Setting Fire To The Sky @robnauts
Chapter 4

The next morning, a Wednesday (November 28th, the terrified voice in Fai’s head whispered over and over), Kurogane arrived to drop Syaoran off. He tried to leave promptly - tried to bolt out of the door, more like - but Fai had grabbed him and dragged him to the kitchen counter to re-apply the bandages and salve.

“I don’t see why you have to do this,” Kurogane had griped as Fai peeled away the bandages, then held his arm under the faucet to clean it.

“Well, I pity you, for starters,” Fai said, dodging a swat to the head and giggling. “Two, this could get very nasty very fast without proper care. And three, you saved my life. That’s a monumental debt to repay, and this is making a dent in it.”

“Well, I pity you, for starters,” Fai said, dodging a swat to the head and giggling. “Two, this could get very nasty very fast without proper care. And three, you saved my life. That’s a monumental debt to repay, and this is making a dent in it.”

Kurogane scoffed, but settled down as Fai took a swab, dabbed it in the calendula and chamomile wax, and spread it on the bite marks. “I was just doing my job. That’s what I do. Save lives.”

Fai hummed, watching the inflamed skin lose some of its redness before applying a second coat. “Yes, that’s you, but I’m me. I’m a witch: debts are my bread and butter.”

“You’re not in any kind of debt,” Kurogane grumbled, looking out the window, drumming his fingers on the counter. “It wasn’t a big deal for me.”

There was a sudden pang in Fai’s chest, and he just managed to keep his hands steady. Oh. Okay. He quickly pasted on a smile and chirped, “Oh, so I guess you don’t want the hundreds of brownies I was going to bake for you?”

Brownies?” Sakura, Syaoran, and Mokona chorused from the table, their attention immediately caught. That helped keep the smile on Fai’s face.

“In that case, good. I hate sweet shit,” Kurogane replied, rolling his eyes.

What?” Fai gasped overdramatically. “You… hate sweet things?”

“Yeah,” Kurogane sighed as if had heard this before. “Can’t stand ‘em.”

Mokona leapt over from the table, landing in front of them and curling around the dish soap. “Oh! So that’s why you’re so mean to Fai!” she remarked.

Kurogane looked like he wanted to smack Mokona into the sink, but was stymied by Fai’s grip on his arm. “Do you slander me to your cat?"

“I talk to her! She’s my familiar, that’s the point,” Fai said, grabbing the gauze. “I guess I’ll have to come up with something else! Too bad, I wanted to do some baking.”

“You can bake if you want,” Kurogane said, flicking a stray daffodil petal at Mokona, who batted it away with her paw. “Just give it to Syaoran. He likes that shit, not me.”

“Can confirm,” Syaoran added, nose buried in a book. Sakura giggled.

Kurogane continued, “But you can consider last night payback for last Friday. I almost did something stupid then - you almost did something stupid the other night. No debt owed."

Mollified slightly, Fai said, “That’s... not really how it works, tough guy.” He kept his eyes to his work and hoped Kurogane didn’t pick up how much care he was taking in wrapping his arm. It felt so stupid.

“Well, that’s the deal we’re making.” Kurogane was perfectly lit by the mid-morning sun streaming in through the window, the light making his dark skin glow. Fai had finished redressing the injury, and now had no idea what to do with his hands. “Deal with it.”

“... did you just make a joke?” Fai crowed, and Kurogane blustered with this hilarious look on his face that no he hadn’t, and Fai and Mokona countered with oh yes he had, and Sakura and Syaoran had laughed, and it was good. Before he left, Kurogane made Fai exchange contact information - so I don’t have to run all over the damn place trying to get ahold of you. Fai put his name in Kurogane’s phone as “Glinda the Good Witch,” which made Kurogane scowl and roll his eyes. That was a good morning, after all.

The next morning was also met with redressing Kurogane’s wound, applying the salve, and fun bickering. Kurogane and Mokona seemed to naturally hit it off - if hitting it off meant having the most entertaining little squabbles. Mokona took great delight in throwing things on Kurogane from high shelves, and Fai took great delight in elongating the process so Kurogane was trapped in his seat. Kurogane, being stuck until Fai was finished, was reduced to yelling up at Mokona that he’ll put her through the washing machine, you hear me? Damn cat! Stop throwing grass on me! At one point he attempted to stand and make a grab at Mokona, but Sakura, who was washing the breakfast dishes, implored him to stay seated and let Fai do his job!

(The wink she threw at Fai once Kurogane had settled back down, grumbling half-heartedly, made everything so worth it.)

The morning after that, Kurogane stuck around for a bit after Fai tended to him. As Syaoran trailed after Sakura, who was explaining her morning chores to him (and kind of showing off her magic to her new friend, but it was sweet so Fai didn't embarrass her), Kurogane plopped down on the couch, holding his injured arm carefully to his chest, and pulled out a small leather-bound notebook.

Fai paused on his way to the back room. “... what are you up to, sweet cheeks?”

“Don’t call me that. It’s a journal,” Kurogane grunted, scribbling something down. “I keep a record of what’s going on, in case something alters my perception of reality.”

“You’re in no danger from lil ol’ me,” Fai warbled, leaning against the wall to ogle the expanse of Kurogane’s shoulders in his sleeveless shirt. No harm in just looking, he told himself. No harm at all. “You’ve been letting me poke at your ouchies for a few days now. I thought we were past that point!”

Kurogane glanced up to glare at him. “Stop talking to me like I’m a toddler. And it has nothing to do with you, I’ve been doing this for years.”

“Ooh! I never had the patience for a diary. You should let me see your diaries sometime!”

No.”

(Right after charging the Fount, Fai’s vision went in and out for a moment, and next thing he knew he was on the floor. Kurogane was crouched over him.

Sun and stars. Not again. Not during this ritual. “How long was I out?” he murmured resignedly.

“Not long,” Kurogane said. “I heard a thud and came back here.”

“Where are Sakura and Syaoran?”

“Still out in the backyard, yelling about flowers or birds or whatever. You good to get up?”

“Yeah.” Fai got an elbow under himself, then felt himself wobble - he would have gone face-first into the hardwood if Kurogane hadn’t caught him. He was then lifted to his feet.

How humiliating.

“Thanks for the help, Mister Muscles!” Fai chirped, darting towards the hall, avoiding looking at Kurogane. “I have some paperwork to do in my office. Boring stuff! You can stick around for a while if you want, but don’t be a nuisance! Mokona gets bored, you know!”

He could feel Kurogane’s gaze on the back of his head; he kept his gait as steady as possible until he was safe behind a closed door. There, he shook, and shook, and shook.

Less than a month left.)

On Saturday, Fai woke with Sakura shaking his shoulder and whispering his name over and over again. Early morning light was falling onto his face.

“What is it, sparrow?” he yawned. “Did you have a bad dream?”

“Um, no,” she said. “Just, Tomoyo called me?”

This made Fai sit bolt upright. “What? Did something happen? Does she need to talk to me?”

Sakura seemed taken aback, and turned a bit pink. “Oh! No, nothing like that! She said that they’re all coming over with breakfast, since she has the day off.”

Oh. Well, that’s a relief. … Wait. “They?”

“Tomoyo and Syaoran and Kurogane. She didn’t want to impose, but she said her stove is broken? And they picked up some food.”

“Moon and Mars and mud,” Fai muttered, tying back his hair. He knew damn well that Tomoyo could fix her own oven - what was she plotting now? “Did she say when they’re arriving?”

“She said they were driving north on Hibiscus right now? But, um, I don’t know how long that’ll take? Sorry.”

Mud mud mudThe nastiest mud ever dredged up from the bottom of the dirtiest lake in the world. “Not very long, unfortunately. Could you get some plates out for our guests?”

She rushed out of his room, and he darted over to his vanity. There wouldn’t be time for them to get properly dressed, but he hurriedly ran his hands through his hair to get it a step below bird's nest and got on his binder. There was a knock on the door and Sakura yelled “In a sec!!” just as he was getting his shirt back on, and he glanced at himself one more time in the mirror.

… not how he would prefer to be seen by guests, but just-crawled-out-of-bed would have to be his look for the morning. Fai went out to the front rooms just as the others walked in, Tomoyo and Syaoran looking mildly red as Sakura took some of the paper bags from them and thanked them profusely. Mokona was twining around their ankles, already begging for a morsel. Kurogane was brought up the rear, closing the door behind him and holding a jug of apple juice. He looked up at Fai and stopped in place, staring at him.

“Despite what my pajamas may tell you, I promise I can stay awake for longer than ten minutes at a time,” Fai joked quietly up at him, internally a bit annoyed. So he had fainted in front of Kurogane for the second time yesterday - it didn’t mean he was some wilting violet. “I’ll take care of your arm after we eat, grouchypants.”

Kurogane nodded jerkily, and sat down heavily at the table to crack open the juice, staring intently at his task.

Must not be a morning person.

A large box of donuts and a ludicrous amount of yogurt were deposited on the table. Sakura had to drag over a stool from by the cauldron, but eventually they all got seated. Fai had not had a breakfast table this full in a while, and it was… nice. (It was also nice to not have to cook.)

After eating his fill, Fai excused himself to the back room. The teenagers remained around the table, feeding bits of donut to Mokona and chatting, but Kurogane silently pushed back his chair and followed him.

Fai managed to hide his irritation until they were out of earshot. Then he turned to Kurogane and said sweetly, “Recharging the Fairhaven crystal is one of my primary duties as resident witch, and so I can’t have you interfering. Sorry! I know I’m super cool and all.”

Kurogane crossed his arms. “I’m not going to interfere.”

“Then you have no reason to be back here.” Smile. Smile. Smile.

“I’m here in case you pass out.”

“I won’t.” Very convincing smile. Get him and his condescension out of here.

“Good. I’ll be outside the door.” And with that, he stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Fai just wanted to scream at him, to grab him by the hair and ask why he insisted on being like this (why he insisted on watching and following him as if he had to be protected, as if he was a thing worth protecting), but instead he took a few deep breaths, settled himself, and knelt in front of the Fount.

He could do at least this duty successfully.

When he was finished, he stood and his legs supported him this time. He hated the sigh of relief that poured from him, but the ritual had settled his energies and his mind for the most part. The crystal gleamed in the morning sun as he left the room.

Kurogane was leaning against the opposite wall. He looked him up and down and nodded. “Come do your witch stuff to my arm,” he grumbled, and Fai found himself trailing after him back to the kitchen.

Apparently the kids wanted to go out and walk around downtown today - Sakura turned pleading eyes on Fai for permission to go while Syaoran did the same to Kurogane. Tomoyo sat there between them, a happily independent young lady. Fortunetellers do not require much adult supervision.

Fai, from his spot at the counter administering the salve to Kurogane’s injury, smiled indulgently - he was always weak to Sakura. “Sure thing - I’ll even cover your chores for today.” Her face lit up. “... provided you vacuum the house and do all the laundry tomorrow!”

Sakura looked a bit disgruntled at that, but still pleased. “Alright! I’m gonna go get ready real fast, hold on a minute!” She ran off to her room.

Syaoran was still looking for his permission. And here, Fai knew he had maneuvered Kurogane into having to say yes, because if he didn't he would crush Sakura’s hopes and ruin Tomoyo’s day… as well as losing to Fai in the popularity contest.

Kurogane looked like he knew it too. “Fine,” he grunted. “Text me when you think you'll be done - you too, Tomoyo. Don't do anything stupid.”

A cheer sounded from Sakura’s room, and then she ran out in light clothing - even at the morning hour, it was obvious it would be a scorcher. Just like every day. Fai became aware that he was, rather conspicuously, the only person in the room still in pajamas.

“We’ll be back later,” Sakura said, giving Fai a careful hug so as to not disturb his work at Kurogane’s arm. “I’ll text you.”

He kissed her cheek. “Stay safe, sweetheart.”

As the screen door banged behind the departing troupe, Fai turned to Kurogane with a leer. “You big ol’ softie! I’m surprised you didn’t hand off the keys to your car!”

Kurogane scowled. “Kid deserves to goof off sometimes,” he said. “He doesn’t get a lot of friends. We move around too much. And he’s nearly an adult, he can make his own decisions. You baby your apprentice too much.”

“I don’t ‘baby’ her,” Fai replied, cinching the bandages a little too roughly. “I treat her kindly. Would you rather I not? I’m all she has; she deserves a pleasant home while she figures out what happened to her.”

“Heard you’re doing most of the work there.”

Fai suppressed another swell of indignation - he would be having some words with Tomoyo regarding how much she told her cousin. “Considering her memory only goes back less than a year, I think it’s fine if she wants to focus on building a new wealth of experience instead of spending all her time with her nose buried in ancient books, searching for answers she may never find. I can take care of that; I’m responsible for all residents of this city. That includes her.”

