“You are your father’s child,” her mother sighs, and touches her face with soft fingertips. “Don’t lose that kindness, my darling, and your heart will be as strong as your arm.”
Kurogane’s first kiss is when she’s fifteen and two years in Tomoyo’s service. It comes from the princess herself, when it’s just the two of them alone in her chambers: the princess embroidering a length of green silk to eventually be turned into an obi, and Kurogane reading — because Amaterasu insisted on her continuing proper education — while trying not to feel rather desperately out of place. There have been a few who’ve muttered jealously of the special affection and attention that Tsukuyomi lavished upon Suwa’s displaced heir, but Tomoyo pays them no heed, and Kurogane does her best to follow that unruffled example. She’s flattered, of course, and honored to the point of embarrassment, which she disguises with gruff clipped speech and narrow-eyed glares.
Still, there is no way to gracefully decline a request from one’s princess, especially when one doesn’t particularly want to, because Tomoyo is a soothing quiet presence and sometimes she sings as she works: things Kurogane’s mother sang to her, when she was still young enough for lullabies.
And then: “Kurogane,” says Tomoyo.
She looks up and the question dies unvoiced as Tomoyo leans forward. The princess’ lips are absurdly soft, and Kurogane is half-tempted to recite the poetry she’s just been reading. Up close, the princess smells like lavender and incense, and the curve of her mouth is a warm smile that lingers even when she pulls back.
Kurogane can’t do anything but stare, though her tongue swipes out automatically across her bottom lip. There is no lingering taste there like the romances like to claim, but her entire mouth tingles from remembered pressure. “P– Princess,” she manages, and her voice has gone low and husky in her surprise. “What–”
Tomoyo beams. “I wanted to,” she says. Her dark eyes are gentle, as is her hand when she touches Kurogane’s cheek. Her little fingers were soft; even the calluses were smooth. “Because you were there, and because I am fond of you, Kurogane.”
It isn’t a confession: the one woman who inherits Tsukuyomi’s name takes no permanent lover in her life; though she may spend time as she wishes, her duty must first and foremost be to the barrier she maintains around Japan. Kurogane knows this and still flushes like an idiot girl at the warmth in her princess’ eyes. It’s embarrassing.
“I,” she starts to say, then falls silent. Tomoyo continues to smile steadily at her, so she takes a breath and leans forward herself this time. The princess meets her halfway, still smiling.
Kurogane’s second kiss is soft as the first and becomes a memory she carries fondly for the rest of her life.
It goes without saying that she does not like the mage.
The princess is not her princess, but still one nevertheless, and thus will be protected. The kid’s not bad — a bit rough around the edges, but he’s got a fighter’s spirit and the intelligence to recognize and respect his betters and learn from them.
The mage, on the other hand, is like every single woman that has annoyed Kurogane in life: the soft-bodied fluttering butterflies that simpered in Amaterasu’s presence and fawned upon Tomoyo, the women who laughed too shrill and too bright, like it could hide the bruised shadows in their eyes — the women who would not accept the responsibility to change their own fate. She smiles like it means nothing and forgets Kurogane’s name when she remembers them for everyone else, even that damn white porkbun. It doesn’t take a genius to see that the mage is hiding a secret that’s gearing up to explode, but the princess is too weak and tired to notice anything but her own exhaustion and the kid is (rightfully) fixated only on her.
Which means it’s up to Kurogane to keep tabs on the idiot mage; for now they’re stuck together, and she’s not about to let a moron ruin her chances of going home.
That doesn’t mean she likes it, though; it rankles to be around the mage when the idiot won’t even lift a hand to defend herself. Even if Tomoyo was not half the warrior her sister-empress was, she knew — and more to the point, would use — enough magic to defend herself nicely. The mage doesn’t even pretend to try.
Instead she plays the part of a fool, spoiling the princess shamelessly and teasing the kid for his devotion — never unkindly, though he sputters and blushes red anyway — and indulging the white porkbun’s attempts to be cute.
