Rating: M (overall rating)
Warnings: Violence, gore, sex
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: A big, blusteringly huge THANK YOU to my lovely ladies for helping me whip this chapter into shape and apologies to Bottan for having to beta her own gift... (lol, whoops) I love you all, you know that, right? :-*
Edit: There was some confusion over the timeline...my apologies - I didn't realize how difficult a time-skippy story like this can be when it's put out in serial format :( This chapter takes place the day after chapter two, ~10 years in the past.
Youou glanced between the bins of produce and the rounds of shells lining the shelves just above them and felt a sneer pulling at his face. It was ridiculous to be selling live ammunition in the same store as cabbages, let alone stocking them within meters of each other. He watched a small child, almost comically bound and swaddled in its winter clothing, bouncing up and down to reach the shelves from the corner of his eye and was thankful that the clerks had at least enough wits about them to keep the weapons out of the reach of minors.
Everywhere was like this, now. Shops that had once specialized in green groceries, clothing, even weaponry had closed their doors, unable to pay their rent, and had slowly been replaced by the few businesses cunning enough to have made diversification a priority. The military had taken full advantage of this, and had taken to running the majority of their supplies and uniforms through the back rooms of these megaliths. The quaint brick shops lining the streets were either boarded up or home to messes of mismatched merchandise like this, their puffing, soot-caked chimneys and well lit windows a stark contrast to the cold desolation of their boarded up neighbors. The remainder of specialty merchants had largely taken to the streets, braving the freezing cold with their cluttered carts for the privilege of scraping enough cash together to pay the landlord.
It was a far cry from what he remembered as a child, when his mother had dragged him the twenty-some miles from their backwater home every few months to pick up supplies and meet with old friends. Back then, he'd been fascinated by the steam locomotives and notion that water could be used to move such massive cars down the track. He'd been awed by the bustling city as well – it was a far cry from the quiet farming village that surrounded their home, and it had been all too easy for him to run off and get lost amongst its noisy streets when his mother turned her back. Needless to say, he'd been shocked to find his childhood stomping ground reduced to sloppily boarded windows and a sea of merchant carts when he'd passed through this same town only a week earlier to purchase a memorial for his parents.
After several moments spent scouring the shelves and grumbling to himself about what a mess it all was, Youou managed to find the sword polish he had come here looking for. It was, for all intents and purposes, a vanity purchase; there were precious few opportunities to actually wield a sword in battle, but like hell he was about to let his father's – now his – Ginryuu fall into disrepair. He wound his way through the crowd of people gawking at various trinkets and foodstuffs toward the clerks' counter, where he was greeted by a familiar face and mop of blond hair pulled into a messy binding.
"It's you." Youou was not amused. He glanced between the jar of sword polish in his hand and the man standing between himself and the counter and cursed silently. This was his last day in the city before being shipped off to god-knows-where again and he really would have preferred to spend it in quiet solitude, far removed from any nosy idiots with hair-trigger tempers…
He wasn't entirely sure what reaction he'd been expecting, but the full-faced cringe and guilty stare he received in turn had not topped the list. Youou frowned; he'd have been more satisfied with a punch to the face. What was this fool's problem, anyway? He'd had no problem laying into him the previous night…
"Sorry," Fay mumbled to the clerk, ignoring his large, wrapped package on the counter and swiftly sidestepping the line to dart for the entrance.
"Sir! Your fa…" the clerk trailed off as the door slammed shut behind him. She rolled her eyes and swept the package toward the front of the counter as Youou stepped up to fill the empty space. "Sir," she pleaded, nodding toward the package, "Would you?"
He could feel his lip pulling into a sneer, feel the irritation rising in his chest, the argument forming on his tongue that it really wasn't his problem and he had no time to deal with dumbasses who couldn't even manage to take their purchases home with them. "Yeah, fine," he relented, surprised by his own words. He flipped the clerk a coin that would more than cover the cost of the polish and headed after the idiot before she could thank him.
He found him not far from the shop, doubled over a wrought iron fence, purging the alcohol-soaked remnants of the night before. Youou scoffed and whanged an open hand against his back, which only made the vile wretching project with more force. Fay scrubbed a gloved across his mouth and squinted up at his assailant.
