Disclaimer: I don't own Tsubasa or any of its characters.
Warning: This story includes mild shounen-ai, in the form of KuroFai. If that bothers you...then why have you been reading CLAMP manga in the first place?
"Which scenario should we pick, Kuro-pii?"
"One with a lot of fighting, and don't call me Kuro-pii."
Kurogane and Fai were standing inside a small metal booth that was just big enough to accommodate both of them. A computer screen in front of them displayed bright pictures of the available options, which one could scroll through by turning a dial. Fai, naturally, was spinning the dial at dizzying speed, barely giving Kurogane a chance to examine any scenario before he moved on to the next one. Syaoran and Sakura were back at the inn with Mokona, but it was close enough that the mage and ninja could still talk to each other.
"Personally, I had enough of this virtual reality stuff back in Oto," Kurogane grumbled.
"You mean you didn't enjoy fighting oni?"
"Of course I enjoyed it. But the way that Seishiro-san was manipulating the scenario to put innocent people in danger and damage the real world wasn't right. And if there's a feather in this world, its power could distort these machines in the same way if the person who has it is malicious or doesn't understand how powerful it is."
"Awww, Kuro-tan's worried about all the people in this world! I always knew you were just a big softy at heart!"
"What about this one?" Kurogane asked, in the hope that Fai would actually keep the screen on one picture for more than a millisecond. "We'd be officers on some kind of ship, fighting off pirates and sea monsters."
"I don't know," Fai said uncertainly. "I tend to get a little seasick...Ooh! Here's a good one! Look how cute it is! Mokona would love this!"
"Everyone in that picture has fairy wings. Therefore, no."
"Aww, Kuro-chan's no fun!"
"Huh," Kurogane grunted as he flicked the dial. "A scenario where you're a vampire? That's kind of strange."
"The sparkles are pretty, though."
The two of them bickered back and forth for a while, trying to settle on a scenario. ''Go back, would you? There was one that looked interesting, but you went past it so fast..."
"Go back? Which way? Like this?"
"No, no, the other way..."
Both men poked at the dial, trying to twist it in different directions. "Ah!" Fai cried out as his finger was shoved off the dial and he accidentally pushed a button next to it.
"What have you done now?"
"I didn't do anything! Kuro-sama's the one who made my hand slip!"
"I think you picked a scenario. Which one is it set on?"
"Um, let's see...It says, 'Two brave explorers set out to discover what lies in uncharted lands! But will they be able to endure the dangers of the Greypeak Mountains?'"
"Well, at least it sounds decent. There's probably wild animals in those mountains I can fight. Maybe bandits too."
The metallic walls of the chamber began to change color, slowly transitioning to a mottled white and gray. Then the texture began to change, and some parts even seemed to become transparent. Within the space of a few seconds, Kurogane and Fai found themselves standing in a snowy mountain pass.
"Look at this!" Fai exclaimed. "We're even wearing appropriate clothing!" Sure enough, both men were wearing thick furs and warm cloaks secured tightly about their necks.
Kurogane shrugged. "I don't see how it's so different from the country of Oto."
"Ah, Kuro-muu's always so deadpan! What would Mokona say if it were here?"
"Something inane, no doubt. So, now that we're stuck in this scenario, what are we supposed to be doing?"
"We're intrepid explorers, heading for lands unknown!"
"So we're probably supposed to cross this pass, then. Alright, let's go."
Kurogane strode forward, with Fai following close behind. They hadn't gone far when they heard snarling coming from up ahead, around a bend in the path. Weapons weren't allowed in the city, so Kurogane hadn't been carrying his sword, but the simulation had provided him with a massive greatsword and Fai with a bow. Fai quickly strung the bow and pulled an arrow from the quiver on his back, while Kurogane unsheathed the sword.
Two gray wolves stalked carefully around the bend, teeth bared. Fai fired his arrow, and it whistled through the air to hit one of the wolves squarely in the eye. It fell with a howl of pain, while its companion bounded over the snow towards the two men. Kurogane swept his sword in a great arc, neatly decapitating the animal.
"Wheet-woo! That was great, Kuro-min!"
