, losing some of his terror as he sat up straight in perplexity.

"A moon fairy," Xiao Lang repeated a little louder, ensuring that every guard and guest in the chamber would overhear. "You are lucky indeed never to have heard of them before, Pawnbroker Feng, for of all the ghosts and demons and fairies that walk the earth the moon fairy is among the most dangerous. It can take on human form, as many of the malicious spirits do - usually that of a young woman, pale-skinned as the moon and with hair as black as night. I must ask you, Feng - is there any possibility that over the past few months that you've come in contact with any person or thing that matches that description?"

"Yes - there was that Shang girl, but -" Comprehension slowly crept across Feng's face. "But - but that's impossible!" he blustered.

"However, like any other spirit who takes on human form, there is always a telltale sign," Xiao Lang continued; he had the entire dining chamber spellbound by this time, hanging on his every word. "In this case, no matter how beautiful the moon fairy appears, you can always tell by the eyes - the blood-red eyes, a color found in no human face!"

A number of people looked apprehensively towards Kurogane, then gulped and started to edge away. "Indeed," Xiao Lang said as he noticed their reaction; "the wild barbarians of Yamato have had much contact with the moon fairies over the years, and perhaps the beauty of their maidens overcame caution a time or two in the past. But every warrior of Yamato is trained to recognize and kill a moon fairy on sight, for they are deadly."

Kurogane remembered just in time that he wasn't supposed to be understanding a word of this; he concentrated on looking peevish and uncomprehending, which fortunately wasn't too hard. He wondered why no one else had noticed that Xiao Lang wasn't even pretending to 'translate' for Fai any more.

"Deadly?" Fearful Feng quavered. "But, how?"

"Other spirits have deadly claws, or dreadful stings, or man-hunting teeth slavering with saliva," Xiao Lang declaimed eloquently. "And yet the moon fairy is still the most deadly of all the magical folk. Even the glance of their eyes on your skin can strike like the blow of a hand, leaving red and painful marks behind. But that pales as to nothing when compared to the touch of their hand! So deadly is their touch, that it can strike a young and healthy warrior dead in a flash of light!"

"No, surely not," Fearful Feng said, but his voice was weak and unconvincing. "That pretty little thing -"

"You bear the mark of the moon fairy, Pawnbroker Feng; you have laid eyes on her. But have you touched her skin? Answer me, Feng, because your very life depends on your answer - have you touched her skin?"

Xiao Lang was bellowing by this time, and for a moment the smooth slick con man's mask slipped. The fury that showed through was real, uncontained and passionate, and Kurogane knew that this was no act; if Fearful Feng answered in the affirmative, then he would not walk out of this chamber alive.

"No! No! I never laid a hand on her!" Fearful Feng squealed, his face gone the color of suet. He was trembling hard enough to make the decorations on his hat rattle. "But… but this is impossible! I bought the girl from her own father - her own perfectly human father - months ago! She's never shown any trace of the uncanny before. I paid for her!"

"Honored Merchant, is it possible that the man you bought her from was scheming against you?" Xiao Lang asked shrewdly, calming somewhat and regaining his charismatic demeanor. "Because they can pass so closely for humans, moon fairies have often been closely involved with assassination and conspiracy. The death is completely untraceable by any normal forensic examiner, and could pass for a natural death if not for the gruesome expression of agony and terror that remains of the faces of its victims."

Trying to convince a paranoid that his rivals were plotting against him was as easy as giving candy to a baby, and Fearful Feng's face purpled with rage as he considered this new theory. "Why, that sniveling fleabitten wretch!" he sputtered. "To think that he would dare sabotage me like this! I should never have let him pay off his debts with only selling his daughter. That's the last time I show charity!"

He turned towards the captain of his bodyguards. "Drag the girl up here!" he demanded savagely. "We'll have the truth of this plot out in no time!"

"But… sir…" The head bodyguard hesitated, sweat standing out on his forehead. "If she is a moon fairy… and… horrible death to touch her…"

Fearful Feng's teeth grated. "Oh - very well. ASK her to come up here, and you don't have to touch her at all. Unless," a nasty smile lit his face, "she resists."

