Rating: M (overall rating)
Warnings: Violence, gore, sex - all the fun things!
Summary: For Konnichipuu . Steampunk AU: Civil war has torn the country of Nihon apart. On an abandoned battlefield, a scrap-scavenger stumbles upon the sole survivor buried amongst the wreckage. Why this man, why now, after everything that has gone before?
A/N: Sooo...I've decided, after careful consideration, to keep the chapters of this fic short and restricted to one time frame. The story itself bounces around a lot (because I am apparently incapable of writing anything "serious" [yes, that gets scare quotes, because it is scary!] without long inner battles over structure and presentation and how best to play with all of your heads...), so I feel the best way to keep everyone (including myself) from exploding is to present short, neat chapters. I'm very open to suggestions/criticisms as well; this fic scares me on sort of a visceral level because Bottan keeps producing beautiful artwork (like this) and I want to write somethingworthy, dammit!
So, having said that...this chapter ended up being mostly exposition. ^^;; Ahahaha... I'm just going to hope it doesn't bore everyone to tears...
The bar was cluttered with glasses and empty bottles, betraying both the late hour and the general attitude its tender seemed to take toward tidying. Empty containers meant full tills, and the old man obviously relished the idea of both; for the past four nights now Youou had watched the smirk grow across his face as the hours ticked away and the counters were left grungier and gluier with each measured shot.
Tonight, the dingy copper lanterns, tarnished with age and blackened by use, hanging just above the countertops swayed in time with the off-kilter rhythm of the bass guitar thwanging from the rickety stage, haphazardly constructed and tucked conspicuously back into a far corner where patrons were free to crack their ankles against its edging as they darted to and from their crowded tables. The music wasn't particularly good – not that it ever was, with even musicians finding themselves drafted into service, "live" performances had become the domain of tik-tok automatons, useful for banging out notes, but entirely incapable of infusing them with the soul or emotion of a devoted player – but there was a certain charm to the awkwardly plucked melody, and Youou had to admit that it was a welcome change of pace from being unwittingly dragged into inane conversation with the drunkards next to him. They were out in force tonight, the grey-haired legion of gripers; sour old men longing for the "good old days" – whenever those had been – their numbers peppered through with the odd disabled youngster (whether through military service or industrial accident was impossible to tell at a glance; most able-bodied men had either found themselves remanded into boot camp or flown the cities entirely to avoid it, leaving behind this motley conglomeration of missing limbs and stark, raving lunatics). He set his glass at the edge of the counter and leaned forward onto his elbows to stare down the depth of the swirling brown liquor.
The idiot seated next to him probably wouldn't have caught his attention at all, had his hair not been quite so startlingly blond, his expression quite so amused (or possibly drunk, it was difficult to tell), or his appearance quite so young. As it was, the eyesore mop snatched his eyes from their quarry and dragged them all the way across the inquisitively lifted eyebrow and chuckling half-smirk nestled between its fringes. Youou sneered reflexively and straightened his back. "What?" he spat, fully intending the ire rumbling through his throat would scare this would-be conversationalist away.
To his everlasting chagrin, it only provoked a quiet chuckle.
"I was just thinking – you don't look old enough to be holding that pint glass, much less to be decked out in that uniform."
Youou bristled. What kind of an asshole… "What's wrong with my uniform?" he snapped, smoothing the pointed lapels and plucking at a stray bit of wool peeking out from his collar.
The blond man smiled and waved this away. "Nothing, nothing. It's quite sharp," he paused to swig his ale, "That would be the off-duty version, yes?"
"Mm," Youou snatched his glass back from the bar and closed his eyes as he drank, "Leave."
"Alright, alright," the blond man mumbled apologetically as he shuffled to the edge of his stool, "No need to get nasty."
Youou nearly choked on his ale. "No, you idiot, I mean I'm on leave."
"Oh," the man seemed to consider this as he slid back into his seat, "You could be a bit more clear, you know? We can't all be fluent in Tall Dark and Grumpy."
"What the-" Youou kicked himself mentally. He had been so close to getting rid of this guy. Damned big mouth…
"So young and already enough time socked away to earn yourself some leave time, huh?"
"What? Where is this 'young' crap coming from?"