He waited for Kurogane to make another comment about Sakura - go on, try it - but none came. Kurogane just nodded once and sat back, watching Fai wrap his arm with gauze.

When he finished, Fai stood up and pushed the quart of nectar into Kurogane’s arms. If Kurogane was going to criticize what Fai did for Sakura, well, he could take on some of that apparent burden. “If you’re going to hang around like you did yesterday, make yourself useful and put this into the hummingbird feeder on the back porch. There’s also a bag of seed out there; spread it around.”

“I’m not your replacement apprentice, witch,” Kurogane grumbled, but plodded to the back door regardless. His grumpiness was sort of ruined with the intent to feed birds, and Fai was reluctantly charmed as he went to salt line the boundaries.

When he stepped outside to bless the gardens, Kurogane was sitting on the porch, birds clustered at his feet. There was even one perched on his knee.

“Goodness, they like you nearly as much as they do Sakura!” Fai commented cheerily. “It must be part of your animal magnetism, huggy bear.”

“I’m doing this because you made me!” Kurogane growled, throwing a handful of birdseed at Fai.

“And you’re doing a wonderful job!” Fai chirped, picking up some soil. He murmured a few words in his learned tongue and tossed the soil across the plants, and felt the rush of life that echoed back at him, slightly lifting his hair and making both parties in the exchange glow.

He had always loved doing this, which is why he had Sakura do it every morning. It suited her - she seemed full of boundless life.

Although the wilting leaves and stems of the plants detracted from the positivity. He sighed. He would water the poor things more frequently, but he had been the one to push for water rationing. Hopefully they would survive the sunshine.

Kurogane had pulled out his journal while he had done this, and was determinedly scribbling something when Fai stopped at his shoulder - he tried to peek, but Kurogane’s handwriting was too garbage to read at first glance.

“I’m going to get dressed,” Fai announced.

Kurogane grunted, eyes fixed to his work.

“After that, I have some contracts to settle and sigils to write, all that good stuff, so I won’t be able to entertain you today!”

“Is that you telling me to leave.”

“It’s me saying that you’re welcome to stick around for a while, but I’m a very busy bee, so I can’t take you for walkies,” Fai remarked, flitting inside just in time to avoid Kurogane’s swat, laughing all the while.

Mokona was sunbathing in the middle of the dining room table - the heat made her so lethargic (well, more than normal). She lazily lifted one eye when Fai passed her. “Kuro-cutie sure is somethin’, huh,” she purred.

“Yup!” Fai said, rooting around the potion pantry for a bottle of Styx ink. “He acts more like a growly puppy than Syaoran ever does. It’s pretty funny!”

“Suuuuure,” she said, hopping up on the counter beside him. “If that’s how ya wanna put it.”

“Not sure what you mean with your tone, Moko!”

Mokona took a deep breath - oh no - and yowled, “FAI HAS A CRUUUUU - “

In startled desperation to shut his familiar up he’s right outside, Fai tore open a bag of catnip, and Mokona’s yell petered off into a pleased hum.

“Mokona, I don't really appreciate that insinuation,” Fai said with a grin, holding the herb above his head.

“... are you purr-posing  a deal?” Mokona drawled, eyes trained on her prize.

“Of a sort. If you don’t make those kind of jokes again, I’ll give you some.”

Her eyes narrowed, tail switching back and forth. “... deal.”

Mokona occupied, Fai took his leave.

Over the next few days, there were no morning incidents - for one, Kurogane’s arm was nearly healed, although he still hung around scribbling in his diary every morning. Fai even got him working on menial potion tasks.

But then it was the full moon , and Kurogane and Syaoran were driving out of town to a remote cabin so Syaoran could roam freely. The boy wasn’t feral; he kept his human form most days and kept most of his intelligence when shifted. He wasn’t a danger, but should still be out of urban areas. Just in case. Kurogane stayed with him, since the wolf trusted him implicitly, and in case anything happened.

Sakura (with assistance from Fai) brewed a potion to help ease the pain of transforming, and Syaoran accepted the flask gratefully. The exhaustion that came with the lunar cycle seemed to lift a bit and his ashen face lit up as he thanked her profusely. Kurogane ruffled Sakura’s hair, which seemed to be his method of thanking people.

The absence should have been a relief - no Kurogane lurking over his shoulder as if he would faint away at any moment - but instead it was… strange . Fai kept the household busy with fulfilling commissions and resolving community disputes, but too often he found his mind wandering back to the morning with the donuts, and how nice it was to sit around a table with Sakura, Tomoyo, and Syaoran chatting brightly and filling the room with laughter. And Kurogane across from him, looking serious and broad, but carrying the nobleness that he seemed to embody naturally, his face for once gentle in the morning sun.

On one of those days, Tomoyo came over to look at a certain grimoire. She was sitting in his office with him (he had fainted earlier and was resting there, taking care of correspondence), taking pictures of paragraphs with her phone, when Fai ventured to ask, “So what does your cousin usually spend his day doing when he’s not loafing around on my couch or out with a werewolf?”

Tomoyo blinked up at him, and then smiled. “I believe he gathers information. He walks around Fairhaven, learning the lay of the land and seeing if there’s any rumors of dark creatures in the city. Other days he stays on call for the hunter network, relaying information and such - he’s something of a celebrity in that culture.”

Fai laughed a bit. “Kuroburo as a celebrity! Imagine him on the cover of, like, Hunter’s Weekly!”

Tomoyo giggled with him at the image that brought forth, then remarked, “Although it has been interesting, him being at your house so much. Kurogane isn’t the sort to hang around like that, unless it’s for a case. He must be very comfortable.”

Something flipped in Fai’s stomach. He ignored it. “It’s because Syaoran’s here so much, studying - he wants to make sure Syaoran doesn’t realize how mean he is in comparison to me!”

Tomoyo hmm-ed in good humor and went back to her work, fortune-teller smile still on her face.

And that brought them to Thursday. It was the hottest day of the week, with temperatures up in the 90s - which was made even more glaring by the fact that it was the second week of December. Fai was practically wilting, but Sakura was flitting around just fine, hopped up on excitement for Syaoran’s return to town. As Fai sat at the table reading a number of letters about the drought (it was getting very bad, dark creatures in the city, days getting longer when they should be getting shorter, no one knew what to do - nothing he didn’t already know), she scooted around the kitchen, alternating between her assignment of a simple hair growth potion and juicing lemons for lemonade.

It was nice for Sakura to have another friend, Fai thought. It was nice how she was excited to see him again. That, he was certain of. He had barely any idea what he thought of all that came with it, though. Only the jars of calendula and chamomile salves he had made two days ago that he had the vague wish to give away to a person who would undoubtedly need it again.

There was a rap on the door. Both he and Sakura perked up. “Coming!” she chirped, rushing over to the door. Fai readied himself - slight smile, relaxed posture, leg stuck out, in control.

Only to find a much shorter brunet than expected on his porch.

“We're here to see Mr. Flowright?” came a soft, bell-like voice.

“Fai! Is this your apprentice?” said a louder voice. “She is too cute!”

Fai stood, assuming the air of the benevolent resident witch. Go time. “Subaru, Hokuto - come on in.”

The twins shuffled inside, examining the interior of his house; both were drenched in sweat, although they wore it gracefully. After removing their hats, they sat down on the couch at Fai's gesture, huddling close together.

Fai had been known by Fairhaven’s selkies ever since he became Yuuko’s apprentice. He wasn’t in constant contact with them - his domain was the city, not the sea -  but he was familiar with its members. Subaru and Hokuto were a memorable pair, and he had met them a few times over the course of the last ten years - first as children, then as preteens, and now in young adulthood.

“So,” Fai said genially, seating himself in the armchair. “What brings you two out of the water and onto my porch?”

Subaru looked to Hokuto, who nodded. He took a deep breath, then said, “My pelt has been stolen, and I don't know by whom. The pod elders say that I should ask for your help.”

From the kitchen, Fai heard Sakura gasp. He kept his expression steady and reassuring. “That certainly is a problem! But you've come to the right place. I’m sure we’ll figure everything out - you’ll be back in the water in no time.”

Usually, Fairhaven’s local selkie pod took care of their own business - they spent most of their time in the water and as animals, so they weren’t quite under the resident witch’s jurisdiction. But if they requested his help - well, who was Fai to refuse? Beyond potions and charms, beyond commissions and requests, that was the most important point to him - to help the people of his city.

Subaru nodded, looking a bit reassured, but still clutching to Hokuto’s sleeve. “We’re worried, because we’re really not built for this heat,” he said. “We’re made for cold waters. I dehydrate quickly, and my skin burns very easily.” He held up his arm - it was pink and raw.

“And the pod is gonna migrate soon!” Hokuto burst in. “Subaru can’t swim like this!”

“Migrate?” Fai asked, taken aback. “But it’s not the right time of year…?”

Subaru bit his lip. “With the sunshine… it’s just not as easy to live around Fairhaven anymore. It’s our home, but it’s not exactly hospitable to selkies anymore. This is sea lion weather. I don’t fault them for wanting to leave, although I do love the town and people here.”

Fai processed this, stunned. The Fairhaven selkie pod, leaving… they had been here as long as the town had. A significant portion of the population had a bit of selkie blood in them from intermarriage, although it had lessened in recent years as the pod made orders to it more difficult for people to steal pelts… and now even that was breaking down.

It felt like everything was falling apart under his feet, faster every day.

“And if Subaru doesn’t get his pelt back soon, they said they’re gonna leave him behind!” Hokuto said indignantly, throwing an arm around her brother. “And I’m not leaving without him.”

“Hokuto…” Subaru began. “You need to stay with the pod - ”

“No!” Hokuto replied. “They’re my clan, but you’re my brother. And anyway, Fai’s gonna fix this. I know he will. Right?”

Fai nodded, smile affixed, stomach churning. “Right.”

They told him all that they knew. The last time Subaru had had it was Monday night; he and Hokuto had gone ashore to see a movie in the waterfront area, some superhero flick. They had sat in the middle seats. (Hokuto thought it was fun to watch but boring to think about.) Afterwards, they had gone out to dinner - at “The Granny’s Bonnet,” Subaru recalled, "A friend of ours recommended it." He thought it had been in his bag the whole time, but when they were standing at the beach ready to return, it had been gone. They had retraced their steps throughout the entire city, to the streets to the cafe to the movie theater. They had found no sign of it.

“I can’t even sense it,” Subaru murmured, hugging himself. Hokuto held him closer. “Usually I can just feel it, because it’s a part of me, but I just… there’s nothing. It’s like I’m missing a limb.”

“Don’t worry,” came Sakura’s voice. She walked over and set two cups of lemonade down on the table, then sat on the arm of Fai’s chair. “Fai will do all he can to help you. That’s what he’s here for! He’s the best there is.”

Half of Fai accepted the compliment gratefully. The other half wanted to bolt.

Everyone had too much faith in him. He wasn’t Yuuko. He was himself, and even with a bare back he was a risk.

There was a rap on the doorframe. Sakura bolted upright.

“Sakura? Mr. Flowright?”

And there was the puppy pair, right on time. Thank Orion he was occupied. “Come on in!” he called. “I’m with some guests right now, but you can help Sakura out with her potion, if you’d like?”

She squeaked. “Oh! Right!” She ran over to the cauldron, stirring frantically.

Syaoran walked in first; there were a number of band-aids up and down his arms and legs and a yellowing bruise on his cheek. He looked tired, but happy. He bowed and greeted Fai and the selkies (Subaru greeted him just as formally; Hokuto laughed and pronounced him adorable!) and then went over to Sakura, who put him to work dicing lilac stems.

Kurogane followed his apprentice a bit slower. He was just as Fai had remembered - too tall, too broad, too observant. Today he was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and Fai’s eyes couldn’t help but catch on his biceps, glistening with sweat (pull it together, Flowright). He sat down at the dining room table, accepting with a few grumbles the roots Sakura gave him to peel.

Fai turned his attention determinedly back to the twins, putting on his best “capable leader” persona, because he knew that Kurogane would be watching for any kind of weakness. “I can perform a rudimentary tracking spell on your pelt to get us started. I just need a lock of your hair, Subaru. Its metaphysical similarity to your pelt will provide guidance for the spell.”

Sakura handed the selkie a pair of kitchen scissors, and Hokuto lopped off about an inch of hair. Fai fetched some dried marigold from the potion pantry, then cleared the coffee table in the living room of the books and knick knacks covering it. Chalk lines and symbols were drawn precisely on its surface, and the marigolds were placed on certain points within the sigil. Lastly, the hair was placed in the middle of the diagram, right where all the shapes converged.

Fai could feel Kurogane watching him keenly, and mentally thanked Yuuko again for all the hours she had him practice drawing straight lines in freehand. It would have been humiliating for him to have to redraw something.