"Oh, Yuho," he smiled wanly, "It's you."
Youou scowled and smacked the package into Fay's chest. "It's Youou," he snarled as Fay fumbled to catch the slipping package, "And what the hell was that little disappearing act?"
Fay glanced at the pool of projectile he'd just deposited on the opposite side of the fence, then cocked an eyebrow back at Youou. "I wasn't feeling very well," he laughed and scratched miserably at his head, "I think I must have drank too much last night…"
"That's what I was talking about. Who the hell picks a fight like that one moment and turns tail to flee in the next?"
Fay chuckled at this, embarrassed. "I…ah…"
"Tche," Youou scoffed, "You're a coward and a fool." He turned to stare down the street, "I don't have time for this. See you around." He wasn't sure why he'd added that last; after tomorrow morning, he doubted he'd ever set foot in this town again.
"Fancy meeting you in a place like this."
Youou scowled up at the man leaning over his plate. "What do you want?" he growled, leaning back in the seat. Hadn't he just left this fool? How had he even managed to find him again in this dingy little diner out of all the dingy little buildings lining the street?
He bristled. In truth, this diner wasn't nearly as drab or dingy as he had first decided. The tableware was fine china (cracked and chipped with age in some places, but still a noticeably higher quality than would have been expected from a hole-in-the-wall café), and the walls had been plastered with thick papers inscribed with expansive, whirling patterns that he'd been too busy staring down the peeling corners of to notice how expensive they were – or, would have been, at the time they'd been put up. His eyes darted quickly around the room; dark wood tables with intricately carved legs seated patrons, high quality oil paintings and pastels decorated the walls, and a grand piano stood just off to the right of the entrance. He'd been too busy trying to stifle his rumbling gut that he hadn't noticed he'd stumbled into what had probably once been a premier establishment.
Not that it especially mattered. Now, the owners were apparently just scraping by, like all the rest of their competitors on the street, and barely making ends meet, from the look of it; the other customers lining the booths were dressed in the drab garb of everyday workers – nothing at all like the crisp green and gold piping of his own uniform. All that really mattered was that it had stood out enough to attract thisguy, and now Youou was once again trapped in his company.
"I just wanted to say thank you," Fay smiled, ignoring the growing look of consternation on Youou's face, "For bringing me my package, earlier."
Youou stiffened and cocked a suspicious eyebrow. "That all?"
"Fine," he picked at a pepper on his plate, "You're…welcome. Now-"
The man in question stumbled backward, bumping into the table and rattling Youou's dishes, as he was effectively blindsided and tackled by a blond woman wearing the wait staffs' brown and white ruffled uniform.
"We've missed you!" she chattered, brushing off his coat where her apron had deposited all manner of crumbs and adjusting the collar of his coat. "What brings you back today?"
"I," Fay paused, a chuckle catching in his throat, "Well, actually, I saw him through the window and realized I hadn't thanked him properly for something. And then I thought 'a cup of Miyuki's coffee would be fantastic,' and here I am!"
She giggled as he kissed her on the cheek and pulled back with a knowing look. "And Miyuki's world famous, freshly baked, one-of-a-kind herb bread?"
"Ah," Fay looked away quickly, fingers dipping into the pockets of his well-worn blue coat, "Just coffee for today."
"Oh." Her face fell momentarily before a playful grin once again overtook it. "Well, if you would be so kind as to entertain us," she said, "I would happily comp your meal – and your friend's. Anything you'd like on the menu. What do you say?"
Youou pushed his chair away from the table and lifted a hand to protest, but was quickly overruled with a sideways glance from Fay and a glare from the waitress. "That sounds lovely," Fay accepted, and pulled the chair opposite Youou out from its resting place beneath the table, "Doesn't it?"
"Fantastic!" Miyuki smiled, rearranging several of the display dishes on the table as Fay took his seat, "Eggs, as usual?"