"ID says he's eighteen," the bartender offered with a smirk. Youou snarled at him. Damned busybody old man would have been better served wiping down the damned sticky bar or pulling him another pint. Youou opened his mouth to tell him as much, but was interrupted by a loud tsk-ing from the blond man.
"You're just a baby. I had no idea the military was desperate enough to recruit children…"
"Oh for fu-" Youou dug quickly into his pocket and slammed a fistful of change on the counter. He cast a final disparaging glare at the blond man and pushed his stool back from the bar. That was about enough of this bullshit.
The gentleness of the hand at his forearm surprised him more than its presence. The sardonic grin and quirked eyebrow the man was projecting at him didn't compliment it at all and Youou protectively yanked his arm higher up his chest, scowling all the while.
"C'mon," the man slurred, practically laughing around his words, "Truce? I'll buy you a drink." He motioned sloppily to the bartender, who bobbed his head lazily in reply and staggered over to the severely depleted collection of clean glasses.
Youou glared suspiciously at the man for a long moment before huffing his defeat and settling back onto the stool. It wasn't as if he particularly relished the thought of heading back out into the frigid winter night and slogging back to his rooms through the soot-stained snow, even if they were only a few blocks away. Still, he wondered if this wasn't a mistake – the man had clearly already had enough to drink – and stared quizzically at the hand being offered him.
"Fay Fluorite," the blond man offered, taking it upon himself to grasp Youou's hand in his own and shake it heartily, "And you are…?"
"Youou," he answered simply, suddenly very interested in the old man's putzing about with the tap a few feet down the bar.
"Oof. Of course it's a killer to pronounce, too," Fay wailed miserably.
"Hah?" Youou wondered aloud, attention snapping back to the man sitting next to him. He realized it only seconds later – the slightly unbalanced, lilting accent the man spoke with, not pronounced enough to peg him immediately as a foreigner (though the blond hair and blue eyes managed that with little need for further evidence), but still plainly there. "Foreigner, huh?" Youou said with appropriate disdain.
"Mmm," Fay nodded, "Valerian. Ended up here after a short stay in Celes, though, a few years back."
Youou cringed at the mention of Nihon's neighbors to the north. Relations with the two had gone notoriously sour during the past decade as first Valeria had fallen to internal squabbling over accession to the throne and Celes had taken full advantage of their weakened state and invaded. Celes superior, mechanized weaponry had easily broken through Valeria's last line of defense and overwhelmed what remained of the Royal Guard with alarming efficiency. Now, with the vast copper store already under Celesian control and the newly acquired ore mines in the south of Valeria, Celes had taken to constant saber rattling, anxiously awaiting any display of weakness from Nihon that it might exploit in the name of empire building. And with tensions rising in the countryside as they currently were…
"Cold up there, huh?" was all Youou managed in the end, not eager to delve too deeply into the bloody, complicated, and now apparently personal situation north of the border.
Fay snorted and hiccupped. "Maybe," he grinned, "But at least there the buildings are planned closer together. And with tunnels. Navigating the city streets around here in winter is like wandering the tundra with no overcoat. Even your damned gas lamps don't give off heat. "
Youou chuckled wryly at this; he'd been only too aware of the bitter cold recently with only his standard issue winter clothes to see him through. Rationing had ensured that wool – already scarce enough before the peasants' uprising – had become next to impossible to procure and the need for ever increasing issues of cheap military garb had left the manufacture of hats, gloves, and the like entirely to mass production machinery. No matter how uniform their stitches, how tightly they wound their thread, how intricate their knotted patterns became, the machine-made gear never managed to keep him as warm as their knobbly, mismatched, handmade counterparts of his youth.
"Of course," Fay continued, smiling wanly at his cup, "The snow there is white as well, not this disgusting shade of gray from the soaking soot." The smile faded, "Or at least, that wasthe case. Lord knows with the Celesians running things now, it's probably just as gray…"
Youou balked, confused. "What do you mean? Valeria has been industrialized for ages – how can you not-"
"Well, yes, but," Fay cut him off, "You keep it out in the countryside, don't you? When you've got such a constant reminder of the filth that comes with it. It's easy for you to forget here, during the summer months when everything is green and brown in the cities, that you're pumping out pounds and pounds of ash from your chimneys. It's a bit of a starker contrast when it falls on something white."