He held his hand over the center. “Subaru, if you could place your hand over mine…?”

Subaru did as asked. Fai breathed in, out. Then the lock of hair burst into flames as he charged the spell.

He felt his mind and magic rush up in the plane above Fairhaven - he could feel everything, every building, road, and person, however distantly. He focused himself on the lock of hair and swept for any matches.

There were the usually faint sparkles of skin, footprints, stray hairs, and emotion echoes - normal things that everyone left behind. But there was nothing as bright as the pelt should be. With this sort of spell, it should have stuck out like a star… unless…

Fai let himself drift down from his trance and put his awareness back into his living room, the lingering effects making him cognizant of each person in the house. Subaru was staring at him in slight wonder, while Hokuto was watching with bright eyes and a grin. Mokona was chasing a dragonfly in the backyard. Sakura and Syaoran had paused in their tasks to watch. Kurogane was now standing behind him. (Probably ready to catch him if he passed out, the bastard.) 

“I don’t sense any sign of your pelt,” Fai said gently. The twins visibly deflated. “But I have an idea of what might have happened. You’re still alive, so the pelt is still intact - the most likely scenario is that whoever stole your pelt is magically concealing its presence. If that’s the case, the scrying spell I just performed wouldn’t be able to sense it, nor would any fortuneteller.”

Subaru’s face crumpled in dismay. “But… who would do that?”

“I’m not sure,” Fai said, patting Subaru’s hand. “My first guess would be a collector of some kind, or someone who wants to use it in a ritual.” He didn’t include that no decent practitioner would utilize a selkie pelt; that was in the realm of darker magic. Foul magic that gains its power from stakes taken selfishly, given unwillingly. Unbalanced deals.

“Someone who has a grudge,” muttered Kurogane. The twins looked up at him in surprise - Fai had to agree that for such a huge man, Kurogane blended in easily.

“Who would have a grudge against my darling baby brother?!” Hokuto exclaimed, squeezing Subaru around the waist and ignoring his little embarrassed groans of Hokuto, please... “He’s the kindest person on the planet! He wouldn’t hurt a fly! Well, maybe a flying fish, but that’s not the point!”

“It might not have been something you’d consider harmful.”

Fai was on the verge of telling Kurogane to butt out and let him do his job, but he remembered the careful consideration had given his input the night of the gulon hunt, and how mindful he had been with his bandages after Fai had tended to him each morning. So instead he just nodded and said calmly, “It’s still a possibility that we have to consider. All our actions have impacts, regardless of whether we know of it at first.”

At his words Hokuto backed off, while Subaru nodded seriously. “No matter what the cause, I hope we can find whoever did it and convince them to give it back.”

Fai flashed him a warm smile. “I hope we do too. In fact, I’m fairly certain that you giving me this case so I can deal with someone potentially dangerous - so as to fulfill my duty - is enough to make an equal exchange.”

Subaru flushed. “I don’t know about that, but if you say so…”

“Don’t worry, Subaru!” Hokuto said cheerily. “We have the resident witch of Fairhaven on our side! We’ll be fine!”

They would be. They would be. This is what he is for - helping his people. “I promise, by my station and my heart, I’ll do my best to help you,” Fai assured them, giving Subaru a half hug, which he shyly returned with a small chuckle. “The first step is gathering information - I’ll be going around and talking to some of the major magical community leaders and experts in the area to see if anything or anyone odd came through. You two are more than welcome to come along, if you’d like. I have some umbrellas you can use to stay cool; moon knows they haven’t gotten enough use lately.”

Subaru and Hokuto nodded in unison. Fai turned to the kitchen. “Sakura! Are you in a place to pause?”

“Oh! Uh, well, actually...” Sakura said, fiddling with a peeler. “Me and Syaoran are making pretty good progress here, and um, we can get a start into all the other commissions too, and storing some of the new ingredients? It’s just, it’ll be nice to hang out with him again, and he says he’s interested in potioneering…?”

Aha. Well, there was no real need to bring her along if she wanted to stumble forward in teenage relationships, of whatever sort this path would be. Fai made a mental note to discuss how this all worked with her later that evening when it was just the two of them - he had faith in Syaoran’s chivalry, but just to be safe… “Alright, you crazy kids. Have fun - I’ll make a list of what I’d like you to take care of,” he smiled.

“I’ll come. We can use my car.”

Of course - his self-appointed guard dog. “Are you sure you wouldn’t want to stick around and make sure Syaoran doesn’t fall into a scary witch’s cauldron, Mister Amamiya?” Fai teased, maybe a bit too meanly. He just wasn’t sure if he wanted Kurogane hovering at his side, sturdy, stabilizing and destabilizing him all at once, while he took care of one of his most important duties.

“Amamiya - wait, you’re Kurogane Amamiya? The hunter?” Hokuto asked.

Kurogane levied an eyebrow, leaning against Fai’s chair. “That’s me.”

“Ohmigod! I’ve heard of you! You’re the one who helped the Almira pod out with that lusca last summer!” She hopped up and down in her seat. “That’s so cool.” 

“Every pod 200 miles to the north and south knows what you did,” Subaru said demurely, looking up at Kurogane with his big doe eyes. “Thank you so much for what you’ve done for our brethren.”

Kurogane shrugged, and Fai was able to notice his bashfulness. It was surprising to see embarrassment in the man, and Fai found himself torn between amusement and irritation at the cause being Subaru’s cow eyes. “It’s my job,” he grunted, pushing off from the chair. “Let’s go. We’re wasting daylight.”

“Daylight’s not exactly in short supply around here, booboo-bear,” Fai cooed, deftly snatching his hat and ducking from Kurogane’s swat in one move. Too much fun.

As they got into Kurogane’s car, Hokuto caught his eye and pointedly giggled. Fai laughed back, not really knowing what he was laughing at. Hopefully Kurogane and not himself.

-

From the passenger seat of Kurogane’s car, Fai guided the group to their first stop: the Fairhaven Sovereign Bank, which was patroned by both non-magical and magical residents of the surrounding area alike - though only the latter could visit the Interior August Offices. The Bank was owned and operated by the family of a long-defunct royal line, and guarded by an age-old dragon. It was an ancient pact between princess and abductor, and a profitable one. The partnership had moved from their homeland to Fairhaven soon after it was founded.

The Interior August Offices were concealed from the main floor by two polished alder doors, and primarily used for exchanging gold and silver (as was traditional), specialized bartering, and high security vaults for sensitive goods. Most people would be sent away for asking after the contents of the venerable vaults, due to the bank’s strict guidelines for private ownership. Most people were not resident witch.

At Fai’s request, a bank official in a snazzy suit (most likely distantly related to some foreign royal family) let the group into the way back, which was downright chilly in the climate control. Fai felt goosebumps rise all over him, and could see Kurogane barely restraining a shiver - such were the side effects of summery clothing. The selkies, who were built for cold environments, looked much more comfortable.

They went down, down, down in an obsidian elevator, then stepped into a subterranean cavern filled with gold, artifacts, and gemstones. Curled around the center of the hoard was the dragon.

It was the fourth time Fai had had an audience with the old Fairhaven dragon as resident witch; he had stood at Yuuko’s side for many more. He bowed low, and the dragon did the same. Kurogane and the twins made no move to pay respect in the same way (the twins out of ignorance, Kurogane most likely from obstinance), and the dragon did not acknowledge them in turn. Debts of respect. 

In his learned tongue, he asked about the pelt. The dragon hummed, most likely fantasizing about the rarity and taboo obtainment of the item. It answered his question - no, the pelt had not been brought into the bank. The dragon had not counted it in its hoard. It was not on its grounds.

Fai did not bring up the drought. There was no need, as he had come with news and requests for information last week. The dragon had curled tighter around its treasures, each breath billowing heat, and spoken.

"Deep in the underground caverns, your mortal climates do not matter to one such as me. But if you lessen my hoard by not doing your duty, one of herbs and stones, there will be one more to reckon with."

The warning echoed in his mind as he thanked the dragon for seeing him about the pelt, and the dragon thanked him in return for his service.

Standing solemn in the elevator, Subaru and Hokuto whispered to each other in the rough selkie language. Kurogane muttered to him, “You let that thing live underneath you?”

Fai shrugged. “Yes, it’s a fixture of the city and a valued resident. And I would advise you to watch your tongue, sugarlips - we’re still in its domain.”

Kurogane glared at him for the nickname, but spoke no further.

When they reached the safety of outside the doors, Fai turned to the group. “Sorry, Subaru - no dice! But that was just our first stop, so don’t worry.”

Subaru nodded seriously, flashing him an earnest smile as he opened his parasol. “It’s fine, Mr. Flowright. Was that the learned tongue?”

“Righto!” Fai said, leading them towards the parking lot. “Do you know it?”

Subaru shook his head. “It fell out of use in our pod a couple of generations ago. I’ve always really wanted to learn it though; I have a friend who's a practitioner and I think it's incredibly intriguing.”

“I could teach you a few phrases?” Fai said, adjusting Subaru’s hat  so it sat straight on his head. “I’m always happy to distribute resources.”

Subaru was about to reply when Kurogane pushed between the two of them, unlocking his car. “You’re in the way,” he grumbled, yanking open the car door and flopping onto his seat.

Fai pouted. “Ahhhh, you big meanie-weenie! You’re supposed to say ‘excuse me!’ Where are your manners?”

“Don’t call me that. Get in or I’ll leave without you,” Kurogane replied brusquely, closing the door in Fai’s face and starting up the car. Fai pouted and went around to the passenger side - just when he was thinking Kurogane was learning good behavior...

The next stop was the Doumeki apothecary for lunch, advice, and a long-shot back-up check. Immediately upon entering, Doumeki and Kurogane engaged in the foremost mutual glaring contest of the century, and it took Watanuki shoving a plate of sandwiches between them for them to break. The trio hadn’t heard anything pertaining to their search - no one had come in trying to pawn it, and after some short phone calls, neither had any other magic retailers. But there were some snacks that Hokuto exclaimed about endlessly, and Himawari showed the twins around the floor, describing the contents of every jar and basket that caught their eye. And to the man’s despair and frustration, the apothecary Mokona resembled his sister by taking great delight in harassing Kurogane.

Leaving the others in the main shop, Fai and Watanuki ventured back to Yuuko’s old store house and cast a joint searching spell for the pelt. The numerous, seemingly endless aisles covered in surrendered knick knacks and artifacts disappeared into the distance in a dusty haze; Fai knew the measure of the perimeter of the store house, but not the area. With the amount of security spells Yuuko had piled onto it over the decades she had been its master, it was nigh impossible for anyone other than her remaining apprentices to have gained entrance to it, but it was one of the most concealed spaces in the city - no harm in trying. Still, nothing of relevance turned up, and Watanuki professed no idea of where the pelt could be - no one had come into the apothecary asking for suspicious ingredients, either.

Before leaving the room, Watanuki stuck a brilliant red feather in the base of Fai’s witch hat. “What’s this?” Fai asked bemusedly, plucking it down and turning it over in his hands carefully. It was sturdy, warm, and seemed to glow with its own inner radiance.

“I found a few of these in an old photo album,” Watanuki said. “Mokona says it’s part of Yuuko’s collection of phoenix feathers - it doesn’t surprise me that she would be able to get her hands on some of these,” he added at Fai’s shocked look.

“Never mind obtaining its plumage,” Fai murmured, holding the feather with increased reverence. This changed things, and the gears in Fai’s mind turned as this new piece of information was added to his speculations. “Actually seeing a phoenix is just…”

“Something only she could do,” Watanuki finished. “I know, I nearly fainted when Mokona told me what it was. I don’t know if there are any more, but judging by their location, I guess she wanted us each to have one. Our inheritances just keep turning up new gifts; every time I try to sift through the storehouse I find something totally unexpected.”

Oh, Yuuko. Watanuki had never been told about the tattoo, but regardless, Fai had a feeling Yuuko was trying to heal his back one more time from beyond the veil . “Here’s where I say something sappy about how she’s telling us that she’ll live on in our hearts and our actions, or something like that,” Fai said softly, thinking of the way Yuuko had always seemed to know everything - from who had left a mess in the kitchen, to what the weather would be like the next day, to the solution to every problem that was brought before her.

“It’s you,” Watanuki said. His face shone with the faith he had had in Fai ever since he was thirteen and Fai had sat awake with him in his new bedroom after a nightmare. Still the same boy he had been after all these years, looking to Fai as if he were infallible. As if he were capable. “Her legacy lives on through you.”

Fai could only hope. Oh, sun and stars. His shoulders felt both strong and weak.

“Thank you,” he replied, holding all of his terror and despair beneath his tongue. “I appreciate your belief in me so much, Kimihiro. And thank you for the feather, I’ll take very good care of it! But! I gotta get going. Thanks for your help!”