During the wait for the guards to find and fetch the girl, the atmosphere in the room was tense - only Fai somehow found the composure to go on calmly eating. The spell of credulity that Xiao Lang had woven over Fearful Feng and his men seemed to subside a bit, and the merchant was looking less terrified and more truculent with every passing moment.

Kurogane kept an eye on him, but was also watching the door; so he was the first one to react as the door swung open and the guards returned, escorting a young woman between them. The two burly guards - neither of them hired for their brains - were keeping as far away from her as possible, and both stared intently at the ceiling rather than letting their gazes cross hers.

This was the first time Kurogane had gotten a look at Xiao Lang's lady-love, and he had to admit that the kid didn't have half bad taste. She was a lovely girl, slender and smooth-skinned, with curtains of shining black hair. She also had, right now, a stormy scowl on her face - and her lovely slanted eyes, just as Xiao Lang had so ominously foretold, were a distinctive and unusual shade of red. Her angry glare wavered around the room, apparently unsure whether to settle on Xiao Lang or Fearful Feng, but Kurogane reacted first.

He jumped to his feet and drew his sword, leveling it at the petite girl and backing away several steps as he roared in mock anger. He didn't have Xiao Lang or Fai's knack for making up gibberish and making it sound convincing, but when an armed swordsman reacted in obvious fury and fear from something, people tended to look around for the threat.

The guards jumped like rabbits at Kurogane's reaction; they drew protectively close around Feng's chair, but wavered in uncertainty as to whether they were supposed to be attacking Kurogane or Mei Ling. Fai jumped to his feet, waving a bamboo skewer like a weapon as he, too, pointed at Mei Ling and babbled frightened-sounding nonsense.

"Master Feng, I fear that all our suspicions were confirmed!" Xiao Lang exclaimed. "We are in the very presence of a moon fairy, the most insidious and deadly of all spirits! You must get rid of it at once! Remove it from this house before it poisons everyone living here!"

So convincing was his passion that several of the guards started towards the girl before a reedy voice penetrated above the furor. "Wait!" Fearful Feng stood up, pushing his seat back, and the guards stopped their advance and looked at him.

"This is all going by a little fast," Fearful Feng said, his expression regaining some skepticism. "I mean - maybe she's a moon fairy, and maybe she isn't. But I see no reason to believe that she could possibly be as deadly as you claim."

"Master Feng, I assure you that the dangers of moon fairy magic are well documented!" Xiao Lang said in a shocked voice.

"Maybe, but she's been in this household for months now, and no one is dead yet," Feng countered. "Even I have only begun feeling ill in the last few days. Maybe the creatures aren't as powerful as legends make them out to be. If not, it might enhance my prestige and power to have one of them under my roof, eh?"

Impatiently, Kurogane wondered why they didn't just kill him now and be done with it. But Fai and Xiao Lang had allowed for this possibility in their ridiculously convoluted plans, so he stuck to the plan for the time being.

Xiao Lang gave a resigned shrug, and then he took a deep breath and bowed formally towards the merchant. "Master Feng, we have been invited into your home as guests," he said. "As such, we owe it to you to do all we possibly can to safeguard your health against a frightful and deadly menace. If that requires proof, then so be it."

Feng's face lost some of his certainty. "What - what are you going to do?" he said hesitantly.

Xiao Lang and Fai held another extended conversation with Fai in the made-up language - all gibberish, since the two of them had worked out their roles long before they had even set foot in this house. At last Xiao Lang turned back towards the merchant, while Fai stood up and beckoned imperiously to Sakura, who had been sitting by the wall during this whole production with wide eyes.

Fai spoke a nonsense phrase in an imperious, commanding tone, and hesitantly Sakura stood up and walked over to her. Considering the princess' honest and straightforward nature, they'd attempted to keep her part in this performance to a minimum; but this was something that only she, and none of the others, could pull off.