Kurogane shook his head. "Not as good as it should have been. I'm not used to wielding a weapon with a blade this wide and heavy." Stepping back from Fai, he took a few practice swings. "The balance is completely different from the swords I'm used to."
"That seemed like an oddly easy battle, though," Fai mused. "Maybe the program is designed to start out that way, so players who aren't used to the game can get a feel for it."
"So you're saying we can expect things to get harder as we go on? I certainly hope so. I didn't even break a sweat."
The mage and the ninja continued to walk through the pass. When they felt hungry, they took shelter behind a large boulder and examined the backpacks they'd been given along with their weapons. Each of them had rations of cured meat and some kind of biscuits, along with a thermos of hot liquid. They were careful not to eat too much, since they didn't know when the simulation would allow them to get to a place where they could restock.
They continued their journey without incident for a while, then Kurogane put a hand up for Fai to stop. "Do you hear that?" he whispered. "There's someone behind those rocks up ahead."
Fai nodded. About twenty feet away, the passage was constrained by piles of rocks to either side. Although no one was visible, tiny sounds suggested that there were living beings hiding behind the rock piles.
"We know you're there. Come out!" Kurogane called.
There was silence for a moment, then two men emerged from behind each rock. They were dressed warmly, just as Kurogane and Fai were, and each of them carried a short sword.
"Well, we'd hoped to ambush you when you walked by. I guess your hearing's too keen for that, but we still got you outnumbered. Hand over any valuables you got, and we'll let you be on your way." The apparent leader of the men was big and burly, with a thick brown beard.
Kurogane smirked. "I don't think so."
The bearded man returned the smirk. "Your funeral." He noticed Fai backing up and added, "Looks like your friend's not so confident as you are."
"Oh, that's not it at all," Fai answered cheerfully. "I just need room to shoot my bow." He then proceeded to demonstrate the truth of this by firing an arrow. The bandit he aimed it at just barely managed to raise a small wooden buckler in time to block. But Kurogane took advantage of his distraction to swing his greatsword, cutting him down easily.
The other three bandits closed in around him, but Kurogane just grinned. Spinning in a circle as he swung his sword, he shouted, "Chi-ryuu jin en bu!" Waves of magical energy crackled in the wake of his sword, and all of the attackers dropped.
"Wheet-woo! That was impressive, Kuro-kuro! But I hardly got to do anything."
"Oh, stop pouting, I'm sure there will be more things for us to fight further along."
But there weren't. As they continued their journey, the path was completely clear. Clouds began to gather in the sky overhead, and before too long, snow was falling.
"Hmm, you're not used to this kind of weather, are you, Kuro-kun?"
"We had snow in the winter sometimes."
"My country was like this all the time," Fai said quietly, and Kurogane detected a note of wistfulness in his voice.
The two men pulled their cloaks more tightly about themselves as the sun set and the temperature continued to drop. "We should find someplace to spend the night," Kurogane suggested.
After some searching, the pair located a cave. After determining that it wasn't inhabited by any ravenous beasts ("or annoying white pork buns," Kurogane added), they set their backpacks down inside and started building a fire. Most of the available wood was wet from the snow, so it was a rather poor fire, and didn't actually warm the cave up much. After a dinner of rations, they set out their bedrolls and lay down to go to sleep.
Partway through the night, Kurogane sat bolt upright. What was that noise? It had been very faint, but Kurogane's ninja training had conditioned him to respond to any unexpected sound, no matter how small. He flicked his gaze across the cave, searching for any hint of intruders. But there was just Fai, huddled in his bedroll.
And shivering. That was the sound Kurogane had heard: the rustle of the bedroll as Fai shook with cold. "Hmph," he said, "I thought you were used to the cold."
"There's something not right about this cold. It gets in under the cloak, inside the bedroll. It can't be insulated against."
Kurogane frowned. "You mean it's magical cold? Someone's casting a spell on us?" Now that he thought about it, he did feel the drop in temperature to a greater degree than he would have expected, given his own bedroll and cloak.
"That's possible, but it's more likely due to the simulation. Remember, these coverings aren't actually real, so they don't need to work like real wool or fur would if the programmer doesn't want them to."
"Then the program's being sabotaged? Why is it that every time some world invents a fun virtual reality game, some creep has to come along and screw it all up!"