"That sounds…ridiculously impractical." Youou decided.
"Haha," Fay laughed lowly, "It was. It was always a tenuous social contract at best – that workers would move or commute to the outlying areas in exchange for modernized cities – which is why I imagine it's changed under Celes."
"What a mess," Youou sighed, wrapping his fingers tightly around the glass the bartended deposited in front of him (with a wink, Youou noticed with more than a few degrees of anger flaring around his collar). "You should count yourself lucky you got out at all. The way Ceres treats Valeria is fucking disgusting. They have no right."
Fay regarded him with a strange expression. "No right? That's an odd opinion for a military man. Isn't it 'might makes right' and all that for you guys?"
Youou choked on his drink. "The hell? Don't paint me with the same brush as those imbeciles. The point of a military is to protect the helpless, not attack them."
Fay chortled into his drink and hiccupped once again. "And who, exactly, are you protecting, I wonder?" His eyebrows lifted, teasing. "I suppose you're too young to have a wife, or a family of your own."
Youou grit his teeth and decided that this fool was damned lucky that the silly, drunken grin plastered across his face left him all but impossible to punch. "Why should I need a family of my own to protect?" he demanded, "I love my country; my family has defended it for generations. I have my honor. Who's going to defend you this time from those same bastards that ripped apart your home if not for soldiers like me?"
"Actually," Fay paused thoughtfully, a frown turning the corners of his lips, "The last I'd heard, your forces had been deployed to put down your own citizens in the west country…"
Youou sighed exasperatedly and raked a hand through his hair. "You should understand better than anyone what it would mean if we were to show any sign of weakness in front of Celes at the moment. It would take all of a week for their forces to start chipping away at our borders."
"Still, soldiers firing on the same people they've sworn to protect…"
"You have no idea what you're talking about," Youou cut him off definitively, "Sometimes you have to harm some to protect others. It was for the greater good."
"Killing for the greater good… But surely those people were only fighting to protect what's dear to them," Fay countered, undeterred, "How can you justify that, if 'protecting' plays such a large role in your definition of honor?"
"I-" Youou scoffed, "You have no concept of strategy. What the hell do you even care? What difference is it to a foreigner who lives and dies in Nihon?"
Fay stiffened, anger flashing across his features. "Perhaps none," he admitted, voice cold as ice, and drained the last of the ale from his glass. "But you," he paused to eye Youou meaningfully, "Are a terrific walking contradiction."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Tell me, were you drafted, or did you enlist?"
"Naturally. And you have no family. Are your parents alive? Brothers and sisters?"
"My parents are…gone. I'm an only child," Youou growled, "Just what are you getting at?"
"Who are you protecting? Who were you protecting them from when you enlisted? From the sounds of it, you don't have much stake in this war, either. You've gone out looking for a battle to protect some abstract concept from an imaginary enemy. It's just been fortuitous timing that Celes has provided you with a target."
"You don't know the first goddamned thing about me or what I have at stake!" Youou spluttered, now completely enraged. Who the fuck was this asshole and what right did he have to be spouting off this nonsense? This idiot who had probably never seen a fight in his life…
"You're right," Fay murmured quietly, staring at the bar. When he looked back to Youou a moment later, a pained smile had stretched itself across his features. "I'm sorry. I don't know what got into me," he fidgeted with the long coat hanging from the backrest of his stool, eventually loosening it enough to start tugging his arms through. "I shouldn't have…"
"Tche," Youou scoffed, feeling just the slightest pang of guilt. It was obvious this man was conflicted; he probably hadn't needed to rage at him quite like that. "Don't be an idiot. Where are you going?"
Fay was too busy wrapping the extended length of a scarf around his face and neck to respond immediately. He pulled the wool away from his lips a moment later, "Home. I was expected there hours ago, but today seemed to demand a slight detour." He leaned forward and pressed a light kiss to Youou's cheek. "Thank you," he whispered, "Your idealism is…heartening."
"What the hell?" Youou shouted at Fay as he wound his way precariously through the crowd to the exit. "What the hell do you mean 'idealism?' Get back here and finish your damned drink!"
Fay only waved over his shoulder, leaving Youou to scowl silently at his back.