And she flirts shamelessly with Kurogane with her lashes coyly lowered and her lower lip caught between her teeth, with cuddling Kurogane’s arm between her small breasts and leaning in so close that her breath feathers against Kurogane’s ear. She’s far bolder than the women of court, but always backs off just shy of actually promising anything. Only she knows the steps to her dance, and Kurogane has no patience for it. One of these days, she thinks, she’ll flirt right back, because nothing will get the damn mage off her back faster.
For now, however, it keeps the idiot close, and the last thing Kurogane wants is to have to chase down the moron if she decides to go off and sulk.
Soon, though. Any day now.
They arrive in a world where the princess’s feather is kept at a shrine and worshiped as a holy object. The High Priest is a broad-shouldered black-haired man whose smile never falters as he listens to their story and says that, if the princess is really their world’s goddess come to reclaim her feather, she must prove it. Just a few simple tests, he promises, and has a young acolyte lead them to their rooms. The mage is conspicuously silent the entire time, white as a ghost and not looking anyone in the eye as they walk down the hallway. The princess is given her own room, but both she and the kid look so piteous that he’s allowed to bed down on her floor, just to stay close. Kurogane and the mage are placed in the room next door, and as soon as the door closes, she turns on her idiot companion.
“That man,” she says. “His name was also ‘Asura.'”
The mage laughs; it’s a hollow rattling sound. “Ah,” she says. “How observant, Kuro-chuu. You noticed.”
“It’s not the same ‘him,’ though, is it?” Kurogane narrows her eyes. “The same soul, but not the one you’re running away from.”
Instead of answering, the mage slinks towards her, reaching up to slide skinny arms around her neck. She leans in close, fitting her narrow body against Kurogane’s own and lets her lashes flutter against Kurogane’s jaw. She smells nothing like flowers, just of wind and the burn of ozone. “Hey, Kuro-sama,” she breathes. “If I asked her to protect me, would she say yes? She’s such a devoted bodyguard, I’d have nothing to worry about if she were to watch over me …”
It’s instinct that makes her lash out; in a single sharp twist she shakes the mage off and turns. “Don’t be stupid,” she says. “You can take care of yourself. Try doing that instead of relying on others.”
The mage hits the wall with one thin shoulder and doesn’t move. Her head falls forward and she laughs again. “Ah,” she says. “Ahaha, that’s right, what was I thinking. How rude of me to ask.” She lifts her head and her smile is wide and brilliant and absolutely false. “I’m sorry, Kuro-sama.”
Kurogane glares, her hand drift to her waist and the sword that’s no longer there. Instead of trying again, though, the mage drifts away from the wall, shedding her long coat into a pile on the floor. She’s still wearing the clothes of the last world underneath — a long black dress that shows off her modest figure — and this she doesn’t bother taking off before she drops onto one of the narrow cots, face-down as always. Kurogane stares at her for nearly twenty minutes before she’s certain the mage is asleep, and only then does she move, stepping out of her boots and setting aside her own coat before she lies down, facing the other woman.
A thin shaft of moonlight comes in through the room’s single high-set window. It catches in the mage’s pale hair and makes it glow silver. Kurogane knows from experience that it’s soft as rabbit-fur, though the tips are rough with split ends. She misses Tomoyo suddenly and acutely, a thought that follows her down into sleep.
When she wakes the next morning, the mage is gone.
It isn’t until the princess passes her tests — with flying colors, really, carried by her inherent good luck — and receives the feather from the smiling High Priest that the mage reappears, strolling out from behind one of the temple’s marble pillars, as though she’d been there all along. She congratulates the princess on her win and neatly avoids the question of where she’d gone, and doesn’t look the High Priest in the eye; for just a moment she glances at Kurogane, and her lips quirk in an ironic biting little smile. She nods, so faintly that anyone else looking might have missed it, and then the transport spell opens around them like an unfolding flower and she’s gone from sight.