"Wh-what are you planning?" Feng said, growing increasingly agitated now that his attempt to call their bluff seemed to be backfiring.

"For your own health and safety, it is absolutely critical that we prove to you how dangerous this creature is," Xiao Lang said gravely. "Of course, we would not dream of endangering your exalted self, nor any of the honorable members of your household. Fortunately, this is only a servant girl, of no education and little worth. She will serve well enough for a demonstration of this wicked fairy's true nature."

Everyone in the dining chamber held their breath as Sakura and Mei Ling advanced towards each other. They stopped in the open center of the room and regarded one another warily, two girls completely alien to each other in culture and appearance.

"Moon fairy, reveal your true self!" Xiao Lang thundered in a commanding voice. "Your kind was born to kill and destroy humans without mercy, so show none now! Touch this servant girl - and let your touch be swift death!"

Then Mei Ling lifted a hand, and because of the angle Kurogane was standing at - and also because he knew exactly what he was looking at - he just made out a brief glimpse of white edged with delicate black tracings before Mei Ling's slender hand touched Sakura's chest, at the base of her throat.

A high, pure tone sounded across the room, and for a moment an intense white glow filled the space between Mei Ling's sleeve and Sakura's chest. The air rippled, and the brief glimpse of white that Kurogane had seen disappeared as the feather was absorbed into Sakura's chest and vanished.

Sakura's eyes rolled back in her head, and she collapsed in a heap on the dining room floor.

Chaos erupted in the dining room, taking shape first in a mass shuffle towards the doorways or other exits of the room; Kurogane saw one ingenious waiter vaulting out the window. Only a few of the hardiest guards retained their footing; but although they drew their weapons and pointed them shakily at the supposed fairy, they kept their backs pressed firmly to the walls. The only ones who didn't move or react were Xiao Lang and Mei Ling, the latter looking somewhat panicked and startled by her own heretofore unknown power.

And if Kurogane had ever had reason to doubt that Xiao Lang and their own Syaoran shared a soul, it was watching him look down with calm disdain as Sakura lay in a still heap on the wooden floor, and not run to her side.

"It's a trick!" Fearful Feng was screaming, barely heard over the shouting and babbling voices. "It's impossible! The girl is faking it! She must be!"

Fearful Feng's steward, trembling from head to toe, edged forward in a wide circle around the two girls, prepared to leap back if the dangerous moon fairy so much as moved towards him. Mei Ling only tossed her long black hair over her shoulder and sniffed, her arms folded tightly across the chest, and the man stooped down towards Sakura.

He was up again a moment later, backing rapidly towards the wall. "Master Feng, she is not breathing, and her skin is cold and clammy!" he reported hysterically. "It's no trick! The girl is dead, struck down in a flash of uncanny light! I saw it with my own two eyes!"

"Impossible!" Feng tried to deny, but it was a weak whimper of denial now. "You people - you people…" he trailed off.

Xiao Lang stepped deliberately forward, and leaned over the table towards the terrified merchant, planting his hands firmly on the tabletop and leaning forward. "Master Feng, I'm afraid that my companions and I have not been entirely honest with you," he said.

Fearful Feng's only response to that was a strangled gargle, but Xiao Lang continued on undeterred. "As you may have guessed, my foreign companion is not a doctor. Rather, he is an esteemed witch-finder, a seeker of unethical magicians and malicious spirits who seek to inflict chaos on the human world. We work in the deepest secrecy, so no doubt you have not heard of us, but rest assured that to have survived the things that we have survived, there is none more skilled or knowledgeable in the ways of evil fairies. It was the rumors of a moon fairy that drew us to your house tonight, and now that we have confirmed the truth of her presence, it is our solemn duty to remove her into custody for the proper banishment rituals."

"Whatever you say!" Fearful Feng screeched, flailing his arms as he tried to inch his chair backwards. "Just get that thing out of here! The dead girl, too. I don't want her spreading evil magics all over my house!"