Watanuki smiled blithely and patted him on the arm. “Best of luck today. And bring Sakura by next time, I still haven’t met her! I want to put her to work in the storehouse.”

After that, they stopped by the undead neighborhood and spoke with Kanoe, the head of the local vampire community, in her opulent underground rooms. She had been elected to her position before Fai had been born; even though she now reported to him, she still looked down her nose at him as if he were a child - or a bug. Fai had never been… close with Kanoe, but they were able to keep up a delightful fake friendship.

In the middle of introductions, Kanoe rose from her fur-covered seat and purred, “Now, who’s this?” into Kurogane’s neck. The man looked visibly uncomfortable and repulsed - whether by the contact, the vampirism, or both, Fai didn’t know. But he did know that he needed to separate the two before Kurogane did something really really politically unfortunate.

“This is Kurogane Amamiya,” he said hurriedly, grabbing Kurogane’s shoulder and moving him away from Kanoe’s grip.

“The hunter?”

“Yes, and he’s here as my guest,” Fai said firmly.

She had smirked at this, but withdrew. Fai gave her a sparkling smile in return then got down to business, Kurogane bristling at his side.

Kanoe had heard nothing among her people about the pelt, but promised to ask around. She knew much about concealment and prolonging magics, which is why Fai had come to her in the first place - but even with her age she could not think of anything involving selkie skin. Subaru and Hokuto frowned at his side, and he felt awful.

“Oh, and Fai…” she said right before they left. “I told you this when we spoke last week, but the sun exposure deaths are up to fifteen. Hopefully, the situation will be remedied soon. Correct?”

“Correct,” he replied with his best fake smile, despairing at more lives lost on his account. “We’re certain a solution will be found soon.” A lie.

Kurogane caught his eye as they climbed the stairs out. Fai hardened his smile, kept it on his face. No problem here. In control. Don’t worry about me. Everything he didn’t feel.

“You feeling okay, witch?” Kurogane muttered. Damn him.

“Peachy keen!” Posture. Movement. Smile. Nothing to indicate he was about to pass out, since he wasn't, since he's on the job.

(His legs felt wobbly and his head swam, but he pushed it aside. It must be the oncoming fear. It would leave him soon.)

Kurogane’s eyes bored into him. Then he nodded once, and rumbled, “... alright.”

On the walk to the library a few blocks away, Subaru almost collapsed from the afternoon heat - the effects of not having his pelt nearby were clearly setting in. At Hokuto’s urging, Kurogane heaved him onto his back despite Subaru’s profuse apologies and comments of “No, I’ll be fine, there’s really no need, I just need to sit for awhile...”

“No time. Pretty sure the library closes at 5,” he grunted, and Subaru had settled into his grip with a red face.

And Fai had to walk all the way to the library ignoring the spectacle and Kurogane’s huge hands on Subaru’s legs. He kept his eyes straight forward, deliberately chatting only with Hokuto. If Kurogane wanted to carry half-seal twinks around in public, well, he could do that. None of Fai’s business.

Fai led the group straight to the help desk at the center of the expansive library, Kurogane finally setting Subaru down once in the air conditioning to Subaru’s flood of thank yous. (It had been a nice thing to do for a relative stranger. Admirable, in fact. Fai hated that he was as worked up about it as he was. He thought about waking up in Kurogane’s car.) Saiga was there as ever, lollipop in mouth, feet up on the counter, and lazily tapping away at a computer. He looked up when Fai appeared in front of him.

“Well hey there, Fai,” he drawled, sitting back in his chair. “What brings you and this motley crew to my help desk this lovely, er, winter’s day?”

“Oh, not much,” Fai replied, leaning forward, shoulders untensing somewhat. He quite liked Saiga - one wouldn't expect it, considering the man’s ‘circumstances’ - but he was always very pleasant and genial to him whenever their paths crossed. Saiga had a natural casualness to him that made him easy to talk to. “Not that I don't adore chatting with you -”

“You flatter me!”

“ - but I’m here to see Kakei today. You could help me, I suppose, but Kakei is a bit lower risk in that regard.”

Saiga fluidly stood, cracking his knuckles. “Alright, I'll take you on back - although I gotta disagree with you calling Kakei lower risk than anybody.”

“You shouldn't talk about him like that,” Fai joked. He could feel Kurogane glaring at him. “He could kick you out on the curb.”

“He wouldn't,” Saiga replied. “Waste of an investment.”

“How do you two know each other,” Kurogane muttered to Fai as were led down the hallway to the library offices, the selkies up with Saiga sharing news of the pod.

“I've been friends with Saiga since he arrived in town! You can trust him as far as you can throw him, but no further.”

Kurogane grunted, narrowing his eyes at Saiga’s back. “Why's he wearing sunglasses inside? It's suspicious. And weird.” 

“It’s part of my image, dude,” Saiga called back to them. Kurogane stuck his hands in his pockets and grumbled. Fai couldn't help but giggle at his reaction, and Kurogane gave him the stink eye.

The back rooms were covered in papers, ancient computers, administrative materials, and of course, from floor to ceiling, books. Smudged old chalk lines and circles were evident on certain sections of the floor, and the air seemed stained with the smell of brimstone overlaid with the scent of the flowers from myriad vases perched on any clear space. The windows were covered in thick curtains so as to protect the often fragile materials from the harsh sunlight, although that made it quite stuffy; the worn old air conditioning unit hummed loudly in some hidden corner, chugging along the best it could.

Kakei was cradled in mounds of beaten up old tomes and boxes of chalk, copying something down in a weathered notebook. He looked up as the group approached his workspace and gave them a polite smile. Fai liked Kakei just fine - not as approachable as Saiga, certainly, and he always had his fingers in too many pies (Fai could relate). Sometimes Fai found it very odd that Kakei was technically his subordinate. But the man had remained all human throughout his often “experimental” magic, kept a good grip on his library and his projects, and was ultimately benevolent, and was always very polite to Sakura, which meant a lot in Fai’s book.

“Fai,” Kakei said smoothly, not putting down his pen. “It’s wonderful to see you. And selkies from the harbor pod, if I remember correctly? And even Mr. Amamiya - I didn’t expect to see you again so soon, especially not in the company of our resident witch.”

Fai blinked. “You two have met?”

“Yes, the other week he was skulking about the shelves and I introduced myself,” Kakei said, shuffling some papers and standing.

“I was learning the area.”

So what Tomoyo had told him was correct. “Honey-lumpkins! If you wanted a tour, you could have told me!” Fai teased, poking Kurogane’s cheek.

Kurogane, true to form, grabbed Fai’s wrist and pulled it away from his face. “What the fuck is a honey-lumpkin.”

You’re a honey-lumpkin!” Laughing, Fai dodged out of the way of Kurogane’s smack, grinning cheekily up at him.

Kakei smiled. “Well, I have to say congratulations are in order, Fai. You two seem very happy.”

Fai felt his face heat, and dearly hoped it didn’t show. “Hahaha, thanks Kakei, but you’re a little off the mark!” Don’t look at Kurogane. Don’t look at Kurogane. Don’t move or show any reaction. “Like this big ol’ brute could bag someone like me.” 

“Shut up!” Kurogane growled, ears a bit red. A guy like Kurogane being so bashful was unbearably endearing. And hilarious.

“Don’t bark at me just because you’re jealous!” Fai teased, dancing behind the giggling selkie twins. “You’re a fine hunk of man meat now, I’ll admit, but maybe one day - just maybe - your beef will be enough to match my natural charm and beauty."

“What the hell kind of ‘charm’ do you have?!” Kurogane snarled.

“Not that this isn’t amusing, boys,” Kakei said, “But I am obligated to remind you that this is still library grounds.”

“Ahhh, sorry, sorry,” Fai said, still behind the selkies. “I’ll get down to business.”

He explained the problem, and Kakei hummed, consulted a catalog, then went to a dark wood cabinet in the corner and pulled out a musty thick volume. It was plopped down on a table, and the group circled around it. Kurogane stood silent at Fai’s shoulder.

“What’s this?” Subaru asked, looking at the dirty binding in worry.

“It’s a very old apothecary catalogue. It operated on the east coast a century or two before it was shut down by the local resident witch for dark dealings; I bought this in a rare book auction a few years back.” Kakei paged to about two thirds of the way through, and then scanned through the dense scribbles. “Here - this is the only mention of selkie pelts in my collection that I can think of - for sale, fully intact, at an exorbitant price. They aren’t used a lot in magic since they’re so difficult to obtain, and are usually kept as trophies above all else. That’s most likely what’s happened to yours, Subaru.”

“I see,” Subaru murmured, hugging himself. Hokuto slung an arm across his shoulders.

“But besides trophies?” she asked. “What would they be used for?”

Kakei considered this. “The book doesn’t say, but since it’s such an intensely personal item to be traded between two people... most likely very dark things.”

“If I had to make a guess, I would say a very psychological magic. Transformative - to something more human?” Fai mused. “Selkie pelts carry a lot of magical weight, and there isn’t a lot of research into them.”

“... oh.” Subaru drooped, a shadow falling over his young face.

Hokuto hugged him tighter. “But I’m sure no one’s doing that! There’s probably just a collector somewhere. We’ll get it back, Subaru, and it’ll all work out fine!” she announced.

“Right,” Fai said. “It really is most likely a trophy - there aren’t very many rituals that one could find that demand a selkie pelt.”

“And that was only the first resource I could think of. I’ll continue looking, and I’ll have Saiga call you if I find anything else,” Kakei finished, replacing the apothecary listing and pulling a book from the middle of a stack, flipping through it, already getting absorbed in his work again.

“I’m not here to be your secretary, honey lumpkin,” Saiga countered.

“Actually, that was exactly my intention in summoning you.”

“Summon?” Subaru asked. Oh stars above, this was Fai’s favorite part.

“Yeah, he summoned me like, two years ago, for what I thought were nefarious purposes - like, I usually get called for help with dark arts and being a bodyguard. Normal demon summoner shit. But this guy’s only kept me around to do chores and put out ,” Saiga said casually. “Although I keep telling him that there are way cooler uses for the fleet of demons he keeps on call, especially when a prince of Hell is a permanent resident. Some summoners would give up a firstborn to have me around!” Humming placatingly, Kakei leaned up and kissed him on the cheek, then turned back to his books.

Quickly, Fai looked to Kurogane, anticipating shock and something to poke fun at, only to find… absolutely nothing but boredom.

“Aww, I thought you’d be surprised!” Fai needled. “I was saving up the whole ‘Saiga-is-a-summoned-demon’ thing for maximum surprise.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Kurogane barked. “It was obvious. I have a nose. He reeks of sulfur.”

“I thought I was getting rid of that,” Saiga commented, sniffing at his armpits. 

“It’s barely noticeable, dear,” Kakei said blandly, scanning through an index. “You smell as fresh as spring daisies, or a mountain breeze.”

“You really can’t smell it, though!” Hokuto chirped, sniffing Saiga’s shoulder. “You have a great nose, Kuro.”

“You run into a lot of idiots summoning demons they can’t handle in my line of work,” Kurogane said. “But the librarian’s still alive, and the witch brought you two here, so I’m not just gonna pull out the fuckin’ salt for no immediate reason.”

“I’m glad you trust me so much!” Fai replied, nudging Kurogane with his elbow. Kurogane elbowed him back. Hokuto giggled, but Fai could see Subaru wilting from both exhaustion and worry. Catching Kakei’s eye, he nodded slightly, then said, “It was very nice talking with you, Kakei, but it’s getting late and I’ll let you start closing up shop.”

“Right,” Kakei said “Good luck with your search, all of you.” Fai hung back as Saiga led the others out, herding them with conversation. Kurogane caught his eye with a questioning look, and Fai nodded and smiled - go on, I’ll be out in a moment. Kurogane considered him for a moment, then held up his open hand - you get five minutes. Fai winked, Kurogane huffed, and then the room was empty but for him and Kakei. The atmosphere immediately sobered.

“I did the research you asked of me,” Kakei said, pulling open a drawer and carefully removing a stack of slim volumes. “These are the climate patterns in the area since Fairhaven was settled. As expected, we’ve had droughts in the area before - but your information about it being related to sunshine rather than rain and snowfall seem to be correct when the data is applied.” He handed Fai sheets of paper with neat tables of data printed on them; Fai folded them and tucked them in his bag.

“We were in the middle of a wet spell before all this happened,” Fai commented. “My guess is that’s the only reason things aren’t as bad as they could be. We're lucky that there haven't been any wildfires, what with how dry it's been, but it's a real threat. I’ve spoken with some of the Folk, and half of them say that they’ll leave after the solstice if this isn’t resolved. The other half say they would stay longer, but wouldn’t rule out finding new grounds if it got to a certain point - if the sunshine started creeping into night, which is becoming a definite possibility. They all agreed on the solstice being some sort of deadline, however, but for what they either weren’t sure or wouldn’t say.”