Be kind, her mother had always whispered, before and after her illness took hold. Be kind, my darling, always be kind and especially to other women; there are those who won’t recognize it for what it is, and they’re the ones who need it most of all.
They come to a world of perpetual winter, which is nearing the end of its lifespan. The mage theorizes that it’s only the presence of the princess’s feather that keeps it alive, but a blizzard keeps them confined to a building that must have been an inn, once upon a time: there is a bar in the main room and a number of bedrooms on the second floor. Neither Kurogane nor the kid trust the food still in the larders, and the white porkbun takes it upon itself to contact the Witch. They end up trading a silver bracelet set with an emerald (one of the princess’s wins from a poker game in the previous world) and the ruby stud in the mage’s right ear for a hot meal from the Witch’s assistant. Kurogane takes apart one of the rickety chairs for kindling and they light a fire, setting up their bedding close to that tiny source of warmth; the princess drops off almost as once, cuddling the white porkbun in her arms, and the kid lasts only a little longer before his head sinks to his chest and his breathing evens out.
Almost at once, the mage produces a small bright blue bottle from her coat pockets and uncorks it; even at a distance, it smells potently alcoholic. She sips it gingerly and makes a face before she holds it out to Kurogane in offering.
“When it’s this cold,” she says, and it sounds almost like apology, “it’s good to warm up from the inside.”
Kurogane eyes her suspiciously, but her smile is more wry than anything else; the firelight does nothing to hide the shadows in her eyes. It is possibly the most honest expression she’s had in their long time traveling together.
She drinks. It burns the whole way down.
When she gives the bottle back, the mage is closer than before. They’re not quite touching — there’s about a handspan of space between their knees — but she’s there in Kurogane’s sphere of awareness, a cool muffled presence that’s white as the snow outside. If she looks, she can see the other’s bowed head and slumped shoulders. If she looks away and then back again, the mage is closer still, and the smell of alcohol is heavy in the air.
“Oi,” Kurogane says, with her voice pitched low to prevent waking the kid or the princess. She knows damn well the mage is watching her, somewhere behind that tangled shaggy mess of hair. “Did you want something?”
The mage laughs. It verges on unkind. She tilts her head and shakes her hair from her eyes, staring blank and unblinking into the fire. “That’s the question, isn’t it.” She shakes the bottle, then takes a heavy drink. “Ahh, Kuro-tan, you should know better than to ask.”
“I did anyway,” Kurogane says, and snatches the bottle before the mage can drink again. “You’ve been staring at me all night.”
“Have I?” The mage blinks and tries her most innocent wide-eyed look. She presses a finger to her lower lip, as though she doesn’t know how damn easy it is to see through her facade. “Well, Kuro-ko is quite pretty, after all. She’s tall and strong and looks good whether she’s wearing a dress or a suit.” A smile twists her mouth, unkind in comparison to her previous expression. “She’s brave and she’s kind, and she takes care of the children so well in spite of being so growly. And with all this snow–” she lifts a hand and waves it languidly, “she is definitely the most interesting thing to look at. Of course, it’s always interesting with the faces Kuro-chama makes, but …”
Her knee brushes against Kurogane’s own now; through the layers of clothes they’re both wearing, her flesh is cold. Kurogane narrows her eyes, but doesn’t immediately pull back — and that, she sees, surprises the mage as long seconds tick past.
“What about you?” the mage asks. Her initial hard smile has faded into a bare twitch of her mouth and her knee trembles like she might break apart. “You’re asking something like this, so is there something you want in return?”
Kurogane looks. It’s not the first time: the idiot is exotic enough to someone from a world of black-haired dark-eyed people, and has a fineboned delicate face that straddles the borderland of androgyny, and she is nearly as flat-chested as the sleeping princess. She’s all angles and edges that would be better-suited for a man, but she’s flashy enough to draw the eye, even in a white world where she could easily blend in.