"Just as you say," Xiao Lang nodded solemnly. "Now, of course, there is some discussion of the usual monetary fees for the exorcism of dangerous ghosts…"

Kurogane and Fai exchanged an incredulous glance; and without needing any prompting from their guide, decided simultaneously that it was time to retreat with their prizes. Kurogane scooped Sakura off the floor and hefted her in his arms; she was still breathing, but it was slow and shallow enough that the panicked steward could easily have missed it.

While Xiao Lang continued extracting his payment from the flabbergasted merchant, Fai produced an arcane-looking length of cord from his pockets - it was actually just fishing line twined with ivy, but it looked nicely mysterious - and wound it about Mei Ling's wrists and neck, preventing the fairy from turning into a bird and flying away before she could be properly dealt with. He kept his expression stern, but gave the young lady an outrageous wink before he led her away on the end of the leash.

All of the guards who were not clustered behind Fearful Feng's chair had fled, and Kurogane and Fai found their way out of the mansion without seeing another living soul. They were almost to the street before they heard the sound of light running footsteps behind them, and Xiao Lang rejoined then, out of breath and flushed from running.

"There you are," he said. "I give it half an hour before greed starts to overcome fear and shock and he thinks to double-check some of the facts. In the meantime, we should make ourselves scarce."

"About time!" Mei Ling said, breaking out of her silence at last. She shook her hands violently to free them from the netting, and Fai backed away laughing as she flung it to the ground and rounded on the boy. "Xiao Lang, you miserable rat! What kind of a rescue is this? I was the one who had to do half the rescuing!"

"But Mei Ling, we needed you," Xiao Lang appealed to her. "Someone had to get the feather out of his secret vault, and someone had to plant the nettle on his face so that we'd have a mysterious illness to work with!"

"And what if I'd gotten caught either time?" Mei Ling sputtered. "Imagine if he'd woken up while I was in his bedroom leaning over his face! What sort of excuse would I have had to come up with for being there? Ugh!"

"But Mei Ling, it all worked out fine, and we're rid of him now," Xiao Lang wheedled. "And we've got a fair amount of money to boot, we can be married and buy our own house…"

Mei Ling's face reddened, and she stamped her foot. "You insensitive dolt!" she stormed. "When did I ever agree to any of this? Ha! That money should be all mine, for what I've been through in the past few months!"

"He'll catch on eventually, you know," Kurogane said, breaking into the lover's quarrel before Mei Ling hauled off and slapped the boy. "Even if he didn't recognize you as her childhood friend this time, he's sure to guess something is up when he sees you two running around town."

"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about Feng," Xiao Lang said with a razor-sharp smile. "While we were enjoying his hospitality, I took the liberty of planting a few incriminating documents in his house regarding his illicit deals with foreigners in export-controlled goods. A quick visit to the guardhouse to drop off an anonymous tip, and we won't have to worry about Pawnbroker Feng ever again."

"Wow! You sure have had a busy night," Fai said, looking at the young man with an admiring respect. "Forgery, confidence scams, burglary, extortion, and now manufacturing evidence for a frame job as well? Li Kao was right when he told us you were the best man for the job."

"The royal guard cares little for slavery or murder, but they look rather sternly on merchants who try to cheat the Son of Heaven out of his tax revenues," Xiao Lang said, and then he grinned. It was the first time he'd smiled since they met him, and it was rather disturbing how much he looked like Syaoran when he was happy. "What can I say? I'm a patriot."

"I thought we were getting out of here," Kurogane said grumpily, interrupting their little mutual crime admiration society. "I'll be just as happy to never see this place again."

"And besides, we need to get Sakura somewhere quiet," Fai said, his expression turning serious.

"Is she really all right?" Mei Ling wanted to know, her fury draining away in favor of concern. "I did just what you told me to do, but I didn't really expect her to just collapse like that…"

"She'll be fine," Fai said, his voice softening as he looked over at the sleeping girl in Kurogane's arms. "This always happens. She's just sleeping. And when she wakes up again, she'll be better than ever."