“Well, they’re Folk. Obtuse and secretive is their way; I’m amazed you got that much out of them.” Kakei sat down in his chair again, sighing. “You said last week that you think it’s a legendary creature.”

“Mhm.” Fai took the chair opposite him. “Kurogane’s apprentice - Syaoran - lovely boy - showed me some of his research, and he’s narrowed it down to either a kulshedra or a phoenix.”

Kakei sat up straighter, adjusting his glasses. “You realize those are exceedingly rare, from what I remember.”

“I do, but this situation is exceedingly rare as well.” Fai leaned back, recalling bestiaries. “A bolla could have slept in our mountains for twelve years without us taking any notice, and just this year it’s woken up. Then it wakes in its full kulshedra form, causes drought - our deadline to either kill it or appease it is the solstice. That’s an avenue that makes sense with everything we know. The fault with this is that their usual method is the drying of wells, not harsh sunlight. It may just be an unusual specimen, but that brings me to the phoenix.

“Phoenixes are generally known as benevolent creatures, but they’re so shrouded in myths and cults that true, unbiased accounts of their behavior are few and far between. Is it a bird? A woman? A non-homicidal harpy? Depends who you ask. But they’re powerful creatures of fire, which is heat and light… the reason they’re so revered is due to their incredible power. Enough power to impact an entire town. Considering the drought started in the spring, the season of growing and rebirth, I wouldn’t say it’s far-fetched.

“And Fairhaven has a… certain history with phoenixes.” Fai struggled to maintain his usual smile; Kakei didn’t need to know the details of that. His back itched. Against his will, his mind brought up images of once-loved hands, blood, ink. Fire. “What’s more - look what Watanuki gave me this morning.” 

When he pulled the phoenix feather from his bag, Kakei’s jaw actually dropped. Surprise was an odd expression on him. “That’s…"

“Yep. A feather. Watanuki says he has one as well; they seem to be part of our inheritance.” Fai tucked away the feather, Kakei’s eyes trailing after it in awe. “I wonder if they are also a warning - the phoenix theory was a reach, but I believe Yuuko was trying to alert me to the threat.”

“... I see,” Kakei said, a bit shell-shocked. “I… don’t really know what to say, honestly.”

“I understand.”

“I’ll look through my collection for information on kulshedra and phoenixes in this region - along with the pelt, of course,” Kakei said, scribbling it down on a sticky note. “Thank you so much, Fai. This is incredibly useful.”

“It’s only talk,” Fai muttered, eyes gazing at the light streaming in through the window. That damn light. “I should be doing more.”

Kakei’s brow furrowed. “Fai - “

“Oi.” Both of them turned to the door - there was Kurogane. Fai glanced at his watch. The man was right on time. “Let’s go. The seals are hungry.”

“Alright, alright!” Fai said, shooing him. “Give me a moment to collect my things, snugglebug, I’ll be right out.”

“What the fuck is a ‘snuggle bug,’” Kurogane groused. “No such thing as a snuggly bug.”

Fai couldn’t help but genuinely laugh at that - of course Kurogane took offense to complimenting bugs. Kurogane looked at him with an odd expression, then swiveled and left. Fai hadn’t expected such an easy exit; he had imagined the usual chase after some stupid nickname. Ah well.

“About Kurogane Amamiya…” Kakei began as he and Fai walked toward the entrance.

A corner of Fai’s mouth turned up against his will. “The big growly puppy that’s taken to prowling around our fair city.”

“He’s a good man, Fai. You should keep him around.”

Fai had himself chuckle lightly, ignoring the flutter in his stomach. “Says the man practically married to a prince of hell.”

“What can I say,” Kakei said, smiling cryptically. “I have good taste.”

-

And so the day concluded with no concrete leads - Hokuto had wanted to continue into the night, but both Fai and Kurogane agreed that with the current forest situation, it was too dangerous to be out after dark, especially for Subaru. The group ate a thrown-together stew on Fai’s back porch, the sun slipping beneath the horizon and bathing everything in vivid orange light. It would have been a beautiful summer evening but for the fact that it was December.

Syaoran eagerly talked with Hokuto and Subaru about selkie customs and regional differences and they responded with enthusiasm - although Subaru was obviously tired and anxious, and by the end of the night was drooping onto Hokuto’s shoulder.

Fai taught Sakura some simple firework charms, which she took to with ease. Soon, the backyard was filled with cartwheeling colored sparks and Sakura’s delighted laughter. Her awe from seeing fireworks for the first time during summer hadn’t worn off, it seemed. She was so good and kind despite everything, and Fai knew she would be powerful in the best ways.

All throughout the meal, Mokona pestered Kurogane for chunks of beef from his bowl. Even though Kurogane loudly denied her and pushed her away from him, telling her to get off your lazy ass and catch a mouse or something, Fai glimpsed him slipping her a morsel or two, and by the end of the night she had curled up in his lap. Fai wanted to tease him about what a softie he was, but that would most likely make Kurogane shove Mokona off, and Fai’s chest felt too tight to properly speak. So instead he just gathered up everyone’s dishes and fled the scene to wash them, dodging Kurogane’s questioning look. As ever.

Standing at the sink, he thought back to the man he thought he had met in a bar downtown a few weeks ago, and wondered at how first impressions could change. He thought about strong arms, and hidden kindnesses, and a noble heart despite a rocky exterior - a man who stands securely on his own two feet. He thought about a bookish little werewolf, trailing after him with wide admiring eyes. He thought about the wound on Kurogane’s arm. He thought about waking up in Kurogane’s car.

He was surrounded by the most wonderful people in the world.

Sakura came in, holding a slumbering Mokona in her arms. She told him quietly, “Hokuto says she’s going back to the pod to report. But, um, Subaru…”

Fai smiled. “Tell Subaru he can bunk here for the night, and make sure to insist when he tries to politely decline. Could you make up the couch for him, sweet pea?”

“Will do!” Sakura said, walking back out carefully so as to not disturb the cat. Fai couldn’t help but smile - he was overly sentimental tonight, it seemed.

He looked out the kitchen window, hands getting pruny from the water. The moon was hanging half full and brilliant over his city. He made a mental note to check some of the potions fermenting in the cellar, and to make Sakura the macaroni bake again - she had eaten that so quickly last week and asked for seconds. He should get chocolate milk the next time they got groceries as well...

“Hey.” Kurogane stuck his head in the door. “We’re heading out.”

Fai nearly dropped the plate he was holding. He turned to face Kurogane, peppy smile affixed. “Too bad! But I suppose it’s bed time for growly puppies and Syaorans.”

Kurogane scowled. “Stop with the dog jokes.”

“But you just make it too easy! Always prowling around like you’re about to bite somebody - “

“Shut up. Listen, I.” Then he stopped, rubbing at his brow and sighing.

Fai felt a sudden spurt of fear - fear of what, he wasn’t sure. Fear of Kurogane saying something that was just too much. “You’re probably pretty tired from all the wandering around we did today! You can tell me in the mor - “

No. Stop trying to sidestep me,” Kurogane said, walking toward him. Fai pressed himself back to the counter. “You always do that. I just wanted to say that you did a good job today. Or whatever.”

Whatever Fai had expected him to say, it hadn’t been that. “Thank you? But it was only information gathering.”

Kurogane shrugged. “Yeah, and the selkies are a lot less all over the place now. You crossed off possibilities. It was good work.”

Fai’s stomach flipped. Kurogane was too damn close to him. “I… suppose. It really wasn’t much, to be honest.”

“Don’t disregard yourself like that,” Kurogane scowled. “You made use of your resources and did what you could. I’m giving you a damn compliment.”

Fai restrained himself from rolling his eyes. He smiled harder. “You’re very sweet, tough guy, but literally anyone with the title of resident witch could do what I did today. There’s still a lot I need to fix.” The pelt. Sakura’s memory. The drought. “Compliments, though fun, aren’t really deserved!”

“Shut up,” Kurogane said, crossing his arms. “You have a good hold on your city. Everyone we saw today respects you. This is only the first day of the case. So what. You have the skills to help them.”

“You’re an admirable man, mister muscles,” Fai murmured, looking down at the dishrag in his hands. “I don’t understand why you’re telling me all this.” Why was Kurogane bothering to be so kind to him? He was doing simply whatever anyone else would do.

Kurogane exhaled above him. “You’re dropping all your work for this one case. You spend the entire day doing this when there's probably bigger stuff you could focus on. You fed him, let him stay in your home. And for someone who won’t shut up about equivalent exchange or whatever, you gave him such a bullshit price for it.”

“It’s all that I can do. I should be doing more, but I can’t.” Don’t look up. Don’t see whatever disgusted or pitying look he has on his face. This isn't someone who would respect you.

There was a pause. Fai could barely breathe - the air felt too thick. Kurogane was too close, he was seeing too much - he would see how useless and empty and cursed Fai was, and Fai didn’t want that, especially from him -

Kurogane began, much too softly for who he was, for who Fai was, “Listen, witch... “

“Well, this was a nice chat! Have a safe drive home, big puppy!” Fai chirped desperately, trying to dodge away from the counter and from Kurogane and from this conversation that was squeezing his heart right out of his chest. But then his foot slipped on some suds and he lost his balance and banged his elbow against the counter and braced himself for impact - and then he felt Kurogane’s hand at the small of his back, and gravity stopped happening so much, and he looked up.

There was a moment where everything seemed suspended. Fai found himself noticing the broad spread of Kurogane’s hand and fingers, and how warm he was, and how easily he supported his weight, and how his face seemed surprised, but not revulsed. How Kurogane’s first instinct was to make sure he didn’t fall.

“Kurogane - oh!” Syaoran’s voice startled both of them upright and apart. Syaoran was bright red in the doorway. “Um! Sorry! I’llbeoutbythecar!!” He dashed away quickly, but the moment had passed. It was a good thing it was dark enough that the pink on Fai’s cheeks shouldn’t be noticeable. Kurogane was just staring at him. Fai’s hands were shaking.

Aquarius above, what an awkward pause.

“I guess you should go out and join him,” Fai said, finally.

“Right,” Kurogane grunted, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Contact me if anything comes up.”

Fai laughed lightly, turning back to the sink and away from whatever on earth had just happened, heart beating out of his chest. “In the middle of the night?”

“Whatever,” Kurogane tsked, moving to the door. And then he paused.

“Is there anything else, Mister Amamiya?” Fai sang, focusing intently on the bowl he was scrubbing.

 “... take care of yourself, witch.”

And Fai had to turn - to try and see what exactly he meant by that, what his face looked like - stars above, he didn’t want to delude himself into thinking it meant something more than it did -

But Kurogane was gone. Outside, there was the sound of car engine starting up.

Fai finished the dishes and set them to dry. He went to his bedroom, changed into his pajamas, and brushed his teeth. He laid down in bed.

He had no idea what to think or do about anything in his life anymore.

(Two weeks.)

He should just sleep.

-

The next morning, Fai was making hash browns and eggs as Sakura spread jam on toast. He was making more than he usually did - he had a houseguest, but he also figured the hunter pair would want some when they arrived in a bit. He had charged the Fount first thing today so they could get straight to work... and also so Kurogane couldn’t hover. And he felt fine! So there, he thought petulantly in Kurogane’s general direction. No need to act so concerned in kitchens. No need to expend your pity on me.

There came rustling from the living room, and soon Subaru trudged in, eyes shadowed and yawning. He sat down at the table and blearily accepted the tea Sakura poured for him.

“Did you sleep well, Subaru?” Sakura inquired. “Not to be rude, but you look pretty tired.”

“I had… very bad dreams,” Subaru mumbled, clutching the mug with both hands. “I've been having very bad dreams. There was a big black bird. And I was coughing up blood.”

Fai filed that away in his memory - could be useful. To Subaru, he smiled and set down a plate of food. “Well, nothing a good breakfast won’t fix! Eat up, Subaru; I’m certain we’ll find the solution soon.”

“Thank you again for your hospitality,” Subaru said, digging into his food. “I really appreciate it. Usually I stay with Seishirou when I go ashore, but I wouldn’t want to intrude on him with such short notice.”

The blood drained from Fai’s face. “Seishirou? Seishirou Sakurazuka?”

Subaru colored a bit. “Y-yes? We met about a year ago, and he hasn’t done anything untowards - he’s really nice.”

Oh. Oh sun above.

As the pieces fell together - of course it's Seishirou, who else would go to such extremes - Fai flipped the gas off on the stove and scrambled over to his workbench, grabbing a small glass bauble and a few ingredients - marigold, aloe extract, thistle. He poured a teaspoon of the aloe into the bauble and set to work hastily crushing the marigold petals.