"Maybe we should walk around or something to warm ourselves up? We could gather more wood for the fire."
"But if it's like you said, and someone's manipulating the program to make it colder than it should be, would activity or a larger fire really help?"
"Activity would. Our bodies are real, after all."
So the two men began to pace around the cave, circling the dying fire. "T-This doesn't seem to be helping too much," Fai said through chattering teeth.
"There's a wind, and we have nothing to close off the cave mouth with," Kurogane answered. "Dammit! I bet someone is trying to steal the feather in this world while we're trapped in here!" Even Kurogane, with his greater body mass, was starting to feel the chill now. His fingers were beginning to stiffen, and he wondered how effectively he'd be able to swing his sword if they were attacked.
"There must be s-some way to stop the program in the m-middle if there's an emergency."
Kurogane rubbed his hands together, trying to warm them up. "But if the program's been sabotaged, failsafes might not be working. And we don't even know how to activate them anyway, since you started the program before we had a chance to read through everything."
"Maybe if we y-yell, someone monitoring the program will hear us."
"No!" Kurogane hissed. "If there is a saboteur, he might enter the program to attack us. We shouldn't alert him to our position."
"Won't the fire do that anyway?"
"It's almost out." Kurogane was getting worried. He had good night vision, and he could see that Fai's lips were taking on a distinctly bluish tint. With a deep sigh, he plopped back down on his bedroll. "Mage. Come over here."
"You said it before: our bodies are real, therefore they generate real heat. If we sit together and pool our body heat, it might help."
"Kuro-chi is so thoughtful," Fai said with a hint of his usual playful smile, but he immediately sat down next to Kurogane.
Fai's teeth were still chattering, so Kurogane sighed and draped his cloak over both their shoulders, pulling the wizard in closer. "Here. Is that better?"
Sitting this close to Fai, Kurogane was uncomfortably aware of a number of small details about his traveling companion. Although he was slender and appeared delicate, the way Fai held himself spoke of someone who had braved dangerous situations before. His eyes were a deep blue, like the ocean Kurogane had once seen while escorting Tomoyo on a trip to a distant province. And his hair looked as soft as the down on a baby chick.
The wizard wasn't helping matters by snuggling against Kurogane's side, so that the larger man had no choice but to drape an arm over his shoulders. This was achieving the goal of allowing them to share their body heat, but it was also making Kurogane forcefully realize that despite his approximately five billion annoying habits, Fai was actually a rather attractive man.
I have more important things to worry about! There's a saboteur out there, trying to keep us out of the way so he can steal one of the Princess's feathers! I can't afford to get distracted! He turned his head, and found that Fai's face was about two inches away from his own.
"Kuro-chu's lips are turning blue. That's not right; blue isn't Kuro-chu's color at all." Fai leaned forward, and now there was only one inch between their faces.
Half an inch...
A quarter of an inch...
Fai's lips pressed gently against Kurogane's. They were soft and velvety and...and...
Fai pulled away and met Kurogane's gaze. "Well, that's better," he whispered. "Your lips aren't blue anymore, and your cheeks are red. This really was a good idea you had, Kuro-tan."
"Hmph. It looks like we won't be getting out of here anytime soon, so you might as well get some rest."
"Aww, but we were just starting to have fun!"
"Go to sleep."
"But what if the saboteur attacks us?"
"I'll keep watch. Go. To. Sleep."
Kurogane would never have admitted it to anyone, but Fai looked adorable when he was asleep.
Fai's eyelids fluttered open, and the first thing he saw was Kurogane, staring impassively towards the cave mouth just as he had been when Fai fell asleep the night before. "So, I take it we weren't attacked in the night?"
"No," Kurogane said gruffly.
"And it feels warmer."
"And you're not going to say anything about what happened last night, are you?"
Fai sighed. "Well, it was worth a try." He stood up in one fluid movement and stretched. "Well, if Kuro-chichi's all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, why don't we continue on? Finishing the program might turn it off, and then we can go check on the others."
The snow had been heavy, and they had to wade through drifts that were thigh-high in some places to reach the other end of the pass. "On the plus side, the snow also seems to have dissuaded the bandits and wolves," Fai said. Kurogane grunted and huddled deeper into his cloak.