Suddenly, the night lit up with orange light and a wave of heat washed over them as a dull thud shook the compound. Shouts and screaming rose from the source of the distant explosion, and Kurogane leveled an exasperated look at the little thief. "Okay, you were in the dining room with us the whole time. How the hell did you do that?" he demanded.

Xiao Lang just shrugged. "A magician never reveals his tricks," he said. "Speaking of which, weren't we supposed to be running?" And he took off down the street, Mei Ling's hand held firmly in his own.

They all slept late the next morning, and Sakura awoke with the rest of them. Her periods of forced magical unconsciousness were shorter with each feather she regained, and Fai had been right; she was cheerful and vibrant, heady with the excitement of reclaiming another piece of her past.

It was just as well that Sakura had something to be happy about; because with the successful rescue of Mei Ling, Xiao Lang no longer had eyes to spare for anyone else. He practically doted on her from the moment she emerged from her room, despite her acerbic responses to his attention; it was clearly a long-established pattern between them, and despite her prickly attitude, she almost glowed in his presence.

With Sakura's feather reclaimed, they were free to move on to the next world. Still, Fai suggested that they should stay at least a few hours longer; it was rare to find a world as friendly and rich as this one. With the money that Xiao Lang had (grudgingly) given them as part of the haul from Fearful Feng, they had a chance to buy supplies - and more importantly, precious goods that could be traded for money in later worlds. Sakura liked the idea of being able to bring a souvenir back for Syaoran and Yuuko, and so the travelers set off towards the Hangchow market where they'd first arrived.

It was just as busy as it had been the first night, but by now Kurogane had acclimated somewhat to the busy, noisy press of people. Nevertheless, he stuck close to Sakura, even as the rest of the group split up to visit different stalls and make their purchases.

Since the two of them were left alone for the moment, Kurogane took the opportunity to step close to the princess' side. "Hey," he said, pitching his voice low so the other two couldn't hear. "Are you okay?"

Sakura looked up at him from a row of glittering combs, green eyes wide in surprise. "What do you mean, Kurogane-san?"

"Uh…" Kurogane cleared his throat and looked away, fighting the urge to fidget nervously. "Well, I know this world hasn't exactly been - easy on you," he began.

"It's not so bad," Sakura protested. "This world is very beautiful, and the people are so alive and colorful. If only I'd been born here, I'd be happy to live out my life in this world."

"Well, the problem isn't the world exactly," Kurogane allowed. "It's - to be blunt, it's the kid. Don't think I haven't noticed the rude way he treats you - I'd like to knock his head for it, but he did help us out, and it's not a good idea to alienate your guide. But still, if you're not okay -"

"It's all right, Kurogane-san," Sakura interrupted. She was smiling. "I talked it over with Fai-san the first night. He was very helpful about it."

"You did?" Kurogane said. His first reaction was surprise, and then he wondered why he was surprised. That was just the sort of thing that mothering idiot would do. "Well…"

"Li-san may act a little high-handed sometimes, but he's a good person," Sakura said. "I know he must be, because he shares the same soul as Syaoran-kun. He's a little brusque when he's under a lot of pressure, but I don't take it to heart. You can see how hard he worked to take down Pawnbroker Feng without anybody getting hurt, and how much he loves Mei Ling-sama. "

"Oh," Kurogane said. He shook his head in bewildered amazement; for all that he had traveled with Sakura for months now and knew just what kind of a person she was, sometimes her capacity for understanding and forgiveness was just unreal.

But that was only half the issue. "But about this girl - this Mei Ling," he said awkwardly. "Doesn't it bother you - I mean, that the kid is -"

"That he's in love with some other girl, and doesn't have the time of day for me?" Sakura finished, and her sweet smile faded. She looked away, towards the side.

"No, I don't think it does, much," she said quietly. "After all, there's no me in this world. There can't be, or else I couldn't come here in the first place. And I wouldn't want Syaoran-kun - any version of Syaoran-kun, in any world - to be lonely. I'm just glad that he has someone he cares about so very much, and that she likes him too."