“Fai…? Is there a problem?” Subaru asked, still at his plate as if his life wasn’t in danger.

“Sakura, please get me the eucalyptus ink from my study,” Fai ordered, and Sakura dropped her breakfast and ran off. “Subaru, you need to tell me everything you can remember about your dream last night. Your life may depend on it.”

Subaru paled, and stuttered, “Um - well, the big looked like, a black seagull? It was big, I’m sorry, I don’t know many land birds… it had huge holes in its wings. It didn’t have any eyes. Every time I tried to look at its face, I felt really nauseous… it was at night, I think. It was really dark.”

“What about the blood?” Sakura asked urgently, returning with the ink.

“Halfway through I started coughing it up. I felt very cold - colder than any water I’ve ever swam in. I felt its claws dig into my shoulder, and then I woke up.”

Moon and Mars, Fai had absolutely no idea what any of that could mean besides evil. But he flashed a quick smile to Subaru as he mixed the marigold and thistle into the aloe and lied, “Thank you, Subaru, that’s very helpful. Now, I need another lock of your hair.”

Sakura fetched Subaru the scissors as Fai got out a tin of dried vetivert; he then bundled the hair in the twigs and stuck it in the bauble. Using the eucalyptus ink, he sketched out a sustaining sigil, and laid it along the rim of the opening. He charged the sigil, let the ashes fall into the bauble, and screwed the cap on.

There - scanning and protection artifact made. Without any real idea of what on earth Seishirou had done this time he couldn’t make a very specific one, but hopefully this would be enough to get the job done - and keep someone safe when they set foot on his property. Oh, by Saturn above, he shouldn’t have neglected checking up on Seishirou just because he couldn’t stand the man.

“Fai? What’s going on?” Subaru asked apprehensively. “Is something wrong with Seishirou?”

Oh stars in the sky. He turned to Subaru, putting on his best comforting face. This wasn't going to be easy. “Listen, Subaru… I know Seishirou comes off as a regular hedgewitch - a lovely garden, a bubbling cauldron, a smile, and an open door. I have no doubt that he’s been as nice to you as you think he has.”

Subaru’s face collapsed. “... Seishirou is the one who took my pelt.”

“I’m afraid that’s the most likely answer,” Fai said softly, and by the soil of the earth, he hated this part of his job. Subaru looked like he was about to cry, except even his tears had left him. He stared down at his hands, face ashen.

Sakura moved over to him, gathering him up in her arms. “It’ll be alright,” she murmured, stroking his hair. “We’ll get your pelt back and sort this out.”

There was a knock on the door, and Fai rushed over. He knew who it was. “We have a huge lead on the pelt. I need to leave now.” Kurogane and Syaoran looked surprised at the abrupt greeting, but settled into their game faces quickly. “Kurogane, Syaoran, Sakura - stay here with Subaru and have him drink plenty of water. Text me when Hokuto arrives.”

“I want to help,” Sakura proclaimed, standing from where she had been bent over Subaru.

Fai bit his lip. He didn’t want to shoot down her hopes, but... “I can’t allow that,” he told her. “It’s too dangerous.”

“But I can do it!” she insisted. “I didn’t help at all yesterday and I feel terrible about it. From what I’ve heard, Seishirou’s a real threat. I won’t let you go in alone.”

Oh, moon above, everyone was watching him. He stood straighter, and hardened his features. “Sakura, I understand that. I really do. But I won’t endanger you like that. Seishirou’s house is a formidable magical net; even years ago, Yuuko didn’t let me go with her on housecalls there until my fourth year of training - and you’ve only just started, with life in general. He keeps all kinds of terrible things in there, and the pelt isn’t the least of it, the things he makes… he’s an intensely violent person at his core, and I don’t want to risk your safety, sweetheart.” He was doing his best to impart to her that he couldn’t risk her, couldn’t risk hurting his apprentice and ward for his own gain. He couldn’t be that person.

“I’ll come too,” Kurogane said, moving to stand beside Sakura. “I have years of experience with dangerous witches and resistance training to most hexes.” Fai remembered how his glamour hadn’t affected him the night of the vila hunt, and considered, for a moment, accepting. Kurogane was always pushing to come along, to stand at his shoulder and help, to push him out of the way and take a blow for someone he barely knew or even liked. He was a noble sort by nature. He had set himself up as the protector of everyone, and would be a good ally to anyone. Fai didn't understand why he kept making a point to stand beside him, of all people, but it was… nice. Very nice.

Still, he wasn’t willing to get anyone involved in something that had happened due to his own neglect. “It’s swell of you to offer, muffin-man, but there’s no need for anyone else to be involved - “

“She said you shouldn’t go in alone. Respect that wish.” Kurogane’s eyes bore down into him, and Fai found he could do nothing but nod. Kurogane looked down at Sakura. “That work for you?”

She hesitated, but acquiesced. “That’s fine. But don’t let him do anything stupid or self-sacrificing - if he comes back half dead, you’ll have me to answer to.”

It was almost laughable, this girl who barely came up to Kurogane’s waist trying to intimidate him - but Sakura had such weight behind her words, such assurance and strength in her voice, that it was natural for Kurogane to incline his head and vow, “I’ll do my best.”

Fai kissed her on the top of her head and murmured, “I promise I’ll stay safe.” She sighed, but clasped his hands in hers and squeezed. He felt his veins come alive with a protective blessing.

“You better come back in one piece,” she told him, and stepped away. “I’ll text you when Hokuto comes, and I’ll also try and find something to help.”

“This might be good practice for your cursebreaking,” Fai noted, scooting around the kitchen, scooping a few items into his bag. Firepowder, his cedar wand, and of course the bauble he assembled earlier... he scooped in his charmed sigil ballpoint as well. Might as well construct a few more wards on the way there...

“Alright, big puppy, let’s get going,” he said, slinging his hat on his head, ignoring Kurogane’s token grumbles of not being a dog. “Subaru!”

The selkie looked up at him, face still lined with pain. “Yes?”

Fai gave him the bravest smile he could muster. “I’ll do all I can to get your pelt back.”

Subaru, though still visibly heartbroken, nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Flowright.”

Fai and Kurogane exited the house and went out to Kurogane’s car. Fai rattled off the area Seishirou’s house was in - “You know where that is, right?” “I haven’t just been sitting on my ass for the past few weeks.” - and stated rifling through the car’s front compartments.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Kurogane barked.

“Looking for loose scraps of paper!” Fai replied, finding a cache of old fast food receipts. “These’ll do. I’m gonna make us some protective sigils - they’ll be a bit slapdash, but anything is better than less. We’re sort of charging in headfirst here, but giving him any more time alone with the pelt worsens the situation exponentially.”

Kurogane eyed him. “Is he that bad?”

Fai exhaled, tying his hair back in a high ponytail then getting back to work. “The first time I visited his house with Yuuko, it was a house call to discuss a business another local witch had brought up. Regular stuff. The second time, it was to exorcise his house - he was keeping incredibly malignant matters in his cellar, and it was contaminating the soil of the entire acre. She made him swear an oath to never pull that kind of shit again, but even with that limitation I would say he’s had a hand in the creation of a good quarter of the dark artifacts in this region. Fairhaven has a reputation for a very secure and upright magical community, but Seishirou has his own reputation for very good dark sorcery - and he’ll take whatever commission interests him.”

Kurogane tsked. “Do you have a plan?”

“A rather slipshod one, but yes.” Fai paused in his sigils to pull out the bauble. “That house is covered in anti-intruder wards - I’ll get us invited in by wanting to talk about how he’s still maintaining his lawn, even in the drought. What an asshole, am I right? Anyway, you’ll be carrying this.” He brandished the bauble at Kurogane, who took one hand off the wheel to accept it.

“What is this? A tree ornament?”

“No, you silly-billy, it’s a multi-stage spell artifact. The first use is to keep the carrier safe, as it repels most curses. The other - “

“What about you?” Kurogane interrupted.

Fai paused. “What?”

“There’s only one of these things.” He was looking at the road. His skin glowed in the sunlight. “What's gonna protect you?”

“That’s what I’m making all these sigils for,” Fai replied, flourishing a bit on a final rune and switching to another paper. “Get in the left lane. Anyway, as I was saying before you so rudely interrupted me, cupcake, the other use of the bauble is to take a sort of aura survey of Seishirou’s house, specifically for Subaru’s pelt. Once we’ve gotten past his doorway wards, the bauble should have enough oomph in it to get past the concealing charm on the pelt. It’ll take about five minutes for it to scan the house, but after it’s done its job I can have a pretty good idea of where it is. I suppose it’s a good thing you’re coming along - if I carry the device, its information will take up half of my attention, and I need to keep Seishirou focused on my small talk, which I know isn’t your forte.

“When it suddenly heats up, toss it to me - that will be the proof I need to power down Seishirou’s charms around the pelt, it’s a magic thing. I’ll use my firepowder and you’ll use your brute strength to incapacitate Seishirou long enough for me to fetch it. Since he stole it, he technically can’t do anything to stop us from taking it back. Make the next right.”

Kurogane hmm-ed, turning the wheel. “Sounds good. I’ll try and get him outside of his house so he has less access to his spells and wards.”

“Good thinking, snookums - but even then, watch out for any tricks. Don’t listen to anything he says! He’s a real piece of work.” There - another sigil finished. Kurogane nodded in the corner of his eye.

“Why the hell don’t you kick him out of town?”

Fai grimaced. “I can’t. He owns his property, and we can’t take it from him. Birthright is very powerful, and so is the Sakurazuka line. Take the next left.”

Kurogane did as ordered. “Then can’t you just kill him?”

That would be Kurogane’s line of thinking. “I wish,” Fai grumbled. “But no, he’s found some loopholes in the rules. All the shit he does, he does for clients, which means he technically isn’t using the dark magic for himself. Or he hides it well enough that I can’t catch him in the act. And the rules of my position forbid me from killing except in defense of myself or Fairhaven, and even then it's only in the most dire circumstances. Seishirou hasn't reached nearly that far yet, but he toes the line enough to be an entire thornbush in my side.”

“Sounds like a real dickhead.”

Fai chuckled bitterly. “You don’t even know the half of it.”

There was silence as Kurogane drove and Fai scribbled down more protective charms on the backs of receipts - to conceal their intentions, to strengthen them against mental attacks, to guard against physical damage, every one he could think of, anything to keep them safe in that damn house…

“You act like you have a handle on everything,” Kurogane muttered from the driver’s seat.

Fai looked incredulously at him, filled with anger and shock and fear. “Is this really the time, big guy?”

Kurogane was looking at him as if he would disappear - as if he wasn’t strong enough to stay awake and alive if Kurogane took his sunforsaken red eyes off of him. “And everyone believes it but you.”

Fai’s insides went cold. He inhaled, hoping it didn’t sound as shuddery as it felt. He kept his nose in his work, his hand moving on autopilot, his smile automatically affixed. “I try my best!” He chirped. Circle. Line. Crescent.

He could feel that Kurogane was about to say something, and his shoulders tensed as if to deflect a blow, and his pen pressed into the paper as if the sigil would ward off whatever cutting remark the man beside him was about to say.

Then Kurogane quietly sighed, and just continued driving.

A few minutes later, they pulled up in front of Seishirou’s house. Fai sorted through all the sigils he had managed to make and pushed about a third of them over to Kurogane. “Just put them wherever you can,” Fai told him, stuffing his share into his pockets, his binder, his shoes. Kurogane muttered something about this being stupid but did as ordered.

They got out of the car together, and gazed at Seishirou’s unassuming little house. It had a clean white coat of paint on it, every shingle in place, everything in order - it looked like it came out of a real estate catalogue, the perfect definition of “mid-range two story house in an urban waterfront area.” Seishirou’s attention to detail in his quest to look like a regular person edged into unsettling, Fai thought to himself. Although everything Seishirou did was unsettling, so that wasn't saying anything new.

He took a step towards the house, but Kurogane grabbed his arm. He turned with a questioning look - was a sigil sticking out somewhere obvious? Was there another bone-crunching criticism Kurogane wanted to levy at him?

Kurogane cleared his throat, and said awkwardly but firmly, “What I was meant was - you’ll do fine in there, witch. And you have me as back up. So don’t worry about it.”

Fai’s breath stopped up in his throat. Don’t overthink this. He has a duty to protect. You're no one special. He switched on a grin, and patted Kurogane’s bicep patronizingly. “We can only hope, cuddlebunny!”

Kurogane rolled his eyes but followed him forward, standing just behind his shoulder.