"Ooof," Fay made a face reminiscent of the position Youou had found him in earlier and clutched at his belly, "Actually, the ol' gut's not doing so well at the moment. Let's go with something deep-fried and swimming in gravy."
Miyuki snorted and bonked him on the head with a menu. "Alright, then. I'll be back in a few minutes with your coffee."
Youou stared at her back as she departed, then back at Fay. "What did she mean 'entertain?'" he growled, still not entirely convinced he ought to accept this generosity.
"Hmm?" Fay murmured as he peeled his gloves off and set them on the table. "Oh. Miyuki. I used to work here," he gestured toward the piano at the front of the room, "Every night for the last five years."
"Tche," Youou scoffed, "She's pretty friendly for a former employer."
"Well," Fay smiled lopsidedly, "They could hardly afford to keep me on. I suppose it doesn't look like much now, but back when Miyuki's father ran this place, it was a real posh establishment – string ensembles and singers in every night, the biggest steaks in town…" he trailed off as his eyes glazed over, "But then he – and everyone else – took off to join the war effort. Now Miyuki and her sisters scramble just to keep the doors open. They kept me on for a while, but…" he finished with a shrug.
"You came back here looking for work," Youou said, finally understanding, "There was no way you saw me through that window." He might have been unable to pick up on well-worn extravagances, but he certainly wasn't an idiot when came to tactical surveillance.
Fay exhaled what might have been the beginning of a chuckle, but stopped and held his hands up instead. "You caught me," he admitted, "Still, a free meal is better than nothing and I'd appreciate it if you weren't ungrateful to them."
"I-" Youou cut himself off before he yelled and lowered his voice to a hissed whisper. "Is it really so hard to find a damned job?"
Fay stared at him for a moment, an amused smile pulling at his lips. "How long has it been since you were amongst civilians? Besides, with all the new tik-tok players available for next to nothing, what the hell is a musician going to do? Wait tables? Tend bar? Those jobs have all been filled by their owners."
Youou rolled his eyes and sipped his tea as the waitress brought a second for Fay, setting it noisily down on his saucer. A second later, she produced a large platter of fried fish, smothered in some kind of sauce that Youou didn't recognize, and set it in front of him with a wink before disappearing back to the kitchen. "If it's really that bad," he continued as she left, "Why don't you just enlist? You're bound to get drafted, anyway, and the pay is higher if you sign yourself up."
"You've really got a one-track mind, don't you?" Fay mused, teasing some of the breading away from his fish and poking at the white innards. "It's verging on ridiculous. Besides, who said I haven't been drafted already?" he popped a bit of the breading into his mouth and smiled – evidently it was better than he had been expecting. "Oh, calm down," he soothed, catching Youou's angry glare from beneath his lashes, "This city is hardly a place to hide, is it? I'd be arrested in a day."
"Then why don't you?"
"Because I'm not particularly inclined toward blowing people up," Fay quipped, stabbing at his fish, "You said it yourself: what could a foreigner possibly care who lives and dies in Nihon?"
Youou exhaled gruffly, not particularly wanting to dredge up this conversation again and kicking himself for even starting down this road. "You're right," he spat, "And considering no one else is depending on the money you bring home to survive, you can just continue slumming it in our peaceful cities while everyone else fights and dies for you."
Fay froze, food balanced precariously at his lips and eyes wide. "You have quite a way of striking to the heart of matters, Yuoh."
"It's very difficult to pronounce," Fay laughed, finally popping the bit of fish into his mouth. "At any rate," he continued, pushing his plate away and getting to his feet, "I ought to get to work to pay for this meal. Please tip them well before you leave."
"You didn't even fini-"
"It'll get eaten," Fay assured him and turned to weave his way through the mess of crowded tables.
He seated himself at the piano, facing largely away from the depth of the café, and lifted the heavy case shielding the keys almost reverently. He looked far more at ease staring down the row of black and white than he had at any other point during the day. Fay tapped the pedals hesitantly with his toe, fingers sliding slowly across the surface of the keys – spreading and reaching just so – until his shoulders dipped forward at last and the first notes sang from the strings. It was a lilting, flitting, fairy melody that refused to sustain overly light or dark tones as it struck its melancholy chords. Gradually the ungainly waltz swept to full tempo – a complicated, pulsating stream of flats and sharps, building and breaking over the soundboard.