"Okay," Kurogane said. "If you're sure."

"I'm sure," Sakura said with a nod.

That conversation hadn't gone at all like he'd expected, but it seemed to be resolved. He wanted to say something more, basically an offer to beat the crap out of any of her enemies, but Sakura-chan didn't make enemies, she just made friends. He settled for ruffling Sakura's hair with one hand; she giggled and ducked away. "Come on, Kurogane-san," she called, dancing ahead of him in the road. "We're going to be left behind!"

Kurogane frowned as he scanned the crowd, and realized that he'd lost sight of their other companions. "Just like him to wander off," he said under his breath, and forced his way through the press of people. "Oi! Wizard!" he called out, but his voice was lost in the noise of the crowd. "Where'd you get to?"

"He said he was just going to look at perfumes and incense," Sakura said. "He can't have gone far - he had Mokona with him."

"Well, we can still understand each other, so that's something," Kurogane acknowledged. "But he'd better not be annoying the locals, or planning more mischief with that shady kid, or - "

A flash of light color caught Kurogane's eye, and he turned to see a head of blond hair - so distinctive among this population of black and dark brown - bobbing down the street the other way. "This way, princess," Kurogane called her back, and began pushing his way through the crowd. "Wizard! Hey! Stupid idiot!"

The blond head did not turn. Sakura wriggled ahead of him, her small size allowing her to slip through the gaps in the crowd almost as well as Xiao Lang could. "Fai-san!" she called out, waving in the magician's direction. "Fai-san, over here!"

Now the other man did turn, and there was a look of surprised puzzlement on his familiar face as he saw who had been calling him. He stopped and waited as they plowed through the crowd to find him, then cocked his head to the side in puzzlement. "Can I help you?" he asked politely.

"Don't be any more of an idiot than you have to," Kurogane told him brusquely. Fai was decked out in an elaborate set of local robes; Kurogane supposed they'd be able to sell them for a good price in some later world. Then his eyes narrowed, as he took in what was missing. "Where's the pork bun?"

"Excuse me?" the blond said, looking completely bewildered. "I'm not a vendor. I believe they're selling them in the stall over by the corner -"

"No, he means Mokona!" Sakura said with a laugh. "She was with you last, Fai-san. But then you ran off."

"If you don't mind my asking, how do you know my name?" Fai asked, an edge beginning to creep into his voice. "I'm quite sure I've never seen either of you; there are so few of us foreigners in Hangchow that I know I'd remember you if I met you before. Has one of the others told you about me?"

"Mage," Kurogane growled, "this isn't funny. Just get your stuff together and let's go, we -"

He stopped as the cues began to fall into place; all the subtle wrongness of Fai's clothes, his mannerisms, his voice - Kurogane realized suddenly that this man spoke with a faint but discernable accent. He had never heard that accent in all the times that Mokona was translating Fai's native tongue, which meant -

Which meant that this man was wearing local clothes, speaking the local language, and had absolutely no idea who they were.

"He's not Fai," Kurogane said abruptly, and reached out to take hold of Sakura's shoulder. Not that he expected any harm to come to her, but still - "We need to find the magician right away."

The stranger in front of them shook his head, looking baffled. "Look, I don't know what my friends told you about me apart from my name, but I'm not a -" he began, but he cut himself off. His blue eyes widened as they fixed on something behind them, and he took a step back.

Kurogane whirled around to see another Fai - their Fai, dressed in the same familiar clothes as before - standing like a stone statue in the street, Mokona perched on his shoulder.

"Fai-san!" Sakura said with relief. "We saw this other man and thought he was you, so we -"

"Mokona, get us out of here," Fai interrupted her, and his voice was raw and harsh. "Right now."

Mokona sprang into the air, the jewel on her forehead glowing as the golden circle appeared beneath her feet. The stranger was just moving towards them, hand raised and mouth opening, and his eyes remained locked with Fai's until the wash of dimensional magic took them away.

~to be continued...

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