The property was surrounded by tall, perfectly trimmed hedges, parted exactly four feet for a paved walkway to the front porch. Fai took a deep breath as he stepped between them and immediately felt himself enveloped by a thick miasma of magic, so dense that it felt like his lungs and arteries were clogged up with it. Still, he kept his chin high and his back straight - Seishirou had already been alerted to their presence. Any sign of weakness was a risk.

They stepped onto the porch, and Fai couldn’t help but shudder as they moved past another wave of magic. Wormwood and henbane, he hated Seishirou’s aura. He knocked on the door and felt something slither down his spine.

Then a hand lightly touched his shoulder blade, and Fai glanced up at Kurogane in silent question. The man darted his eyes to the door and back to Fai, then nodded.

I’ve got your back.

Fai smiled back, both in response and because he was genuinely touched. He gave Kurogane quick thumbs up as the sound of footsteps neared, and then the door opened.

There the bastard was, in casual-yet-nice clothes, smiling like he had done nothing wrong. And in his mind, he probably hadn’t.

“Fai,” Seishirou said smoothly, his wide shoulders blocking their eyes from seeing much of his house. “What a pleasant surprise.”

Fai fixed on his best ‘trust me, I’m cheerful and nice, and also I could beat you in a fight’ smile and chirped, “Good afternoon, Seishirou! This is my associate Kurogane Amamiya; we're sorry for dropping in at such short notice - but resident business, you know how it is.”

To Fai’s total surprise, Seishirou grinned charmingly, gesturing inside the house. “Come on in, I was just making iced tea. It’s so warm out, isn’t it?”

Shit. This casual admittance trapped them into entering the damn house, and his easygoing air set Fai’s teeth on edge. Still, he smiled back at Seishirou and stepped inside, toeing his sandals off in the entryway as prompted. He could feel his magic within the bauble begin to do its work.

The two of them were led through the front hallway to a nice little parlor - every decorative pillow perfectly positioned, a few vases filled with fake flowers, and the gleaming white carpet looking as untrodden upon as the day it was bought. All in all, it looked conspicuously perfect and horrifically unlived-in. Just like Seishirou himself, Fai thought.

“Have a seat,” Seishirou said, indicating the couch. “I’ll fetch refreshments.” And then he paced off to the kitchen. Fai met Kurogane’s eyes and shook his head slightly - don’t eat or drink anything he gives you.

Kurogane nodded once, then tilted an eyebrow - why aren’t you talking?

Fai tapped his ear - he has ears all over the house.

One minute - Seishirou came back in carrying a wicker tray with two cups and those frosted supermarket cookies nicely laid out on a plate, and in the other hand he held a pitcher of iced tea. He set them down on the coffee table and then gracefully sat in an arm chair; he did not look at Kurogane or even acknowledge his presence in any way. All the better, then. “Now Fai, what’s the occasion? I would think you would be busier with other things, considering the weather.”

Fai quelled the offense he took - who was Seishirou to tell him how to do his job when he couldn’t even follow common magical decency? “It’s just that, Seishirou!” He replied cheerily, fixing on a pleasant smile to match the other’s. “While we figure out a solution, the community needs to work together to reduce our water usage. I’m here to discuss strategies to be water-conscious!”

Seishirou smiled back at him. “By all means, go ahead.”

Mars above, that snake’s smiles already set him on edge. Fai was fairly certain that Seishirou knew something was up - it was hard to tell, with how Seishirou looked at other people as if they were things - but he just had to keep chattering and holding up the pretense long enough for the bauble to do its work. Kurogane shifted beside him. “For magic practitioners, a small herb garden is essential for our work! I wouldn’t dream of asking anyone to let their garden die, but consider letting the less-used plants rest this season. I’ve let my figwort and hyssop wilt, for example.”

“I’ll think about it,” Seishirou replied, the condensation from the glass he was holding dripping down into his lap.

“When we arrived, I couldn’t help but notice your lovely green lawn. It looks great! Complements your house very nicely. But I’m asking you today to let it yellow - reduce your sprinklers to once or twice a week. Considering it’s cosmetic in purpose, I don’t think it’s too much of a burden.” Two minutes. Kurogane shifted beside him.

“It’s a very nice idea,” Seishirou said, swirling the ice cube in the cup with circular precision, smiling blithely. “But I don’t see why I should sacrifice my plants for a problem that isn’t my fault.”

“We all live and work in this city, Seishirou!” Fai chirped. “It’s a community-wide issue that impacts everyone, including you and I, and even the people who have no idea magic even exists. We have to work together to lessen its effect.”

“I suppose you could say that,” Seishirou said, placing his drink down on a coaster. “However, this isn’t really in the spirit of working together, is it?”

Fai’s blood ran cold. They were only halfway there. Shit shit shit. “What do you mean?” He asked innocently. He could feel Kurogane start reaching for his knife.

Seishirou smiled that bland, papier-mache smile at him. “Let’s not fool around any longer.” He raised his hand in front of him, twisted his wrist, and Fai found himself yanked over the table towards Seishirou by tendrils of shadow that bled from the corners of the room, his limbs and torso and neck tightly ensnared. He couldn’t move. He could barely draw breath.

Kurogane lept to his feet with a snarl, brandishing his knife. “Let him go,” he growled.

“If he makes a move, I'll break each of your limbs,” Seishirou told Fai calmly, ignoring Kurogane, still smiling. Always smiling. If Fai wasn't busy fearing for his life, he would find the similarity between them kind of funny. Kind of awful.

Kurogane bristled with anger, but stayed his hand, remaining on his side of the table.

“I know that you're here for the selkie pelt,” Seishirou said, patting Fai on the head. Fai wanted to bite it off. “I need it for a client, so I won't be giving it back. My apologies.”

“What is all this shit? We had you clean all the spirits of the dark out of your basement years ago!” Fai snarled. “You made an oath.”

“Yes, I recall that,” Seishirou replied, his smile darkening slightly. “But I made it to Yuuko. With her death, I'm not beholden to her anymore. That's how oaths work.”

Don't use her death like that!” Fai snapped, twisting at his bindings, feeling bloodlust rise in his veins. How dare Seishirou be so disingenuous and slimy to betray that oath, how dare he disrespect Yuuko’s memory this way...

“Why do you need the selkie pelt?” Kurogane broke in, dagger still leveled in Seishirou’s direction.

“Here, let me show you my work. I'll admit I'm quite proud of her.”

He raised his hand and made a series of gestures, and again from the shadows something flew out, and Fai was trying to look at it, trying to see what it was, but if he stared at it too long his eyes burned, his stomach felt overturned, he felt terrible. It had two wings, and shed feathers as it alighted on Seishirou’s arm.

“A nachtkrupp,” Fai breathed. “Seishirou... why on the soil of the earth…”

“A commission,” Seishirou replied. “You know how it is. Hair removal potion, luck sigils, nightmare bringers. The business of being a witch.”

“What's a nachtkrupp?” Kurogane said, luckily looking at Fai rather than the damned bird.

“A very dark creature,” Fai answered, fighting back nausea. “It brings plague and nightmares and eats children. They don't occur naturally - but Seishirou is almost done constructing it. Notice how it sheds feathers? It's not complete.”

“Very good, Fai,” Seishirou said, stroking the nachtkrupp’s head. “One would think you missed your calling.”

If Fai could move his arms, he would punch Seishirou’s jaw off. “Fuck you. I need to know this to protect the populace from scum like you. Subaru doesn't deserve this.”

“Ah, yes. Dear Subaru,” Seishirou hummed. “You stopped in at the perfect time. I was just about to burn the pelt as the finishing touch.”

“The finishing touch?” Kurogane asked.

“The nachtkrupp can't hold its form for very long right now - see how it's losing volume as feathers fall?” Fai tried to twist his arm to reach his pocketknife, but it was jerked away. “He’s going to power it with the magic weight of the pelt, which carries Subaru’s broken trust and suffering. It was given unwillingly, so it's an uneven deal, which is a major component of dark magic - that's why decent witches have to be so particular about their bargains. Selfish behavior leads to nothing but trouble.”

“Fai, you wound me,” Seishirou said blandly. “Magic is magic. I'm merely doing my job. Although I may just kill my client and keep Nix for myself; I've grown quite fond of her.” He adjusted a wing feather on the rapidly disintegrating beast. “I’m interested in what sort of power she could wield. Sacrificial rituals are so robust - I’m sure you understand, what with your history and all.”

Fai’s blood ran cold. How did Seishirou know about that. “Don’t you dare bring that up. This has nothing to do with that.”

“I’ve wondered for years what Ashura’s ritual would have done if it had been allowed its final step to completion,” Seishirou said, circling his wrist so the shadows tightened around Fai. “I suppose I could replicate it - but for that, I’d need both Sumeragis’ pelts, hm?”

Fai wanted to shut his ears off. He didn’t want to hear about this. He wanted to make Seishirou disappear - he wanted himself to disappear - he wanted these blasted shadows to swallow him up so he could forget everything, the past and the present and the imminent dry future. His ears rang with the echoes of Yuui’s screams, the scars on his back sparked with pain, his blood felt as if it were on fire. He tried to remember what Yuuko always told him - just breathe, put yourself in the present, that’s behind you now - but the memories and despair and guilt were drowning him up, the shadows so much like the ink -

“Oi, witch,” Kurogane said. “What’s he talking about? Is he trying something?”

Gritting his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut, Fai hissed, “Don’t listen, mister muscles. It isn’t important anymore.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Seishirou commented. “That interesting little ritual was stopped just before it was fully powered, but perhaps it is coming to fruition with just a slight delay.”

Fai’s head snapped up. “... what do you mean?”

A corner of Seishirou’s mouth tilted up in amusement. “It’s just speculation. But everyone’s wondering why you haven’t fixed the drought yet, Fai.”

No. No. It’s over, Yuuko stopped it, it couldn’t be a result of that - she said it was finished - she took the tattoo off of him herself - she took Ashura’s life, she said it evened the deal, she said that had made up for Yuui - the ritual was disrupted before it was completed - Fairhaven was left intact - it wasn’t him, it had nothing to do with him - oh sun and stars it did, no no no -

“It appears that this phoenix doesn’t have as good control of her powers as the last,” Seishirou said, smiling at him with the smugness of knowing something that Fai didn’t. The nachtkrupp finished crumbling into a pile of feathers at their feet.

Fuck you!” Fai shrieked, struggling at his bonds with more fervor and desperation than before - that was the last straw - how dare he say thathow dare he imply - it couldn’t be, Fai would know, Yuuko had said - please, it couldn’t be him, not again -

“That’s enough,” Kurogane shouted, and from his pocket he seized a lump of salt and a lighter. “You release him right now or I torch this place with blessed salt. Don’t try me.”

Seishirou properly looked at Kurogane for the first time, and his gaze shifted as he examined his aura like the innards of an unknown animal. Beyond his fury, Fai could feel him sifting through Kurogane's mental wards, and he snarled to Kurogane, “Close your mind if you can! He’s intruding! Don’t let him in!”

Kurogane’s aura immediately slammed shut, but Seishirou had finished his invasion, and was chuckling a bit. “Well, well. That’s rather sweet. You don’t look the part, but I suppose even the butchest hunter can fall prey to such feelings.”

Shut up,” Kurogane growled. “Let go of him.”

Seishirou hummed, then tugged the shadows holding Fai towards him and grabbed him by the waist, holding him close. Sun above, the man stunk of malignant magic, and clearly had no concept of normal human boundaries. If Fai had his hands free… “This upsets you,” Seishirou commented, staring at Kurogane as if he was still able to sift through his head. What on earth was going on? Was he appealing to Kurogane's pride and sense of duty? Was he just trying to hurt Fai in a new and callous way? The situation was too perilous for Fai to really try and comprehend what Seishirou was trying to do as he was more focused on the tendrils pressing the breath from his lungs, but he dearly wanted Seishirou to go back to ignoring Kurogane. He had done nothing to deserve this violation. “For all your grandstanding, you are still a common fool. You had the right idea - you’re best off just with your apprentice. I don’t see why you’re doing this to yourself. ”

“Stop yapping on about shit you know jack about,” Kurogane ground out. “I won’t repeat myself again. Get away from him.”

Seishirou chuckled distantly, eyes sliding away from Kurogane and back to Fai. “You two are quite sweet, but you've become a rather unfortunate obstacle, Fai. I'll have to remove you.” Then he drew out a dagger and the blade flashed towards Fai's throat - and everything flashed before his eyes - he heard Kurogane yell - and through the fear, he found that he felt relief, because maybe this was the solution he had been looking for all along -

And then there was a flare of light arcing up between them, and Fai fell to the ground, hacking and coughing and inhaling full breaths, free from the shadows. There was an instant of disappointment (the weight from his shoulders, the possibility of his city being safe - they would have gotten along without him, he can be replaced after all, he's disposable) but overall he felt relief and a very warm, familiar feeling.