“Kuro-ro? Is there something on my face?”
“Idiot,” she says. “Don’t–”
She reaches out and closes her hand in the loose collar of the idiot mage’s shirt. With a twist of her wrist, she tugs the other woman forward, ignoring the pale hands that rise up and bat at her arm — other than that small token protest, the mage doesn’t fight at all, though her body goes stiff and trembling. Her eyes open wide, pupils dilating to pinpoints, and her breath comes rapid and harsh against Kurogane’s cheek. Kurogane brings her other hand up and lets it slide into the mage’s hair, soft and damp from melted snow, and uses that grip to hold her still.
(Be kind, my darling, her mother had whispered, be kind.)
“You piss me off,” she says, and kisses the other woman.
It’s nothing like the quiet gentle exchange with Tomoyo a lifetime ago, or any of the others who followed, men and women alike. The mage’s mouth falls open almost at once and she presses desperately close, but her kiss is passive — she makes a noise once when Kurogane’s teeth score her lower lip, and there are cold fingers which flutter lightly against Kurogane’s own, and does nothing else. Kurogane tastes blood and pulls back, and it isn’t just the reflected firelight that’s turned the mage’s face pink.
“Oh,” the idiot whispers. She looks more like she’s been stabbed than kissed. Under Kurogane’s knuckles, her heart is pounding so hard it seems like it must be painful. There is blood on her mouth that matches the taste on Kurogane’s tongue. “Oh–”
“I keep telling you,” Kurogane growls. “Make up your own damn mind about what you want. Moron.”
“Either live in the past and die,” Kurogane growls, and lets go with a shove, “or look to the future and live.”
Kurogane is no stranger to blood or death. She’s killed over a thousand in her years of service to Tomoyo; it’s the reason she’s on this stupid journey in the first place. She’s had battles where her hair dried stiff and red and she was banished to the bathhouse for the entire day before Tomoyo would allow her back into the palace. Never once did her arm falter: she did whatever necessary to protect her princess, her empress, and herself.
But she wraps the bandage as tightly as she can around the mage’s idiot head and sees her fingers shaking and she thinks of how her mother apologized for her failures before she died.
Giving blood should hurt more than it does, she thinks: she’s cutting her own flesh, or else she’s offering an injury for the mage to lick, and it should hurt. It should sting to some small degree, but all she feels, watching that bowed pale-gold head, is the dull anger of disappointment.
“Kurogane,” the mage says, lips moving against her skin. Her voice is a low throaty rasp that turns Kurogane’s name into something that isn’t quite an insult. “You should try to sleep instead of brooding.” She leans back and runs her thumb over her mouth, gathering blood before she licks the digit clean. “It’s not healthy to stay up and worry about things.”
Her hand flashes out before she can stop herself; her hand fists in the mage’s shirt and pulls up. There’s a fleeting sense of deja-vu, but it dissipates when the mage moves of her own accord, pressing against Kurogane’s hand and draping herself across Kurogane’s lap like some oversized sleepy-eyed cat. A cold face presses to Kurogane’s throat, and a moment later there are fangs, delicately pressed to her jugular.
“Kurogane,” she whispers. “Would this make you feel better? You’re the great and noble warrior who saved me from myself. Such kindness should be rewarded — I’ll give it to you, if you want. I’ve seen you looking, I know you’re curious …”
A cold palm ghosts up Kurogane’s arm, tracing from bleeding wrist to bare shoulder before smoothing inward, until it rests across the slope of one breast. There are still fangs against her skin when the mage continues: “If you want, I’ll be–”
Kurogane shifts her grip until her fist is a flat palm, and shoves. The mage doesn’t bother to try and break her fall; she tumbles to the ground and lands in a splayed pile of limbs. The scrap of ribbon tying back her hair has come loose, and so the mess of it flutters around her thin face, hiding most of it. Kurogane gets to her feet and stands over the fallen woman.