Even Kurogane couldn't help but be impressed by the valley beyond the mountain range. A panoramic view stretched out below them, showing vast swaths of undisturbed forest, a glimmering river, and herds of animals roaming across the plains.
There was also a small wooden sign. "I thought these were supposed to be uncharted lands?" Kurogane grumbled. "They can't be very uncharted if they've got a sign."
"Well, let's see what it says," Fai suggested. "Hmm...'Stage 1 passed! Would you like to continue the simulation? Yes/no."
"What! You mean that whole thing was part of the scenario?"
"Not necessarily. It may be that there are limits to how much manipulation the saboteur can do. He might be able to change what happens during the 'stages', but not the fixed points between stages."
"Anyway, let's press 'No' and get out of here."
"Right away, Kuro-puu!" Fai poked the word "No" on the sign and stepped back next to Kurogane. The world around them shimmered like a heat-mirage, and suddenly they were back in the silver capsule where this had all started.
Kurogane strode over to the door and slammed the red button marked "Exit" next to it. The door slid open, revealing a smiling attendant standing just beyond it.
"You have to shut down these machines now!" Kurogane shouted. "There's a saboteur!"
The attendant's smile faded, and she blinked in confusion. "I'm sorry, sir, but we've had no reports of malfunctions or injuries. What makes you think someone's interfering with the system?"
"Because the damn thing tried to freeze us to death!" Quickly, Kurogane explained what had happened.
To his shock, the attendant laughed. "Sir, I'm afraid there's been a misunderstanding. That's what Scenario #332, Stage 1 is supposed to be like! Look here." She led them back into the capsule and pointed to the screen, where the description of the scenario was still visible.
"Two brave explorers set out to discover what lies in uncharted lands! But will they be able to endure the dangers of the Greypeak Mountains? And will their isolation from civilization lead to an unexpected closeness between them? Genres: Adventure, Romance."
"Wait, romance?" Now it was Kurogane's turn to look confused. "I don't understand."
The attendant's blinding smile returned. "It's well known that sharing adversity can lead to a deepening of the relationship between two people. This scenario is designed with situations that facilitate closeness between the participants, a closeness that can easily lead to romantic interaction. In layman's terms, it's meant to be a dating simulation, of sorts. In Stage 1, the participants fight together against common enemies, and then are placed in a situation that requires close physical proximity." She waved a hand in front of the screen, and a further description appeared. "Stage 1: The explorers must face wild animals and ruthless bandits, but their perils don't end there. When a blizzard sweeps in, how will they ever keep warm?"
"You mean...the unnatural cold was a way to make us cuddle?" Fai asked with a twinkle in his eye.
"You could say that, yes."
"And we didn't realize it because we didn't have time to read the whole description before the scenario activated," Fai mused. "Well, no harm done, I suppose!"
"No harm done?" sputtered Kurogane. "No harm done?"
A cheery giggle came from under the tall hat the attendant wore, and Mokona emerged. "Peekaboo!"
"That's one of Mokona's 108 Secret Techniques: Hiding in Plain Sight!"
"This charming creature came up to me a few minutes ago, and said he was with you. When you ended the simulation, he came with me to help administer the Post-Scenario Satisfaction Survey." She waved a small tablet computer in their direction.
Kurogane's eye twitched to hear Mokona described as "charming." Mokona was completely unperturbed, and blithely asked, "Question 1: Did Kurogane and Fai have a nice first date?"
"That was not a date!" Kurogane growled, at the same moment that Fai replied, "We sure did!"
"Maybe you can come back here for the honeymoon!" Mokona suggested, deftly avoiding Kurogane's grasp. "Fai and Kurogane sittin' in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G..."
The attendant never did get to administer her Post-Scenario Satisfaction Survey, due to the fact that one of her customers was busy chasing her supposed assistant halfway across the city.
A/N: Wait, so the site's spellchecker flags "mage" but not "softy" or "peekaboo"? Huh?
The technique Kurogane uses on the bandits isn't his main attack (that's Hama Ryuu-o-jin), but it's one that we see Kurogane use in Oto against a group of oni, and it seems to radiate outward in a circular pattern, so it seemed like a good one for him to use when he was being surrounded.