Youou focused his beef and peppers still covering his plate with a small scowl; Fay was as whimsical a fool as he'd pegged him for. The song was clearly composed to evoke, all warm masses of tumbling triplets, skittering over darker rumblings and practically pitching over themselves to wrench at his heartstrings, and that – that – he found incredibly irritating. Musicians were not what the world needed at the moment, he reminded himself firmly and slammed the empty cup back against its saucer. Talent and dedication to their craft aside, they were a luxury better saved for a world at peace with itself, whenever that might be.
Try though he might, however, he could not resist the allure of the music, and his eyes kept going back to the figure seated at the piano. Fay was lost in it; his head weaved back and forth with each crescendo, shoulders heaving and fingers flying toward their targets, completely unaware of anything beyond the reach of his own hands. He couldn't remember the last time he had seen a live performance and certainly, through all of the bickering and scoffing that had dominated their short acquaintance, he had not even entertained the possibility that Fay was an actual artist. He hadn't imagined the dedication, the hours of toil and practice that had clearly been invested by a man who was able to coax such raw emotion out of a simple set of strings and hammers and, for a fleeting moment, he allowed himself to himself what a goddamned shame it was for a talent like this to be squandered during wartime.
Giving up his indifferent facade, he exhaled and relaxed against his chair. It would be a sin not to enjoy playing this fine.
"More coffee, sir?" a quiet voice chirped from his side. It was the younger waitress again, her hands shaking as she hefted the metal pot toward the table.
"Hah? Oh," he caught himself, "Yeah, sure." He ignored her as she struggled to fill his cup, spellbound by the unexpected beauty of the music. As the piece wound down Youou could only stare, his coffee forgotten and cooling in his hand. He hardly noticed the faint buzz filling his ears as the other patrons murmured and applauded their appreciation.
Fay caught his eye as he tapped out the final lingering, off-kilter chord. He looked genuinely surprised, as if he had fully expected Youou to choke down the rest of his meal and storm from the café while his back had been turned. Youou favored him with a sneer for the insult, which quickly blossomed into a deep flush as the fool clasped his hands behind his back to stretch and smiled at him.
Looking straight at him, Fai began another song, this one an ominous, ticking beat underlying dark chords. The beat rose an octave to sing over the chords and, rather than paying any particular mind to the melody itself, found himself engrossed in the shifting of the player over the keyboard, eyes closed as his fingers raced across their surface, his shoulders undulating in time and pulling at the fabric of his vest and knees twitching with each exaggerated stomp of the pedals. The carefully timed keystrokes faded into long strings of echoing arpeggios, forcing his fingers to dance across them at a rate of speed Youou had not imagined him capable of. Fay was off the bench, his hips rocking against the key row in a manner that would probably have been considered obscene had his face not screamed of angelic serenity. Slowly, the newly colored tones wound back down into their original ominousness and so too the player settled back into his seat, deliberately pounding out the final chords of the piece.
Youou took his cup again as Fay nodded his appreciation to the diners and stepped away from the piano. He quickly sipped down its contents, managing to devour half of them before the other man had waltzed his way back to the table. "Still here?" Fay asked, genuine curiosity peeking through his otherwise flat tone.
Youou raised an eyebrow. "Coffee."
"It is quite good, isn't it," Fay smiled, settling back down at the table. His smiled quickly faded, "Except…" he reached forward to pluck a coffee-soaked glove from next to Youou's saucer, "I see Chii still hasn't learned to pay attention while she's working…" He held the dripping glove at face level, "I think it might be ruined."
Youou quickly snatched the glove back and squeezed it out over the saucer. He'd been so engrossed in the music, he hadn't even noticed the spill soaking into his gloves. "It's fine," he grumbled, "It'll dry."