“If you think that is what I want,” she growls, “you’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.”
She doesn’t wait to hear the answer before she stalks away, towards the room she’s splitting with the kid.
When she sleeps that night, she dreams of a world in its death-rattle winter, of startled blue eyes and the taste of alcohol and blood on her tongue.
Just before they come to Infinity is a world ruled by women; the High Queen looks at the princess’s pale composed face and the leashed danger in Kurogane’s posture and is immediately smitten. She treats the princess like she might her own daughter, but to Kurogane she is less coy, letting their eyes meet directly and keeping her fingers pressed to Kurogane’s wrist. She is tall and slender with pale shoulder-length hair, and Kurogane drinks a little too much wine and lets herself grin in response to the queen’s flirtation, all teeth and assessing appreciation.
They kiss twice: once after the princess and the kid have retired for the night and the mage has disappeared with the white porkbun, with the queen’s arms soft around Kurogane’s shoulders and her hair soft between Kurogane’s fingers. She kisses sweetly and gently; it reminds Kurogane of Tomoyo from years before. The second time, however, she sees that the queen’s eyes are wide and shining and bright blue, and she looks up in time to see a long lean figure walking away, and she recognizes those footsteps in spite of herself.
It isn’t guilt that makes her disengage from the queen’s willing arms, but it’s close.
When she returns to her room, the mage is apparently asleep, belly-down upon the bed and her head turned away from the door. Kurogane listens to the steady sound of her breathing, and it’s on the tip of her tongue to ask: where did you come from, you said you served a king but what were you, why did I look at Queen Yuui’s face and see yours–
She swallows all of these words and takes to her own bed.
“Go!” says the idiot, the idiot, and for the first time in so, so long her one eye is clear. Celes is closing all around them and there’s no time for anything but action.
(If you want this, her princess had said, dark eyes liquid and sad, if you desire this with all of your heart, then make a wish and pay the price.)
Her faithful Souhi, who has served her so well for so long, cuts easily through muscle and bone. And it hurts, it hurts so damn badly, but when she reaches in and hauls the idiot-mage out of the cage crafted by her own magic, all that really matters is the smug satisfaction that she’s won.
Mother, she thinks as consciousness slips away, would you still say I’m kind? Or would you think I’m selfish?
So maybe this is her prize, all things said and done — her reward for her time in exile and saving a princess from her tower in one fell swoop.
Always with the royalty, she thinks — her first kiss and her final one and both of them are princesses, though with what she knows, it will be a long time, if ever, before Fay admits her heritage.
It’s all right, though. For the first time in so long, it’s all right. The star-jasmine is in full bloom and there is a delicate wreath of it woven into Fay’s long hair, though underneath she still smells of wind and ozone, and that’s all right too: Kurogane is pretty damn sure she wouldn’t know what to do with anything else.
“Kuro-sama,” Fay says drowsily. She tilts her face up, her expression kittenish and sweet but for the gleam in her gold eye. “I’m hungry.”
Kurogane snorts and lifts her bandaged wrist. “You’re a greedy bastard,” she says without heat, but stops at Fay’s cool fingers upon her hand.
“No,” Fay says as she levers herself up and leans over Kurogane; her kimono gapes wide open, showing off a long stretch of white skin. She smiles to show off her fangs. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re still greedy,” Kurogane tells her, but reaches up to hook her fingers around Fay’s neck and pulls her down. They kiss easily and without hurry as Fay settles close and her fingers skip to pull Kurogane’s kimono open. Even now her fingers are still cool, and Kurogane makes a vague surprised noise as they skitter across her warmer skin. “Oi–”
Fay breaks the kiss with a laugh. She flicks her thumb against a nipple, an appreciative hum rising in her throat at how it tightens at her touch. “I see,” she croons. “Kuro-sama likes that, then.”