Seishirou was still smiling, but it was obvious the rat bastard had no fucking idea what had just happened. But Fai found that he did.

“Once you’ve made an oath to the resident witch, even if the title is passed, you can’t renege upon it. Dickhead,” Fai wheezed out, defiant smile inching across his face. Yuuko had saved him again.

“I see,” Seishirou said shortly, tightly, unsettlingly. “That’s too bad. I suppose I’ll have to go for your hunter, then.” And his hand swung towards a startled, unprepared, unguarded Kurogane, and Fai felt sudden terror at the idea of having jeopardized this brave noble man with whom he had barely just crossed paths because of his audacity to stay alive -

Then the door broke open with a great crash and there was a voice shouting, “Release!”

The room flooded with light, chasing the shadows away, and there stood Syaoran and the selkies at the doorway with Sakura at their helm, and she was brandishing an amulet in front of her that blazed like the sun. Seishirou staggered back with a yell, flinging his arms up across his face.

“Kid!” Kurogane barked. “Catch!” He dug into his pocket and threw the bauble, the moonforsaken bauble, at Syaoran and then ran to Fai, crouching down next to him and helping him up.

Fai leaned on Kurogane, still getting his breath back, and squinted at his apprentice, his mind spinning in the sudden changes. “Give it to Subaru!” he called over to Syaoran, still gasping for regular breath. “It can find the pelt! It has your hair in it, it should work - let your instincts guide you!” The light was dying down - they had to move fast. If they could just get the pelt, Fai could hopefully find an opening to take Seishirou down. Hokuto nodded, grabbing Subaru by the arm and pulling him into the house.

Subaru followed her, his eyes catching on Seishirou. He stopped in the middle of the parlor, which had been so neat and perfect before - the wreckage must be blatant to a boy who had thought of it as a safe haven. “Wait,” he said. “Wait. He… it's him.”

Seishirou stood straight, gazing at Subaru. “Good afternoon, Subaru, Hokuto.”

“You…” Subaru began, voice hitching. “You really took my pelt.”

Seishirou shrugged, pleasant smile fixed on. “I needed it, and you were conveniently around. The staff at the cafe I recommended to you were quite easy to thrall.”

“You were going to make something horrible with it,” Subaru said. He picked up one of the incomplete nachtkrupp’s feathers. “You were hurting Mr. Flowright. You… you were hurting me. For your own gain.”

“So it seems.”

Subaru stepped up to him, tugging his arm from Hokuto’s grip, ignoring Kurogane’s growl of warning. He looked up into his eyes, examining something Fai wasn't sure was there. Seishirou did not move. He still smiled.

Then Subaru’s face tightened in sadness and pity. “If you wanted me to stay, you only needed to have asked, Seishirou.” He placed a hand on Seishirou’s shoulder, more gently than a man like him deserved. “But not like this. Don't force me.”

And Seishirou looked... uncovered. His smile dropped, and he looked at Subaru like he wasn’t a object. Fai didn't know what to think of it. It was a foreign thing on Seishirou to him, but then, he was not Subaru.

And then his horrible smile costume was pulled back on and he brushed Subaru’s hand off. “Oh, Subaru,” he sighed. “If you think this has anything to do with you, you are sorely mistaken.” And from his palm he pulled the pelt - a bodily storage spell, of course - and Fai wasn't close enough to do anything as Seishirou whipped out a lighter - Subaru’s agonized panicked face, he didn't deserve this - he had failed in his duties again -

Not my baby brother, jackass!"

And there was a crack! as Hokuto punched Seishirou clear across the jaw. The man had a gloriously stunned expression as he fell to the floor, and Fai savored it. Oh, he savored it. There was their weak spot. Time for that brute strength.

Fai and Kurogane dashed over to Seishirou - Fai kept him down with a blow to the gut (oh, that felt good) and Kurogane pinned him with a knee on the chest. Sakura ran to him, assuming her place at his side for the assist, clapping her palms together. They had done this maneuver before.

Fai jammed the heels of his hands into Seishirou’s temples. “By the lotus of Morpheus, carry him to you,” he said in his learned tongue - a long-span sleep spell. They were putting him under deep freeze. Seishirou’s eyes starting clouding over, and he looked from Fai, to Sakura, to Fai again.

And then he started laughing, and laughing, and laughing, still chillingly polite and detached. “Oh, Fai,” he said, drifting off. “The biggest fool in this room isn't Subaru, or your hunter, or even me. It's you.”

Fai’s blood ran cold. “What?”

“Don't listen to him,” Kurogane snarled.

Seishirou’s smug, knowing eyes bore into him. “You should look in the forest for your solution, little bird. It won't stay dormant for much longer.”

His gaze darted over to Subaru for a final moment, and he drew a breath, and said, “I…”

And then his eyes closed, and he was under.

The room was silent for a stunned moment - Fai and Sakura and Kurogane knelt over Seishirou, Syaoran standing between the selkies and the conflict, the nachtkrupp’s feathers still scattered on the floor.

“Not much of a sleeping beauty,” Kurogane grumbled, and by the moon above, Fai couldn't help but break into exhausted laughter. Then his head swam, and he fell back into Kurogane’s suddenly outstretched arm.

“Fai!” Sakura exclaimed.

“Witch, what the hell?” Kurogane demanded. His arm felt sturdy like - like a branch, Fai thought wildly. Something sturdy like that. Something alive.

“I’m okay, I’m okay,” he panted. Breathing was not usually this difficult. His head felt overheated. “Still awake. Just the adrenaline wearing off.” Not now. Don't pass out now.

Syaoran walked over and picked up the pelt where Seishirou had dropped it. “Oh, Subaru…” he murmured.

He held it up, and while the majority of the pelt was a spotted tawny brown, the lower corner was seared at the edge. Everyone looked at it in horror, Subaru’s eyes welling with tears, and Fai felt driven halfway to crying himself because of the stress and he was still fainting and he had failed and sun above, everything about today…

After a tense, silent moment of examination, Syaoran finally said, “It should be fine. He didn’t destroy any significant part of it - it was just singed, I believe.” He walked over to Subaru and gave it to him gently. “You’ll most likely have a scar, but from what I know about transformative species, if the pelt is intact you’ll still be able to change."

Subaru sighed in utter relief and clutched his pelt to his chest, sinking to his knees. “At least there’s that.”

Kurogane helped Fai up (which was still humiliating), and Fai hobbled over to Subaru and crouched down in front of him. “I’m sorry that you had to go through this,” he said to him, remembering Yuuko speaking to him so benevolently all those years ago. “It’s always horrible when someone betrays your trust and love like this. It’s not your fault.”

Subaru nodded. “Um… what did you do to Seishirou?”

That lingering concern would most likely never go away, especially for someone as innately kind as Subaru. “I’ve put him in something between sleep and a coma,” he explained. “He’s unconscious, but not dreaming. His body will stay the same until he wakes up - no need to eat or drink. This will last for at least a year - maybe more, depending on circumstances. Seishirou has done… a lot of bad things. But he won’t be killed - that's not how I'm meant to mete out justice. So he’ll technically be alive, but unable to harm anyone.”

“Oh,” Subaru murmured. “I suppose that’s the best case scenario.”

“I’m sorry it came down to the wire there at the end,” Fai went on. “I should have been a bit faster.”

“It's okay,” Subaru said softly, staring down at the marred pelt in his hands. “What's - what's important is, we stopped him from making something terrible and dark.”

“No, you idiot!" Hokuto cried, rounding on her brother. “What's important is that you're okay. Sure, you might have a scar! And sure, Seishirou turned out not to be your dream boyfriend! But we're selkies - fire won't keep us down for long.”

This seemed to lift Subaru from his stupor a bit. “Right. Right. It... it will be good to swim with everyone again.”

“That’s the spirit!” Hokuto said, hugging him very, very tightly. She was obviously quite shaken, despite the cheer she was projecting.

Sakura came up to his side as the twins went through the main rooms of Seishirou’s house to find any possessions they had left there. “I’m really happy you’re okay, Fai,” she said, wrapping a hand around his wrist. “It seemed like it was getting pretty hairy in there.”

“Let’s just say it’s good that you came when you did, honey,” Fai said lightly. No need to worry her any more than she already was.

“Well, Hokuto arrived, and you weren't picking up your phone and I had a really bad feeling, so we took a cab here,” Sakura explained. “Um, the petty cash jar is empty now, by the way.”

“That’s just fine,” Fai said. “Can you show me the amulet you had? The one with all the light?”

Sakura handed him the amulet. “Here. Sorry if I wasn't meant to use this.”

“I would be in no place to scold you even if that was the case. Where did you get this?” Fai asked, turning it over in his hands. It was round and gilded gold, with a ruby inlaid in its center shaped like the sun.

“I found it in your office,” she told him a bit sheepishly. “It was in a bunch of boxes. I had a… feeling that this one was what I needed to take. And I guess I was right.”

“You have very good magical instincts,” Fai said. “I recognize it now - it was one of Yuuko’s. It never responded to me, but it seems you figured it out.”

Sakura colored. “I just channeled my power through it like you always tell me to. I guess the adrenaline helped!”

“I suppose so! But regardless of the circumstances, I'm very proud of you and indescribably grateful,” Fai said, wrapping her up in a tight hug. She returned it, and by the birds in the sky, her arms were so blessedly warm and kind - so different from Seishirou’s shadows. Both she and Yuuko had come to his rescue today. “Thank you so much, sweetheart. Thank you so, so much.”

“It was for you, Fai,” she said into his neck. “You deserve it.”

He glanced over his shoulder. “I think you owe my apprentice a thank you too, tall dark and grumpy!”

To his surprise, Kurogane nodded and bowed slightly. “Thanks,” he said gruffly. “Really appreciate it. I would have died without your help.” He looked at her steadily and sincerely, and Fai’s stomach flipped a little.

Kurogane really had been moments from death. If that had happened, Fai would never have been able to forgive himself. Thank the sun above for Sakura.

Kurogane stuck out his hand - Sakura instead went for the hug. Fai couldn't help but giggle at the bewildered look on Kurogane’s face and the stilted way he wrapped an arm around her comparatively tiny shoulders. They were an amusing pair, and it lightened the load on Fai’s shoulders.

Fai called Watanuki and requested his and Doumeki’s help purifying Seishirou’s house - it was too much for one man to do, even if that man was resident witch. Watanuki frantically agreed, his scrambling audible, and said they would take the apothecary’s car in case any artifacts had to be contained in the storehouse.

They also made plans for Watanuki to add to the sleep spell - Seishirou’s body would be in stasis in one of the rooms, then the whole house would be sealed and walled off. He would not be harmed - no matter how much Fai would like to - but he would be unable to do anyone any injury. It would be a long while before Seishirou woke again, and by then Fai would be ready. That man would not hurt his city again.

“Alright, I’ll wait here for Kimihiro and Shizuka,” Fai announced as he slipped his phone back into his pocket. “Kuroburo, you drive them back. Sakura, you have your keys, right?” Kurogane scoffed and Sakura nodded. Fai looked gently to poor Subaru, who was standing with the support of his sister and Syaoran. “You can stay at my house as long as you like,” he said gently. ”When I finish this up, I’ll make some dinner. Feel free to break into my mead if that's necessary.”

Subaru nodded numbly. He didn't seem able form words. He clutched his pelt tightly.

Fai took his hand between his own. “It will be awful for a while,” he told him softly. “I won't lie to you - It will ache. But you're strong enough to survive. And you have me, and your pod, and most importantly, dear Hokuto. You'll be fine.”

Yes. He had Hokuto, and Hokuto still had him. There was at least that. Fai hadn’t failed as much as he could have, though it would have been yet another ghost come back to haunt him. This was all hitting a little too close to home for him.

Subaru searched his face as if he was trying to find some spell to fix all of this, to make Seishirou the man he so cleverly appeared to be. But they both knew that it wasn't that easy.

“Thank you so much for your help,” Subaru finally said, bowing low. Fai returned it and felt like he should be apologizing.

Kurogane followed them out the door but shot Fai a look over his shoulder that clearly said we're discussing this later. Fai smiled cheekily back and winked (that is never happening, big guy), and was viscerally reminded of Seishirou’s horrible smiles. He hated himself.

And then the perfect little house with the perfect green lawn was empty but for him and Seishirou’s comatose body, full of secrets both valuable and dangerous.

He would have to go into the Fairhaven forest - he had been avoiding it, but with this information he simply had to do it. Most who go in do not come out alive, and right now it was full of half-starved beasts, whose plight was due to his own negligence and ignorance. He supposed he deserved it.

He wished Yuuko was here to help him.

1. Chapter 1 6396 0 0 2. Chapter 2 7203 0 0 3. Chapter 3 6755 0 0 4. Chapter 4 21143 0 0 5. Chapter 5 12450 0 0