"Oh, I'm sure it will, too," Fay agreed, but nodded toward the door, "But in the meanwhile it's freezing and you have no gloves. Let me go see if they can dry these in back-"
"Just-" Youou growls as Fay moved to stand back up, "Sit down. Don't bother. I'm not staying far from here." He scoured the café for a clock and cringed as he saw the time ticking away into the late evening. "I should get going, anyway," he grumbled, mostly to himself, as he stood to pull his overcoat on, "Shipping out in the morning."
"Oh," Fay paused, tucking a piece of hair back behind his ear, "Well, I suppose then…"
"Yeah," Youou quickly agreed, depositing several coins on the table, "It's been…"
"It's been nice," Fay finished for him.
Youou snorted, well and truly amused that this fool found their contentious at worse and idiotic at best conversation 'nice,' and slightly annoyed to realize that he had as well. "Yeah," he grunted and turned toward the door, offering only a quick flick of his wrist over his shoulder as a goodbye.
The air outside was cold and biting and he quickly jammed his hands into his pockets to find some warmth. At some point, the near-constant cloud cover of the past several days had broken to allow a starry sky to light the crowded street along with the gas lamps and he stared up at it as he walked; it was a rare enough sight these days, with the increasingly industrial cities pumping out enough smoke to block their view for miles. It was only on cold winter nights like these, when the air was thick enough to force the smog out and away, that one truly had an opportunity to appreciate them.
The street around him was still bustling with end-of-day business; merchants, desperate to sell off the last of their wares, shouted out discounts and bargains and specials of all kinds, which he dutifully ignored as he plodded along. At least until he found himself standing in front of a liquor cart, pondering which of the homebrews would make the best addition to his evening.
"I prefer the darker, wheat-distilled ones myself."
Youou turned to stare at the person next to him. "Are you following me, now?" he snapped.
"Yes," Fay smiled, dangling a soaked pair of gloves between them, "You forgot these."
Youou rolled his eyes and snatched the gloves back. "Do you want something?"
"Just to give you your gloves," Fay assured him, leaning forward to inspect the bottles shimmering on the shelves, "And a bottle of alcohol, of course."
"You were just sick this morning."
Fay waved this away. "Hair of the dog…" He picked a bottle of the lowest shelf and stared at its label for a moment. "Looks like this will have to do…"
Youou stood back from the cart as Fay argued with the merchant, who clearly wanted to sell a more expensive bottle than he had selected and offered up all manner of excuses why this particular bottle wasn't worth the few shillings he was willing to pay for it. His fingers squished around the soaked gloves in his pocket, now chilled in the night air and becoming a nuisance. He looked around for a trash bin.
"Well that settles that," Fay's voice came momentarily from his side. "I have purchased the worst liquor on the face of the earth. Or at least, so says the guy who made it…"
Youou cocked a suspicious eyebrow at him before turning to continue on his way. He wasn't entirely sure why he'd been waiting at the cart in the first place. Fay, irritatingly, kept pace beside him. "You'd think he'd have more confidence in something he was selling…" he babbled, tugging at the half-frozen cork as he walked, "Would you like a drink?"
Youou turned his head just enough to see the bottle extended toward him and frowned. "Not if it's the worst liquor in the world."
"I doubt it's that bad," Fay frowned, "I'd offer to buy you a drink at a pub, but that was the last of my money…"
"I don't need you to buy-" he stopped, staring at the tall, brick building beside him, "This is me. Look, it's been-"
"Nice, right?" Fay smiled, and Youou kicked himself inwardly. Damned if the bastard didn't have the same look of passion about him that he'd worn crouched over the piano.
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "You can-" he choked, stumbling to find his tongue, "You can come up, if you want."
Fay's eyes widened slightly. "Um, sure…" he accepted, taking a tentative step forward.
"For a drink," Youou corrected, suddenly aware of what he'd just said, "And-"
"Of course, of course," Fay teased as he brushed past him. Brushed deliberately past him, Youou noted, the bastard. He fumbled with his keys in the entryway door, cursing his cold fingers and their inability to properly crank the key the extra bit it required in the rusty lock. Finally, he managed to slide the bolt and pushed the door open, holding it open for the fool and traipsing in after him, wondering all the while what thefuck he had just invited and why he wasn't more upset about it.