Kurogane rolls her eyes and tugs her down for another kiss, this time biting at Fay’s lower lip until the other woman purrs and there is blood between them again, copper-bright and salt-sweet. Fay sucks her own lower lip into her mouth for a moment, her eyes heavy-lidded, and then she bites Kurogane’s ear hard enough that her fangs catch and pierce soft skin. When Kurogane mutters protest, Fay laughs in her ear: “I like the taste of yours better.”
“You’re a bit of a pervert, aren’t you,” Kurogane mutters. She settles her hands on Fay’s narrow hips and hooks her thumbs in the obi, pulling it loose. “You’re saying strange things.”
Fay laughs again. “I think Kuro-sama is the pervert,” she says. “Because she’s letting me do all these things.” She nuzzles at Kurogane’s throat and then lower, her fangs tracing the heavy slope of one breast; her mouth is only slightly warmer than her skin when it closes around the nipple. For how clever her tongue is with speech, it’s more clumsy in action, but her fingers are still deft and fast, and they continue to warm as they pass across Kurogane’s bared skin.
It takes little effort to roll them so that Kurogane is on top, and Fay’s hair is spilled across the pillows. She laughs as she peers up through her lashes, spreading her hands across her own narrow stomach: the kimono has fallen open, exposing bare flesh from collarbone to hip. Against Kurogane’s tanned skin, Fay is bone-white, and the contrast is something that Kurogane can’t help but watch as she tugs the rest of the cloth out of the way and sets her hands against Fay’s sides.
“If I’m a pervert,” she says, raising an eyebrow at the idiot (her idiot, for better or worse), “then it’s your fault.”
Something gentles in Fay’s expression at that. She reaches up and touches Kurogane’s cheek lightly. “Ah,” she says. “Kuro-sama is kind, isn’t she?”
“No way in hell,” says Kurogane, but lets herself be pushed back again, and closes her eyes when Fay kisses her.
And Fay might have been clumsy before — might still be in a raw unpracticed way — but she learns fast and adapts easily as breathing; she uses her teeth more than her tongue, once or twice leaving bitemarks that bleed. Her hands never quite warm completely; they leave her skin tingling in their wake, which is stupid and embarrassing to admit, but doesn’t make it any less true. Kurogane is allowed to sink her fingers into Fay’s hair and hold on, to pull for more and push for less, but every time she tries to move otherwise, Fay turns to press a kiss to her skin and whispers: next time, later, please, I promise.
It takes more patience than Kurogane will ever admit to allow this; she growls threats and promises that hardly make sense even to herself and holds on so tightly that later, she’ll find long stands of golden hair tangled around her fingers, yanked loose in her distraction. Fay herself is murmuring, her breath cool against Kurogane’s belly, things that are almost too private even as they are now — you’re beautiful, I’ve wanted, I’ve wanted, please …
Kurogane makes herself open her eyes, leaning up onto her elbows to look down as Fay settles between her legs, pushing them open.
“Oi,” she says. Her voice is more breathless than she likes, scraped down to a raw rasp. She struggles to adjust her balance so she can press her palm to Fay’s cheek, which is cool and smooth against her palm. “You know. You know that I. I …”
Fay smiles. It’s beautiful. “I know,” she says. “Tell me again later.”
She leans down and Kurogane falls back upon the bed, and anything else she meant to say or even think fades as the world goes white.
Kurogane wakes later to a weight draped across her chest. There’s an arm around her waist and a head that is tucked, almost determinedly, under her chin. Blonde hair tickles her nose and she has to turn away. When she does, her burden mutters in protest and bites her shoulder — just a nip really, a warning that she ignores until she’s settled more comfortably, with Fay in the crook of her arm rather than puddled atop her.
She rests her open palm against Fay’s back, counting each soft breath. Even in her sleep, now, the idiot smiles and presses in as though comforted by Kurogane’s presence alone.
Since no one can see, Kurogane smiles herself and kisses Fay’s forehead before going back to sleep.